Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Happy birthday, your son is dead. . . .

     Those with sensitive ears may well be offended, so I caution you to cover them now.  I did, of course, warn Jeen that I might use some earthy language today and that I was worried about the response of family and friends.  Jeen, of course, reminded me that she had raised five boys.  They played sports and hung out in locker rooms; some of them participated in jam sessions; they fought like cats and dogs—there was not a word I could use that has not come out of their mouths multiple times or that would offend her ears.  So here goes:
     There is a wonderful uniquely parable of which I was put in mind this week.  That parable is a movie called Christmas Vacation starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid and a bunch of others.  As with all the National Lampoon works, there was an edge to the comedy, a bit of truth and a bit of satire.  In case you have not seen the movie or in case you have forgotten, this is the movie that gave rise to the idea of a Griswold Christmas.  Chevy Chase plays Clark Griswold, a man trying to host the perfect Christmas for his family.  Along the way during the holidays, he encounters any number of obstacles that threaten to ruin Christmas.  In particular, though, I was reminded of Randy Quaid’s character.  In the movie, Randy shows up for the holidays as an unwanted guest in his RV.  There’s a classic scene in the movie where Eddie is emptying the RV waste straight into the storm sewers on the street.  One of the neighbors is, understandably, grossed out.  Eddie simply smiles and waves and by way of explanation says “Merry Christmas, the shitter’s full.”
     Now, before you get too offended, here me out.  I used to have a boss in the brokerage business that repeated that statement in the pit whenever he was unable to enjoy his morning constitutional.  Nothing ruined his morning or day like grabbing a paper, heading to the restroom after a coffee or three, only to find the stalls all full.  He would storm back into the office, slamming doors with his face in a rage, repeating Eddie’s greeting at the top of his lungs.
     In truth, it’s how I felt when Joyce called to tell us at church that Adam had dropped dead.  To take you all back in time a bit, Sunday was a great day for worship around here.  Adventers had shown up.  The weather was almost fallish.  As Jeen was headed out the door, I hugged her and told her to have a great celebration.  Jeen was so excited she told me it was her 80th birthday this week.  I don’t know if you have ever hung around southern women, but one NEVER asks their age.  Ever.  I don’t know if any of you have ever met Jeen, but she was born and raised in the South.  Yet here she was, excited for the week, the celebration, the cakes, the dinners, the pomp that comes with a milestone birthday, proudly boasting this was going to be a great 80th birthday.  There was a spring in her step and a sense of expectation in her voice.  In truth, it was contagious.  Everyone around her was smiling and congratulating her, telling her to have a good time. 
     Like it was for nearly every other Adventer, Sunday was unremarkable.  The Titans played.  The weather stayed nice.  We went to bed and awoke to that horrible news in Las Vegas that a gunman had ambushed a concert and killed or wounded well over 500 people.  As we were processing that, Joyce’s call came.  I could well-imagine Jeen’s emotional state at that moment.  Happy birthday, your son is dead.
     For the next couple days, as you might imagine, I was the recipient of several phone calls.  It makes sense.  I’m the ordained guy.  I am supposed to be the one who reminds us that God has a plan or that God wanted these things to occur.  Some that called were struggling with predictable questions.  If God is good, why did he allow someone to murder so many innocent people?  Do you think God is too busy worrying about Las Vegas that he’ll forget Jeen?  What will Jeen do now?  Other questions were more difficult, reflecting personal or denominational bias rather than real care or concern for any of those suffering at the hands of evil, so I will not repeat them.  Monday, I began to be introduced to that diaspora community known as St. Matthias.  I have heard lots about that now, but I also learned that the community of St. Matthias really stays in touch and really cares for one another.  Many of you showed up to mourn with and love on Jeen in the family.  Thank you for your care and concern.  A few people called with their favorite story about Adam.  Originally, I had a hard time reconciling some of the stories I was hearing.  Jeen, of course, summed that all up rather neatly.  Adam had been diagnosed as bi-polar.  As such, he had lived through incredible peaks and valleys in his interactions with people.  I learned that Adam had never really found a new church community after the closing of St. Matthias.  In that, I learned, he was by no means alone or unique.  I learned from those in his building that Adam was well-liked and was going to be missed.
     I also learned that the Prosise family was no stranger to sudden and unexpected tragedies or near tragedies.  Jeen’s husband died suddenly at age 56.  Another son nearly died at 41 and found himself on the receiving end of a quintuple by-pass!  I learned that Adam’s last days were probably perfect for him.  He and a brother had jammed on their guitar and drums at their studio, really a storage unit, that last weekend.  They had had such a great time that Adam had picked up the lunch tab for his brother and sister-in-law.
