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As many of you know, I spent most of the past three weeks taking care of my 81 year old mom. She is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, a cruel disease that inexorably strips vital and intelligent adults of their personality, dignity and memory. I had not seen my mom in about six months and she has declined during that time. When I first arrived in California to pick her up, she did not know me. She gets terribly confused and often does not know where she is or who is with her. She’s lost weight, she is hunched over, she’s frail, she shuffles when she walks. In caring for her, I daily picked out her clothes, brushed her hair, made her meals, guided her in what she can and cannot not do, and led her by the hand to cross streets and walk the beach – which we did each day for about fifty yards – until she got tired!
It was difficult for me to see her like this. She was once an interesting woman with intelligence and ideas to share. She was not a flashy person but she was always perfectly put together – her hair done just right, her clothing neat, pressed and well matched. The two of us would often talk for hours on all sorts of subjects. We were always close. When I came out as a gay man twelve years ago, she quickly accepted me and told me she had often wondered if I might be so. I was a sensitive, studious and soft spoken boy, after all. It’s said that moms and their gay sons are often close and that has been true for us.
But as sad as it is to see my mom now, I also see in her not just a shadow of her old self, but also a person struggling to still find meaning, purpose and excitement in life. Mom is now like an innocent and inquisitive child who delights in and wants to talk about all the things she sees. I took her to the beach where there was a colony of seals with their new pups. Mom pushed her way to the front of the crowd, to stand with all of the children, where she and they excitedly pointed and laughed with delight.
As something of a child again, mom has a sweet and caring nature. In an air conditioned restaurant last summer, my sister complained that she was cold. Mom, who was wearing a pullover shirt, promptly pulled it off and gave it to my sister. “Here, dear. This will keep you warm!”, she said as she sat there in the middle of a busy restaurant – naked above the waist. My sister and I burst out laughing as we rushed to get her dressed. Such is mom now – thinking like an innocent child – one without the filters of an adult and one who willingly gives the shirt off her back to help another.
As I said goodnight one evening last week and essentially tucked her into bed, she looked up at me and asked if I would leave a nightlight on for her. “I get scared in the dark”, she said. I assured her a light would be left on and that I was just down the hallway if she needed me. How funny that episode is to me – a deja vu experience – one that happened fifty years ago, only then it was me, a young boy, asking his mom to help him feel safe in the dark.
I hope my personal story was not too long or too boring for you. We all have stories and I truly welcome hearing any of your own. As I have reflected about mom, though, I find her life now is a simple and common story of someone dealing with challenge and finding ways to overcome. Few of us will escape life without confronting difficult challenges that cause change. How we deal with the inevitable struggles of life will say a lot about who we are as individuals and the kind of legacy we leave behind.
In many ways, stories of people facing and overcoming life difficulties are much like the Easter story. In that story, Jesus had to face his own life defining challenge, his Good Friday trial and crucifixion, in order to experience a bright and hopeful Easter morning.
The night before his crucifixion, after he had celebrated Passover Seder with his followers, Jesus walked to an olive grove overlooking Jerusalem. It was there that he found the quiet needed to settle his mind and reflect. The story has him famously sweating in fear and begging God to spare him the expected trial and execution. Like any human, Jesus did not want to experience heartache, abandonment and pain. In this way, the Easter story is one we can all relate to – I can see in it elements similar to my mom’s story. Throughout her life she implored me to help her commit suicide if she should ever be mentally or physically incapacitated – like Jesus, she wanted to spare herself pain. But now, at a point which I know she would not have wanted to experience, I find resilience, beauty and gentleness in her that adds a new dimension to her life and to those who interact with her. Alzheimer’s may be a nasty disease, but it has its own form of dignity.
I cannot now speak to and relate to mom as I used to, but I can relate to her in a far more empathetic way – to hug her, hold her hand, soothe her, seek to understand her, learn from her, ease the darkness that can overwhelm her mind – and then be a figurative nightlight to take away her fears. In some strange way, her disease is a gift to me and to her – an opportunity for growth and expansion of her spirit – and mine as well. She’s having her own Resurrection moment, a time in life that has renewed her as a different person – one that might outwardly seem sad but which is, in truth, pure and beautiful.
For many of us, though, the Easter story found in the Bible is a difficult one to accept and celebrate since it defies rational explanation and offers no verifiable proof of its truth. Without a literal resurrection of Jesus’ body, most forms of Christianity are meaningless. Paul even wrote in one of his letters that if the resurrection is not true, his preaching and the beliefs Christians have in eternal life are all in vain. But that notion is Paul’s interpretation of Jesus and the resurrection. It ignores an opposing view held by many of his contemporaries at the time – people who were also early Christians.
