Thursday, November 10, 2005

Chapter Six: God is God

"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them".
Ecclesiastes 12:1
"...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins ... If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied."
I Corinthians 15:17,19
I will no longer defend the actions of God. I cannot defend what I do not understand. Nor can I defend the integrity of God if it means convincing myself or someone else that the world is essentially good and sweet and God works in some predictable and consistent way to be sure the optimist's glass stays half full. I cannot deny what I have seen.
I'll not bore you with an evening of home movies of the suffering and evils I've witnessed over the years, you have seen it too. Let it suffice to say I've lived long enough for people close to me to die, and they've died too soon, too young, too late and too lonely. I've lived long enough to see unimaginable abuse, to know people's most secret failures, and see people's most dreaded of fears come to pass. I've seen rejection, handicaps, natural disaster and unnatural annihilation. In it all I believed in the integrity and love of God but many times at the expense of my own integrity: I denied much of what was rolling and raging in me because I believed. I truly wanted to believe the problem of evil was all a matter of perspective, the glass is half full. But it was a thin blanket against a bitter cold because smiling at and affirming the fullness does not do away with the emptiness, there is still the place where there is absence. Nor is it the "half full" that is the true issue really, it is the fact of any emptiness at all in the face of a God who seems to promise fullness or at least has the power to deliver it but sometimes does and sometimes does not. I sometimes think it would be easier if he consistently did nothing. There would be a certain comfort to be had in even that hopeless predictability, but I've seen God both show up and stand people up without so much as a clue why.
I now realize that the truth that God said of himself to Moses and Job is the only truth about God I can say with any certainty: "I am the Lord God, I am gracious and but I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." God is saying up front, "I am for all practical purposes capricious and arbitrary. I might bestow mercy but I will do it on my own terms. So be it. End of discussion. No more questions because I'm not giving out answers." Without answers I cannot defend what is ambiguous. I cannot offer uncertainty to anyone as comfort. So all I can be is honest.
These things I have resolved. I will bear witness as plainly as I can, to the good and the evil in the world. I will not deny that at times there is both joy and outrage at God's compassion, joy that someone did find mercy, outrage that not everybody does. I will not deny the sense of betrayal I feel when God does not keep his promises of care, of affirmative answers to prayers said fervently and desperately. I will not deny the sense of abandonment I feel when I see the unchecked evil done in the world, nor the fear knowing it could very well be my child, my friends, my family that might be the next victims. I will no longer presume to tell anyone I know or can even make a wild guess at the divine purposes for either suffering or blessings.
But this I can tell them, this I will affirm: that to believe in God is to have hope there is some divine purpose in it all. I can say that God has never promised he would make sense, only that he is God. If nothing else he has the integrity to tell us up front he's going to do whatever he wants because he is God. I will tell of the most senseless thing he ever did: He showed up here. Not to do away with evil, but to deliver himself over to evil. Instead of showing up to rescue the victims and give the victimizers a sound whacking, he became a victim himself and let them and the plagues and sicknesses and heartaches all go on as if he'd never showed up at all. That is God, take him or leave him.
To take him or leave him is the essence of faith.
He says to us as he is being executed for being God, staring straight in the face of all our incoherence, dissolution and corruption, "Trust me, I know what I'm doing." Either he does or He doesn’t. And either we do or don't buy the resurrection, his promise that there is a vast and holy integrity to it all and we too will someday be redeemed from all this suffering.
For my money, in the end, even if the gospel is all a fairy tale hope at best or a damned lie at worst, it is still more attractive than the hopeless and ghastly promises the world hands me.
I admit I’m buying it.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Chapter Five

Rage, rage against the dark.

Rage into the darkness.

Curse whatever is out there - even God.

Curse the pain - and curse Him who could take it away but withholds His cure.

Curse the sorrow - and Him who could comfort but will not hold us.

Curse the hopelessness - and Him who is hope for not showing His face.

Curse the dark future - and Him who is light but refuses to illuminate the horizons of our remaining years.

Rage into the night of your sorrows and despair. Know He is there, listening, hearing - fear Him not.

I fear more what the dark holds without Him in it than I do His anger.

I fear more raging into a darkness that conceals no God than cursing into a darkness that may indeed hide a God who may listen and hear the pain beneath my cursing -

Therein is at least the hope for compassion, whether it comes or not, because finally, hope is at the bottom of the rage.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Life, Death and Love, Chapter Four

The Atheist's Truth

It is April of 1991. Easter week. I watched the evening news tonight, of the Kurds, thousands of them camped on a mountainside fleeing Saddam Hussien's murderous wrath. The camera slowly sweeps the mountainside taking in hundreds of them, sitting stone still, hollow eyed with hunger. I see women staring into some private distance holding small children now skin on bone. The women look hollow hearted as they watch the flesh of their flesh begin to stare into the blue skies, eyes transfixed on some invisible point. The women sit and they watch for the moment they will know there is nothing left behind those milky eyes.

I thought of the Sermon once preached on a similar mountainside probably to a multitude much like this one. Part of it says, "Behold the lilies of the field, not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. Behold the sparrows of the air, they sow not nor do they reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you worth more than they?" And I wondered if the beauty of the wildflowers that dotted that Kurdish mountainside and the full-bellied birds that circled the desolate encampments were a comfort to those whose children were arrayed in thin rags that could not hold back the freezing night air that would steal their last breath. I wondered how an omnipotent, creative God who will array His grass with colors bright and give His birds the powers to survive a rocky and barren hillside could allow His children to starve and freeze to death on a mountainside strewn with His wildflowers. I wondered how He could hear the mountains exalt Him and shout His glories and praise and not listen to His children crying. I wondered if death by the murderous wrath of Hussein was any more grievous than death by the murderous absence of God and His unfulfilled promises.

