The Lord is risen! Do you still remember? Yes, I know that Easter was last weekend. But that doesn’t mean that the resurrection is “so last weekend.” Several days ago on Facebook I suggested that those who celebrate 40 days of Lent might consider also celebrating 40 days of Resurrection. A lot of people seemed to like the idea. Even better, as one person replied, we should celebrate Jesus’ resurrection 365 days a year!
In the spirit of such eternal resurrection celebration, I am sharing a resurrection poem from Mom—a poem that, Mom says, “focuses on the growth of the church post-Resurrection.”
First I’ll share Mom’s poem. Then I’ll share Mom’s account of how this poem was born. Finally, I’ll share a bit of my own analysis of this poem’s art. Oh, and a bonus question: Can you identify where Mom got the idea for the poem’s title? Happy reading!
(See here for an introduction to this monthly series from Mom.)
THERE IS HOPE OF A TREE
They were the branches, He the Vine. “Abide in Me,” the Christ had said,
For any branch apart from Me Will soon be dead.”
And now the Vine lay trampled, dead; The branches scattered in the field.
Were they to have no leaves to bear, No fruit to yield?
How could they pierce the tomb, stone-sealed? “Stay close to Me,” they had been told.
Must they now wither, torn from Him, Who lay there cold?
None dreamed, their grief but three days old, Of how the world would scarce have room
For all their fruit when the green Vine Burst from its tomb!
—Elaine Gingrich, May 1999
Mom’s Memories of the Birth of This Poem
This poem was written in church Sunday morning May 16,1999 when I was supposed to be listening to the sermon. As sometimes happens, the poem arose from a compelling image. The Sunday School lesson was from John 15, about the intimate connection between Christ, the Vine, and the disciples, His branches. When pastor Dave Frey began his Ascension message with reference to the 40-day period between the Resurrection and the Ascension, during which Jesus various times appeared and then disappeared from his disciples’ sight, I suddenly pictured the Vine cast into Golgotha’s tomb, to wither away out of sight, while His followers were scattered and cut off from their source of life. Had they wondered what would happen to Vine and branches now?
As Dave mentioned in his message—yes I do have sermon notes beside my poem stanzas in the notebook :-)—Jesus was teaching them in those 40 days after the Resurrection that He was present with them even when He was not visible. Also, when He was most unseen, He was accomplishing the most important work for them. Still today His hidden work behind the veil makes possible what we do for Him as we abide in Him.
Just as the disciples could not imagine any hopeful future after Jesus’ burial, let alone the birth of the church, so we need the eyes of faith to catch a vision for Christ’s work today.
As compensation for my distracted attention to his sermon, I later gave Dave a copy of my completed poem, which he graciously accepted. I hope that was adequate restitution and that the poem’s readers will not judge it a total waste of time.
Art Serving Life
The structure of this poem is simple, but artful. On the level of plot, it works like this: One stanza establishing the ground rules for life, two stanzas describing the confusion when this life is withdrawn, and a fourth providing unexpected and infinite resolution. On a literary level, it works like this: One stanza of command, two of questions, and one of exclamation.
Also artful is the arrangement of sentence lengths: The first two stanzas each contain two sentences, but of pleasantly contrasting length. The third stanza contains three sentences, which slows the pace of the poem further, suggesting the growing mood of uncertainty. Then the fourth stanza brings a sudden burst of speed by containing only one long sentence. This final sentence begins teasingly, tantalizing us with the possibility of hope in the first two words, hesitating briefly between two commas to remind us of grief, then unexpectedly accelerating with growing fullness and no time to breathe until the last line literally bursts upon us with resurrection life!
Two days ago I was privileged to speak at the memorial service of my father-in-law, Albert Mast. This was a great honor, and a wonderful opportunity to ponder the life that is ours in Christ Jesus–resurrection already and resurrection not yet!
This post will be a bit of a tossed salad, so here’s an ingredient list to help you proceed:
Audio of Sermon and “So What?” Thoughts about Resurrection
Thanks to each of you who prayed for me regarding this sermon! I felt God’s strength and zeal as I spoke, and I sensed people were listening. Our primary texts were Romans 6:11 and 1 Peter 1:13, and my primary goal was to help people rejoice in the blessings of Christ’s resurrection and long for his return.
After the sermon, a friend who had read my recent post about resurrection to come (What is the Christian’s True Hope in Death?) and who heard me share similar thoughts in the sermon asked me a question: Why does it matter? Why is it important for us to fix our hopes on Christ’s return and our resurrection then, rather than merely anticipating dying and going to heaven? My friend agreed with what I had shared, but wasn’t sure what difference it made.
Good question! I shared with my friend an illustration that I didn’t have time to share during the sermon. I’d like to share it here, too.
