Friday, June 30, 2017

Thus Ends the World, Scene 2

This is a re-posting of a play written last year; see note in the header above. 

Cast of Scene 2:
Richard, lord of the Yarbury estates
Mary, Richard’s wife
Charles, Richard and Mary’s dying son
Ailred, steward of the estate
Scene 2
[Richard and Ailred standing at Charles’ deathbed; Mary enters]
Mary: No, no, my Charles, no!
        What dark fate befalls us here?
        I walk in nightmare valleys now,
        Disbelieving this could be day.
        Let this be a mistral dream,
        And I an unhappy slumberer,
                Wracked with chills;
        Let not this moment crystalize
                Into the hard reality
                        Of the unforgetfulness of God.
        Oh, to awake!
Richard: If I could wake you, beloved,
        And myself besides,
        From out this hell-sent misery,
        I would tear old Atlas from his mount
                To do the thing.
Mary: Speak to me truth;
        Vain consolations can wait:
        What happened?
Ailred: An act of God, my lady:
        An accident.
Mary: Not the plague?
        I’ve fears of the plague’s touch
        Snaking through my soul.
Ailred: Not the plague.
        The young master was riding the grounds,
        All at peace, when rose a hostile wind.
        It tore loose a great limb
        From the ancient family tree
        That stands on guard at Yarbury gate.
        Master Charles was struck.
Mary: Struck! Does he yet live?
Ailred: Barely, my lady. He breathes,
        But it may be the breath of one
        Not long for this world.
Richard: Enough of truth, Ailred.
        I would speak more consolations—
        Vain reflections of a father’s hope, perhaps,
        Yet what but hope remains?
                So let us hope.
Mary: An act of God, said the steward…
        Why should the King of heaven
        Condemn my son to die?
Richard: Say not that it was God’s hand, beloved—
        Irreverence deepens the terror of the hour.
Ailred: My words were poorly chosen, Lady.
Mary: No, well chosen, Ailred—
        What could this be but divine omen?
        A hostile wind tears down the family tree—
        And in so tearing, uproots my family.
Richard: The Lord is just, but this act
        Was nature’s hateful caprice, nothing more.
        Say not it was our God.
Mary: It was! But he is just, yes,
        And justice is hard and cold,
        Made for days like this!
        I see no mournful sensitivity
                In heaven’s dark severity,
        No tears nor trembling lips that cry
                For the passing of my son.
        My son! Oh, my son…
        What just cause could Christ Almighty have
        For wreaking holy vengeance upon thee?
        None! You were a light, a joy,
        A fanfare on a dappled autumn day—
        Never thought of greed nor lustful smirk
        Ever made pass my Charles’ face—never!
        No, let God be damned a tyrant
        Before my Charles is defamed!
Richard: Mary…
Mary: You! You, Richard, you!
        Bear up to the day’s necessity,
        An accounting of our shame,
        And your misbegotten responsibility
        For pale death knocking at our door!
        Behold the stern assessment of a woman’s mind!
        What shall it be? That God is unjust?
                No, say you. Then what?
        That our Charles was so hated
                By the Fount of Everlasting Love
                That his blood was demanded
                To atone for wicked crimes?
        No? Then you, Richard, you!
        Lord of the house! Planted in Yarbury soil,
                Just like the ancient tree!
        And just like that tree, your weakness
        Now brings ruin to your boy!
Richard: What speak you here?
        What have I done?
Mary: God knows, and you.
        Me, I only know that my son dies
                Upon your stately bed,
        Down-struck by your hallowed branch—
        If God is just, then the fault
                Must needs be yours.
        He punishes the sins of the fathers
        To the third and fourth generation
                Of their children!
        If Charles himself deserved not to die,
        Then either God is cruel,
                                Or dead.
        Or the good God still reigns,
                And our son falls
                        For some unspoken crime of yours.
Richard: You pierce my heart, Mary!
        Whence comes this hate for me?
Mary: The cask of my love is split asunder here,
        And all its strength spills out
        On the young man dying yonder.
        The hate you hear is the hollow vacancy
        Of the reservoir of my love—
        It goes, and fire licks the planks
        That once held it so secure.
        Go, before my flame consumes you—
        Go! Out of my seeing,
                Out of my hearing!
                        Just go!
Richard: God have mercy. I go.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Here We Are, You and I: Thoughts on Christian Friendship

