Only once in your life can you see the city of Venice for the first time. Pray that your initial encounter will be on a bright, resplendent day, for only a brilliant sun can reveal the startling beauty of this colorful city that looks as if it is always on festival. Domes, columns, arches, bridges, statues, obelisks, towers define her skyline – a city grid marked by sluices – a waterfront of colorful buildings whose windows seem like hooded eyes — the whole spectacle perched improbably on water, like a conjurer’s trick. I’ve visited several of the world’s great cities, but I have never seen anything as wondrous as Venice. As I beheld this ancient city I could not help but form one perplexing question – what crazed genius thought to put a city here?
The answer confirms the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention. The rise of Venice was tied to the fall of Rome. After the Visigoth Vandals had plundered Rome sufficiently, they migrated north, laying waste to all they could find. Roman citizens living along the Adriatic Sea knew that devastation could only be averted through quick, creative thinking. They seized upon one salient fact: the Vandals didn’t like water. The Vandals were an indomitable force of rage and destruction– yet, they were not a seagoing people! Water scared them. Water stymied them. So these intrepid Romans packed their belongings in ships and relocated across the Adriatic to several desolate islands, where eventually some enterprising engineer discovered that eight feet below the surface of that porous island was a bedrock base into which one could drive supportive pilings. Out of the devastation of Rome the miracle of Venice came to be.
When I was aboard a ferry approaching that magnificent city, I looked off to a smaller island and saw a large, beautiful church situated there. I asked my guide why the church had been built, since Venice was already blessed with the incomparable cathedral of St. Mark’s. She said, “That was built in gratitude to God by the Venetians after deliverance from a great plague.” I spied a second grand and beautiful church on another island. “Oh, that was built in gratitude to God after the city’s recovery from a devastating illness.” I saw another impressive church on a third island. “That, too, was built in gratitude to God after the passing of a terrible disease.” I thought of the Passion Play at Oberammergau, which happens in Bavaria every ten years and is longest-running play in western history. What had been the catalyst for this little town’s staging the most famous play in the world? It was the onslaught of the Black Death! That great decimator of Western Europe had made its way to this tiny little village, and already several village inhabitants had died when the village elders vowed that if their town was further spared, they would put on a play highlighting the passion of their Lord – and this they would continue to do on a regular basis. They made that vow in 1633. Deaths among them attributed to the Black Death ceased almost immediately. In response, the people of that little town began fulfilling their pledge in 1634, staging a play that retells the story of Jesus over the course of six and a half hours, a play they have continued to stage every ten years for nearly four hundred years.
Paul, who knew his share of dark and perilous moments and experienced his share of amazing deliverances, articulated a principle of faith that undergirds our assumptions about God’s work in history: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him and who are called according to his purpose.” Paul recognized that whatever the crisis, whatever the trauma, whatever the horrific event, God’s Presence was still evident, and God was always planting a resurrection impulse into the heart of Christians and Christian societies. Whether it was a military invasion, a devastating pandemic, or a horrible natural catastrophe, God had planted a resurrection impulse in people who looked through the cross to the reality of God’s delivering strength. Paul was not saying that evil events are good. The destruction of Rome was a searing tragedy for the entire Western world. Hundreds of thousands of Venetians perished amidst the onslaught of one disease or another. The Black Death thinned the population of Europe by 30%. These were all horrific events. But individuals and cultures who had been oriented around the story of Christ looked through the cross to the reality of resurrection, and they felt an impulse amidst even the most painful events to create outcomes that were redemptive, positive, and capable of rendering glory unto God.
The great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton recalled a conversation with a little girl who was asked to define an optimist. She answered, “An optimist is someone who looks at your eyes. A pessimist is someone who looks at your feet.” Chesterton noted that while the little girl was medically wrong, she was theologically right: an optimist always looks upward and ahead; a pessimist looks solely at the ground. I fear we have a superficial concept of optimists. We see optimists as those who look at the world through rose-colored glasses, putting a false and superficial gloss on everything. But a real optimist is someone who strives for that which is optimum, for that which is best, even in circumstances of adversity Paul was an optimist. He was no Pollyanna. But even amidst events of deprivation, imprisonments, scourgings, shipwrecks, and snakebites, he looked through those events for how God could bring results that best served the Kingdom of God. He believed that the providence of God could take all of his darkness and direct it toward outcomes of light that were good, comforting, redemptive and positive. The positivity of superficial optimists does not last. The cruelty and indifference of the world shatters it like a fragile vase. The true optimist under the power of God always looks upward and forward toward the ultimate consequence that is best and most beneficial.
The truth is, some of the most redemptive and transformative movements in history have rooted in tragedy and pain. The movement known as Alcoholics Anonymous originated in the experience of a man who almost lost his life to his addiction, but his experience of God’s delivering grace empowered him to create a program that has redeemed the lives of millions. Mothers Against Drunk Driving originated in the grief of a mother who lost her daughter to an inebriated driver. Chuck Colson, the Nixon White House aide, jailed for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover up, emerged from prison determined to establish a ministry that could make a positive impact on inmates. The most pitiable creatures on earth are those who are dead, even though they are alive. Those for whom life has not turned out as they anticipated, whom life has surprised with undesirable developments – some people react to such events by allowing themselves to freeze inside. They do not make use of the truths they have gleaned amidst experiencing tragedy and loss. Their anguish benefits no one. The wisdom they have gained by enduring profound heartache improves no one. Whatever insights they have gained amidst the crucible of grief and sorrow remain buried within them. But those who have endured searing loss and weathered tragedy and felt the resurrection impulse to resist the temptation to wither inside, those people make a conscious decision to employ their hard-won knowledge to create consequences that are positive, transformative, redemptive and capable of giving glory to God. These people draw upon the resurrection impulse to use their pain to help others cope with loss and ultimately create movements and ministries that improve their world. If the Romans had resigned themselves to staying where they were and simply hating what the Vandals were going to do to them, they would perished in their hatred. Instead, in response to the resurrection impulse, they created the miracle of Venice.
