Leaves from the Notebook of a Survivor

Acts 10: 34-43

Marsh Chapel, Boston University


Preface

On Thursday the newspaper (NY Times 9/7/06) carried a narrative, a retrospective interview of NYC, five years after nineleven. Births, migrations, deaths have changed the city’s population, so that today New York City is a city of “newcomers and survivors”. The writer, Michael Brick, attended to themes of a biblical nature. Loss, empathy, anxiety, sadness. Especially, survival.

Today’s Gospel is a word about survival.

Peter, we are expected to remember, denied Jesus three times. His sermon is ostensibly remembered here today. But there was another day in Peter’s life, too. Cowering in the corner, he watched Jesus die. Peter survived. Maybe this is why his sermon here begins with testimony: “I truly understand…”

The early church, we are able to recall, watched the destruction of Jerusalem from afar. They saw the temple destroyed in 70ad. Luke and the church survived. Is this what fuels the memory here of Galilee and Judea and even Jerusalem? “Beginning in Galilee…”

This text, Acts 10, we are stunned to see, displays a potential, universal salvation. Any and all who have lived well, and lived to tell the story–are accepted. The race survives. Fear God and do what is right: “anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

Yet there is more. What Jesus the Risen Christ brings is survival grace, survival forgiveness, the capacity for you to survive your survival. For those who survive often do so with a shadowy sense of –well, read the paper–guilt—irrational, unutterable, survivor’s guilt. Peter—forgiven in survival. Luke—forgiven in survival. All—forgiven in survival. We—forgiven our survival.

Remember the newspaper’s careful report about thought and emotion in the city of New York, five years after nineleven. NYC today is a community of newcomers and survivors. The former discover a capacity for empathy, the latter a way forward.

Peter survives, but he will carry with him always, as the Gospels testify, a memory, and a sense of guilt, about his darkest hour. The story of his life, and perhaps of ours, comes in leaves from the notebook of a survivor. Survivors’ guilt is a condition, that sense that ‘it could have, might have, should have been me’.

Peter raises a question for you about the greatest trauma you have personally have survived. You did survive. Good for you, you survivor, you. Now: have you had absolved the lingering sense of guilt that attends almost every survival?

Luke raises a question for you about the greatest trauma your generation has survived. Your generation did survive. Good for you, you survivor you. Now: have you all received absolution for the lingering sense of guilt that attends almost any survival?

Acts raises a question for you about the greatest trauma the human being has survived. Now: have you heard the word of absolution for the lingering sense of guilt that attends any survival?

You survived a car accident. You survived a war. You survived birth. Personal, generational, congenital survival. It is the Gospel that will empower you to survive your survival, too.

1. Peter and You: Personal Salvation

Have you named your greatest trauma? Death of a brother. Loss of a son in law. Expiration of a mother. Pink slip. Bone cancer. Hospital closing. A phone call from the Bishop announcing your displacement. Moving after 25 years. Abuse at an earlier age. A child’s suicide. An unexpected pregnancy. A plane crash. Divorce. A car accident. A run across an open field, with live ammunition coming at you. The sudden death of a classmate at the opening of term.

In the first three Gospels, it is centrally Peter who faces trauma like this. He has left all. He has followed. He has stayed. He has loved. He has waited in the dark courtyard. But then—his singular existential trauma—he has denied his Lord thrice. And Jesus has died and Peter has survived, watching the death of his Beloved.

The Gospel accounts of Peter’s denial, or betrayal, form the rich heart of the passion narrative. The pathos, the hurt with which the accounts are given reach to the depths of our hearts, even 2000 years later. Yet, through it all, Peter has survived. What remains for Peter, and for us, is to learn how to live as survivors, to survive our own survival.

I am not a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist. But I know that “survivor’s guilt” is real. Do you remember the film “
Ordinary People” (based on Judith Guest’s novel), about two brothers who capsize in a boat? One dies and one survives. Mary Tyler Moore oversees a spotless home where “everything is in its proper place—except the past.” Berger, the counselor says at one point: “a little advice about feelings kiddo, don’t expect it always to tickle.” Conrad, the survivor, very nearly takes his own life, saved at the last by wise, loving, intervening words of his counselor, and friend, who asks repeatedly, “what is it that makes you feel so bad?” The answer, at last: “I survived.”

