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Saturday: Looking Back

This is part two in a four-part special Easter weekend series.

Click here to read part one, “Friday’s Fast.”

Click here to read part three, “Saturday: Looking Forward.”

Click here to read part four, “Sunday: The Abundance of Your Steadfast Love.”

In Friday’s Fast I told the story of a classmate who was killed in an accident. It was the first time I had ever been fully present to death, and it sent me searching to South Asia, where I worked for a year in a home for sick street people. I clung to God as best I could, but he was very silent during that time. The suffering of the people effected me profoundly: victims of hunger, poverty, rape and violence.

During my second week I met Chloe, a wealthy ancestor of old European aristocracy. We met and, seeing as how we both had plans to stay in the city semi-long term, it seemed practical for us to share the cost of a rented room. Chloe was beautiful, vivacious and social, but she was not a religious person. She liked meeting people down at the local bar and would often come back to our room drunk late at night. We were working with a Christian organization, but for the whole first two months Chloe and I lived together, she flat out refused to come to any of the group’s religious events. Then one day, on Christmas Eve, she had a personal experience that changed the entire direction of her life. Gradually Chloe began her own spiritual journey. She felt God’s love for her, his power and presence in the world.

All of this was happening to Chloe during my darkness, while I was barely holding it together. It felt like God had abandoned me. Or like maybe he died or went on vacation or just stopped caring. Death threatened to overwhelm me. One day while reading Armand Nicholi’s The Question of God (a book which compares the philosophies of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis), I came across a quote from The Problem of Pain that expressed exactly how I felt:

In… man… another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. [This human history is] a record of crime, war, disease, and terror with just sufficient happiness interposed to give… an agonized apprehension of losing it.

I was vividly aware of the brevity of life. Love compelled me to give the best I could, I knew, but in my inner darkness, I didn’t know if I had anything to give. Chloe, in her certain, fresh faith, had everything. Her gift was obvious. But what about me? What gift could possibly come from death?

Victor Frankl was one of the most notable survivors of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. He was an Austrian, a respected and brilliant psychotherapist who specialized in helping people who were suicidal. Prior to the war, he worked mostly in clinics for the poor who couldn’t afford to pay for his services.

In 1942 he, his wife, and his parents were rounded up and deported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. He was later transferred to Auschwitz and then to Turkheim. His wife and parents were all killed.

In 1946 Frankl published a book, now titled Man’s Search for Meaning. According to Frankl, the vast majority of inmates at the camps where he was imprisoned could not find any meaning in their suffering. He said that, like most people, they had wondered in their youths what would happen if they were ever faced with some great suffering. Would they respond heroically, or would it crush them? Understandably, once they did encounter this great suffering, most saw it as the end of all dreams and all chances to develop themselves as human beings. They saw it as the closing of every door. Those who saw nothing left to live for quickly succumbed to hunger, disease and death.

Others, Frankl said, saw in the horror of the concentration camps an opportunity to grow in generosity, humility, patience, and even love. And they succeeded. They found a way to take, from their own place of death, a gift to share with others. Frankl wrote,

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.[1]

Frankl’s gift—what he attained through his suffering– was the development of a whole new school of psychology known as Logotherapy, which is based on the premise that if someone can find even a hint of meaning in their life, they will rediscover their will to live. He was able to develop Logotherapy because of his experiences at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. In the heart of suffering beyond human comprehension, Frankl took life from death. He found a way to offer his pain to the world in love.

So it’s Saturday morning—the Sabbath after the crucifixion. The man we hung all our hopes on is dead. John the beloved saw it happen. He was present, like we were yesterday. He saw them beat Jesus, mock him, spit on him. He watched Jesus sag beneath the weight of the cross before they hoisted him up to face the elements. Then, after crying his abandonment, Jesus died.

You don’t think about the good times after a death like that. The loss is too bitterly overwhelming. I imagine John put his arm around Mary and together they fell down the Golgotha path in utter despair. They weren’t expecting the resurrection, remember. Jesus had said something cryptic about taking his life back up after three days, but they didn’t understand what he meant. Who had ever heard of the dead coming back to life?

And so John and Mary stumble through the dust and wind and gathering darkness, blinded by their tears, to find the other disciples. Fearful, filled with guilt and confusion, the disciples look at Mary and John and their dirty clothes and swollen faces, and they know. How they must have wept.

Close to dawn, exhausted of tears, perhaps they fall into a troubled sleep. A few hours later they wake up and slowly start telling stories, evoking new, fresh tears. They wonder how life will ever carry on.

On Saturday, the followers of Jesus couldn’t see any gift coming from the death of their Lord. And yet, beyond all they could hope or imagine, the gift was there. Jesus’ death redeemed them, you, me and world. He made life incorruptible.

We get to share and recreate that gift every time we take life from our own miniature deaths. Our grief can have meaning. In the presence of Chloe’s sunshine, I questioned whether my darkness could be a gift— whether it contained anything beautiful and worthy at all. Now I know that it did and that it does. I see the beauty in releasing and receiving the things I didn’t produce and therefore have no right to control. But in that release, love, my only certainty, still compels me to give what I can.

How about you? What gifts have you taken, and given, from your deaths?

[1] Frankl, p.88.

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