And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. Ezekiel 37:7
Every once in a while, life sneaks up on you and you catch your breath. This morning, we all went outside to pick Luke’s last watermelon from our garden before a hard freeze stole it from us. The watermelon itself is a bit of a miracle. Partially from having survived through an unquenchable drought and the precipitous waning of its gardeners’ attention; and partially because within that sour-sweet rind the miracle at Cana was reenacted in slow motion. The drama of water into wine, of sun, earth, and water transforming themselves into flavors and rhythms that save the best of summer’s party for last.
Then there was another miracle we hadn’t expected. Something hanging from our front porch column caught our attention. There, I encountered the most delicate, green chrysalis that I’ve ever seen. It hung there, impossibly suspended like an acorn dressed in spring green and rimmed with the most refined, gold gilding. Yet the potential for the tragic loomed. All of this expectant beauty, brimming with life and possibility, ready to emerge just days before fall’s fatal kiss could bring the story to a stunted conclusion. It was a rare gift of life found at a moment where the forecast predicts death and decay.
I received another unexpected gift the other day that sneaked up from my periphery with the same sense of awe and gratitude as that fall chrysalis. Together with a group of people in Argentine, we’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Practice Resurrection. Peterson describes the church with the same fashion, patience, intent and craft dedicated to making that perfect chrysalis, describing the church as “an appointed gathering of named people…who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines.” Reading and slowly ruminating over his description of the church resonated with me in the deepest parts of my soul. It connects with that groaning, that longing that catches us by surprise because we didn’t really know it was there until something awoke it. Peterson woke the dragon. The church—a gathering of people who practice resurrection in a world where death seems to be winning by a landslide.
Peterson’s description works on me in much the same way that seed catalogs do. They arrive in the coldest, darkest days of winter promising me everything that is absent outside my window. The glamorous, glossy photos of Gurney’s and Miller Nurseries and Stark Bros., transport me to a mythical, August day where flawless filet beans and heirloom tomatoes and petite zucchini emerge from a thick, musty layer of black, weedless humus. They seduce me with their imagery, causing a momentary fog of amnesia whereby I conveniently forget the weedy brothel that plagued last year’s attempt before the calendar even had the chance to turn to July.
That’s the danger with Peterson’s description of the church–a people who’s entire reason for existence, their purpose, their vocation is to bear witness to and work out the implications of Christ’s resurrection in the brokenness around them. Bringing life out of death? That is glamorous. That is heroic. That is something I can get behind. That is a pearl I’d leave everything to find. That is a ripe, robust Brandywine among florescent-lit aisles of flavorless, shapeless, grocery-store-pink tomatoes. But it seems that for a growing number of people, myself included at times, the promise of the church sooner or later wears off and it feels more like that unkempt, weedy garden. Sure you find a tomato or two–a successful youth retreat, a raked lawn at a widow’s house, little things that remind us its not all in vain. But it doesn’t look like what the seed catalogs sold us in January either.
The other night, a man who lives here in Argentine called me like he does every day or two. Scared. Alone. Drunk. Depressed. As he typically is. I’d had it. We relive the same conversations over and over again. I’d given him all kinds of opportunities to get out of some of the situations he’d trapped himself in. But I was done. He was sharing suicidal thoughts again and I didn’t care. There was a job opportunity for him to go out of state. I encouraged him to do it. Not so much because I believed it was in his best interest, but because it was in mine. Our friendship wasn’t just costing me time, it wasn’t just costing me, quite literally, thousands of dollars, it seemed to be costing me my soul. Wanting to run away from this man’s burdens, I was running away from the very way of Christ I believed in.
The thing you forget about practicing resurrection, as heroic as it sounds, is that its preceded by death. Jesus was no Clark Kent. He didn’t pop into a phone booth at the moment of crisis to swoop down and be our Superman for one shining moment. He walked on our earth, bore the burden of being misunderstood for years by the political and religious authorities, suffered rejection by his people, abandonment by his only friends. And then death. And then death. That’s the part I don’t want to hear. I want to hear the bones rattle and witness them form flesh and tendons and ligaments. I want to pick that August tomato. I want to see fireworks in these Argentine kids eyes when they start to get the gospel story. But I don’t want to be there for the monotony of weeding, day in, day out. I don’t want to be there for the late night drunk dials. I don’t want to be there when we’re pulling teeth to get a kid to just wash dishes after our common meal. It seems that practicing a life of resurrection should feel a little more like that of Superman and less like that of the unappreciated, unrecognized housewife. And it seems like it should be done in the company of heroes in their own fields of expertise like Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America, not with the uncredentialed, uneducated, recovering addicts of Galilee, much less Argentine.
The church is a scandal. The banquet table that the powerful and pedigreed, the superheroes and the paparazzi rejected is a mockery. It is no utopian community. But it is this church, this congregation filled with embarrassingly ordinary people that Peterson suggests is exactly what God intends. It is where the drunk and suicidal find that they’re no longer alone. A noise. And their presence reveals the savior-complexes of the impatient. A rattle. We begin to realize we need one another. The bones come together. And it’s finally revealed that practicing resurrection is God’s work not ours. It’s a gift. It’s the church. A chrysalis hidden in the periphery, expectant with hope, anticipating life and resurrection in a land of death.