April 3, 2012

The Absent Presence -- Web Exclusive

I  N HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Growing Up, Russell Baker, nationally syndicated columnist of the New York Times, told of how as a 5-year-old he learned of his father's death. His cousins found him playing in the woods, and they blurted out the news:
"'Your father's dead,' Kenneth said.

"It was like an accusation that my father had done something criminal and I came to my father's defense.

"'He is not,' I said.

"But of course they didn't know the situation. I started to explain. He was sick. In the hospital. My mother was bringing him home right now . . .

"'He's dead,' Kenneth said.

"His assurance slid an icicle into my heart.

"'He is not either!' I shouted.

"'He is too,' Ruth Lee said. 'They want you to come home right away.'

"I started running up the road screaming, 'He is not!'

"It was a weak argument. They had the evidence as I hurried home crying, 'He is not . . . he is not . . . he is not . . .'

"I was almost certain before I got there that he was. And I was right. Arriving at the hospital that morning, my mother was told that he had died at 4:00 a.m. in 'acute diabetic coma.'"1

The Human Condition
The picture of that little 5-year-old boy, racing up the road, sobbing his heart and his eyes out, tugs at a nameless corner down deep in our hearts, doesn't it? The pain of unexpected loss, the heartache over a death undeserved and unprepared for, the growing certainty of what we keep trying to deny. "He is not . . . he is not . . . he is not."

2012 1509 page35For two heartbroken disciples, such are their tumbling emotions as they mournfully follow the long and winding road back home. Good Friday? It had been hell. And now on Sunday the raw pain over the twin deaths of their Messiah and their hopes cannot be denied. "He is not . . . he is not . . . he is not."

But then a mantled Stranger steps out of the shadows to join them. And there is born one of the greatest stories of the Resurrection. . . and hope . . . as for seven springtime Sunday-afternoon miles--from the Holy City to a hillside village--two heartbroken disciples mistake the risen Jesus for a nameless traveler. But what a strange Stranger, this cloaked one on whose lips the Old Testament is set ablaze with prophetic proof that last Friday's victim at Calvary is in fact the Savior of the world!

But it's in the ending of the story that our hearts always skip a beat: "Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, 'Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.'"2

Good thing they invited their new stranger friend home. T. A. Smailes has written a six-line verse, "Emmaus," in which he endeavors to capture that heart-stopping moment when the husband and wife recognize the risen Christ and He vanishes from their supper table and their sight:

the absent presence
warms the chair
while broken loaf
and jug of wine
are still life
in the startled air

"The absent presence warms the chair . . ." Which is precisely what those two disciples were stumbling all over each other to describe to the upper room disciples late that same night: "And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread."3

He Still Appears
Could it be that it is in the common-place moments of life that the risen Christ most commonly appears to us? After all, wasn't that how it was on that Resurrection Sunday long ago? He appears in the breaking of the bread. He appears in the taking of a walk. He appears in the quiet of a garden. He appears in the privacy of a supper.

You must admit that the Resurrection appearances of Christ are all so astoundingly ordinary, so embarrassingly uneventful and mundane, that they could hardly have been contrived. If you were going to make the story up, wouldn't you spice it with a whole lot more than the "ordinary people" appearances of the Gospels? If I had been the PR agent of the resurrected Christ, I would've out-Hollywooded Hollywood in choreographing the world's most spectacular laser light and quadraphonic sound show--just to make sure the entire city saw it, including those sniveling, unbelieving ingrates who had Him crucified.

But not Jesus. Instead, in quiet, ordinary, unassuming, mundane appearances, He one by one privately calls upon His heartbroken friends, whose friendships obviously mean much more to Him than razzle-dazzling a skeptical world.

"And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread."

Apparently the risen Christ prefers the very commonplace moments of life in which to appear commonly to us. So that with a dirty diaper in your protesting hand and in your ears the wail of your inconvenienced offspring, it could be that He--the risen Christ--may yet appear to you, too, for a fleeting moment, soiled baby and all. He--standing there while you hold your breath from those baby fumes, His hands outstretched in sympathizing blessing to you and your child. Dumbfounded, you do a double take. But of course He vanishes, leaving you only a faint whisper that in the puckered-up countenance of your squalling flesh and blood you are to see yourself in the arms of another Father.

Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular or noticeably supernatural--save for that intimation of the Eternal, the breath of the Risen One in your heart if not your ear. A God moment. And then He is gone.

"And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread."

the absent presence
warms the chair
while broken loaf
and jug of wine
are still life
in the startled air

Because in the commonplace moments of life the risen Christ most commonly appears to us. I had a man tell me once that it was while he was washing the supper dishes all alone in his kitchen, feeling sad and sorry for his lonely divorced self, that he suddenly looked up and through his tears saw the risen Christ standing beside him. At that startling moment the man became a believer, and he is one to this very day.

Because it is in the commonplace moments of life that the risen Christ most commonly appears to us. Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular or noticeably supernatural. Just the changing of a diaper or the breaking of the bread or the washing of the dishes or the riding of a motorcycle or the paying of a bill or the ringing of a cell phone or the planting of a garden or the taking of a test or the typing of an e-mail or the watching of a television or the purchasing of some groceries. Nothing fancy, mind you--just you, minding your own mundane business. When for a split second He appears. You see Him. But look again and He's gone. The intimation of the Eternal left behind--a God moment.

"And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread."

Truth That Transforms
I know that these personal appearances, these private epiphanies, of sorts, are hardly the stuff to convince a skeptic that Jesus is risen from the grave. And yet in fairness I must tell you that these commonplace moments when the risen Christ commonly appears to people just like you and me cannot be easily dismissed either.