Imagine, if you can, that you agree with me that the “good guys” in the American Rebellion–er, the American Revolutionary War, that is–were the British, and not the American colonists. (I’m speaking here as my adolescent Canadian self, not my adult kingdom-of-God self.) Now imagine that you and I are both British soldiers, returned from the war. Imagine I come up to you after the war is over and say something like this:
“Isn’t it great how we won the war! We had wonderful campaigns in the king’s colonies. We really knocked those rebellious colonists around in some good fights. Sure, we lost some battles, but look at how those Loyalists escaped to Canada! And just when things looked the worst, wasn’t it wonderful to get on our ships and sail safely home to England? Now those colonists can never touch us. Yes, isn’t it great how we won the war?”
How would you respond? I suspect you’d knock me about the head a time or two to bring me to my senses and shout, “But what about the kingdom? What about the king’s colonies? How can you say we won the war when the king lost his kingdom?”
(If that illustration is too difficult for your imagination, then use the American invasion of Iraq instead.)
Now imagine a similar conversation, this time between you and me as we discuss our Christian war against sin and Satan. Imagine if I say something like this:
“Isn’t it great how we’ll win this war! Saints in the past have engaged in quite the battles with Satan, and there have been wonderful victories. Think of Noah, and Abraham, Moses, and David–a long list of heroes of the faith that have stood firm against the forces of darkness. Sure, the nation of Israel eventually fell away from God and was sent into exile, but then God started a whole new campaign with his Church! Peter, John, Paul, then Augustine, Saint Francis, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Felix Manz, Menno Simons, William Carey, Billy Graham, and countless more [edit the list as you wish]–what a list of victors! Each one of them, at his death, escaped safely to heaven. And now, just as the war is raging at its fiercest, and the Church is being reduced to a tiny remnant band, we have this wonderful confidence: God is going to call us home and we’ll all go sailing off safely into heaven! Isn’t it wonderful how we’re going to win the war!”
Now, what would be a proper response to such an outburst? I suggest the following: Hopefully you’d knock me about the head a bit (metaphorically, of course) and sober me up with these words: “But what about the kingdom? What about God’s original purposes for the wonderful world that he created? How can you say we will win the war if the King will loose his kingdom?”
When God created the world (Gen. 1-2), he created it perfect but incomplete. It possessed the perfection of an immature child. God put humans into his world to steward it and to bring about his creative purposes for his world. But Satan and sin hijacked God’s original intent. More accurately, God foreknew sin’s entrance, and planned all along to work through it. However we word it, this fact remains: God’s purposes for his world remained incomplete at the time when sin entered. If this is true, then salvation alone–the removal of sin from human hearts or even from the cosmos–is not the sum total of God’s purposes for his creation. No, after sin is removed God will want to get on with his other plans for his creation.
Ask a cook, “What do you want to do with these dishes?” and he might answer, “I want them washed.” Ask a 16-year-old what he plans to do with his car and he might say, “I plan to give it a wash and a wax.” But no cook would be satisfied washing dishes without ever getting to cook with them, and it is a rare teen who would be content working at a car wash all day and never driving a car! To reduce God’s purposes for his world to his “plan of salvation” is like reducing a cook’s purposes for dishes to his plan for washing them.
So what difference does it make if we focus on dying and going to heaven rather than on Christ’s return and our final resurrection? I think it is the difference between being satisfied with human salvation or rejoicing in God’s victory. Is it enough for me that I win? Or do I care about God winning? Do I imagine a grand conclusion where Satan succeeds, kamikaze-style, in demolishing God’s good creation? Where Satan, like Samson, dies while bringing down God’s house? Where God wins the war but looses half his kingdom? Or do I grasp God’s vision for creating “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13)? Do I remember that my own eternal glory is bound up in his, and that the Bible hints at things like us reigning with Christ (2 Tim. 2:12) and judging angels (1 Cor. 6:3)–things seemingly timed to happen only long after my death, when Christ returns?
More could be said, but hopefully that begins to answer the “so what” question that my friend raised. There is much I don’t understand yet about God’s purposes for his creation. God still has some big secrets up his sleeve. But this much I do understand: God’s purposes matter, and they will be fulfilled! Through Christ God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20).
If you want to read more, the book that has shaped my thinking as much as any other (besides Scripture) is on sale on Kindle right now: Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright.
“On the Resurrection Morning” — A Gospel Song that “Gets” Life After Death
In my sermon I quoted an old gospel song by Sabine Baring-Gould that I a friend shared with me just a few days ago. Here are two of its eight stanzas. Notice especially the lines I’ve emboldened. How often do you hear such ideas in a gospel song? I think this author understood our Christian hope well.
For a while the wearied body
Lies with feet toward the morn;
Till the last and brightest Easter
Day be born.
But the soul in contemplation, Utters earnest prayer and strong,
Bursting at the resurrection
If our sights are to be fixed on our final resurrection and not merely on going to heaven, then how should we bury our loved ones? During the sermon I answered this question by quoting from an article written by my mother (Elaine Gingrich). Mom wrote this article over 20 years ago, after death touched my life significantly for the first time by claiming the lives of five young friends in a car accident.