An illuminated manuscript of one of Aelred of Rievaulx's works
(Note: this is a reblog of a post written in 2010)

         I've begun reading Aelred of Rievaulx's classic work, Spiritual Friendship, written in the Middle Ages as a Christian remix of Cicero's On Friendship. Perhaps the profoundest line I've found so far is the simple beginning of the dialogue, where Aelred says to his interlocutor: "Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst."
          It is the nature of Christian friendship that the union of two people should lead them into the presence of God. Reflecting back on my own life, I can say that there has seldom been anything so spiritually formative for me as my seasons of deep, rich Christian friendship. Bible study, prayer, silence and solitude, service--these are all essentials, of course. But nothing has quite made them come alive like the intimate presence of others. When living in close community and friendship with other believers, my prayer, study, and service takes on greater power. Friendship lends a practical impetus to my spiritual formation--I tend to care more about what sort of person I am becoming when I am living in close communion with others--and it also lends a direction and purpose to that formation: the deepening of our fellowship and the active outworking of my faith in practical, relational ways. Christian friendship becomes both a source of fuel for spiritual formation and one of the goals of spiritual formation.

          In the past few weeks I've been making more of a concerted effort to spend intentional time with Rachel. Instead of turning on the TV to watch the Red Sox in the evening, we've taken up the habit of reading out loud together. Right now we're reading through a collection of Dorothy Sayers' short stories about her detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. It has been a wonderful time to slow down together after putting Josiah to bed, to share a quiet journey into a world of imagination. It is interactive and creative (far more so than watching TV), and has drawn us significantly into a deeper experience of closeness these past few weeks. The time we spend in good, simple conversation--about life, relationships, God, etc.--has expanded since we started intentionally taking time to be together in the evenings. And, along the way, I've found my desire for God and for a life of holiness has expanded in corresponding measure.

          There's something about friendship which, at its best, should draw us ever deeper into the presence of God. Our relationships with others and our relationship with God are inextricably linked. Our relationality is a reflection of the Trinitarian relationality of God, etched into our nature as an image of His fundamental nature. And when we pursue that relationality in godly ways, the promise of Jesus becomes manifest: "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also." We believe that Christ is spiritually present among all gatherings of his people, and I can testify that his presence is almost tangible in the quiet spaces of a deep and abiding friendship.

          As a pastor, I interact with all kinds of people. One group that I'm particularly fond of is the sort of people who are "fixers" and "visionaries"--who are constantly seeing the problems with the way the church is now, and how we could be making it better. How can we bring in more people? How can we reach out more effectively to the community? Aren't there more programs we can be running? We need people who ask these questions--they keep us from a slothful acceptance of mediocrity. But we also need people like Aelred, who tell us to slow down and examine the nature of our church fellowship. Aelred points us away from seeing merely the problems and potentials of the church--he tells us that the church is extraordinary, here and now, because it is the union of the children of God and Christ is in its midst. No matter what problems might be present, when Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, that is a momentous and fundamentally important event, and it is endued and saturated with the presence of Christ himself. We must not forget that the mandate of the church points both outward and inward, and that it is a part of our mission to develop rich relationships of fellowship, mentoring, and friendship. For where Christians love each other, there is an active image to the watching world of the love and nature of Christ.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Photo of the Week

May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, 
under whose wings you have come to take refuge.

- Ruth 2:12

Monday, June 26, 2017

Quote of the Week

"Take the very hardest thing in your life, the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there he can bring your soul into blossom."

- Lilias Trotter, 19th century British painter and missionary to North Africa (the painting shown here is one of her works)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

We ask you, Almighty God, to let our souls enjoy this their desire, to be enkindled by your Spirit; that being filled as lamps by your divine gift, we may shine like burning lights before the presence of your Son at his coming; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- The Gelasian Sacramentary

Friday, June 23, 2017

Thus Ends the World, Scene 1

To give myself a bit of a break from blogging during my busy summer, I'll be sharing again a short play that I composed last year, called "Thus Ends the World." It's set in the 14th century on a fictional estate near the English town of Norwich, and follows a family wrestling through tragedy. It will also include an appearance from one of my favorite figures of the Christian tradition, the anchoress/mystic Julian of Norwich. Unlike most contemporary play-writing, I've composing this play in verse, which was the classical model--Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, etc.: they all wrote plays in poetic form rather than in the realism of prose. I've also opted for an antiquated affectation to the language, not for the sake of being pretentious, but because it seems to fit the historical frame, the poetic nature, and the philosophical temper of the play. I hope you enjoy it.