Kitty Ferguson, a Cambridge science writer, in her book The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God, grapples with the challenge: If there is a God, can the contemporary scientific mind find sufficient evidence to believe in Him? The same query can be raised about the risen Christ. Near the end of her book, in a chapter entitled "Inadmissible Evidence," she wonders aloud what we are to do with the testimonies of men and women--scientists, mind you--who have publicly confessed that they have privately, personally experienced God and come to know Him. After all, one can hardly dismiss such brilliant minds as crazed. Ferguson summarizes:

"As to finding God initially, some [of them] say they came rather gradually to a realization that the God they'd learned about in books, songs, and from other people, is real, knowable to them personally. Others on the contrary battered the gates of heaven (when heaven was only hypothetical to them) with very skeptical demands for answers, if such a heaven existed. Their uncompromising intellectuality led them to try to pin God to the wall in ways that might be expected to elicit a lightning bolt rather than a blessing. Their requirements for evidence and proofs were seldom met exactly as specified, but there was a moment in the process when they realized to their astonishment that they were wrestling with a real being who couldn't be contained in human descriptions or standards, not a concept or an abstraction. This God was something out of their control, something not fashioned in the image they had formed in their mind. . . . Regardless of how weak or strong their hopes or doubts had been, or even how great they may have thought their faith was previously, this realization was a blockbuster."4

Why bother with these scientists? Because every year the season of resurrection confronts some individuals with their struggle to believe, with their private biases toward unbelief. Oh, it's true that in our congregations most everybody puts on a believing face and shouts hallelujah with Charles Wesley at the appropriate moment in his great hymn, "Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!" But public worship and private doubt are not incompatible--they are uncomfortable, to be sure, but not incompatible.

And so for the struggling sceptic like Thomas--who may not be sure if he can believe or isn't sure it's worth believing anymore--consider the words of Peter Kreeft:

"God's claim is that 'you will find me when you seek me with all your heart' (Jer. 29:13). This claim is not refuted or fairly tested if we do not fulfill our part of the experiment by seeking. Therefore Christianity can never be refuted by one who is indifferent, no matter how intelligent he is; for the claim to be refuted is that only the key of seeking opens the lock of the knowledge of God.5

Kreeft's point? You cannot refute Christianity and the risen Christ by simply being indifferent or walking away. You must accept the challenge of the claim that the only way to find Him is to seek Him.

Is He Real?
Honesty demands then that you ask the risen Christ--if He exists--to reveal Himself to you, in language as simple but sincere as: "OK, Christ, if You're really who this Book says You are, I ask You to reveal Yourself to me--any way You wish--and let me know that You are alive-that You are the God they say You are." If He doesn't, you will get no answer, which will then be your answer.

But if He is alive and you seek for Him honestly with all your heart as the claim states, He will appear to you just as surely as He did on the Emmaus road. For didn't He somewhere say: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you"?6

Let's not allow our pride or our pain to prevent us from seeking. Kitty Ferguson is right--the discovery of the risen Christ is no respecter of persons. The stooped elderly woman with the blue hair and the pink curlers can find Him as readily as the degreed and disciplined scientist.

But find Him we must. For as the Emmaus story reminds us, "the day is far spent."7 The night draws nigh. And we must all decide very soon.

"But they constrained Him, saying, 'Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.'" In that terse twilighted description of Emmaus, we can read the forecast for our own doomed civilization, whose global night is at hand. The dark shadows that have befallen our post-September 11 world ominously portend a nightfall that appears to be irreversible. The tread of war abroad, the fear of terror at home--where now are the cries of "peace and safety"? Where now the giddy economic ascent? Even at 200,000 feet above the earth our hearts fail us from fear. In a world that mourns and parties simultaneously into the night, will this nightfall be darker than the ocean floor beneath the Titanic?

"Abide with us, for . . . the day is far spent."

In this springtime season of the Resurrection, the risen Christ is the only hope and the only prayer left for us all. Globally. Nationally. Personally.

But what a hope is He! "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live."8 "Because I live, you will live also."9 "And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."10 Bright and shining hope--"blessed hope"--for every man, woman, and child who now journeys into earth's nightfall. For the Christ who rose is the Christ who returns!

And it is that Advent hope that surely compels us to cry out to Him too, "Abide with us, for our day is far spent." A quiet invitation repeated with each new dawning. A private prayer ("Abide with me") or a family appeal ("Abide with us"). But let us pray the Emmaus prayer. For as Ellen White wrote: "Christ never forces His company upon anyone. . . . [But] gladly will He enter the humblest home, and cheer the lowliest heart."11 O Jesus, won't You please come in!

Or in the words of Henry F. Lyte:

    "Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
    The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! . . .
    Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?
    I triumph still if Thou abide with me!"

    "Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
    Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
    Change and decay in all around I see;
    O Thou, who changest not, abide with me!"

And how does this favorite Resurrection story end? The same way this day can begin, the same way this nightfall can end . . . for you and for me: "And He went in to stay with them."12

1 Burton Z. Cooper, "Why, God? A Tale of Two Sufferers," Theology Today, January 1986, pp. 423, 424.
2 Luke 24:28, 29. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible references are from the New King James Version.
3 Verse 35.
4 Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God, p. 249. (Italics supplied.)
5 Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 196.
6 Luke 11:9.
7 Luke 24:29.
8 John 11:25, NRSV.
9 John 14:19.
10 Matt. 28:20.
11 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 800.
12 Luke 24:29.

Dwight K. Nelson is senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial church, on the campus of Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article appeared in the April 3, 2003, edition of the Adventist Review.