Lovers of the Dead: An Ode to the Not Yet

Here are some excerpts from a talk I gave at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference in 2014 – an Ode to the Not Yet. I’m attaching a PDF of the full paper if you wish to read it.

2 Cor. 4.10-12 states: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” Not only is life doing work here, death is doing work too, work than can be done in no other way.

It may be the case that sometimes as we pray for others we are attending more to our own anxiety, our own second-hand experience of their tragedy… perhaps sometimes our motivation is a need to see something happen. A Vineyard pastor recently described the already as the ’thrill of victory’ and the not yet as the ‘agony of defeat.’ If we approach praying for others with this mindset, then I would suggest we are preoccupied with our own anxiety.

The not yet is the perfecter of love. The not yet is the purifier of faith. The not yet is the protector of hope. The not yet grows the kingdom. The already enjoys the fruit of the not yet’s labor. The already and the not yet are the poles of the dialectic. The kingdom is the paradox that only exists in their tension. The not yet is not the agony of defeat. It is not the absence of the kingdom. It is the sine qua non of the kingdom. To love purely is to love the dead is to love the not yet. Only in love of the dead, love of the not yet, is love purified of self and the already made possible, not as negation of the not yet, but as affirmation that the kingdom is there too.

We tend to think about the power showing up and performing some miraculous thing, some evidence that the already is breaking in. That is how we commonly describe what is going on. This gives the indication that power is on the side of the already and that the not yet is powerless. But there is power in the not yet. As evidence, I submit to you the power of death. We all know that death is very powerful. Try as we might we cannot ultimately break free from its grip. It has a power over us more than any other force in life, even taxes. But it is not a wholly negative power. It is a power in its very powerlessness. There is power in what looks to us as powerless. As evidence, I submit to you the cross. In the embrace of death, in the foregoing of all forms of power as we think we know them, Jesus becomes completely powerless, and in that powerlessness he conquers sin, death, and the world. The not yet operates in this mode of power, in the power of the cross. As people called to live cruciform lives, this is the standard mode of power in which we operate. We give up power, we embrace the cross, when we risk to trust, when we dare to hope, when we submit to love.

Our sympathetic anxiety can leave us unable to sit with those who suffer, we feel like we have to do something, we have to pray, we have to fix it, because their tragedy could become our tragedy. We know the kingdom is come when we can sit with those who suffer, when we can be present to tragedy, when we can love the dead. Sometimes those who suffer need healing, need something to be fixed; other times we are called to suffer with those who suffer.

Just as revelation is dependent on hiddenness, the already is dependent on the not yet. Faith does not grow in the already. Hope does not exist in the already. Love is not perfected in the already. Only in the not yet are the theological virtues – the pillars of the kingdom – formed. Those most in love with the not yet, those most free of self-conscious anxiety, are precisely those who usher in the already. Those who have are given more. Those who are anxious about what little they have lose even that. The already is the kingdom. The not yet is the kingdom, not the failure of the kingdom. As I noted from the Fourth Gospel and the command to love, the kingdom comes by obedience. Only disobedience marks a failure of the kingdom, because the rule of the kingdom extends no further than the end of obedience to the command of God that comes to each of us in our particularity. More than universal, more than individual, the command of God is absolute. Universal duty easily explains away all hard demands. Individual conscience leads to imitation after our own fashion. But the absolute command of God coming to us in our particularity only allows for two responses: obedience or not. And what is the abiding nature of this command in all its absolute particularities? To love purely. To love selflessly. To love cruciform. To love as one loves the dead. To love the not yet.