Thus Ends the World

Cast of Scene 1:

Richard, lord of the Yarbury estates
Charles, Richard’s dying son
Ailred, Richard’s steward
Scene 1
[Richard standing at his son’s deathbed]
Richard: How comes this deathly hand against my door?
                                                                                                            [Touching his son’s face]
How, bless├Ęd Lord, and why?                                     
See how he labors for breath!
Every moment is a thousand agonies for him—
Aye, and for me, a thousand thousands.
Charles! How vainly hopeful sounds your name upon my lips!
A name which rang for me of the highest hopes and noblest loves…
You were the fire in your father’s heart.
And now there are but embers,
the flickering tongues of a hard and mocking heaven.
What black fate, that takes all my brightness and warmth
and leaves naught but smoke’s dark desolation!
[Enter Ailred]
Ailred: Pardon, my liege.
Richard: Pardoned and pardoned again, faithful Ailred.
                                                                                                            [Turning back to his son]
            My heart is full of pardons…
            But will no one pardon me?
Ailred: He still fares ill?
Richard: More with every minute. He slips away like fog.
Ailred: The doctor comes, not but an hour away.
Richard: Too long.
            And the lady of the house?
Ailred: A messenger was sent. We know not when she comes.
Richard: She will fly hence.
A mother’s love is unbounded by mortal constraints.
Ailred: Indeed, just such a woman is the lady.
            She will be here, my lord.
Richard: I will not be able to see her face, Ailred.
My heart will fail me. How can I look
upon that death-raked visage, wild in empty hopes,
when once I saw it light with the tenderness
of a hundred gentle suns?
You see my Charles now on his deathbed, nearly a man,
But once he was so small and fragile
that his cries would have melted a mountain of stone.
And when my wife looked on his ruddy little face,
there was unmeasured wonder in her eyes.
Ailred: My lord, I remember.
Richard: And I cannot forget.
How small he was, yet as wide as the universe to me!
His hands were but a fingertip’s breadth,
and their touch was worth all the king’s gold.
How, old friend—how, if I have loved him so—
how could God have loved him less?
Ailred: Doubt not that God loves him.
These are days of shadow,
and perhaps love’s light is only seen,
brightsome and full,
beyond the shadowed vale.
Richard: Truth; you are wise.
            These are days of darkest shadow;
            Am I so proud as to believe that they will not fall on me?
Ailred: It is not pride, my lord.
            All men hope for a brighter share.
Richard: The world is spinning to its grave. So say all the learned men.
            We stand on the edge of dust and Judgment.
Up rise the ranks of the fabled Khan, perhaps again, as of old.
We have heard the tales together, no?
And together we have trembled.
They follow not Christ, nor Moses,
nor even Mahomet, but only blood and blade.
And if not the Golden Horde, then next the Seljuq Turks.
The great kings fall, and so too soon may we.
I open my eyes on a world where only Prester John is free,
and the grave has swallowed all other Christian men,
to wait until eternity.
And if one hammer-blow was not enough,
God has sent a second.
The first has brought us to our knees;
The next will kiss us to the ground.
Ailred: You speak the plague.
Richard: Aye, the plague.
How many millions of lives, burnt in Aesclepius’ hell?
And now it comes again to us.
The bells ring in Norwich like the clamor of the forge;
How long until our own bells sound?
Ailred: There are reports of a case on the estate lands.
            Yarbury is trapped in the jaws of fear;
            Thus the doctor’s absence. Where he cannot heal,
            still he would console.
Richard: Consolations are but a pleasant chime,
The sound of the ladle ringing hard against
The vacant side of an empty water-drum
While we all die of thirst.
Ailred: Enough, my lord.
            She comes.
[Enter Mary, Lady of the estate]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

God and Country: The Dangers of American Patriotism in the Church

(Note: This is a reblog, lightly edited and updated, of a post originally written in 2010)

The church that I pastor has traditionally been a very patriotic church. There are a large number of veterans among our members' families, and the congregation often makes its national pride felt through such means as our special Memorial Day service and a wall in the fellowship hall honoring our veterans. For many years, the kids in our Sunday School were asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in church. Such things aren't necessarily out of place, but they need to be considered carefully. Today, I want to focus on some basic pastoral concerns I have about holding American patriotism and Christian faith a little too tightly bound together.

