Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Bev Patterson
PAUL AND I recently watched this Netflix series called “Russian Doll”. On the surface it comes off as dark and irreverent. But it doesn’t take long for it to take a turn. By the end I thought “What a perfect Lenten fable”.
Alan and Nadia, both flawed and irredeemable in their own right, are at a crisis point. Like a gritty urban Groundhog Day, they are doomed to live within a continuous death loop. In their attempt to outsmart death they discover a way off this crazy ride but it will take a huge leap of trust on both their parts. At one point, Alan asks Nadia, “If I resist the impulse towards the dark, can you promise me I’ll be happy?” to which she replies, “No, but I can promise you won’t be alone.” For liberation to kick in and release them from this recurring death dream, Alan has to give up his idol of happiness and Nadia has to die to her cynicism, mistrust and isolation.
Lent invites us to remember our death in order to enter our lives.
Our two soul mates from Russian Doll could hardly imagine escaping their dark destiny. The very idea of sacrificing and living for someone else was unimaginable. But something blew through their pathetic existence creating a completely different loop. The writers of the show might call it spiritual fate, a beneficent force in the universe attempting to chart a more healing course.
Back 2000 years, Paul the Apostle would tell the Corinthians it was the Spirit of Reconciliation orchestrating what he calls ‘the New Creation’, made possible through Christ’s life and death. That’s what’s going to get you off the loop of death.
Some scripture passages are difficult to interpret, but the tone and texture of our passage this morning is more tender and empathic. We don’t usually read commentaries for their poetry but I found this description of our verses quite evocative: “Of all the celebrated statements in Paul’s letters, none surpasses 2 Corinthians 5 in lyrical grandeur, cosmic scope, theological depth, and emotional appeal…. Once his complex argument is unravelled, Paul’s Christian conviction shines through with the brilliance of the North Star on a clear night. God has acted in Christ to re-create the world and restore humankind to a right relationship with the divine mind.” (2 Corinthians: Believer’s Church Bible Commentary)
Here is a theology that weaves together loving forgiveness, transformation of human existence, and reconciliation culminating in the grand notion of a New Creation. Paul’s only desire is to follow this grand dream of God. So in a spirit of vulnerability, he writes the Corinthian converts, hoping God’s vision of reconciliation can break into their death loops; their history of opposition and affliction. These new converts had written him off based on his lack of eloquence and his rejection of status. All this talk of “death to self” seemed crazy. In their fascination with more savvy missionaries, they had lost interest in Paul’s message. Paul was being judged not for who he was in Christ, but by the cruelty and bias of human standards. They had lost sight of him as a New Creation. No doubt he was filled with deep sadness as if mourning over the death of a loved one. Like a Mama Bear, Paul was in protection mode. But instead of appealing to human ability to hold it together, Paul steps aside and shines a light on God. Only He can repair the damage.
Paul warns us about these standards of ours. The ways we evaluate and perceive ourselves and other people puts us in dangerous territory. He knows that if we hang on to our old assumptions and judge on appearance, we might never experience the reconciliation God has promised us. He tells us to stay vigilant to standards of the spirit.
But it’s hard. When our point of view is determined by the status quo, we lose sight of who we are. We start to see humanity through blinders, mere categories and descriptors: gender, race, religion, introvert or extrovert, thinking or feeling, rich or poor, conservative or liberal. As a result we make quick and often disastrous judgment calls. Our culture of hierarchy tells us to divide and conquer and our souls pay the price. These categories are not admirable nor are they humane. They are fueled by envy, comparison, scarcity and suspicion. Loyalty to these standards will negate friendship for greed. We will choose destruction over self-sacrifice every time, especially when our livelihood and security is at stake.
Paul knew what it was like to live by this code. At one time he wanted nothing more than a Messiah who could dominate the world with militant brute force. He was even willing to kill for it. Jesus was someone he had written off as dangerous; a wayward prophet who would lead people astray. He might have thought judging Jesus as an enemy of God was religiously sound but he was about to find out how off base his rigid views were. The day was coming when his old perceptions of God and his Messianic hopes would pass away. Paul’s Damascus Road experience was a day of endings but it was also his day of beginnings. Out of that death, a new life, a new cause and a new message was born.
The only thing Paul lived for now was serving God’s desire for peace and reconciliation, a far cry from his impassioned violent war cry. Paul was guilty of many transgressions but he now knew what it was like to be seen through the lens of forgiveness. He was a brand new person. His past had been forgotten for the sake of something much more glorious. He wanted others to know that too.
“All who have died with Christ are now in him and have been made anew. Look, all things have become new!” To be able to say that and mean it is a miracle. During this season of dying we need a verse like this. “In Christ, we are part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!”
