Springtime Requires Winter

I have a longtime close friend named Brother Martin Gonzales. He’s soon to be 96 years old and has been a monk with a Trappist community in Lafayette for almost 70 years. Once during his 60s, he was called into the Abbot’s office. The Abbot informed him that either he had to go to a residential program for alcoholics or leave the monastery. His occasional over-drinking would no longer be overlooked. Martin, who was in denial of his drinking problem and attached to his very popular image, thought this was perhaps the worst news he had ever received. He thought going into that treatment program would ruin him—his reputation, his life; he even thought death might be preferable to the scalding shame and resistance he felt. 

But something happened instead. Not only did he love the treatment program—relish it, in fact—but the path that led out from it was one of peace and clarity for him. It led to sharing himself with others through AA groups, which he also loves. The path out of that treatment program brought him more joy than he could have imagined. The Abbot’s confrontation of him, and the tremendous temporary suffering it brought him, made way for what has been, for Martin, undeniably life-giving. —I have had similar experiences: things that happened in my life that were so painful I wasn’t sure I would survive. But they made way for something that brought fulfillment and happiness. So much so that I wouldn’t have traded the fulfillment for avoidance of the thing that hurt. 

In our Psalm today we read: “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge” [62:6-8].

Yet that is not all we read today from the Scriptures. We also read that John the Baptist was arrested, and we know his fate was execution. Our 1 Corinthians passage was written during a time of threat and conflict for many in the Roman Empire, and there Paul tells his readers they should prepare for calamity, and that the “present form of this world is passing away.” Literally thousands of Christians were crucified in the decades following Jesus’ death; and many were killed in other ways. Our Old Testament text, the Jonah story, comes out of a time when the Israelites have been almost wiped off the face of the earth by the Assyrians. 

So, yes. We might say—as in the Psalm—that “God is our refuge,” but we also live in a world where terrible, unspeakable things happen. You and I both know it is true. We sit with this reality today as we miss and mourn friends who have died of Covid-19, and ponder losses that feel too great to bear. —Terrible things happen despite our trust in divine care. They happen to us, to those we love—not to mention to strangers. How do we process this? … If our tradition, if our trust, cannot hold up to the scrutiny of such an analysis, we are in trouble. We pray for those we love; but often terrible things happen anyway. 

I’ve spent many years pondering these paradoxes. I have personally come to a place where my trust actually integrates, or includes these painful things. My pain doesn’t jeopardize my trust in God, though I surround it with a fair amount of curiosity. I let the mystery remain. 

This is why; this is what I have learned to include in the equation. I hope it can offer a different perspective on loss, perhaps. You see, I observe that we live in a world that requires death and decay. Death, decay, demise are absolutely baked in to the order of this universe. Most good things actually depend on them. Our beautiful world would not have evolved were it not for cycles of death, and the decline of some things making way for the ascendance of others. Whatever process was set in motion at the inception of creation, it depends both on death and rebirth. Have you ever tried to imagine a world in which nothing died? A world where things grow indefinitely and never rot or die off, never enter the struggle of rebirth? We cannot imagine this because it is so foreign to the essence of our universe. Not only does everything in the natural world have to die for something new to reborn, but often the decay of the thing that died actually feeds new growth and new life. 

The same is the pattern of the human body. Have you noticed how muscles literally need strain and tearing to build up strength, a process leading to soreness and pain, but pain necessary for functioning? Have you noticed it is the pattern in how our cells work, constantly dying off and being replaced with new cells? Cells that do not naturally die off are called “cancer.” They cause bodily systems to crash prematurely.

Think of the things in your past that have impacted you and formed you. Like I mentioned, in my life some of the most impacting, even ultimately gifting experiences, were some of the hardest. Often the good thing that was born in me or in my life was nourished by the “bad.” I think of chronic illness, which I’ve had to some degree since childhood and which equipped me in various, often surprising ways to be a good healthcare chaplain. I think of an abusive relationship in my young-adult life that strengthened me in ways I likely never would have experienced otherwise. I think of the excruciating ending to a relationship that made the way for a new life and new, healthier relationship.

But the fact is, when we are in the midst of devastation and grief—whether on a personal level, or community or national level, it is too hard to see how the cycle of death/rebirth requires something to die before something new can be born. We most often forget that this seems to be the nature of the universe we live in—of creation, and thus integral to the process instigated by our Creator, however we conceptualize God. When we are in pain, it is often like being in the depth of winter and having no recollection of spring, no remembrance that winter ends. 

Springtime—the new growth and vibrancy and thriving of things that were nourished by the loss of other things, does come. This is what my life of trust is based on. Not on denying or decrying death or decay, but remembering the whole cycle. What this all says about God is still a mystery to me. I’m not going to tell you I understand it. But I do observe the cycle, I have observed the cycle. I also believe and observe that in the great order of things, things move toward restoration and healing. I believe this mystery we call “God” is loving, and is in the business of making all things new. God is our comforter. May you be embraced both by trust and by comfort, remembering that God will not leave you alone. You are being restored, even as you wait.

{Sermon delivered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Woodburn, Oregon, 1.24.21; Lectionary texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20.}

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