"The Bottom Line: Spiritual Death and Resurrection and Kingdom of Heaven"

Karen turns forty and her life is going down the drain. Instead of "life begins at forty," it is over. She is a Baby Boomer. Her identity has been as wife and mother of three. Her husband is now married to his career. The youngest child is almost ready to call her blessed and leave the nest forever. She has lost her identity and her reason for being. It is the death of her human spirit. When Josh was twenty and a senior in college, he was a compulsive moralist. His goal was to be ethically pure. He didn't drink, smoke, or curse. He didn't lie, cheat, or steal. He didn't date, dance with, or even swim with girls for fear of immoral thoughts. One day he discovered that he was trying to earn his salvation, and it wasn't working. He was miserable. Life was lousy. There was no meaning. He was hurting so much he wished he were dead. He was, spiritually. Sam is experiencing mid-life crisis. He hates his job, so he changes vocations. He hates his wife, so he divorces her and marries a younger woman. He hates the city in which he lives, so he moves to another. He hates himself for all the stupid decisions he has made in his life. He doesn't care any more whether he lives or dies. Momentary pleasure is the key to his physical life. His human spirit is dead, and there is no more trying.

SPIRITUAL DEATH AND RESURRECTION

Spiritual death may be a time in life when there is no hope, no love, no meaning, no purpose. Spiritual death may be the experience of emptiness, nothingness, the great void. The human being who is spiritually dead may be no longer capable of feeling and may not care. Spiritual death is the hell of those physically alive. The name of the game of life is making the move from spiritual death to spiritual life. The whole human race -- past, present, and future -- is divided into three categories: those who have not yet reached spiritual death; those who are spiritually dead; and those who have experienced spiritual death and subsequently, spiritual life. Everyone gets to know the first two categories, but not everyone experiences the third.

It is important to know, up front, that being in category three is not something about which one boasts. Nor should anybody judge the worth of individuals before God based on whether they are spiritually dead or spiritually alive. Infancy and childhood are stages of life which do not include spiritual death, except in rarest instances. Occasionally, spiritual death takes place in adolescence. Usually it happens in adulthood, but it may not occur until the person is quite elderly. Before spiritual death, we all live as "innocents" because we are innocent of the greatest trauma of life, i.e. spiritual death. It is existence in which we are not yet completely aware of our greatest limitation. We do not yet know the fullness of human finitude.

Spiritual death happens "in the fullness of time." It cannot be consciously forced, willed, or delayed. The timing of one's spiritual death is a complete mystery. Spiritual death for some is a dramatic event or a marked period of time. For others, it is a slow process over a long period of years. There may be a single factor involved, such as the physical death of a family member or friend. Or, there may be a myriad of factors which contribute. Spiritual death is as individual as the individual. However, we all arrive sooner or later at the bottom of the same pit. The greatest tragedy of all is the person who dies spiritually and remains spiritually dead. Many learn to cope with this non-existence by escaping in a number of ways, including drugs and alcohol. Escape is possible through some forms of mental illness, through fantasies, and through suicide. For all who are spiritually dead for the first time, there may be no hope and no promise of hope.

Josh, the college senior, was several years in the process of spiritual death. When the finale came, he felt totally vacated in spirit and void in faith. Josh lost God, hope, and heaven. He felt that he was lying paralyzed on a beach, hands and arms outstretched, facing the sun, waiting to die. During this crucial moment, he considered suicide. The idea of ending it all was a welcome thought. He dismissed the idea because it was too easy and he didn't deserve anything that good.

Spiritual resurrection is the beginning of heaven. Spiritual resurrection is the event or period of time when we move from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is the time of transformation. This is the metamorphosis moment. For some people, something clicks in that was never there before, and that begins the process. For others, there is a series of revelations of personal truths that clarify life. Some find the answer to the riddle, as the koan of Zen. Others discover God and life in some unusual experience. World literature is full of stories of spiritual resurrection. Motion pictures have been successes because they featured someone's resurrection as the climactic moment.

The Poseidon Adventure is a classic example of a group of people experiencing spiritual death and resurrection together. Caught in the bowels of the ocean liner, turned upside down in the ocean, a small number of passengers and crew struggle through the hell of hopelessness. They make their way torturously to the bottom of the boat, where they are rescued eventually by salvage people, to the music of "There has to be a morning after." The story of Jonah and the whale is an early version of the same story. In fact, there is a big collection of stories of spiritual death and resurrection in the Bible, Old Testament and New. The central point of the Old Testament is the escape from Egypt and eventual entrance into the Promised Land, which is the spiritual death and resurrection theme. The central point of the New Testament is the spiritual death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the common themes of this oft-repeated story is that life is radically different than before. However, "they lived happily ever after" only happens in fairy tales. Spiritual life is not a continuous matter, though it is forever. There are times when the great metamorphosis is forgotten and irrelevant.

Does that mean that one encounters spiritual death more than once in one's lifetime? It is very possible, particularly if one's first trip through the valley of the shadow of death is at a younger age. Falling back into the pit for a second or third time may be just as hellish as the first time. The difference is that the climb out may be much shorter in time, because there is a memory of the first recovery. Before the first recovery, there was no memory. This time, the key to life anew is the memory. We are reminded by Jean-Paul Sartre that there is "life on the far side of despair," and there can be again. Common sense has it that this is the bottom line for the whole human race. Everybody is trying to find life that is worth living. We say it is to be found in the Kingdom of Heaven.

