Notes on a Resurrection: Motif

Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. (Ps. 94:17)

For you will not abandon my soul in the grave. (Ps. 16:10)

This is a story of life after death; one that is still being written. It is my story and, in fact, I suspect in the writing I may grope my way further out of the tomb – a lurching obedience to the voice of One standing in the daylight calling my name. A written renunciation of death, if you will. That is my hope. And I hope others may join this holy egress.

In 2016 I took a six-month sabbatical. I had been through what I considered at the time to be the most difficult period of my life. What I couldn’t have known then was that I was actually entering the most difficult period of my life. More to come on that.

In the lead-up to my sabbatical, I found myself mumbling under my breath, “I want to die.” It was a startling thing to hear myself say, and I’ll answer what I assume may be your pressing question as a reader. No, I wasn’t suicidal. These were the utterances of a soul in defeat. Needling prophecies, these inner complaints are for me. No, I wasn’t suicidal, but my soul was letting me know it was dying – it felt dead, and was saying so!

Eventually, I started to listen. Why, I wondered, is this the murmur of my soul?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer describes this as a state of burnout and attributes it to the “violation of one’s nature” even (especially) in noble pursuits. He explains,

Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

To find one’s self attempting to give what one does not possess suggests true possessions – true riches! – which one may in fact be withholding. While we offer the world a false self, our true self goes missing in action. To use Palmer’s words, I wasn’t “letting my life speak”; wasn’t listening until my self became adamant, “I want to die.”

My thoughts and meditations began eddying around the textured resurrection account of Lazarus from John 11 and 12. I intend to reflect extensively on this resurrection story in this series of posts, so I’ll simply mention that I understood myself to be in a tomb of sorts, and that Jesus Himself was beckoning me – me, the true me! – out to live and move freely in the world.

I emerged from sabbatical determined to figure this out; to live this out! However, my world, as our worlds are want to do, had contrary designs. Should we be surprised; inhabiting all of us this realm in bondage to decay? So here I am, some six years later, clawing my way toward the light and toward that authoritative voice that bids, “Come out!”

Here I must resist the urge to dump out the junk drawer. Trauma, I’ve learned, can be described as rupture, and this term is descriptive in many ways. For instance, a rupturing grocery bag keeps wanting to expel its contents out onto the ground and must be carried just so in order to avoid such messy incidents.

In a sense, this is how I am required to carry my own story presently – just so. Precious, fragile, holy cargo wanting to spill out, needing to spill out, yet also needing not to be damaged nor despised; not strewn over the asphalt. Our stories are holy collections, no matter their disarray, and deserve to be unpacked with care and arrayed with honor. And of course our stories are never exclusively our stories, so we must hear the words of Hippocrates: primum non nocere – “do no harm.”

What I want to put down are some notes about coming into the open – into full view – in the hopes of bringing about something new and living. I want to try to “write my way out” of entombment.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this is much more easily said than done. Point of fact, it isn’t even easily said; that is conveyed through language. Many aspects of what goes on within us obstinately refuse the convention of words. “Words,” Augustine wrote, “have gained an altogether dominant role among humans in signifying the ideas conceived by the mind that a person wants to reveal.” What happens when, as the adage goes, words fail?

It so happens that trauma does just that: causes words to fail. Trauma researcher Bessel Van der Kolk explains the way neuroimaging reveals trauma’s deactivation of the “Broca’s area” of the brain; a region of the brain that translates image into speech, such that “you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words.” Words fail.

In her book Unpeakable, Sarah Travis writes, “Trauma changes one’s relationship to language.” Travis’s succinct statement is nearly axiomatic within trauma theory. Psychologist Annie Rogers goes so far as to say “trauma has its own language – the language of the ‘unsayable.’” Both Van der Kolk and Sheila Wise Rowe recount stories of those who have encountered horrors exclaiming, “I have no words.”

