Sunday, March 28, 2010

Easter and the Winnable Life

I went to church today for the first time in over a year, and found out when I got there it was Palm Sunday. Now, since I knew that next Sunday was Easter, you might think it would be obvious that today is Palm Sunday. But I've never had much of a head for calendars, let alone liturgical ones, and ... well, really, it's been a long time. But since we're here, and since God hasn't stopped speaking just because I've been away from church for a long time, I thought it might be an opportune time to post about what Easter means to me.

Once upon a time I was joyful pretty much all the time, and happy most of the time, and delighted frequently. None of those three statements has been presently true of my life for a long time. Well, that's not true - I might be happy at least 51% of the time. I'm not sure. But the point is, the emotional tenor of my life has been comparatively gloomy for a while. There is no time for games, because I barely have enough time for art. There is no time for art, because I barely have enough time for friends. There is no time for friends, because I barely have enough time for family. There is no time for family, because I barely have enough time for Thayet (who is family, of course, but you know what I mean). There is no time for Thayet, because I have to work or I'll get fired and I can't get fired because we need to pay off my loans and this is the only way I know how to do that and I try so hard to provide for my family but it doesn't matter because there's always work work work and it never goes away no matter how hard I work or how much sleep I give up and it's never going to get any better and I'm stuck here so I might as well give up but I can't give up because I have a wife and I want to be a dad but there's always work work work and it never goes away no matter what I do.

Or that's what it feels like, anyway. That's what I spend every day telling to shut up shut up shut up that's not true.

Oh yeah, and where's Jesus in that litany of things I don't have time for? Well, he isn't really anywhere, which of course is the point, which brings me to Easter.

Okay, I lied. First, a digression. This - the emotional tenor of my life - is not anybody's fault. There is no action, or failure to act, that is responsible for this. I have a wife and friends and family who love me, actively love me. This is not about me not being loved. This is about facts. Which actually brings me to Easter.

I believe in religions of facts. My religion is a series of descriptive statements that purport to describe facts that are true about the world (I'm about 90% certain that that's what a religion is, but that's a post for another day). The sense in which "belief" enters into my religion is only the sense in which facts must be believed to be of use. Something may be a fact, but if somebody does not believe it to be a fact, it will do them no good.

To give a quick example, it is a fact that Xenophon the Athenian led a small assault force of Greeks in a successful race to secure an obscure hill before a small assault force of Achaemenid soldiers could do the same. You probably didn't know that anybody claimed this as a factual statement. Assuming you didn't know that anybody claimed it, you surely had no beliefs one way or the other about its veracity. If you had no beliefs about its veracity, then I think it is safe to assume that this fact did not benefit you in any way, despite the fact that it is true. I did know that people claimed it as a factual statement, I am of the belief that it is a true factual statement (it is, if you will, what is commonly called a "fact"), and I derive great encouragement from it.

That is a trivial example. Let me give a more significant one, which touches on why I have not been joyful for some time. I used to believe that what I was supposed to be doing (that is, what God had told me I was supposed to be doing) was fully compatible with living a fulfilling human life. Another way of stating that belief would be that I believed it was possible to succeed simultaneously in everything that God had told me to do at any given time. I say believe, but do not get hung up on that word just because we are now talking about spiritual beliefs. I believed it as a fact about the world. I believed it for the same sorts of reasons, and in the same sort of way, that I believe Xenophon led those Greeks up that forgotten hill.

Which means I was aware of evidence to the contrary. And that not everybody who was aware of the so-called "fact" believed it to be a fact. And that some people had never thought one way or another about whether it was a fact at all. And still, bending all of my will and intellect and education to bear on the question, believed it to be a fact. And this was of enormous, life-changing comfort to me. If I can put it this way without trivializing it, it made life a game in the very best sense. One doesn't give up in a game because no matter how hard things get, and no matter how grand or impossible or epic one's task, one has a fundamental faith that success is possible. Games can be won - not because they're games, but because they are designed to be winnable by people who knew what they were doing when they made the [game] world. If you have never believed this to be a fact about the real world, I assure you, it is profoundly liberating.

And then ... well, things changed. I became unsure that this was really a true fact about the world. If you have never thought it a fact that the world is "winnable," then perhaps this will not strike you as any great thing. But facts have consequences. Some consequences are emotional. As you might imagine (or maybe you can't; I don't know), the emotional contrast between a world which is definitely winnable and a world which is not is ... immense.

