Gary Shandling and Attending a Wake


In a 2007 article published in Esquire magazine, the late comedian Gary Shandler recounted a near-death experience. At the age of twenty-seven, he was pinned in a car accident when he heard a voice say to him, "Do you want to continue leading Garry Shandling's life?" Describing this story, Shandling writes, "Without thinking, I said, "Yes." It was from this point forward that the celebrated comedian began his trajectory into the world of stand-up and television. Experiences with death alter us. Sometimes, these encounters launch us. Sometimes, they break us. But they always change us. 

Last week, Andrea and I participated in Wake, a festival in Belfast, Northern Ireland curated by author and theologian, Peter Rollins. For decades, Rollins has been organizing spaces for theological communities to gather. Each year, this festival gathers people from around the world for a type of "wake," a 5-day gathering around shared loss(es). For some, it's a wake for god, belief, or a version of religion that no longer functions. For others, it's a wake for the very suffering and death in existence. Like any proper wake, there are genuine conversations, music, presentations, theology, poetry, and comedy centered around pints of Guinness and plenty of food. Frankly, it's an invitation into the experience of death. Sounds enjoyable, eh?

I'll admit some people are more comfortable moving amidst melancholy than others, but I have often found that from an experience of death, newness can be mined. As a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation, Jesus was well acquainted with the reality of suffering and taught regularly about the themes of death and new life. Overcome with emotion, he wept at the wake of his dear friend, Lazarus and engaged with the ever-present potentiality of his insurrection initiating his own death. Each week at Mission Hills, we too participate in a wake. We gather and walk toward a wooden table and remember the death of a man who died over two-thousand years ago. We discuss how to find hope, grace, and newness in the mystery of this death. Our sacred story guides us through the experience of death and into resurrection. You must be born again as Jesus once said. 

Any kind of death is painful and so it's not surprising that we will go out of our way to avoid it. Similarly, both our secular and religious cultures are obsessed with living forever either through the idea of a heaven in the sky or a digital cloud for your consciousness. This is why I love Wake: In the midst of escapist ideologies, political chaos, and pop-music anesthesia, a group of people willingly sign-up and travel across the world to attend...a wake. For a few days, this group laments and asks interesting questions about our lives, our world, and our religions. It's an incarnational embrace of the murkiness of life, the beauty that exists in its fragility and dimension. This sense of grace that exists in the spirit of the experience of death and resurrection is what I hope we continue to embrace as a community in Los Angeles. 

So, you have been given another moment...
"Do you want to continue leading Garry Shandling's life?