     I also learned that Jeen and the family were fiercely jealous of Adam.  They loved him dearly.  One of the overriding concerns was that Adam was misunderstood at times, that he sometimes had difficulty fitting in.  They wanted to make sure that we remembered Adam as they remembered Adam.  They will miss him terribly in the coming days and months and years.  It might be a holiday meal or favorite restaurant, it might be a favorite song on the radio, it might be a sporting event or a conversation.  There will be triggers that cause them to remember their loss and mourn yet again his passing.
     There will also be a great deal of anger.  Some of us gathered here will say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question, speak when we should simply sit in silence and let them cry on our shoulders.  They may sense our timidity in speaking about our memories of him.  We will want so hard to explain why we think God allowed or caused this to happen, especially at a joyous time like an 80th birthday, when they know our Lord mourns with them this day even as He mourned at the death of His friend Lazarus and that we have no real answers for the questions that plague them.  We will want desperately to make them feel better.  They will, in time.  The hole will always be there though, at least until the Lord calls them home and they rejoin Adam in the new creation.  I understand we want to understand God and His plan.  I understand we want to love on the family.  It is for that reason that I want to focus a bit on our reading from the Revelation according to John.  I want to give you insight as to what is happening now and in the future, to prepare each of you to care for those mourning in our midst, and most importantly, to remind you of our hope and the reason that we can gather today and sing alleluia at Adam’s grave.  I want to remind the family and you that we are trusting in a God who told a young mother two thousand years ago that He would use her to fulfill His redemptive plan if she would allow Him, a mother who experienced the same pain that Jeen feels now as her Son suffered on the Cross and died an unjust death, a mother who experienced the joy and unfathomable power of God's healing at her Son's Resurrection.  I want us all who claim Christ as Lord to be prepared better to answer those questions about tragedies in the world around us, for us to really be able to wrestle with the ‘Happy birthday, your son is dead” experiences that seem to bombard us in this world!
     If you have only paid attention to FB memes and articles and Tim LeHay’s creation, you might be a bit surprised by our reading from John’s Revelation today.  Literally, the word is apocalypse—an unveiling!  Think of the temple curtain around the Holy of Holies being torn from the top down.  Just as Christ’s death for our sins made it possible for us to see God face to face as a friend, John was given a vision by God to peek into the new creation.  The curtain that separates us from seeing heaven has literally been torn aside for the Apostle John!  What does he see?  People snatched up?  Planes falling out of the sky?  The saints flying on wings or playing harps in the clouds?
     He sees a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away.  If you have thought of Christ’s return along the lines of the rapture and getting your wings, you may well be surprised by what God showed John.  But, upon reflecting on the vision, should we?  Should we be surprised that matter will still be around, that we will not be just spiritual beings, that we won’t turn into angels, or that we won’t spend all our time in church?  After all, if you have read the beginning of this love story, you will know that God walked with us, conversed with us, entrusted us with the care of that Garden in which He placed us to dwell.  We were created to see Him and to talk with Him; it was our sin that separated from Him and caused His voice to terrify us and made us unable to see His face.  In many ways, the rest of the Bible is teaching us how we cannot get ourselves back into that intimate relationship with God, but that He still desires that kind of relationship with each one of us!  He wants to be our God and dwell with us, just as John describes in the passage today!
     Now, admittedly, if you are a lover of nature and your heart is rejoicing at the possibility that nature will still be around in the age to come, you might be a bit worried.  After all, there is no sea.  Who does not like the soothing roar of the waves?  Who does not love the smell of the air near the sea?  Some of us may even like surfing or fishing or just feeling the sand and water between our toes.  Does this no sea reference mean we lose that experience?  Not necessarily.  The sea was the abode of the god or goddess of chaos in many of the Ancient Near East cultures.  Chaos was a deity that threatened to undo the perceived order of the world.  We like to think we are so sophisticated, but we sometimes wonder whether God really has power to reign in chaos, do we not?  Who here did not wonder why God did not jam the shooter’s gun in Las Vegas or allow so many to die?  Who here has not wondered the last few weeks whether nature is out of control?  Seriously, we have satellites and hurricane hunters, but look at the chaos those storms have sown!  What of the earthquakes?  The fires out west?  And, oh, yeah, by the way, we are here remembering the life of a young man, by modern standards, who died almost on a milestone birthday of his mom.  Tell me again how things are so orderly, so predictable, so good in this world.