Please don’t hear me saying that when bad and evil things happen to us, they are really good things in disguise. I’m not saying that at all. I date my own pilgrimage toward embracing the pastorate and becoming a theologian to a truly horrible event. When I was sixteen, one of my best friends was killed by a drunk district attorney who ran over him as he walked home from a party. Up until that time I had always believed that everything that happens is God’s will. But even at age sixteen I couldn’t wrap my mind around the notion that God willed for this attorney to abuse alcohol and get behind the wheel and take the life of my friend. If that is what God willed, I could no longer worship God. But I came to realize that my friend had died because this attorney had disobeyed God’s will. He had ignored that prick of conscience that had said to him, “Just call a cab; don’t get behind the wheel and endanger yourself and others.” That attorney had squelched that prick of conscience and then squelched my friend’s life. But that great evil spawned an insatiable theological curiosity in me that set me on the path to becoming a theologian and a pastor. Out of that great evil I felt the resurrection impulse to start a theological pilgrimage that has defined my existence and has set me on the ceaseless search for what theologians call, “faith seeking understanding.”
I often think of what Flannery O’Conner, the great Georgia writer, wrote about her physical frailties. She said, “Sometimes, great illness is as instructive to me as a trip to Europe.” Flannery O’Conner was well-acquainted with the resurrection impulse. Her physical frailty served as the impetus and catalyst for her powerful literary insights. Yet, I would be less than candid with you this morning if I said that I could always discern the resurrection impulse in horrific events. I have never walked through a hosptial ward of sick children without breathing a selfish prayer of gratitude and thanks to God that among the sundry crosses I have had to bear in my life, the serious illness of my children was not among them. I have struggled to discern or articulate any resurrection impulse in trying to comfort parents who have lost a young child to cancer. I have struggled to discern and articulate any resurrection impulse in trying to minister to parents who have lost a teenager to a freak accident. Sometimes, I have struggled trying to comfort people who have lost a beloved family member unexpectedly and suddenly. Sometimes, I have struggled to counsel children whose aging parents have lost all cognitive abilities, but their body has not yet got the memo, so they just keep breathing, seemingly without purpose. There are numerous times when I have sat with people who have done everything they could to bring about healing, yet healing has not come – and I cannot answer their Why. So often I have yearned and even prayed to God for a magic wand that I could wave over hospital beds and scenes of grief and dire situations of pain and restore all things to good, health, light and peace. But I have no magic wand. All I can say is, whatever the heartache, whatever the crisis, whatever the trauma, whatever the loss, God is still with us, and as hard as it is sometimes to discern, there is within every moment of existence a divine resurrection impulse that spurs us to look for those consequence that are most positive and uplifting. Because even when life is fraught with pain and a searing sense of loss, life is nevertheless profoundly meaningful.
I confess, there are times when I wish life was not so meaningful, times when I wish we could all merely exist on the surface of life so that the losses of people and privileges we have cherished would not be so painful. Yet truly, the very times when we feel profound pain, when we weather searing loss, when we emote deep empathy, when we exemplify compassion, all such actions convey the fact that life is profoundly meaningful, and we would rather life be meaningful, even if it is painful, than for it to be devoid of real purpose. To experience loss and grapple with the consequential pain is far better than losses that mean nothing. Better to grapple with our grief than to experience events that communicate to us no purpose or design. We have to trust that as we invest our lives in this world, as we invest our faith, as we invest our love, even when events befuddle and confuse us, we hold to the bedrock divine promise that God is at work in our lives and in history, and there is a resurrection impulse that ultimately we can discern and act upon. Sometimes, even in the darkest pit, we must exercise our trust in God’s assurance that in everything God works for good for those who love him, for those who are called according to His purpose. Sometimes, we cannot discern God’s purpose in events, and that can be the very nature of our cross. Sometimes, the only glory we can find in our cross is that we bear that cross unto God and submit our pain to God in the hope and prayer that somehow, someway, over the course of time, God can sanctify it.
As we worship this morning, there are artists at work in Uvalde Texas, creating huge murals of the nineteen children and two teachers who were gunned down in Robb Elementary. These artists, all volunteers, have gathered from all over the country to create murals of these children and their teachers so that anyone who looks upon those murals will be compelled not to forget the horror that happened. Parents of those children are grateful to those artists, because their art reminds people and politicians to band together to ensure that such an event never happens again. These parents want no one else has to suffer what they have suffered. Out of this almost unimaginable horror, these parents look to these murals to give vent to their resurrection impulse. God placed that resurrection impulse within them. God has placed that same resurrection impulse within us. The question is, amidst the grief, difficulty and confusion of our lives, what positive, creative, redemptive responses can we create that will bring glory to God?