“Yes, you are unique… Just like everyone else.” Slightly paraphrased quote – Rev Dr JoAnne Morris
Brian to the crowd: “You are all individuals!”
The crowd in unison: “Yes, we are all individuals!”
Monty Python’s Life of Brian 1979
I have to admit, that Holy Week was a particularly bad week for me as well as the circle of friends and co-workers with whom I share community. For me, Monday was horrible in that I had to say goodbye to my faithful companion Betty Jo, my amazing hound dog. She had been my companion in the best as well as the worst of times. Then, a coworker of mine lost his mother. Then, one of our own students at Seminary passed away. Death was all around us, and it was one of those weeks that really brought home the idea that bad things do happen to good people.
I studied theodicy, or the presence of evil in spite of the existence of an all-good, all powerful God, during my time at Seminary. And while I did well in the class, I was left still searching for the means to understand loss, grief, and the seeming unfairness of it all. I mean, after all, we have a kind, loving, nurturing God, and yet these terrible things still keep happening to us. Where is the wisdom? Where is the meaning? The platitudes of those who would say, “Oh, they’re in a better place.” Or, “At least there is no more pain/suffering/etc.” leave me unsatisfied and just a little bit angry. They, in their attempts to help, marginalized the scope of the loved one’s presence and their effect on the lives of the people with whom they interacted. It seems almost a negation of that person’s existence to say such a thing. And yet, we find ourselves saying those same things in our attempts to assuage a loved one’s grief.
So, during the week, as I reflected on the suffering and death that goes on around us every day, a question came to mind. “Is redemption possible?” I mean are we as a species doomed to repeat and even increase the suffering that goes on around us? Are we so self-centered that we are incapable of reaching beyond our own fears and hurt to embrace our fellow creature to not only sustain one another but to help one another thrive? It may have been around mid-week that a thought came to me, hence the above quotes. Yes, I am an individual, yes, I am unique, and yes, I am just like everyone else.
I had fallen back into the thinking in my grieving that I was somehow alone in my particular pain/grief. I remember when I was a member of a men’s therapy group when I had this epiphany. Other people had the same problems that I had. We may have expressed them differently, but we all suffered from relationship problems, personal demons, trying to find meaning and fulfillment in our lives, and just trying to get through the day. But once I remembered that we’re all in the same boat, things started to get a little better. But they didn’t get better without a little soul searching on my part.
I thought, “Is there redemption for me?” This may or may not sound like a silly question to those who know me. After all, I attended Seminary with the express purpose of becoming a minister of Christ, the living One. Shouldn’t I believe these things already? If I’m going to preach it, I’d better believing it if I’m not going to be like one of those huckster TV preachers. And yet there it was lurking around the edges of my consciousness. This unworthiness, this imperfection, and God knows that I haven’t always been the best person. There were times where I would call myself really bad… I marginalized people, ignored their cries for help, and reveled in my world of privilege and self-interest. Surely anyone of my offenses would deny me access to the holy and the Divine, and by the way, thank you Southern Baptists for the psychological and spiritual damage you’ve heaped on me over the years. You definitely “got me lost”, but you really didn’t provide the means of redemption or of salvation. You didn’t get me found. But I digress.
It was during this most awful week, that it once again was reminded me that while I, or you for that matter feel all the awful feels: Losses in relationships, losses in the deaths and suffering of loved ones, burden of sin, personal and corporate, doubt instead of faith, feelings of unworthiness, and generally alone-ness. We are left feeling alone in our suffering, feeling unique in our burdens in that no one could know the grief we are feeling. And we are wrong in that. We may feel it uniquely in reference to our own context or life story, but we are in no way totally alone or even unique in that matter. All around us are people who are suffering just like we are. We would do well to remember that. And so there is a lesson to be learned in engagement.
By engagement, I mean that we need to avoid the idea that we are alone. We are never alone, even if we run to the forest devoid of people. Nature, God’s creation, is all around us and we are interacting with it even if no one else is there to witness or we are unable to understand it. Even our absence affects the communities with which we have chosen to ignore. The Libertarian would say “I got here by my own merit,” and be wrong in dismissing all of those who helped them to get to where they are. They forget the roads built by others, the food grown by others, the schools others built by others and say in their naiveté that they alone are the authors of their success. In our faith tradition, we do the same thing and we forget who got us here: It wasn’t only God, but the faithful witness of the saints, and yes even the kindness of “sinners.” These Christians would look upon the one struggling in life and say, “If they only had more faith, if they only prayed, read the Bible more, etc.” They have reduced redemption and salvation to an act of their own agency. “I choose to do this.” “I alone am able to do this because of my piety, my righteousness.” And they are wrong.
It is especially present in American Christianity. We as a people have conflated the idea of “Rugged Individualism” with the faith that calls on us to care for the stranger and judge not lest you be judged. It is a faith tradition that takes away the agency of God and gives it to an imperfect creation, still trying to understand much less put into action the words given us by the prophets and by the living one, Christ. It ignores the community of saints, past and present, it ignores the righteous work of the communities outside of their tradition, and renders it to an act of individual agency to achieve redemption and salvation.
We don’t get there by ourselves. While I am not a big fan of John Calvin, I believe that he had the right of it, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that the entirety of Christ’s life here on earth: Incarnation, life and ministry, the cross, the resurrection, and his total obedience to God that saves us. In this vein, I reflect on his life and ministry. While Jesus did have his alone time; in the desert and going off to pray, much of his time was spent in community. He brought everyone to the table and he did it regardless of status and especially focused on those who were on the margins of society. Sometimes in our grief we feel that we are on the margins. Sometimes we feel as if we were the only ones feeling the way we do. It is only in reaching out to those around us, sharing our burdens as well as our joys that we can fully understand what Christ taught us when he said “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
It is in this communal lament as well as communal celebration where we can become close to God as well as God’s creation and realize that we indeed are not alone. We can mourn the loss as well as celebrate the entirety of the lives that have shaped our own. Redemption and Salvation is at hand and yes it is there for everyone to partake. Even me, even you, even the neighbor down the street that you haven’t spoken to. We don’t earn it, we are merely the beneficiaries of this grace, and realize that yes we are unique, just like everyone else.