Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

21 February 2008

The Other Side—A Lamb Chop for Spring

I will not begin this post by apologizing. Suffice it to say I have been busy. I turned in the mss. for book three last week—a book of essays called The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent; look for it at Barnes & Noble in October or November—and I have been recovering and trying to get myself to go out in the garden to dig up the dirt and plant peas and spinach. No success. It's so freezing cold and has been raining on and off for days. I haven't even managed to go out for my run today. After getting up to 9 miles every other day culminating each time in a visit with my mother-in-law and then having to lay off for a while due to an injury incurred, I've decided, from not warming up or stretching before a run in 9º weather, I'm now at 7 miles every other day. (Please applaud.) No visit with my mother-in-law anymore and not as far as before, but still. Today not, though. Too cold.

The book is really cool, I think. (The intended transition here, in case you're wondering, was cold...cool.) I had to work really hard to get it done in one month. Most of the essays that make up the chapters were already written, but I hadn't looked at them in years (I write new ones every Advent) and three were brand brand new. The biggest challenge—as always for me, since I tend to write pieces that work independently of one another—was putting the whole lot together to work as a book. Once I managed that, it was such a delight to work on. I LOVE revising. And I love the whole idea of the Incarnation—God coming to us as an embryo in his human mother's uterus, drinking her blood (as my daughters used to say), and emerging from a part of her body she probably wouldn't mention in public, covered in blood and other bodily goo, and stuck in a feed trough. What a way for God to start out his life in our world!

As it happens, I am participating in a Bible study on the other end of the divine visit right now at church. (Yes, I have found, to my amazement, a church of which I can say, so possessively, "at church." It's Presbyterian, even more to my amazement, given my unenthusiasm for certain Calvinist preoccupations. Anyway, more on church some other time.) We're studying the Suffering of Jesus (my word for the Passion) in the weeks leading up to his Resurrection. Everything I'm learning about Jesus' suffering and death seems to be informed by everything I'm learning about his birth in working on the Christmas book. So odd.

Something the Bible study leader—Robbie Castleman, for those of you who know her from JBU—said moved me to do Lent. Really do it—with the idea in mind of coming up on the other side, like Jesus giving up his earthly life knowing that 1. he would take it up again in a few days, and 2. he would resume eternal life after that. So, I'm approaching Lent as a temporary giving up not for the sake of suffering along with Jesus, as I saw it in my Catholic childhood, so much as for the sake of getting to enjoy—as he enjoyed and is enjoying—the resumption of pleasures after the period of suffering is past. Probably that's obvious to all of you and how you've always thought of it, but it has been somewhat transformative for me. I can't tell you how much I am going to enjoy that big, medium-rare steak and glass of Cabernet in a few weeks here!

Which brings me to Spring's promised lamb chop: The other day, a man on NPR's Fresh Air—the author of a bestseller called Misquoting Jesus—was going on about suffering, all the ways in which it can't be reconciled with an all-powerful and kind-hearted God. He lost his faith over it, he said. None of the explanations of suffering offered by Christianity or the Bible obtain, according to this man, and he went through them all fairly systematically: suffering is punishment for sinfulness, God's ways can't be explained, suffering makes you a better person, who are you to darken my counsel with stupid questions?, and so on. Anyway, afterwards I thought of a reason he never brought up that I'm thinking, this Lent, is worth considering. Suffering—which can pretty well be reduced to pain and/or loss, I think—causes you to value more highly the absence of pain and/or to honor the thing lost. It causes you to look forward to—I mean really look forward to—the time, on the other side, when you will no longer suffer pain and when you will be reunited with whatever it was you lost.

I have always thought it terrible for people to long for the next life. I have only personally known of a few people who said that they did. One was a woman (not my mom) who had led a grim life as a prostitute and then became a Christian and not long thereafter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She opted not to do any sort of chemotherapy or treatment that would prolong her life. She also withdrew from friends who tried to encourage her, as they saw it, that she might live longer than the prognosis. She didn't want to talk about that hope at all. "I just want to be with Jesus," she said.

Another was a woman—again a Christian—who, in a fit of biological timeclock desperation, had married a horrible man who was mean to her. All she ever talked about was how wonderful it would be in heaven.

