Love in the Abyss Romans 5:1-5

9781455501953_custom-30dedeba3cd673bcda8c88973028d06ca2f1c771-s2Tuesday morning, I
sat down with our lectionary study group, eight local pastors I gather with
each week to reflect on the next Sunday’s readings.  None of us were excited about Trinity Sunday,
or the theological Rubic’s Cube of explaining the three-in-one God.  News was pouring in from Oklahoma City about
the terrible tornadoes, and we were all feeling a sense of tragedy overload,
Newtown shootings, Boston Bombings, and weekly pastoral tragedies in our
congregations.  In the midst of this, we
had Paul’s text from Romans 5,

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know
that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I’m not above
glorying in my sufferings, but its not the goal.  I come by stoicism naturally growing up in
farm country, and I like this passage, because I struggle to with
perseverance.  I need help to hope.  A common emotional progression is not always
as Paul says, but rather that suffering produces frustration; frustration
brings self-pity, and self-pity produces apathy and hopelessness.  I marvel when someone triumphs over
suffering; a Gabby Giffords coming back from being shot in the head, an alcoholic
who maintains sobriety for 20 years and sponsors others along the path, I even
marvel at Anthony Weiner running for Mayor of New York City.  I always wonder why one person crumbles in
tragedy and another finds their life purpose.
What is the foundation of hope and resiliency in the midst of tragedy
and suffering?  (And a side note, does it
have anything to do with the Trinity?)

Tuesday morning, as we were hearing the terrible news of tornadoes in Oklahoma City, NPR’s Morning
Edition aired an interview with author Carol Shaben, who wrote a memoir “Into the Abyss”   about a plane crash in artic Canada, which her father was one of the few survivors.

On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Erik Vogel was uneasy about flying. It was snowing; his plane’s de-icer and autopilot weren’t working; and his co-pilot had been
bumped to fit one more passenger on his 10-seater. But the young pilot was behind schedule and he felt like his job was on the line, so he took off, as he did most days, shuttling between the remote communities that dot the Canadian wilderness.

Author Carol Shaben tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep what happened next: “He’s hearing these chunks
of ice coming off the props and banging like rocks against the fuselage. And he
made a calculation error. He thought he was past the high point, but there was
another rise of land, 2,500 feet, and he hit that top of that rise.”

The plane crashed through a bank of trees, and as the fuselage plowed into the ground, broken
bits of plane sheared off the roof like a sardine can. Six people died in the
crash, and four men emerged from the wreckage: the pilot; a politician; a
prisoner being transferred; and the police officer who was escorting him.

The police officer recalled that night becoming conscious and not realizing the plane had crashed.  He was buried up to his chest in dirt, has no idea what is going on, and suddenly his prisoner, Paul, emerges and starts digging him out, and rescues him.  It is
Paul who drags everyone to safety and then searches for anything to burn and
start a fire with, no easy job in three feet of snow and subzero weather.  Without this prisoner, feeding the fire the all would have died.  The police officer had been a Canadian Mountie and recovered numerous bodies of people who froze to death in the wild and assumed they would die.

Shaben, the author weaves together how each of the survivors was transfigured by the crash and rescue.  Her father had a remarkable political career, and was especially moved by another plane crash, this one on 9/11, which moved him to work for greater understanding between cultures.  The pilot, struggled with guilt through the years, and after having his flying career stalled, since no one would hire him, he became a firefighter, and had the opportunity to save many more lives than
those lost that day. But the most dramatic change was for Paul Archanbault:

Shaben:. He had a long prison record — who, you know, was an
accused criminal, a drifter who had been drifting across the country since he
was 15 or 16….. He got on a plane two days later and faced charges, faced a
judge in court. And the judge said, ‘You are to be commended for your actions
and I exonerate you of all charges.’ So this ne’er-do-well vagabond who’d had
nothing but hard luck was all of a sudden hailed as a hero. So [his life] took
a dramatic turn that way.

In the books prologue
Shaben tries to explain what happened to them, turning to popular mythology
writer Joseph Campbell, who wrote a book about heroic journeys, and the
transformative power of a crisis that shakes our complacency through
crisis.  We confront the precious and
limited nature of existence and come out with a deeper understanding on the
other side of suffering.  I think that is
partly correct, however, not everyone is transformed by crisis.  If so, Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma
tornadoes would be creating great religious revivals and an outpouring of
meaning and purpose.  Crisis does bring
people together for a time, there is an outpouring of compassion for the
survivors, gratitude to still be alive, but the norm is most people gradually
return to everyday life, and few even curse God or reject any goodness to life.

I think the real
story of the plane crash is not just how each individual took their own hero’s
journey to transformation, it is how their bond and their ongoing friendship
gave them the strength and courage to go on and find new meaning.  It is a story of community, and of the
transforming power of love and friendship.
Perhaps they would have still lived changed lives as sole survivors, by
that would be rare indeed. Most people have the strength to hope and change
because of love.  This is why twelve step
recovery programs work so well, not because of the magic or brilliance of the
steps alone, but because of the accompanying community.  Many people find hope in their terrible pain
and suffering through Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, or working to transform
gun violence.

This is why we gather
in church each week, and why we sing and pray and reflect on scriptures together.  We are not transformed by wisdom alone, or
knowledge alone or the calming power of meditation and music.  It is love that is at the heart of things,
and you can’t love by yourself.

When people say they
don’t believe in organized religion, or that they are spiritual by not
religious, I ask them if they believe in community.  It is certainly hard to have community
without organization, and hard to make community without passing through some
disagreements and annoyances.  What I
really want to say is “Where will you go when walking alone in your spiritual
journey is not enough?”

Now I know you are
wondering when I will get back to the Holy Trinity.  Thanks for asking.  The doctrine we call Trinity matters because
it tells us that even God does not dwell alone.
The mystery at the heart of our one God, is that there is a communal
in-dwelling together of three personas; Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.  Love cannot live alone and it is always
seeking more life to love.  This must be
why God seeks us.  This is why we can
hope.  As Paul says in the conclusion of
our Romans reading:

And hope does not put us to shame, because
God’s love has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit, who
has been given to us.




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