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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Second Thoughts: With Lincoln (and Lazarus) in the Bardo (A5L)

Note: Second Thoughts is an ongoing if sporadic series of posts on Sunday readings and motifs that occur to me after the liturgical experience. Most of what I do as a blogger, because of how my work is organized, is necessarily prior to the Sunday experience, but as most of us have come to understand, the liturgical event itself often shapes our receiving of the scriptures on a particular day. To see other "Second Thoughts" posts, use the "Labels" function on the right, and select that topic.

I wrote about it a little bit two weeks ago, but now it appears that the novel I was raving about then may be a better metaphor for the life-giving, in-breaking love that is the heart of Easter faith and therefore of conversion and initiation than I said even then. That illuminating novel, and it's a first novel to boot, is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Having experienced it as an audio book with a cast of over a hundred characters including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly, David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, and many others, I had been dying to talk to someone else about it for weeks. Terry did finally get a chance to read it and she thought as I do that it's a deep and beautiful book on many levels. Without overstating the religious resonances, there is much to contemplate with regard to ultimate things in life: transcendence, what matters to us, how we relate to each other as human beings, how we deny death and put too much of our energy into things that don't matter, how understanding and mutuality help us break out of those patterns.

I don't mean to give a review or summary of the book here, but there are interesting parallels between what goes in the bardo in Saunders' novel and in our lives interpreted by the Lazarus story in the fourth gospel. For my purposes (and Saunders has taken liberties, by his own admission, with the concept from Tibetan Buddhism in applying the scenario to his novel), the bardo is a place of shadowy life between death and whatever is beyond death, a place which appears to be very much like the surroundings in "real life," but devoid of color and reason. Souls of the dead are circumscribed and defined by unfinished business from their former lives, seem doomed to repeat decisions and actions from their lives, and are encumbered by "physical" transformations of their bodies corresponding to their issues as well: extra eyes, legs, and arms, for instance, and in once particularly prominent case, one character has an oversized, tumescent penis.

But the really strange thing about the bardo is that the inhabitants are unaware that they are dead, and as they accustom to their environs and begin to suspect that all is not right, they enter into a complex denial of their reality and not only won't admit their situation but have an elaborate vocabulary of circumlocution.

Enter into this alternate reality, in February of 1862, the tiny, kindly soul of the innocent Willy Lincoln, who has succumbed to typhoid in the White House, a second child lost in the house of Lincoln. His death completely unhinges his mother, and father Abraham is distraught and inconsolable at a time when he is barely able to clear his head about the weighty problems of the intensifying Civil War. The historical record, which is cited in long chapters of excerpts from contemporary letters and memoirs, indicates that the President went to the rented crypt that housed Willy's body at night to visit with the corpse of his son. It's this event that provides the crisis and forward motion for the occupants of the bardo.

These souls are trapped in the world of their own unreality, unable to see or admit that they are dead, and unwilling to let go of the illusion of the appearance of "life" that they have, lest they lose the illusion of hope that they can reverse some wrong or achieve some goal left unaccomplished. Driven primarily by necessarily selfish preoccupation and trying to put the best face on their situation, even episodes of anger, lust, and murder amount to epiphanies of ennui, to be repeated over and over without change of outcome. Occasionally one or more inhabitants of the bardo will move into another (higher?) plane of being in a flash of light and sound. We're never really sure where they've gone to, but my probably prejudiced feeling is that the beings who sometimes come among them as "angels" are indeed moving them by persuasion toward greater light by encouraging them to imagine themselves forgiven and offered the resolution of their past problems.

Lincoln's entry into the graveyard and the crypt that houses Willy, the exposure of the souls to Willy's confusion and wonder and Lincoln's unabashed grief, along with the bardo inhabitants' previous experience of children's souls (like a memory of compassion) moves some to action. Let me just say that in trying to help the elder Lincoln let go of his grief and leave the cemetery the souls within go to great lengths to achieve their goal, including the occupation of the same space, getting "inside" each other and eventually "inside" Abraham Lincoln, and in doing so achieve new compassion and insight unavailable to them before.

What all this has to do with Lazarus and Jesus may not be clear to you. In fact, it's not crystal clear to me. Lazarus needs help. He's dead. He seems beyond help, though probably not to himself. The occupants of the bardo need help too, they're unaware that they're dead, and unable to progress beyond that unfulfilling stasis between actual life and some kind of afterlife. They need someone to break their silence, tell them to stop pretending that they're alive, and admit their real problem: death. It is Willy who is finally able to break through to the largest number of them, and that because of their intervention with Lincoln.