Theologian Shelly Rambo puts this quite starkly: “Trauma is described as an encounter with death… a radical event or events that shatter all that one knows about the world.” (emphasis mine) Certainly, in my own experience and the accounts I’ve heard, trauma shatters our capacity to interpret what we know; to form cohesive meaning. It is truly “the silence of death.”

Overwhelming distress is a brush with death, and one way to understand the aftermath (often termed PTSD or C-PTSD) is that important parts of us become buried in the rubble. “The cords of death entangled me,”the psalmist writes, “the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow.” (Ps. 116:3)

Such encounters with death require an encounter with the Resurrection.

Resurrection is a motif so common in Scripture that it could escape our notice. Indeed, it is a leitmotif. Again and again we find the idea in the Psalms, (“You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.” 30:3) So too, the prophets draw upon this image. Who can forget Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones? (chp. 37)

“Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (v. 3)

Both Elijah and Elisha raised young men to life (1 Kings 17:17-22 and 2 Kings 4:18-37 respectively). A man even sprung back to life when his corpse was thrown onto Elisha’s dead body in the grave! (2 Kings 13:20, 21)

Jesus is recorded as raising three people, including Lazarus. And Matthew mentions an astounding occurrence that took place after Jesus’ death: “the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Mt. 27:52) These unnamed saints walked around Jerusalem and appeared to many! The tombs broke open!

Of course the disciples also raised the dead to life. Peter raised the young girl Tabitha, (Acts 9:36-42) and Paul raised a man named Eutychus, who fell out of a window and died after dozing off during Paul’s long-winded sermon! Paul proceeded to finish his sermon after the resurrection took place. (Acts 20:7-12)

Paul actually presents resurrection as the reality of the Christian life in his letter to the Ephesians, praying that “the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened” and they would grasp God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…” (1:19, 20) His power for us who believe is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, yet somehow we must become ever more aware of it lest it fail to be fully appropriated.

Chapter 2 of Ephesians contains Paul’s well known death-to-life exposition, whereby we are met in our spiritual death then, dramatically and on account of God’s great love, “made alive with Christ” (v. 4) – reanimated in Christ for a life of good purposes! (v. 10)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul states emphatically, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (8:11) If God’s Spirit dwells in you, get ready for resurrection!

And we must call to mind Jesus’ marvelous declaration to his grief-stricken friend Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jn. 11:25) Resurrection is knit to the very identity of Jesus, for he is the Author of life! (Acts 3:15)

I’m merely wanting to make a case for you and me that this image of resurrection is neither fanciful nor forced. My theological scruples simply won’t allow me to traipse off some rabbit trail of wish-fulfillment. Scripture is quite plain on the matter of resurrection as a hallmark of the Christian faith; not only a heavenly resurrection but a here-and-now actuality – raised to new life! It is a motif in which we are meant take up residence.

Again, Paul:

For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. (Col. 2:12)

NT Wright stated this clearly and well,

Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world … That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.

Leave the tomb. Leave behind all the brokenness and incompleteness of the age. Follow Jesus into the new world he was thrown open before us! Who knew something so sweet upon the ears could prove so bitter an ordeal in the outworking? This is why Scripture must drum this home, for its pages were meant to drum us all home.

One must ponder how and in what ways the cords of death maintain their stranglehold on our souls, and how and in what ways the emergence of life might take place. That is the nature of these meditations I intend to set forth, should God grant me the strength and courage to do so.

I would be glad to have some witness-companions, for there are bound to be scoffers and worse. Would that we might revel together in our Savior’s most glorious gloat,

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
(1 Cor 15:55)


2 thoughts on “Notes on a Resurrection: Motif”

  1. Thank you, Matt, for continuing the steadfast pursuit of resurrection in this life. I agree wholeheartedly that the “new creature” we are to be is 100 percent God’s good plan and our true self. What a long hard slog you’ve had. It is a slog to be admired, although I know it is exhausting. It encourages me to know you still see and believe there is Light ahead and that Light calls your name. I’m looking forward to subsequent posts.



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