By Patrick Gahan
“In the bag.” I’ve said that innumerable times…but two Thursdays ago, it took on a completely new meaning.
On that afternoon, I was just inches away from entering the front doors of Northeast Baptist Hospital, when I heard, “Preacher, hey preacher!” I turned around to spy a sleek black Chrysler rolling up behind me. The formidable lady had rolled down the passenger window, beckoned me, and I ran over to the car like a carhop at Sonic. She leaned over the console and asked, “Would you pray for my dear husband?”
“Of course,” I said, “Is he in the hospital?” “Oh no, I am a pharmaceuticals rep. He’s been dead two years, but I really miss him.” “I understand your pain, ma’am,” I offered, “Take my hand and we will pray.”
“Wait a minute,” she said, “I need to get him situated first.” I poked my head into the car to look for a grandson, friend, or a dog. Just then she gingerly placed her black, leather handbag on the passenger seat. “I take him everywhere I go.”
“Your husband is in the bag?” “Yes, preacher, he’s my constant companion. He goes on all my appointments” At that point, I had two thoughts: First, why does this never happen to Scott and Rob; and second, I needed to pray that the dear lady continue in her earnest grieving, but lose the bag.
How easy it is to wag our heads and chuckle about that lady. But grief is real; that is something I have experienced much more deeply here at Christ Church, and the wounds of grief are not quickly scabbed over, and they always leave a scar. I must add that we catch ourselves in mid-chuckle to realize that we are more like the woman in the black Chrysler than we want to admit. We are carrying around our own bags of dead things. We need to be healed and we can quit lugging around those onerous bags.
Mary Magdalene would have been bearing her own bag on that first Easter morning. Hers would have been full of balsam, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, oil of cedar, and other burial spices. She is rooting around in that garden looking for the bruised, bloodied, disfigured, very dead body of Jesus, thinking his enemies have dumped him in some ditch like the victim of a gangland murder. She is not prepared for the Jesus she encounters. She imagines the man who appears in front of her is the gardener because he is so alive, like the green things he grows. But once the man says her name, “Mary,” she knows it is Jesus. He has changed. Still bearing the scars of his ordeal, he has transcended them and is very much alive. She drops her bag and races into town announcing, “I have seen the Lord!”
Mary’s news is not some abstract novelty of the Christian faith. The fact that Jesus broke the grip of death means that death cannot keep its cold clutches on us. St. Paul was thunderstruck by what Jesus’ resurrection means for us right now; so he wrote in 55 AD “God has now rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).
We’ve changed our home address from death to life. Accordingly, the writer of Hebrews, writing ten years later, asserts what the resurrection means for our everyday life. “Because we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses of God’s saving power, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings to us and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking for Jesus, who both began and finished the race we’re in” (Heb. 12:1-2). We are personally caught up in the aftershock of Christ’s resurrection. We don’t have to be weighed down by the vile remnants of death.
So what dead weight is in the bags we’ve been carrying around? We may be caught in a routine of deadly patterns. We come to the end of the day exhausted, not so much from fatigue, but from frustration. Somehow we know we are not living the life we should be living; it’s deadly, in fact. But we don’t know how to hop on the exit ramp.
Some eleven years ago, I found myself in such a pattern. The parish I was serving was growing, the people were pleased, but I was miserable. Our senior warden, a quiet, wise, and capable man, saw the unease in me, and asked me what the problem was. I told him I just didn’t feel as if I were living the life to which God had called me. Unruffled, he suggested that I keep a scrupulous record of my daily activities for two weeks, and we would see what the log revealed. Fourteen days later I actually saw the dead-end patterns in black and white. I wasn’t reading the Bible, praying, or writing except in very perfunctory and shallow ways. I hastened to drop that bag of death and reorient my hours to life.
Secondly, we can tote around for year upon year anger fueled by our lack of forgiveness. We cleverly disguise our anger in the guise of righteousness, but all the while we are becoming the tragic figure of Sisyphus. You may recall that he was the cleverest character in Greek mythology but ended up rolling a ponderous boulder up the hill all day long, only to have it roll back down again for eternity. Barbara Frey, easily the most beloved personality in this parish, was known to say, “Un-forgiveness is like administering poison to yourself with the expectation of hurting the other person.” Who wants to run around with a bag of poison hung around their neck?
Thirdly, we shoulder a rucksack of fear, which is the most lethal of all our burdens. We fear losing our health. We fear not having enough. And, above all, we fear dying. Sure, we’ll grow old, become less ambulatory and astute, and draw down our savings. However, if we let the fear of those things catch hold of us, we are already in a death spiral. Kay’s mother taught me something on that accord. She was not a particularly pious woman, and had lived very comfortably for many years. However, as she declined, with an oxygen tank as her constant companion, she began to give away all of her wealth and all of her beautiful jewelry, silver, china, and furniture. At the end, she had to bring in the patio chairs and table to have a place to sit and eat. Her declining health and wealth would not hold her. Her bags of stuff were too heavy to be raised.
This certainty has been so very much on my mind this week as the clergy took Easter communions to our homebound and very sick folks. I shared Holy Eucharist with two people for whom this will be their last Easter communion. Kay and I shared the sacrament with another, who had been denied communion for 25 years. In all three cases the atmosphere in the house, the nursing home, and hospital was radiating with joy. That’s because all eyes in the room were turned to life to the risen Jesus, and he has bagged death.
Speaking of bags, Allie Melancon, a young adult member of this parish, taught us how to make another kind of bag to carry around – Manna Bags. Packed with peanut butter crackers, dried fruit, toothpaste and toothbrush, lip balm, deodorant, water, and a message of gospel hope from Max Lucado, Allie told us to give these bags to people whom we encounter all over San Antonio. Allie’s only admonition is that we look the person in the eye and really see and greet them when we give them the bag.
I gave my first bag away three Mondays ago. I was leaving Bible Study at La Salsa Restaurant on San Pedro, when I spied a man standing behind a blue, rancid dumpster. He did not think anyone could see him. I approached him with the bag, and he gingerly took it from my hand. I realized then that he could not speak. The next week I took him Kay’s favorite – Peanut M&M’s. And this past Monday, I took him a granola bar. This time, he smiled at me. He knew that I saw him, and he and I were very much alive.
The Rev. Dr. Patrick Gahan is rector of Christ Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas.