By Tommy Airey
May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I Thessalonians 5:23
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, vintage Advent passages about “the coming of our Lord” were infused with the rapture theology of my fresh Evangelical faith. I eagerly anticipated an End Times scenario when Jesus would triumphantly return to rescue us from the sin of the world. I remained vigilant as the Left Behind series of books and movies filled in the blanks of what this letter from Paul assured us would soon happen:
For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)
Our Evangelical pastors repressed our sexual imaginations, but they gave us full permission to fantasize about the End of the World. It was almost too much for my adolescent mind. I conjured images of mass disappearances, freeways suddenly littered with empty cars and football stadiums with fans flying into the heavens. Researching the historical context, though, zoomed me back down to earth. Literally.
Paul’s “coming” of the Lord riffed off Roman imperial language of the parousia. In the colonies of the first century, there was a widespread belief that the Lord Caesar would come and visit them soon. News of his official visitation would reach these Romans living on the fringes of empire by trumpet proclamation! They would respond to the call and exit the gates of the city to meet the Lord Caesar on the road to accompany him back into the city. Paul subversively envisioned a final redemption when the real Lord and Savior would return. Those who pledged allegiance to him would meet him in the sky and usher him back to the world. Jesus would finally bring justice and peace, just as he taught his disciples: “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Ultimately, Paul placed his hope in resurrection, the “dead” rising up in our midst. This makes resurrection a contemporary experience that has everything to do with seen and unseen forces all around us. It means that our loved ones who have passed away are neither beyond our space/time reality “in heaven,” nor are they just “in the ground.” Those who we hold dear, who have gone on before us, are still present, helping or haunting us along the way.
Our ancestors are like Abel who “died, but through his faith he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4b). In radical discipleship circles throughout North America, it is common practice to name those who have gone before and still inform our witness. Martin Luther King: ¡Presente! Berta Caceres: ¡Presente! Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ¡Presente! The late Vincent Harding described the magnitude of this spiritual force-field as “an ageless, pulsating membrane of light that is filled with the lives, hopes, and beatific visions of all who have fought on, held on, loved well, and gone on before us.” We are not alone.
In the Hebrew Bible, God is described as One who has created and organized a world that carries the substance of our lives beyond the grave. In other words, the way our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived continues to play out in our lives:
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.
(Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18)
Many indigenous traditions are far better models of the intergenerational salvation story than anything claiming to be “Christian.” These focus on “spiritual debt” instead of “original sin.” It’s not so much an individual’s inherited stain of sin that needs to be whited out, but a passed-down pattern that needs to be worked out.
In this process, I am called to intimately know those who came before me—in both my family and faith community. For most of my life, my ancestors were virtually meaningless. I had barely known only two of my grandparents. They were dead before I made it to middle school. Besides, what did any of my forebears have to do with anything happening now? My Evangelical faith taught me that I would meet them in heaven someday. Maybe.
The author and spiritual leader Martin Prechtel warns that cutting off from those who came before us leads to a life cursed either fighting our ancestors or riding the wave they started. Prechtel was raised on a Pueblo Indian reservation in New Mexico and then spent several years living with the Tzutujil, a Mayan village in the mountains of Guatemala. He homes in on the importance of grief, by which he means a kind of intentionality of living that values eloquence, beauty and sacrifice.
Grief is an offering that matches the sentiments of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the little anti-imperial house church in Rome. He challenged radical disciples to “present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” an act of worship that enabled them to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.” (Romans 12:1-2) Grief is a sacrificial lifestyle of love and reverence for what came before and what will be long after our life in bodily form is over.
Prechtel calls for the cultivation of “the indigenous soul.” Unfortunately, we have not been taught how to actively grieve our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Instead, we attend a funeral and then “try to move on,” assuming they are “resting in a better place.” Resurrection beckons us to something deeper, more active. It assures us that our loved ones still whisper to our souls. However, we have not been trained to listen.
* * *
A year after 9/11, Rick Warren began his Evangelical bestseller The Purpose Driven Life with a memorable line: It’s not about you. True enough. Evangelicalism, at its best, preaches self-donating love, service and humility. The problem, however, is that the Christian tradition that has raised Warren up to the status of “the next Billy Graham” is fully rooted in the soil of me-centered questions about God and faith.
In fact, the first line of any Evangelical articulation of faith is about an individual relationship with God and a personal salvation in heaven. As Pastor Rick puts it, “You weren’t put on earth to be remembered. You were put here to prepare for eternity.” This message has resonated with many. The updated paperback version boasts more than 32 million copies sold. It was this message, though, that sent Lindsay and I East seeking something more spiritually compelling.
A couple weeks ago, in an Advent sermon delivered to a few dozen of us in Detroit, Dr. James Perkinson stretched and deepened Warren’s message to cosmic proportions. J-Perk set himself to the vital task of re-claiming Jesus’ Gospel warning tales about bridesmaids waiting for the groom and a master going on a journey, leaving the slaves behind to “keep watch.” Again, my raptured [post]Evangelical mind was instinctively conjuring God as the groom and the master, one day returning to punish those who fail to get saved.
Pastor Jim, though, was following the biblical scholarship that refuses any sort of assumption that God is “The Big Man.” The landlord, in the Gospels, is what he actually is in real life: a despot and oppressor. Dan Gilbert. Rick Snyder. Donald Trump. The model for us, instead, is the fig tree and the slaves—the more-than-human and those who have been made less-than-human by The Colonial Script (Mark 13:28-37). In the end, the real hope is not in a Father who triumphantly comes back to save and punish. It is about a Mother (Earth) who recycles and renews eternally. As J-Perk proclaimed, It ain’t finally about us. Like Pastor Rick. Only totally different. Not purpose-driven. More meaning-full and mystery-infused.
Just five days earlier, on an unseasonably warm and windy November afternoon, Lindsay and I took my mom for a hike on Belle Isle, the 982-acre island in the middle of the Detroit River. It was long ago seized from the precious Huron, Odawa and Ojibwe peoples and then sold to some white dude for five barrels of rum and a belt of wampum. We concluded our time by sprinkling some of my dad’s ashes under one of the majestic willow trees just across the chilly waters from Canada. “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Right there at the beginning of the bible, the dust is displayed as our eternal destination. Back to our Mother. Dad is still with us, in both Spirit and Soil. He’s changed forms, just a breath away, whispering to our souls (see this).
The good news is that the Mother knows a story that counters The Colonial Script. She is always composting with consequences and coincidences. In the end, she will save the day, with all her meaningful and mysterious mechanisms and manifestations. The bible, J-Perk assures, contains traces of this indigenous wisdom, rising up like a little invasive mustard seed, always second-guessing the human-centered Greek philosophy that infuses The Colonial Script. Our undying hope is in the ultimate fact that we are not alone and it ain’t finally about us.