I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living - Psalm 27:13
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. - Rainer Maria Rilke
An Easter unlike any other, that’s for certain - except for, perhaps, the first one. There were no groups bigger than ten at the empty tomb. Nobody gathered to worship in climate controlled sanctuaries with people of kindred mind and heart. No Hillsong, or Kanye - just an empty tomb, and some grieving women who thought the body they’d come to anoint with spices had been ripped off. There was some violation of the gathering code on the part of the disciples, but by then one of them had committed suicide, so they were only one over the max of ten as they huddled together, terrified that a similar fate as their mentor awaited them. That first Easter, like this one now, was filled with more questions than answers. The one thing Christ-followers knew then, was that the world as they’d known it was over.
So do we. Here. In 2020 - the year of the virus. After a global economic implosion that’s affected all of us, and the most vulnerable the most deeply; after the horrific sitings of refrigeration trucks being used as makeshift morgues, we find ourselves helpless, watching as a slow forming tsunami wave approaches. We’ve a sense that, whatever the future holds in terms of new cultural norms, and economic recoveries, a return to “the way we were” isn’t in the cards. This uncertainty regarding the future, coupled with economic hardship, forced isolation, and the physical threat of the actual virus has created the perfect cocktail to induce anxiety. David Brooks wrote about it recently in this article. He asked people to let him know how they’re doing in the midst of the crisis, and he writes, What you sent gutted me. There have been over 5,000 replies so far, and while many people are hanging in there, there is also a river of woe running through the world — a significant portion of our friends and neighbors are in agony. He goes on to write about the agony of graduating seniors now facing debts and no job prospects, of senior citizens suffering both isolation and health threats, of career implosions, and of how the crisis has intensified already existing phobias, and depressions, and anxieties. Ugh!
The sentence that’s given me the most hope this particular Easter isn’t from the gospel story of the resurrection. It’s from David’s musings in Psalm 27, written during his own time of crisis that included a couple of attempts on his life, which forced him to flee his homeland, hide in caves, and feign insanity. In the midst of the world as he knew it coming to an abrupt close, he makes this bold statement:
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living
“The land of the living” is a great phrase because it implied that ‘not all lands are the lands of the living’. I’m convinced that there are lots of so called “lands” that promise life, but don’t actually deliver. We don’t call them “lands”; we call them ideologies, usually ending with these three letters: “ism”. Socialism. Environmentalism. Consumerism. Materialism. Nationalism. Individualism. They all say it in different ways: “Life is found in sharing, or shopping, or reducing the carbon footprint, or buying, or singing the anthem of your nation’s greatness, or doing your own thing, as long as you don’t bother anyone. Truth be told, though, our collective variety of isms have created a world that wasn’t working, even before the virus happened. Now, though, it’s plain as daylight, because the glitter of every “ism” has faded, and all of us are asking, is there anything that’s actually meaningful, that lasts, that brings hope, peace, beauty? Because God knows, these “lands” are laced with poverty, racism, hatred, isolation, homelessness, busyness, anxiety, and lots more that isn’t “life”.
Maybe that’s why, during the plague of Antonine from 165-180 CE, and the Cyprian plague from 250-271, (both killed about one fourth of the population), the church, still terribly young, grew dramatically. It’s not just that Christians were courageously offering hospice, though they were. It’s not just that they offered hospice to anyone, regardless of creed, politics, gender, or class, though they did. I believe it’s also that they‘d been dwelling in the “land of the living”, which is a land of hospitality, simplicity, contentment, faithful covenant love, creativity, and yes, even joy. This “land of the living” can’t compete with the cheap thrills of the many cultural seductions that overpromise and under-deliver, all those “buy me”, “taste me”, “experience me”, “visit me”, “vote for me” seductions that are in our faces 24/7. Those lands are bright and shiny and seductive, but eventually, when their glitter fades, they're revealed as insufficient as sources of life.
In cultural moments like these, all the glitter has been sand blasted away at the same time. Your career, or net worth, or sexual conquests, or even your religious construct, had better not be your identity. You need to find the land of the living and you need to find it soon. That’s why it’s so beautiful to hear the messengers exhorting the women at Jesus tomb: why are you searching the living among the dead?
Why indeed? Maybe because selfish upward mobility, isolation, individualism, nationalism, or some other ism or isms are all we’ve ever known. We’ve been taught with each breath that we are what we buy, what we experience, where we travel, who we sleep with, how we fare on social media, how high we climb in our career. Now it’s all gone. ”What last’s” we’re asking, or we should be. The answers will be found in the land of the living.
That’s why, post-Easter, I encourage every Christ follower to get on with both going deep in developing intimacy with the Jesus who’s alive and empowering you, and in creatively finding ways to serve and bless those around you. There are resources online to help you do that, both here and here. Paul says it this way in I Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, (since the resurrection means there is a real ‘land of the living’) ...be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord“.
As the tsunami of loss washes over every person on the planet, including you and me, I take both hope and comfort in knowing that there’s a rock solid hope that can never be taken away, that there’s a better story than any ’ism’, and when the wave recedes, what will be left will be joy, hope, generosity, faith, courage, and beauty - more than ever - because He lives!
O God of resurrection life
We confess that though we know you and love you
We too are easily seduced into believing that “isms”
Are the land of the living
We see evidence in our cynicism and division,
In our pride and anger
In our isolation and busyness
Which combine to steal compassion
In this season of loss and upheaval
Give us eyes to see the land of the living
And not just see it, but dwell in it
And not just dwell in it, but invite others
To the end that the things that are eternal
Might sustain, enliven, and impart hope
You are risen
You are risen indeed
May we, indeed, die to our old ‘isms’
That we might rise as people of hope