Never doubt the saving power of personal presence and a word fitly spoken.

You too have survived. Something. Some years ago we were grieving the Columbine tragedy. The kids there testified, truly, that a strange guilt followed their grief. This is the tragic guilt of the innocent, survivor guilt. “Megan hid her tears behind sunglasses: ‘I just feel so lucky to still be here.” Greg Martinez said, “You almost feel guilty, about, you know, having your kid get out.” Their counselor said those who feel guilty for making it out alive “need to be reassured that they can celebrate their survival.” (AP, A Levinson, 4/99).

Here is a description of the effects of survivor’s guilt: “general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt.” (Borgess).

That sounds a lot like human life in general!

In the light of Resurrection, Peter finds the power not only to survive but to prevail. He finds the power to enter a new life, to change, to risk. He finds courage that will take him beyond mere survival and will help him travel throughout the known world, and, if legend serves us, to die a martyr in the far off city of Rome. He survives his own survival.

Here is a promise for all of us. Whatever lingering survivor’s guilt attends our survival through trauma, here is a power that frees us for a new life, beyond that great past tomb.

Are you ready to survive your own survival?

Even more. Something from that trauma you may fashion into a great gift for others, this side of Resurrection. Your loss will sensitize you to others. Your illness, to that of others. Your demotion, your failure, your dislocation—these now are gifts in your love for others.

For something happened, to Peter, that took a suffering survivor, bitterly weeping at the foot of the cross, and made him a fisherman for God, on whom the whole church has been built. What happened? Something happened. Something that saved Peter from his own survival.

2. Luke and Vietnam: Generational Salvation

What is true of individuals like you and Peter, is also promised today to generations, like yours and Luke’s. Again, I ask. What is single greatest trauma your generation has survived?

For the people to whom Luke speaks, now toward the end of the first century, one great generational trauma overshadows their life. Thirty years earlier, in the year 66ad, the Jews began a tragic, and losing, conflict with Rome. The war ended with the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.

Did you ever wonder why Rome, not Jerusalem, is so central to Christianity? Jesus, Peter, John, James, Paul—all Jews, all focused on Jerusalem. The earliest church—that in Jerusalem. But by Luke’s time, all that has been destroyed. And Luke’s church is adrift. They have survived the destruction of Jerusalem. Others have died, including perhaps the brother of Jesus, James. But they have survived this central generational trauma. Now the question is whether they can survive their own survival.

Have you named your generation’s greatest trauma?

For one generation today, located halfway between my father and me, that trauma was Vietnam. This conflict, in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, on the grassy lawns of Kent State, in the classrooms of Columbia University and the board rooms of America, traumatized a whole generation. The trauma is not limited to one political perspective. All, all have been traumatized, to retranslate Romans 5: 12. All, the whole generation, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the glory of God.

Still, as a generation, you have survived. You survivor, you. The Chevy 409 is gone. But here is the Chrysler Sebring. Arnold Palmer is retired. But here is Tiger Woods. You got through. Not all did. But you did. Do you come through with some generational survivor’s guilt? Does it continues to carry the potential to hobble, maim and kill. For another generation, the trauma was that of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (Still a great film). For you, it is Coming Home, The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Platoon. Public trust, the place of authority, community commitments, and your relationships to other generations are overshadowed by trauma past. Yes, you survive. But the Easter gospel brings power to survive your own survival.

Here is historical fact. Something happened to Luke that 60 year later still had the power to take a generation like Luke’s, a church that had lost its Jewish moorings and was adrift in a punishing and forbidding culture, and make a movement that became an Empire wide community, full of men and women ready to die in public rather than call Caesar God.

Even more. Something from that generational trauma you will be able to carry forward, from many perspectives, to make a new way, for a new day. God had a purpose for Luke and his generation.

Resurrection is cutting you free from generational survivor’s guilt. This is unspeakably good news, like fine wine, 30 years in the making. And one day, a generation we have hardly seen in church since they were teenagers will come home, surviving their own survival. Coming home, this generation situated half-way between my father and me. Coming home out of survival guilt, to explore the use of a great wave of treasure, a huge transfer of wealth (and I would like to speak to some of you personally!). Coming home to a new rebirth of wonder, and a new global community, with one shepherding Lord.