We all lie to ourselves and each other about our participation in death. We think of ourselves as alive, but our life is really a house built on the suffering of others. We cooperate with death in ways of which we aren't even aware; we've built structures of empire and security that depend on the exploitation and subjugation of others. Somebody has to tell us that we're dead, or we're just going to stay where we are, repeating the patterns of our counterfeit lives, and reinforcing the unjust structures that entomb the poor and marginalized.

Scripture scholar Dominic Crossan's description of the economy of "salvation," or how things get "fixed up" in the end, is "collaborative eschatology." It's as though, he says, we have sat around for four thousand years waiting for God to make justice happen in the world, and at the same time, God is waiting for us. He repeats Archbishop Desmond Tutu's adage that "Without God, we can't. Without us, God won't." God in Jesus has stood at the door of the tomb where the world insists on living and called us to come out. The least God expects us to do, the easy part, it ought to be, is to untie the burial cloths. Christ has done the heavy lifting. It's our job to roll away the stone, and let people go free. If we're unwilling to do that, we're still trapped by death.

Prophesy to the bones! Prophesy to the breath!

That is the urgent invitation God makes to Ezekiel, paralyzed with grief, fear, unknowing, and self-doubt upon the desolate desert plain of Har-megiddo, surrounded by the sun-dried bones of King Josiah and all of his fine young warriors. All Ezekiel has to do is open his mouth, and tell the bones that God can do it. Just that little bit of the prophet's breath would set in motion the possibility of a people's restoration.

I will open your graves, and have you rise from them. 

Amid the worst that life can do, the lies, the brutality, the broken promises, the unfulfilled hopes, amid the missiles, the sarin gas, the drone strikes, the closed borders, the deportations, amid the decapitations in foreign lands, the neglect, abandonment, and ultimately executions of the mentally disabled in this one, amid the eyes-averted from famine and genocide, and the preferential option for capital, there is still power in us to tell the truth, to 'prophesy to the bones,' and to hear the splatter and crunch of bones, sinew, blood, and breath as what was dead comes to unimagined life. It seems we need to be forced to look upon the death that our perfidy has caused, even if the spirit needs to carry us by the hair to the battlefield, hospital, or detention center and command us to look at it.

I have spoken, and I will do it! Oracle of G-d.

The ache and rigor of life, the unrelenting taskmaster of conscience when the heart is opened to the agony of the world, the paralysis and inertia of our (my) disconnectedness and alienation from any vision of a non-violent way forward, really forward-together, out of the desert of political impotence, all of this is the colorless bardo in which we wander, I wander, in a dreamy pretense of life that is nothing but a grave. How can I hear, and really, just as important, how can I become the echo of that voice that bellowed out of a roiling gut of lamentation, angry, untouchable, and fearless in the homeland of ruin, despair, and putrefaction:

LAZARUS! Come out!

Believe it or not, that's what the community of the baptized, gathered by the Spirit, the "breath" of God in the name of the deathless Jesus and the God of life, is called to do, to be. Baptismal water drowns the death of isolation and alienation and wakens to the life of a community for others. Is it any wonder we have Lent every year to get ready to renew the promises of baptism, to reject sin and believe the gospel of Christ? Is it any wonder that those who are called to approach those sacraments for the first time apprentice as Christians for months or years, and ultimately undergo three scrutinies for the purpose of purification (rejection of unrecognized or habitual evil) and enlightenment (the truth about ourselves and the gifts we have been given that strengthens us in the love needed to give ourselves away for others)?

Lincoln in the Bardo might need to become a go-to text for adult Lenten discernment, a kind of literary examination of conscience, a metaphor and maybe even an allegory for our spiritual lives, by which I mean an inventory of what is within us that activates and motivates what we do in the world. Those three classic gospels from John do their awesome work, particularly with good preaching, but for me, at least, Saunders' novel picked me up by the hair and set me down in front of a mirror, surrounded by the dry bones of the fine young armies of my heart, to use Leonard Cohen's unapproachably perfect phrase, "torn by what I've done and can't undo." For me this Lent, Leonard, and Ezekiel, and Saunders' Lincoln have been both Inquisitor and Paraclete.

Thanks, Art. I needed that.