First, a few clarifications at the outset. This isn’t a critique of our church as such—it’s entirely understandable, even laudable in some sense, to honor veterans and to love our country. If there’s a fault here, it’s not a major fault. It’s rather the simple difficulty that arises from conflating two loves which probably ought to be held separately. The second clarification is simply to note that much of my reflection on this subject has been shaped (but not fully determined) by Anabaptist influences, the branch of the Christian tradition in which my wife grew up.

To put the matter in theological terms, we Christians are the citizens of two very different kingdoms—the Kingdom of God, and our earthly societies. And I believe our allegiance to the Kingdom of God should be held quite free and separate of our political allegiances. Christ instructed us to give both kingdoms their due (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), but I don’t think he had in mind festooning church sanctuaries with Roman banners and emblems. Now, when I say that our allegiances should be held separately, I mostly mean that our political allegiances should not be allowed to invade our Christian faith. Our faith, however, should inform and influence and shape our political allegiances. Why? Because our citizenship in the Kingdom of God is the higher of the two loyalties. My identity as a Christian is eternal; my identity as an American is a passing affair. Some day my Americanism will simply be part of the beautiful diversity of the “melting pot” of heaven. I don’t expect that the USA will exist in the new heavens and the new earth for us to treasure and extol. But the church will persist. Christ’s kingdom will persist. So that’s where my highest loyalty lies. Thus my faith—my deepest identity—invades and determines my political allegiances, not the other way around. Our Christian identity is fundamental; our American identity is secondary.

And because the Kingdom of God is our highest loyalty, I consider it to be inappropriate to pledge allegiance to anything other than God himself in our churches. While the Pledge of Allegiance is fine and proper in other contexts, the church is an assembly of the Kingdom of God, and it is inappropriate for us to pledge allegiance to the US here in our churches. It is just as inappropriate as it would be for the whole US Senate to swear oaths to a Masonic order or their local Rotary clubs from the floor of the Senate chamber. The two things simply ought not to be put together, regardless of how appropriate or meritorious they may be elsewhere.

Thus I take my position against the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in church, regardless of the circumstances, and against having an American flag flying outside on church property. (There is an American flag inside the sanctuary, but that’s such an old tradition that I’m not sure it’s worth the bother of dislodging it, and it’s happily tucked away into a corner sufficiently far away from the pulpit and altar.) The honoring of veterans in church is not quite as troubling. From my theological perspective, we must guard against such a practice being an extension of the cult of Americanism into the church, but as a celebration of community members who have made heroic sacrifices for the common good, I find it perfectly acceptable.

It’s worth remembering that Christ himself absolutely eschewed any taint of politicism or patriotism in his ministry. And his ministry, his example, is the foundation of the church. We should note that Christ could have easily encouraged patriotism in his church—his home country, after all, was Judea, populated by the chosen people of God. And everyone expected the Messiah to be a highly political, patriotic figure. Even one of his disciples was a Zealot, a Judean patriot. But although Jesus certainly focused his ministry on the Jews, there was no trace of patriotic nationalism whatsoever in what he did. In fact, he told Pilate quite plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” If Jesus himself, the Messiah, declined the patriotism that everyone thought would be proper and laudable for the Messiah, shouldn’t we be wary of conflating patriotism with faith in our own lives?

To make my case clearer, allow me to point out a few of the potential dangers of allying our American loyalties too closely with the practice of our faith:

First, and perhaps most troubling to me, it leads to a loss of the deep connection we should have with our brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world. We are more intimately connected (in a spiritual sense) with Christians in Swaziland than with our American neighbors, and our family loyalties should lie more strongly with the global church than with the USA. But in practice, this is seldom seen in American churches. During the Iraq war, all one heard about was the Americanist/political news. How many Christians were aware of the effects of the war on the native Iraqi Christian population? (In brief, the war was devastating for them, and several native church groups which stretched back more than a millennium and a half and constituted a decent minority of the Iraqi population a few years ago are now all but gone, forced to emigrate out because the war has raised Muslim/Christian tensions and made their ancient homeland unlivable.)

Second, it forces us to lose some of our prophetic voice against the abuses of the American system. Part of the mission of the church is to stand against injustice, but that can be hard to do if we conflate American patriotism and the faith. We too often shy away from denunciations of the ill effects of our materialism on other countries or from apologies for past American atrocities (against the Native Americans, for example), because such things make us sound “unpatriotic.” And so we mute the voice of the church.