Here is the article: Burial Ground(By the way, I discovered just now that in my sermon I misquoted a Tozer quote that Mom uses in this article: It should be “It is hard to imagine anything less hopeful than the sight of a burial”–not “more hopeful.” But sorry, Tozer; I think I like my version at least as well.)
“How Firm A Foundation” — How a Hymn Helped Strengthen Albert’s Faith
At Albert’s memorial service his “little” brother Glen Mast told a story that few of us knew. Five or six years ago, when Albert’s pain was at its worst, he experienced a severe trial of his faith. One time when Glen was visiting, Albert confessed that he felt “worthless.” Worse still, Albert was troubled by this question: What if someday he would stand before God and hear these terrible words: “I never knew you, depart from me.”
Glen reassured Albert, reminding him that, while each of us is unworthy, none of us are worthless. God paid a dear price for us! Glen also explained that when Jesus foretold those terrible words, “I never knew you,” he was warning religious leaders who felt no need for Jesus. Albert, on the other hand, had relied from his youth on the grace of God given through Christ (Eph. 2:8-10). God knew his name! (I might add that Jesus was describing false prophets who seemed more interested in wielding the power of God than in doing the will of God.)
Then Glen showed Albert and Katie (my mother-in-law) a video of a presentation by David Powlison, called “Christ’s Grace and Your Sufferings.” (Click the link for audio and video options. Or go to page 145 of this free PDF book for a transcript.) Powlison shapes his talk around the grand old hymn, “How Firm a Foundation“–a hymn which, unlike most hymns, has God speaking directly to us for most of its verses. (When re-enacting this story at Albert’s memorial, Glen had us turn and face each other while singing verse one, then turn our hands palms-up toward God while singing the rest of the song.)
Glen’s words, Powlison’s presentation, and the words of this hymn were used by God to renew Albert’s faith. Perhaps they will renew the faith of someone reading this blog, too.
Albert Mast’s Obituary
Finally, here is Albert Mast’s obituary:
Albert Mast was born on May 2, 1943 in Thomas, Oklahoma, the son of Joas and Katie Mast. He was married to Katie Stoltzfus on November 10, 1973. Later that year, they moved to Leon, Iowa, where they farmed and eventually established the family baking business, Mast Family Farm.
From a young age, Albert faced many challenges related to what was eventually diagnosed as dystonia. Though some of those challenges shook him at times, he held fast to his faith in Christ, and lived a vibrant testimony of joy in the midst of pain.He was known for his determination, his smile in spite of his pain, his care for others who were hurting, and for planting straight rows. Some of Albert’s favorite quotes: “I may be crippled, but I am NOT handicapped.” “If you can do it, so can I.” One of his life verses was Philippians 4:13.
Albert was released from his body on December 15, 2014.Albert is survived by his dedicated wife, Katie, and their children Zonya (Dwight) Gingrich, Albert L. Mast, and Joy (Craig) Miller; Grandchildren Priya, Shani, and Ayla Gingrich, and Dexter Miller; Siblings Susie Joy Mast, Moses (Sadie) Mast, William (Betty) Mast, Lydia Mae (the late Virgil) Wagler, John (Esther) Mast, Harry (Flo) Mast, Glen (Ellen) Mast, and many nieces and nephews. Albert was preceded in death by his parents, and his daughter Angela.
My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:23)
The amount of interest expressed in my last post was unusual, breaking records for the number of daily visitors to my fledgling blog. Given your kind interest, I thought I should post here that my father-in-law Albert Mast passed away peacefully around 8:00 this morning.
The funeral is planned for Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m., with visitation 5-8 Tuesday evening, both at Salem Mennonite Church in Leon, Iowa. Out of respect to Albert’s wishes, the casket will be closed.
Several hours before Albert’s passing, in the wee hours of this morning, I posted this on Facebook:
I’m 40 years old, yet I’ve never seen anyone die. How strange is that, given that we live in a world where everyone dies? I’m not sure what to think about it.
I haven’t intentionally avoided being present at anyone’s death. I simply haven’t been there. (Three of my grandparents have died, but I was hundreds of miles away when each one passed on. I’ve lost a few friends, but not that many, and never in predictable situations or in times and places where I could have been present.)
On the one hand death, like conception and birth, is a sacred event and rightly shielded from careless or voyeuristic view. On the other hand, most cultures have usually been much more open about death than our culture is, and the Preacher (Ecclesiastes) said it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting. I wonder if I would be a different person if I had observed death more closely before this.
God knows, and he’s been observing all along with a wise eye.
I am glad I was present for Albert’s death. What a gift to share this moment with family, and with dear friends who have been visiting this morning.
And thank you so much to each of you who have shared kind thoughts and prayers over recent days. Your words and prayers are a blessing! Death, like birth, reminds us of our common humanity and also of our common need for new birth in Christ and–on that great Day to come–a full sharing in his resurrection.
If that is not enough options, prepare to greet Albert personally after your own death. The “link” for that option is faith in Jesus Christ who died and rose to rescue you from the kingdom of darkness and welcome you into the kingdom of light.