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

We worked a little to receive an education. Since then, we have worked like fury to make the bucks . . . buy the house . . . trade the cars . . . have the babies . . . earn the raises . . . get the promotions. Now we are disenchanted with so much materialism. It all rusts and needs painting again. Our bodies are getting a little creaky. We don't want to have any more babies. For goodness' sake, we're not too far from being grandparents. It's time we found the meaning of all this. They told some of us that all the meaning was in the next life. No meaning here. Others were told that the entire meaning is here. Forget the next life.

We heard about the "Kingdom of Heaven." We had no frame of reference for the concept since all we know is a democratic form of government. Who are the players? How does one get in the door? What are the rules? The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, alive and well, eternal in time, and spiritual in nature. The Kingdom consists of all human beings in any given moment who are living faithfully in covenant with God. The Kingdom is visible in human activity and in the creative, redeeming, and inspiring activity of God in this world. The Kingdom of Heaven is not limited to a future reality which we experience after our physical death. The Kingdom is not dependent on social, political, or economic forces for its existence or health. The Kingdom is not populated by any one or two religious bodies, but offers its citizenship to all humankind. The Kingdom has no need of a capitol city, geographical boundaries, stately buildings, or armies with weapons of destruction. It is the Kingdom of Heaven we seek. We are looking for a theology that works -- one that points to the reality of God in the world and in our lives.

The Kingdom is a condition of life. It is a way of living, now and forever. The totality of the Kingdom of Heaven is summed up in the great Hebrew word, "SHALOM." It means wholeness, integration, togetherness, and unity of person with God and universe. When one knows oneself in the moment to be whole, the Kingdom of Heaven is known. When any group of people are truly united in the spirit of love, the Kingdom of Heaven is in the midst of them.

Certainly the Kingdom has existed in the past and will exist in the future, but Jesus speaks primarily of a present Kingdom. The King has arrived on the scene to give form to the Kingdom. That form comes about when the Kingdom is raised to consciousness in the world of human thought. "Being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of Heaven was coming, he [Jesus] answered them, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the Kingdom of Heaven is in the midst of you.'" (Luke 17:20-21) When Christians pray in the Lord's Prayer, "...Thy Kingdom come,...On earth as it is in heaven," (Matthew 6:10) they allude to two aspects of the Kingdom: (1) the individual's need for the Kingdom now; and (2) the hope for a world which is Kingdom-aware. Those who wait patiently for the Messiah's return, or their heavenly reward, without knowledge of a present Kingdom, have missed the heart of Jesus' teaching.

Further, Jesus teaches emphatically that the Kingdom is not a condition of morality or ethicality. He refutes systematically the teaching of the religious leaders of his time that obedience to the Law is the door to the Kingdom. Indeed, the Beatitudes --the first words recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) -- relate to the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not to be earned through adherence to the Law. It is a condition to be lived by those aware of its existence. Paradoxically, the Kingdom is a moral and ethical Kingdom, but its inhabitants do not act out of duty. It is the inhabitants' concentration on the principles of love, fairness, and humility that make Kingdom-dwellers moral and ethical.

Humility, therefore, is one of the great fundamentals of the Kingdom. Symbolically, it is essential that Jesus was born in a manger, that he was a stone mason, that later he had no home, that he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey, and that he died on a cross and was buried in a donated tomb. His teachings on humility are numerous and found throughout the gospels. For humankind, humility begins with the knowledge and total acceptance that one is not divine or infinite. It continues with the complete comprehension that all human beings are equal before God. When we truly accept the equality of all people before God, there is an essential change in our quality of life. This change makes possible the condition of life and relationship known as the Kingdom of Heaven. It makes possible true morality and ethicality. When one knows one's proper relationship with God and with one's neighbors, love becomes a possibility.

Love is another great fundamental of the Kingdom. To love is to live positively. To love is to live morally. Love is receiving and giving what you have received. It is absolutely inconceivable that the Kingdom of Heaven could exist without love at its center. God is the source of all love. Anyone who has loved another has been touched by God. All who have been loved received that which originated in God. Where love lives, there lives the Kingdom.

The final great fundamental of the Kingdom is life in community. Fairness in dealing with others is added to humility and love. "...[A]nd what does God require of you but to love with covenant love, to be fair, and to walk humbly with your God?" Jesus taught, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his Kingdom." (Matthew 16:28) The Kingdom of Heaven is a reality -- an ever-present possibility for every person and for every group of people. The Kingdom's existence is the assurance we need in the worst of times. We celebrate our experience of it in the best of times. When we understand that the Kingdom is a condition, a way of life, we understand that spirituality is far more than a set of beliefs. We can see that the reason for being a faithful person is for living in the beauty of the Kingdom.

It all relates to our experience. Faith is not, at its best, a set of abstract principles. It is about daily life in the Kingdom of Heaven. The woman named Karen at the beginning of this piece encountered spiritual death in the midst of her identity crisis. She discovered that she had no self-confidence and no self-esteem. Indeed, she discovered that she had no life left in her. Then began the transition that seemed to last forever. With God's help, she began to find life. She worked harder on finding life than she had ever worked on anything. She discovered the Kingdom and lives in it most days.