Third, we tend to associate the enemies of America with the enemies of the church, and we lose the ability to love and pray for our enemies. Christ himself commanded us to love our enemies. But how many American Christians do you know who pray for the salvation of ISIS terrorists? According to Jesus, that’s what we should be doing, but our Americanism has too often blinded us to that calling. Far too many American Christians seem to believe that Muslims are our enemies, rather than the objects of our missional love and compassion.

Fourth, it leads to a tendency to associate American causes (especially wars) with righteous motives, whether or not that is the actual case. Fifth, it perpetuates the conflation of Americanism and Christianity in the eyes of other countries (much to the detriment of Christianity). When I was serving in missions in North Africa, I found it a fairly common assumption that Christianity was characterized by Hollywood, pornography, materialistic greed, and so on, mostly because Muslim countries associate the USA with Christianity, and we Americans (unfortunately) have only reinforced that assumption with our “God and country” syncretism. Sixth, it creates an unwelcoming environment in our churches for non-American Christians in our midst, especially those who might harbor justified resentment against America.

Seventh, it leads us to believe that certain American customs and morals are actually Christian, when in fact they are merely “optional” cultural add-ons to the Gospel or actually run against it (individualism, nuclear family systems, capitalism, “the American dream,” ways of dressing and eating, etc.), thus setting extra barriers in the way of experiencing the full force of the Gospel in our own lives and leading to an attitude of judgmentalism against those who practice the faith in a different cultural context. We are fostering the darkest kind of ethnocentrism—that which is fueled by ignorant religious opinion. And eighth, we run the risk of raising a generation who will be too subservient to American patriotism (the lesser of the two loyalties) when American interests run against the interests of the Kingdom of God.

These are just a few potential dangers, and I think they’re real enough to give us pause when we consider adding outward shows of American patriotism to our churches.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Photo of the Week

Gentle little flowers, strong to cleave the sod,
Tell of Jesus rising, gentle Son of God;
Trees that bud and blossom at the warm spring's breath
Tell us life is greater, greater far, than death.

- from verses 2 and 3 of the hymn "Coming from the Winter" by Walter Hawkins

Monday, June 19, 2017

Quote of the Week

"Righteousness is the natural and essential food of the soul, which can no more be satisfied by earthly treasures than the hunger of the body can be satisfied by air. If you should see a starving man standing with his mouth open to the wind, inhaling draughts of air as if in hope of gratifying his hunger, you would think him a lunatic. But it is no less foolish to imagine that the soul can be satisfied with worldly things."

- Bernard of Clairvaux

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O you who are everywhere present, filling yet transcending all things; ever acting, ever at rest; you who teach the hearts of the faithful without noise of words: teach us, we pray you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- Augustine

Friday, June 16, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 6: Raven

The raven is a common sight in my home area of the northeastern US--ravens, together with their smaller cousins, crows, are among the most frequently spotted birds here, sitting in regnal authority on their overlooks high in the tops of trees. While there are other, larger birds around as well--bald eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls--it does not seem to disturb the ravens' supreme self-confidence in their own intelligent abilities to act as master of the northern woods. The common raven is indeed one of the most intelligent, adaptable, and widespread of all birds, and can be found throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia. In the biblical and Christian tradition, the raven holds a unique spot of prominence: associated in art and imagination with death, but acting in the pages of Scripture as a keen and obedient servant of God. But before we get to its theological associations, here are a few interesting facts about ravens:

- Along with dolphins and a few other select species, ravens are standout examples of animal intelligence. Under laboratory conditions, they have successfully solved logic puzzles which require a sequential, step-by-step analysis of a problem, and they appear to have solved these puzzles by reasoning the process out, not by simply using trial-and-error. They have been observed in the wild as being able to communicate about objects or events that are significantly separated from themselves by either distance or time (an extraordinary mental skill known as displacement). They have also been noted for their abilities to cooperate with one another (in sharing information regarding food caches) and to deceive one another (for example, by pretending to cache food somewhere, knowing that another raven was watching and would try to steal from the cache). They can cooperate with other species, too; regularly calling wolves to a carrion-find that they can't open up as efficiently as the wolves can. They have been known to make toys out of sticks, and to play elaborate games with one another (chase games, looping flights, and cooperative tricks like locking talons while in flight), as well as games with other species (playing chase games with otters, foxes, and wolves). Other groups of corvids (the family comprised of ravens, crows, magpies, and jays) have also demonstrated keen intelligence--Clark's Nutcrackers, for example, have demonstrated a capacity for spatial memory far beyond what humans are capable of (remembering the exact placement of thousands of food-caches over a vast landscape); and magpies have been seen playing mean-spirited practical jokes on other species (favorite targets appear to be domestic dogs and cats) as well as apparently holding "funerals" for fallen members of their species. 