How will this occur? In church. But the church is so…. Yes, the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine. But how can you love God and hate the things of God? How can you come near to God at a distance from the grace of God? How can you experience God without praying, singing, communing, hearing, giving, serving? No, you will have to find a church. Maybe not this church, but a church.

3. Christ and Humanity: Congenital Salvation

Could it be that the salvation promised to you and Peter, the power given to your generation and Luke’s, is also conferred upon the human race?

For a third time I ask a question. What is the single greatest trauma shared by the human race? All of us together?

Peter runs to the tomb, sees the linen clothes, marvels and wonders. It is Paul who puts the unspeakable into words. He reminds us that all have been traumatized and fallen short of God’s glory. Individuals, generations, races—all for some unknowable reason—are tinged with survivor’s guilt. It is an irrational, inaccurate, unfair, untrue sense of ennui, gonewrongness, fallenness, exile. It is what the Bible means by sin—not something we do, but the air we breathe. Paul understands that God has subjected the whole creation to futility, for the final purpose of saving the whole creation.

Just here, St. Luke in Acts has much to give us. Luke emphasizes the will and plan of God. Luke explores the nature of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Luke proclaims as far back as Christmas Eve: “all flesh shall see it together.” Luke repeatedly uses a lit
tle greek verb, found also in verse 7 of today’s reading, dei—it is necessary, it is purposefully required, it is providentially needed, it is necessary. Luke holds all life in three parts: the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the Church. For Luke, this time—our time—is the greatest of times, the time of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. For Luke, there abides a twin craving, held at the heart of the universe: a craving for a faith that appeals to culture and a culture that is attractive to faith. When church and city, faith and culture dance together on the bandstand of brotherhood—that is the Kingdom of God! And Luke, with scholarly Paul (Gal 3) and wondering Peter (Acts 10), means this for all people. All.

What great trauma do all people share?

Birth.

You by virtue of your lonesome journey through birth are an heroic survivor. You by virtue of your gestation for nine long months, are an heroic survivor. You by virtue of your sudden, violent and cataclysmic deliverance, through natal Red Sea waters, are an heroic survivor. You made it. You got through. Others may not have. But you did. You survivor, you. And there you are, crying and all messy, pink and little fisted and wrinkled and wailing to beat the band. You survived.

Not unscathed, but undefeated. Bloodied but unbowed. I have not read it anywhere, and have not time to write my own book, but I think that with birth survival must come a kind of congenital survivor’s guilt, way down deeper than words, that we all, every human one of us, we all share. Not something we have done, but the air we breath. All, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the Glory of God.

This is our condition. “Like the beating of the heart, it is always present.” (Tillich, STIII, 188). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. Existential survivor’s guilt. “It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality.” (Tillich).

As Jim Croce might have written, had he survived: I’ve got those steadily depressing, low down, mind messing, existential post-partem blues.

Hear the promise of salvation from survivor’s guilt. You just may survive your own survival. The resurrection saves us from the lingering effects of birth by giving us—second birth. Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” Friends, on Easter we are set free to live in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and light!

God is cutting us free from congenital survivor’s guilt. We are set loose to risk, to try, to change, to laugh, to weep, to become who we were meant to be. Irenaeus: The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

For Peter, for Luke, for the church….For you, for your generation, for you race…

Something happened. Something that even 2000 years later has men and women saying prayers, giving money, offering time, swinging hammers, sorting clothes, attending meetings, singing hymns, loving neighbors and on every day in every way building the kingdom of God. Luke would love it. What happened? Something happened, something that opens life up wide and frees us from our original survival and saves us for a new life, a new way, a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth!

You survived trauma, Vietnam, and birth. You will survive surviving 9/11 too. (Come next week.)

Next week, once we have survived nineleven again, we shall consider the gospel as it speaks to the single greatest trauma our nation, recently, has faced….Then we shall sing…

The World Trade Center may fall, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub
of global economies, may fall, but the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many, may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country, may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride, may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss, may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (as Reinhold Niebuhr, author of Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

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