Friday morning was the kind of morning where everyone stares at the computer screen hitting refresh over and over and over again. What is happening in Boston? How many people died in Texas? How many Facebook friends have lost a loved one this week? Has my friend in critical condition after a complicated delivery improved? Refresh, scan, refresh, scan, refresh and scan again. My roommate sat in the frame of my bedroom door and lamented, “This never ends. It just doesn’t end.” These are the mornings, the days that remind us that endings betray us. Just as the thread of one story seems to be tying off, a new series of events and emotions unravels the fabric that the thread was fastening. The endlessness begins all over again and we search all the more for answers—the whos, the whats, and the whys—all that we cannot actually know. And yet we keep trying, clicking over, asking, staring, looking at each other with bewildered eyes, wondering if in fact this is the time, if this endlessness will be the final endlessness, the end.
In “Big Fish,” Will Bloom, the son of storytelling extraordinaire, Ed Bloom, finds his father’s tall tales endlessly disillusioning. From Ed’s dramatic and successful attempt to swoon his mother to the unbelievable story of Will’s birth to Ed’s fantastical accounts of his sales travels, Will believes his father is a deceiver of immeasurable quantity. The unbelieveability of the tall tales and the father’s insistence on their truth has eroded any faith the son has in the father. As Ed nears the end of his life, Will returns home seeking some reconciliation before his father’s life ends. Ed insists he won’t die lying in his bed. “How does it happen?” Will asks. Ed answers slyly, “Surprise ending. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.” Ed begins retelling his fantastical stories with gusto, his bravery in many of them fueled by a confidence in the certainty of his life’s surprise ending.
Wouldn’t it be grand to know the ending of our story? Research indicates that we enjoy stories more when the ending has been spoiled. When we know the ending, we can relax and we can pay attention to the things that really matter. Ed Bloom isn’t bothered with his son’s need for factual information, he knows the ending and is too busy enjoying and paying attention to the fantastical ways of coming to the end. When we know the ending, our mind can filter through all of the sensory information we gather and collect what only what matters. Our emotional investment is placed confidently in relationships that will be there at the end. Our spirits, no longer anxiously attempting to make sense of the future of a thousand story threads, rest in what is in front of us.
Our seeing, our hearing and our knowing substantively change when we know the ending of the story. Ed Bloom knows the end of his story and his telling of the story reflects the ending that he knows. Paul knows the end of the Christian story, he saw it in the crucified Christ. His telling of the story, his words to the people of Corinth and Rome and Galatia, is textured with Ed Bloom’s sense of wonder and his own outrage at how easily the ending has been forgotten.
Forgotten and dismissed endings dim Will’s view of his father. Throughout the life of Ed Bloom, villians and foes of implausible origins and incredible variety press in against him, but Ed knows his ending and isn’t fazed by fear. Will knows that his father knows his ending, but distracted by the improbability of it all, Will doesn’t believe Ed, patronizes him and ignores him.
Paul, too, faced incredible villains and foes—church leaders too focused on Jewish law to include Gentiles who have encountered the gospel of Jesus, church members so bound up in their social status that they’ve forgotten to feed their hungry sisters and brothers, political and religious leaders who believe he is causing political insurrection and stop him by any means. But God revealed his Son to Paul while he was still a persecutor of God and, like a fool, Paul dedicated his life, his body, mind and spirit, to responding to the revelation, revealing it to be the freedom for Jew and Gentile from the bondage of sin and death (Galatians 1:13-16, 2:1-10). In receiving the revelation of the crucified God, Paul discovered his true end—not the fulfillment of the law in the being of Israel, but the fulfillment of the law in the being of Christ. He is free to dedicate himself fully, regardless of social, physical or emotional cost to this message of radical liberation from the powers of sin and death—personal, bodily, and corporate—because he knows his end is in Christ. He can tell a story that overturns every social division without fear of death because he has seen his end in the Crucified Lord. He can live in chains without fear because his ending in the cross has already freed him to live in ways previously unimaginable.
Sometimes when we play in theological candy land, we like to toy with the Greek word for end—telos. We use it to mark a sense of purpose, distinguishing it from the sense of finality and completion in English word end. But perhaps these two senses of the word end—purpose and finality—are not so far from one another. Paul and Ed know their ending—not how they die per se, but the purpose for which they live. Their ending is living, not dying, and so they do not fear their ending, their death. Death is not finality to Ed or to Paul. Ending is not finality to Ed or to Paul. Death in Christ is life itself. End in Christ is no end at all. Surprise!
As leaders, preachers, teachers in the church, how do we tell this ending to the story? How does knowing the ending change the focus of our attention? Are we, like Will Bloom, caught up in a debilitating fact finding mission, searching for the right word, the final word to share with our congregations and communities? Are we unable to believe that the fantastic and foolish is not always fiction and that fiction is not always false? When we fixate our eyes onto screens, refreshing news feeds in hopes of swift and safe endings to the heartbreaking news, do we demonstrate once again how deeply we have forgotten the end of the story? Are we so bound up in the 21st century’s 24-hour news cycles and Wikipedia’s endless gorge of useless information that we have forgotten how to know and explore meaning beyond them? Have we forgotten that our end is living not ending?
It isn’t just the most recent horror story that demonstrates our reliance on certain kinds of knowing to make meaning in this world. In the church, we demonstrate our dependence on the measurable and finite in our sermonic meditations: how to be a better you, how to achieve financial peace, how to be a more faithful spouse, how abundant tithing will strengthen your faith. The largest problem with sermons on finances, relationships (marital or otherwise), and healthy living habits is that they fail to remember the ending is living for Christ, not for ourselves, not for the finite. Questions about reducing debt and abundant living aren’t wrong necessarily, but answers that reduce such questions to their temporal end rob the askers of the surprise ending that death in Christ brings. In death to ourselves, our vanity, and even our piety, Paul taught that we find the greatest surprise: life in Christ (Romans 6). In looking at the finite and temporal through the end in Christ, our seeing, hearing, and knowing is transformed to attend to God’s radical liberating activity in our lives, in our time and space.
Perhaps an ending is not something that we realize, meet, or accomplish, but it is something that we live. We may not find the endings to next week’s heartbreaking news story threads, but we can weave those threads into the story of the faithful, the people who love aggressors and visit the imprisoned, the people who wash wounds and hold the hands of the lonely, the people who feed the hungry and fight systems that have created such great hunger. These stories, the fighting faithful stories, do not end because they are lived and will continue to be lived by people who have already witnessed their end in the Crucified Savior. Like Ed Bloom, they do not fear death because they know that their surprise ending is really no ending at all. It is a new beginning, and endless swim in the river of life.
Preaching, teaching, and living from this end, through this end, and with this ending does not mean that we suddenly quit telling the stories of the quotidian. Rather, like Paul shares with us the surprising transformation the ordinary loaf and wine into Christ’s redeeming, sanctifying, and unifying body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), we see the quotidian of our lives through the surprise of life. We no longer see the meal as a time to feed ourselves alone, but as a time to share life with our companions, especially those who hunger. We no longer see our sermon as a time to offer advice or pitch-perfect exegesis, but as a moment to retell life’s story as God’s fantastic story of overcoming death with death. We peel back the hubris of the everyday life and reveal the surprise of life in Christ that lies within. We draw the community into the surprise ending that doesn’t end but keeps on living.