The Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter are:
First Reading Acts 9:1–6 (7–20)
Psalm Psalm 30
New Testament Revelation 5:11–14
Gospel John 21:1–19
I was 30 years old. My son was four. I was in my sixth year of ministry. I was used to pushing myself by staying up late with the help of endless cups of coffee, and midnight exercise like shooting baskets or cross-country skiing. Often, when I pushed too far, I had intimations of endless dread. I would suddenly feel infinitely small and the darkness overwhelming.
One night of that year the intimation turned into an uninvited guest who would not depart. The dark cloud that enveloped me in my bed followed me throughout the day and into weeks and months. All the good humor and optimism that marked my character was swallowed up by existential anxiety. I kept up an act of cheerfulness to convince others and myself. But the shadow of deep doubt would not go away.
I that time, whenever I looked on my son, so full of life, all I could think of was him dead. All things gone. Only vast, eternal extinction.
I tried to pray and preach and prove my way out of the black hole. But it was only walking down the isle of the church during a festive worship service, singing “A Mighty Fortress,” that the dark veil was lifted off of me by the hands of God.
Several years later I took part in a special seminary seminar dedicated to the theme “Choosing to Die.” A panel of learned theologians made bold proclamations about the circumstances when it was meet, right and even salutary to take one’s own life. In our discussion the question was asked about whether and when a pastor should pray with those hospitalized with grave or terminal illness. One after another the pastors and theologians in the room laid out persuasive arguments about why a pastor should not impose with prayer—and especially with prayer about eternal life. It would be presumptuous, pompous, naive, and insensitive.
Finally, I raised my hand. “I once was dying inside, and it was next to impossible to find anyone, in my church or out, who would pray or talk to me about life after death. I needed someone. I would have given anything to hear a pastor, or a friend, affirm eternal life and pray with me about it.”
John Updike wrote about this Christian embarrassment about resurrection in his short story, “Pigeon Feathers.” He wrote that we can mention it loudly in the Creed in worship, but we can’t seem to talk about it in conversational tones.
And this embarrassment seems to spill over into theology and biblical interpretation. Many scholars stress that explicit belief in the resurrection does not appear in Hebrew Scriptures until its latest writing, the Book of Daniel. Yet here, in our much older Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 30, we have these verses:
3O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
8To you, O Lord, I cried,
and to the Lord I made supplication:
9“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”
11You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
The Jewish biblical scholar, Jon Levenson, points out in his book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, that there is a tension throughout the Hebrew Bible, in that human mortality is always portrayed as a “brute fact,” yet there is always also the concomitant belief that God has both a preference for, and the power to give, life to those he chooses.
Sure, the belief in God’s power and preference for life is not worked out in Technicolor detail until Daniel. But I love the logic about praise in this Psalm. Praise and prayers of thanks tether us to the transcendent God. And believers count on the power of that tether to withstand even the onslaught of death itself. It’s my job to keep up such a quality of conversation that the Lord won’t want it wasted.
My seminary Christian history professor, the late Carl Volz, and I agreed one day that “If you believe in God you can believe in anything. And if you believe in a gracious God you don’t have to believe in anything. God does the believing for you. You depend on God’s belief in you.”
I learned during my black hole days that my faith in God is not really mine. It is not a product of my personality or strength of character. God giveth and God can taketh away.
These pandemic days, when we wonder only whether the next virus or severe climate change will get us first, many of us are falling into depression and anxiety. But I, for one, am thrilled that I believe what Israel has always believed: Life will win out. God brought up my soul from Sheol, and I can thank God forever.
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I remember when I read Psalm 30. I remember my eyes bulging out reading those, what seemed to me at the time, intensely sad words, and being truly moved by them. I was in my early 20s (I think not quite 20 yet?) and in a lot of pain. I just read it again, for the first time, just now; and I do not remember the rest of the chapter: Verse 9 – “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Thank you, John, and Thank You God for leading me to read those heartfelt, soul reaching words and for having faith in us to believe You that Life Will Win Out!
Carrie: Thank you for your response. Is it not inspiring to know that thousands of years ago a devout woman or man composed such a moving prayer that captures our own thoughts and struggles. And then that confidence rings through: God does rule over life and death, and God delights in giving us life–even eternal life.