     John’s writing, I think, is far more about the ultimate subduing of chaos in the world.  For now, God allows the consequences of sin to gain some traction.  For now, God is willing to give us the freedom to accept His offer of love or to reject it.  Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust.  There is a time coming, though, when He will return and recreate all things.  Then, and only then, will chaos finally be subdued.  Then and only then will all things be subdued.  Until then, we can only trust in His redemptive power.  And notice it is redemptive.  All of us gathered her can speak to tragedies in this world.  I daresay all of us have known the death of a loved one; many of us have experienced privation; some of us have been betrayed or stabbed in the back.  Our lists could go on and on.  Few of us have faced the difficult task of burying our dead children; fewer still have had to do so at the time of a celebratory time in our life.  Jeen, boys, the rest of the family, God will redeem Adam’s death.  That is His promise.  Adam’s death may not be fully redeemed until you see Him in that new heaven and a new earth, in that new Jerusalem, with that body that God intended for Him since the beginning of creation, but there will be redemptive moments along the way.  My prayer for you all is that you will see His redemptive work in your midst, that you will hear His redemptive voice in the cacophony of noise around you, so that your faith in the promises described by John this day will seem even more certain in your own faith walk with God.
     But keep in mind that ache, that emptiness, will be in your hearts until this scene described by John comes to pass.  Some may tell you that real Christians should not cry, that real Christians should not be angry, that real Christians should accept everything as part of God’s plan.  Jeen knows better because she has to listen to me, but the rest of you need to hear this, too.  This, what you and I call life, this, this gathering at the death of a loved one, this is not what God intended.  Just as He wept at the death of Lazarus his friend, so our Lord weeps with you all this day.  He knows your hurt; He knows your pain; He knows your sense of loss.  He even knows how others will use those pains and sufferings to lead you from Him.  He will not condemn you for crying; He will not condemn you for hurting; He won’t even condemn you for doubting.  Our translation today uses victorious, but it is a word that recognizes we are in a struggle.  The sense of the word in Greek is that we have overcome the things of this life, the pain, the suffering, the temptations, and in the end, trusted in His promises.  So long as you always turn to Him and return to Him when you stray, He will provide you with comfort and hope.  He will see you to that new earth, that heavenly city.  You will be His child, and He will be your God! 
     Just as importantly, I think, He will one day provide you with more than you can possibly ask or imagine.  In that great American parable I mentioned at the beginning, we see the frustrations of Clark as he works and works to provide the best possible Christmas for his family.  Clark wants the best tree; the best meal; the best lights; the best pool; the best gathering; the best everything for his family.  Who does not want what’s best for their family?  If you all could “redo” your brother, you would no doubt give him what you think he needed.  Maybe instead of drums you’d make him be a pianist; maybe instead of him having a hard time making friends you’d make him the life of the party.  No doubt you would fix all those things that bothered you and you think hurt him.  You’d surely fix whatever caused this early death.  In truth, though, by all accounts, Adam was comfortable in his skin.  He knew who he was and how to live in the world as himself. 
     Much of the movie hijinks are about Clark’s hilarious efforts to make all those things come true for his family.  One of my favorite scenes in that movie is the Christmas lights scene.  Clark and his son spend hours and hours stapling thousands and thousands of lights to the house.  They have diagrams and who knows what else to set up the most incredible light display ever.  When the moment for the big reveal comes, darkness reigns.  The in-laws mock his failure.  His parents “see it in their mind’s eyes.”  His wife is sorry they did not light up.  Clark’s  son frantically works to get out of looking for a dead bulb.  It’s only when his wife, played by Beverly D’Angelo, flips a switch to the basement that the lights come on.  The nuclear generator sounds the alarm for more power.  The neighbors are blinded, hysterically so, by the lit up sky.  The scene is so iconic that Americans often refer to the house on their street with the most lights as the “Griswold house” in their neighborhood.
     As an older man, now, I have a heart for Clark’s response.  He cries tears of joy because its’s better than he ever imagined.  It’s brighter and more beautiful than he had hoped.  No matter what each of you hopes for when you are finally reunited with Adam, no matter what each of us hopes for when we are united with all our loved ones who died in Christ, I am certain we will all be like Clark.  We, too, will be overjoyed and overawed.  We, too, will be amazed.  What you and I can imagine always pales next to what God desires for us, to what He plans for each of us.  Adam’s new body will be more glorious than you or I could ever consider because it will be the Lord who created him who has refashioned him perfectly.  But unlike Clark, whose struggles were by no means over, you and I will enter into that Sabbath rest and marriage feast and that communion with all the saints who have gone before us . . . for eternity.  We will have no need to worry about tears and death.  We will have no need to fear awkward moments like “Happy birthday, your son is dead.”  We will be celebrated simply for overcoming, for not giving in to the chaos and to those who would lead us astray.  We will never again experience chaos or have a need to overcome.  That is His uncompromising promise for all His children!  That is how we are able to stand at the grave of Adam this day and sing our alleluias, certain that Adam, who died in our Lord, is now alive in our Lord.  One day, all this will pass; and on that Day, we will all see the brightness and glory of God!  And, unlike those movie characters who must shield their eyes from the brightness of those lights, we shall see Him truly as our God and our friend!

In Christ’s Peace,


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