Easter and the Resurrection, therefore, need not be interpreted as literal history. Many early Christians, who were called Gnostics, did not believe Jesus’ bodily resurrection was historical fact. Numerous second and third century documents discovered at Nag Hamadi, Egypt in the 1940’s point to a widespread early belief that Jesus’ body was not restored to life but remained dead and buried. Gnostics believed it was Jesus’ spirit that was resurrected – a spirit that embodied his teachings, thinking and approach to life. Their understanding of the Resurrection was a spiritual one – a type of resurrection that I see my mom undergoing, one that any of us can experience as we go through our own life trials. Humans fear physical death while often ignoring the potential death of their spirits – that will happen if one fails to leave behind a legacy of goodness.
Our lives must mean more than an accumulation of years. They must mean more than briefly adding to our comfort and pleasure. A life legacy, a resurrection of the spirit, is found in how we deal with the challenges we face and how we assist others in dealing with their suffering. What example do we leave behind in how we deal with challenge? Do we persevere until we overcome, in some way, our struggles? Do we instead give up and retreat into fear, anger, arrogance or self-pity? What ripples across the pond of time do we send out into the future to touch other lives and distant shores of creation? What is the condition of our humility, our gentleness, our kind speech, our efforts to affect, for the better, other lives? Human bodies are corruptible and finite, but human spirits, defined by our minds, by our compassion, by our courage to endure, these are what live onward past the point of physical death.
Sadly, the Gnostics were quickly labeled as heretics by Paul and others. Their understanding of Jesus and his spiritual resurrection lost out in the battle of interpretations. It was Paul’s theology of a risen Jesus that eventually won and was codified in the New Testament. Pauline theology is what most Christians believe today. They are entitled to that belief, but my own thoughts and my own studies of what took place two thousand years ago lead me to conclude that Easter morning was not a literal event in history. It is a valid and inspiring holiday only if we approach it in an honest and rational way. Easter invites us to find resurrection moments in life that renew our spirits and grant them, not our bodies, life beyond death.
It was a contemporary of Jesus, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who uttered the famous axiom that the only constant in life is change. The sad fact is that while many of us acknowledge this truth, we have a hard time accepting it. Even change which we know will be good for us – we avoid. It’s too difficult to start over. Staying the same or avoiding challenges are easy for us. Change makes us feel out of control and we are, too often, creatures who like to be in control.
But reality offers a different truth. It is when we embrace change and seek ways to overcome its negative impact that we ironically have MORE control over our lives. The actress Angelina Jolie recently revealed that in addition to voluntarily undergoing double mastectomies because she has a cancer causing gene mutation, she also just underwent a total hysterectomy to prevent uterine and ovarian cancer. She had watched as her mother slowly suffered and died from cancer. In her grief and fear over her own fate, Angelina found the empowerment to take control of her destiny and to offer, as a result, a legacy of courage and a model for other women. As she has written in a recently published diary about her experiences, “I don’t want to tell you how often, every hour, I think about leaving my children without me. I know now, however, my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer.’ It is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue.”
Please forgive me if it seems I trivialize profound challenges and make them seem easy to overcome. That is not my intent. I understand the gut wrenching fear and distress that life challenges bring any person – including myself.
What I want to offer today, however, is more than a reinterpretation of the Easter story. The reality of the resurrection is that change is inevitable but it is often not what we think it will be. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.”
He spoke to a common human psychology called “affective forecasting.” We typically believe that good things in life will make us happier over the long term and negative events will make us unhappy. But our forecasting of the future is so often totally wrong. Things rarely turn out as bad as we think they will. Often, change results in something different for us but also something new, fresh, and wonderful. We find, from of the ashes of despair, a genuine resurrection! Our willingness to courageously persist in overcoming a challenge is inspirational to others and offers us a form of life after death.
The legacy of Jesus’ life is not as Savior or Son of God – a figure to be displayed on the cross for pity and worship. His enduring legacy is in his courage to confront elitist religious hypocrisy, to purposefully humble himself by reaching out to scoundrels, thieves, lepers, and prostitutes, to teach a way of life that promotes charity, social justice and empathy.
I hurt for my mom. I hurt for the challenges I know some of you are experiencing. We all hurt for the pain we see throughout the world. But I also know my mom, with all of her confusion and loss of memory, is still a person of grace, compassion and dignity – a person still fighting the good fight to overcome challenges. Her body and mind are failing, but her spirit is alive and well. I hope the same will one day be said of me and of you.
We can each embrace difficult change in our lives. As congregations, we too can reject irrational fear and accept the challenge we face – to insure the longevity and well-being of our two churches. Life may often seem like a series of Good Fridays, days when we are tired and beaten down. But today of all days tells us we have the ability to spiritually live on, to impact the world for good, to awaken in ourselves and in others a strength to persevere and a desire for goodness. We are all Easter people. We are all endowed with triumphal spirits that yearn to love, give and serve. Challenges will yet afflict us. But we can embrace struggle and, in the process, find our true resurrection.
I wish you all much peace and joy.