So how do we say it like we mean it? Maybe we all need a Damascus Road experience. We tell ourselves that we want to see each other through new eyes and we resist those human standards that prefer status and perfection. Categories and descriptors that separate the essence of persons go against everything we believe about living together in covenant.
But is this just lip service? Sometimes, we are impatient with ourselves. We can’t seem to stop choosing despair even though we’ve been surrounded by hope. Sometimes we catch ourselves opting for shame and hiding instead of trusting God and those who know and love us. The thought of a New Creation seems just an abstract theological notion. Despite all the learning and spiritual effort we put into our faith life, we must confess a stubbornness that keeps us trapped by old perceptions. On our own, we are encased in our own Russian Doll, disconnected, isolated, far from home, left standing on the edge. How can this possibly be the way back to God?
“Momento Mori” - in Latin this means “Remember your Death”. This is the Lenten rallying cry. I decided to enter Lent with more focus this year, trying hard to keep up with daily readings and journal entries in my Lenten devotional (Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional and Journal). Death is unavoidable, this I know, but it’s been odd to ponder my mortality on a daily basis. I suppose it only makes sense that remembering my death, in such an intentional way, has also made me aware of all the ways I try to forget my death. I have my usual suspects: there’s the many lists, food rituals, rigorous exercise plans and quirky obsessions. Even the stuff I love to do, such as reading, studying and watching movies and TV, I’ve managed to turn into a race against time. It doesn’t take long for this Memento Mori to feel really self-absorbing.
But the spirit, being who She is, has a way of sneaking in, reminding me that, whether I see it or not, my small journey is folded into a bigger journey. This has given me hope and energy to carry on. It turns out I’m supposed to get in touch with the limits of life. And if Jesus felt this exhausted and bored out there in his desert, maybe I can stick it out too. Connecting my 40 days with his 40 days is an invitation to see my emptiness with new eyes.
But it takes a while to get accustomed to a new way of seeing. In fact it wasn’t until the final draft of my homily that I realized reciting my inventory, itemizing all the ways I avoid death is really just another list I can control; my usual way of trying to be ahead of the dying game. Talk about an old point of view. Memento Mori isn’t just a safe little journaling exercise. It is a way of life that is ultimately asking me to trust God with all my fears, my hopes, things I know, things I don’t know. Oddly this is the path to peace.
This message of reconciliation is not binary where the good feeling of coming together discounts the pain of being human. The two must cross paths, even join hands. To be made whole and enlivened, Paul tells us, we have no choice but to enter the business of dying. And so when we remember our death in light of Christ, it is no longer morbid. Something upside down happens. Under the new standard of Christ, we become the re-membered ones, re-socialized into a new people, re-stored back to our new identity as new creatures. In the spirit of reconciliation, God exchanges our human point of view for a spiritual one. Freed from the death loop, we are brought back to God, the Great Reconciler who knits our flesh and bones together into a new body. A New Creation that breaths life into community, into the neighbourhood, and into the world which mourns along with God over the daily death toll, in the name of peace and reconciliation.
In a rare moment of divine intervention, we witnessed this New Creation embed itself into a tragic event this week. The unimaginable happened on March 15 when 51 Muslim worshippers were murdered and 49 injured in New Zealand by a white supremacist. And it’s worth mentioning that the president of New Zealand responded to the horrific deaths of Muslim worshippers, not as a political figure trying to make points, but as a human being extending a comforting embrace of solidarity. Not only did she arrive respectfully wearing a black head-covering, she went on to say, “I am here for you, what would you have me do?" Not only did she call out for gun control, her words were followed by genuine action and within 6 days laws against assault weapons were set in motion. But probably the defining moment of the New Creation was when she said for the entire planet to hear: “They may be refugees from a different part of the world, they may be immigrants, but this is their home, and “‘They Are Us.’"
This is what Paul meant when he said: “In Christ, we are part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!”
Later in the chapter Paul calls us ambassadors. In a radical act of grace God has entrusted us with this message of reconciliation. From God’s point of view, our mistakes and transgressions no longer have the last word. All our struggles with impatience, hopelessness, shame, mistrust, doubt and unbelief are gathered up in love to be included in Christ’s death. And so newly born we join hands with Paul, protecting this new and precious reality, against the violence and destruction of our old human standards, always knowing that “God has done it all”.
Our faith in Christ unites us, igniting our imagination so we can bear witness to places that have been infected with love and kindness. Sometimes being an ambassador means challenging each other when we fall back on our earthly points of view. Other times it might mean that we are called to help each other when we can’t see how new growth is sprouting from our grief. Death is never the end in God’s New Creation and the phrase “We all die alone” is no longer true in Christ. To quote Bev Solomon, “We are a Resurrection People” even in the desert of Lent.
Used by permission from Michel Keck (click on image for details)