- Among the most famous birds in the world are a group of six ravens who inhabit the Tower of London. These semi-tame ravens, carefully watched over by Tower staff and beloved by visitors, are part of an old monarchical legend: it is said that the royal monarchy will remain in England as long as the ravens live at the Tower. While the birds are beloved, on rare occasions a Tower raven can be sacked from his post for "conduct unbecoming a Tower resident."

- One of the reasons that ravens are so widespread and adaptable is that they are able to find food from a remarkable variety of sources: live prey, carrion, garbage, eggs, animal waste, fruit, seeds, nuts, and cereal grains.
In the Bible, ravens appear as one of the most-often cited species of birds.  In Job, the Psalms, and the Gospel of Luke, ravens are given as examples of the way God faithfully provides food for his creatures. In one famous story, the ravens are actually used by God as providers of food: in 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah, living in the wilderness at the outset of a great drought, is fed by ravens, who are directed by God to bring him bread and meat every morning and evening. Ravens are indeed a wise choice for this task, since they are just about the best procurers of food in the whole family of birds. 

There is one more story about ravens in the Bible, which, in intervening tradition, has come to be interpreted in light of ravens' negative associations with darkness and death: in Genesis 8, as the floodwaters are beginning to recede from the earth, Noah sends out a raven to see if any dry land has appeared. The Bible says that "it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth." There is nothing inherently negative in this portrayal; it may simply speak to the raven's diligent and perseverant implementation of its task. However, later interpreters noted that the raven does not return to Noah, whereas the dove, which Noah sends out next, does return. The raven thus came to be taken as an allegorical representation of Satan, holding a position of persistent rebellion and disobedience from God. Likewise, later interpreters in the artistic tradition came to view ravens as an omen of evil, associated with darkness because of their plumage, and, most of all, with death, because of their practice of feeding on carrion.

The raven's double meaning in Christian symbolism--both in a negative aspect (the darkness of death, disobedience, etc.) and in a positive aspect (a faithful servant of God and an example of God's faithfulness)--reminds us of the double meaning of death itself. In Christian theology, death is both a tragedy and a mercy. It is a tragedy because it is a consequence of man's rebellion against God, of his disobedience against divine authority. In its power to take away human life, it disrupts our intended destiny as beings made for everlasting relationship with an eternal God. Because of this, Paul goes so far as to describe death as an "enemy" (1 Cor. 15:26). But strangely, death is also a mercy. In the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, one of the explanations given is that they must be barred from eating of the fruit of the tree of life. Why? Because "[man] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Gen. 3:22). According to the early church fathers, the logic behind this prohibition is as follows: since we humans were now corrupted by sin, we needed the purification of death (and specifically, our mystical association with the death of Christ) to liberate us from the deformity of our sin-warped nature. If we had been allowed to become eternal beings in our sinful state, then our sin--and the torment, brokenness, and sorrow that went with it--would likewise become eternal. God allowed us to remain in a state subject to death in order to provide a way to free us of the cancer of sin. Death, then, becomes--ironically!--our way to eternal life. Because we share in the death of Christ on our behalf, death becomes no longer merely an enemy or a tragedy, but a mercy administered to our broken condition. This is why Christians can talk of death not as a hateful thing, not as an ending or a hopeless sorrow, but rather as a passage to a great and glorious future of everlasting life. 

So when you see the raven, remember that we serve a God so great that he can take even so dark a thing as death, and remake it to be a faithful servant of his great plan of redemption and re-creation. 

(Images - Top: "Elijah Fed by the Ravens," by Paolo Fiammingo, c.1585; Upper inset left: "Raven," illustration from A History of British Birds, by Rev. F. O. Morris, 1862; Upper inset right: "Jubilee and Munin, Ravens of the Tower of London," photo by Colin, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; Lower inset left: "Elijah Fed by the Raven," by Girolamo Savoldo, c.1510; Lower inset right: Illustration #14 for Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven," drawn by Gustave Dore, 1884)