Longing for heaven, it has always seemed to me, amounts to giving up and despising the life we've been given. It seems a wrong focus, like loving Revelation above all the other books of the Bible (excuse me if I have dissed your pet book) or obsessing, as Jesus' disciples were wont to do and countless others have done since his time, on the end times. I guess I'm too much of a hedonist to be able to get to the hating-this-world point of view. Or—shudder!—I just haven't suffered enough yet.

At church (there I go again) the other day, though, the pastor mentioned several times an elderly woman in too poor health to attend the service. She had been a member of the church since forever and had sent us all a cheery greeting in the bulletin. "She's ready to go," the pastor told us more than once. He encouraged us to pray toward that end—not your usual prayer request, unless it's for a person lingering unconscious in the hospital while the family awaits the inevitable death. I have been thinking about that woman a lot, although I don't know her. I have been thinking that such a desire is not necessarily a deathwish, as I have always thought, but maybe a longing for how fabulous it will be to take up life on the other side.

When we rise again, we will be real, Robbie was telling me the other day in her office, where I had gone to apologize for asking too many questions in the Bible study and keeping us from getting as far in the material as she had wanted. Somehow, while I was there, she got on the topic of the Resurrection and started talking about how, contrary to what many think, heaven was not some puffy fantasy place peopled by spirits but the real world, renewed, where we would be solid, in our own bodies, real. She leaned toward me and, to emphasize her point, punched me in the arm. "Like that," she said.

It was not Robbie's punch in the arm that moved me to reconsider heaven, I think, but rather that overlarge wine glass in my imagination, about a third full of Cabernet. Or perhaps a jammy purple Zinfandel in a globe-shaped glass. I haven't quite decided.

"Truly I tell you," Jesus said at his last meal before his death, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25). His words, I'm thinking now, were not so much a lament, as I have always thought, as they were a preview of future pleasures. He took up his suffering, his voluntary loss of an earthly life I am convinced he actually loved—a life which, fully human as well as divine, he was built to love—not with wretched despair, but in the excited anticipation of life beyond the grave, its treasures and delights, of which this world's joys are only a foretaste.


Robbie said...

Embodiment. In the incarnation, our mother's womb, a gentle pat (I do not "punch"!) on the arm, the reality of the wetness of tears, bad breath or sweetness of a baby's breath. Whether blood and water from a wounded side, or the affirmation of "this Jesus" in Acts, chapter 1, the Christian faith has flesh and bone. The Jewish faith, too. One thing I love about the embodiment of a time and place church congregation is being with bodies, dealing with bodies there and absent. Real people with tears and fears and hurts and needs needing help and help that I need. Patty, you are so good for me and your embodiment of the faith is just richly good for "us", the body of Jesus. I'm looking forward to a nice Merlot myself right after our study tonight. For Lent I have sacrificed something else, but that's between me and Jesus. :) Robbie

Spring said...

Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you.

I am honored. This was lovely.

Whenever I've visited here these past few months and found no new lamb chops, I've been faintly aware that you're probably very, very busy. So I'm glad you didn't apologize, because no apologies are necessary.

Congrats on the seven miles, though. Really. I don't think I could run one single block.

I believe it'd be worth it to move back to Siloam for the sole purpose of attending a Bible study led by Robbie Castleman.

Katy said...

My friend Lauren lost her husband a little more than a year ago. He died in a fishing accident, and ever since then, whenever we've talked about him or about death, she has made it increasingly clear to me that what happens on the other side probably comes closer to a perfection of this life rather than just a bunch of people standing around singing for all eternity. Whenever worship leaders get going and say something about how "We're going to do this forever in Heaven!" I get sort of annoyed because I don't like that song that much. And if we're really going to just stand around in choir robes and sing for all eternity, I don't want to go. No, I tend to think the other side will be the perfection of this life, like we'll have work to do and such. When I picture Heaven, I kind of picture me living the life I love right now, only 1000 percent better and with no pain and no one dying and no Sudan. Maybe it's naive? Who knows?

I was running. But then I stopped. I can run only a few miles (about 3.1 ahem) and then I have to stop. Sigh.