Some consequences are implications - facts don't exist in a vacuum, after all. You might call an unwinnable world my version of the problem of evil. If I can't succeed at the tasks God has put before me, why should I even try? So that I can fail less spectacularly than if I had not tried? There's something to that, but it's not the sort of thing that motivates a man. One begins to ask of command, "Why am I even here? Why did you put me here to die with no way out? What is wrong with you? I thought you loved me!" Except that command is also one's greatly beloved, and one can't bear to ask those questions. So one just stops talking. And that kills one from the inside just as surely as an unwinnable world kills one from the outside. This is what the death of faith looks like.

What does Easter have to do with all of this? Easter - the not-permanent voluntary sacrificial death of one of the persons of God - is the point at which God stepped into an unwinnable world and made it winnable. (( Side note the first: perhaps in another post I can share some thoughts as to why I think it means that; for now, suffice it to say that I think that it does. )) Remember that I am speaking of facts about the world. Though it may seem strange to you, I believe (and I think this is a true statement of Christian belief, though I'm sure not all of my coreligionists would put it this way) that once upon a time it really was true about the universe that there were really only two choices - to fail at the life God had made for one, or for God not to make a life at all. (( Side note the second: do I believe that the mercy of God extended even to that sort of situation? Yes - but that, too, is a post for another time. ))

Easter is the point at which God bulldozed a third option into the fabric of existence: for God to make a life for one that one could live. A life that was winnable.

Easter means that life is winnable. Easter means that I can have art. Easter means that I can have games. Easter means that I can have friends, and family, and be a good husband, and be a good father, and be a good lawyer, all at the same time, because that is the life that God has made for me. (( Side note the third: this is not to say that I can have whatever life I want; that's silly. It is to say that the life God has made for me can be lived to the full. Depending on what one thinks of that life, this may or may not be a comforting thought. For me, it is comforting. ))

How? Well, I confess, I don't know. But Easter means that it can be done, that the answer is out there even if I don't know what it looks like, that life is winnable. From this it follows that if Easter is a fact - if there really was a not-permanent voluntary sacrificial death of one of the persons of God - then it cannot be true that life is unwinnable.

So here is the question for me: do I believe that Easter is a fact? Here is the answer: yes, I do. Nothing that has transpired in the last six years has caused me to doubt the veracity of the central fact of Easter.

Facts are true or not true whether or not we believe them. But believing them does have consequences. I'm a gamer. I know what to do with problems that are definitely winnable, even if they're really hard and I fail at them over and over and over again. I remember the words of Xenophon the Athenian:

"Now for it, boys, and remember that this race is for home! Now or never, to see your children again, to see your wives - one small effort, and the rest of the march we shall pursue in peace, with never a blow to strike; now for it!"

2 comments:

Graham said...

I'm sorry things have been rough for you, but I'm glad you got yourself to church again. That's always a good thing. :-)

I'm wondering about this idea of a winnable world, though, because to me, it doesn't seem to be quite the point, nor do I see it as something Easter proves for us. Jesus was crucified after all, which I don't think most people would take as "winning" in this game we're all playing, even if he does come back to life in a few days. But Jesus also said specifically that "my kingdom is not of this world." He's not winning the world we all live in, so much as transcending it. He's showing that no matter how bad, how completely disastrous, things get in this world, nothing can ever really touch us our true selves, the children of God.

So where does that leave us in terms of handling everything that God has given us to do? I think simply seeing it all as a gift from God, and appreciating it as such, is hugely important. And we should take seriously any such gift, and therefore should do our best to accomplish the tasks in front of us. But some of our undertakings will succeed and some won't, which is just the way the world works. Maybe we're "meant" to fail at some things because there's some lesson we need to learn from that failure. And of course, what we have to learn from everything ultimately is how to not be attached to worldly life, but rather to relate it all back to our love for God. I think all God really "wants" us to succeed at is increasing our faith and devotion and joy -- everything else, no matter how worthy a cause, is just a stepping stone.

Just think -- if we did succeed at everything in this world, and if it did seem to make us happy, we'd probably fall into the thinking that it's the money, or the fame, or the family that makes us happy, rather than remembering that it all comes from God. On the other hand, think of the most "successful" people you know (in terms of "winning" in this world), and think of the happiest. How much overlap is there between the two groups? To me, it doesn't seem like a lot. Whereas I see a huge correlation between the truly joyful people and the ones who just do everything to the best of their ability as a service to God, regardless of the outcome. (This takes a lot of practice, of course. :-)

I'm not trying to be discouraging here by disagreeing. It's just that to me, this is more encouraging than the idea of a winnable world. How much control do we really have over the external world, anyway? And how many people really "win" in it? But we can control our attitude and our faith, and we can use any external situation as a means of grow closer to God.

It was good seeing you at the dance the other night. Take care.

Jonathan Lipps said...

I think you're right about it being winnable. Of course it's only winnable by losing utterly. :-)