That week I read an article about Madalyn O'Hair, the famous atheist, and a conference she held here during Easter week. She was asked by the reporter, "Do you have faith in yourself?" She said, "No, there is no such thing. I don't have any spirituality, I don't have any faith, I don't have any beliefs, I don't have anything else. I've got the hard, cold reality of living in a (very, very sick) world and culture." An Arizona State University student, Dawn Peters who has designs on becoming a spokesperson for atheists says in the same article, "I have a strong conviction that the things that need to be done, people need to get out and do to make a change in the world ... No God is going to come in and save us from ourselves. And that's the only thing we have to fear: ourselves."

I watched the television and I saw the cold, hard reality of a sick world. I saw the arrival of the benevolent airlifts of blankets and food. I saw the people scrambling for food being crushed to death by the pallets of donations that were being shoved from the back end of helicopters. In the end it was but a late and temporary respite against the evil on one small mountainside on one small piece of this rock we call Earth; Band-aids prescribed for a heart attack. I sat in our worship services that Sunday and grieved. I felt that week a closer fellowship with the atheist than with those who profess to know God. I knew the atheists' eyes were clear, I looked and saw what they saw, unadorned with the tinsel of theodicies and theories of some holy purpose for suffering and the death of innocents. I saw what Ms. O'Hair saw, unglossed by the humanist's rhetoric and idealisms of our capacities for benevolence and concern for our fellow humans. I truly believe Ms. O'Hair is more realistic than the young idealist Ms. Peters. I think after a few more years of seeing the limits of the benevolence and altruism of the human heart, and if she can be honest with herself, finds over the years the depths of selfishness and egotism to which she is capable of sinking, Ms. Peters may realize that too often human beings, even in all our altruism, barely hold back the night and often, too often, do not and cannot keep the darkness away. After four decades I may not agree with Ms. O'Hair's solutions to this world's sickness, but I find a brutal honesty, a withering Truth she speaks that Christians would be wise to listen to and to hear. It is the gospel she preaches, perhaps not complete, but truly half of it. She faithfully and accurately reports the human condition, the sickness of the world. She speaks truth about the depth of human depravities and what we have wreaked on this earth and on one another, both with and without God and in the name of God. And being faithful to half the Truth is, I think, being closer to Truth than believing half truths about the whole Truth.

There is a scant difference between Ms. O'Hair and myself. I think Christians, by arguing her rhetoric and philosophical conundrums (the fact she claims to believe nothing is in fact a belief, and so on) they miss what is underneath it all: a heart that has taken off the rose-tinted glasses and looked hard and long at the world and has been broken by it, or in her case perhaps beaten to callousness by it. They all miss the fact that Ms. O'Hair is preaching half the gospel. There is a scant difference between what Ms. O'Hair sees and tells us plainly and what Jesus Christ experienced. In the end the gospel gives us no illusions of human altruism and benevolent potential. The gospel tells us that no amount of love, human or divine, can keep evil people from killing the innocent and the good. It says when the Innocent dies the darkness comes and the earth trembles at the horrific depth of human evil. It also says bystanders will look on, perhaps appalled, and allow the brutality to be consummated. It says no matter how good or Godly a person is, when his time comes to die, no amount of pleading, no prayer, no accrued brownie points of good deeds or potential for doing good for the world will save him. And when sometimes we feel we need God the most, He is not there, He forsakes us. That is truth.

But this too is truth. Somehow, the gospel tells us, in the very storm of evil done to one Innocent on one small hill, and in the midst of the darkness and trembling earth, somewhere in a religious institution that kills in the name of God, the veil is torn and God becomes accessible once more. And on a Sunday morning on one small hillside, hope is given to all the world. This is the other half of the Truth, and the truth of this is as hard as the cold, hard world full of evil it died in and for. It had to be, and it is harder to face than the reality of this sick world. God has, in fact, come down to save us, Ms. Peters, Ms. O'Hair, because you know as well as I do that we need saving. Not from hunger, not from oppression and global warming or even things as ordinary as your alchoholic parent, Ms. Peters, but from ourselves. And if not from ourselves, at least from hopelessness, which is all we have if all we have is ourselves and each other to save us from ourselves.

Hope is what we are all after in the end and for our end. And we all have it: hope "in" some thing, hope "for" something, hope "that" someone will do something to change things, or even just change themselves. That hope is part of the human heart, the part that keeps it from being vanquished by evil, and it is why yours has not yet been overwhelmed absolutely. I admit sometimes it is all I can do to have faith that there is still hope. Sometimes it is all I can do to want to believe there is hope. But I believe the wanting is enough, and that in itself is hope enough to get me through the darkness. That is hope enough to get me to the light, and if I can just get to the Light perhaps I can see again clearly what brought the darkness on.

So this is my confession: I believe the gospel because after looking hard at the world and what I have done in it, I know we, and I, need saving, whatever that means. I believe the gospel because it gives hope; because I know, after looking hard at the world and what I have done in it, I have no hope if it is not true.

(New Times Weekly, "The Last Temptation of Madalyn O'Hair". Ward Harkavy, Vol. 22 No. 17 April 17, 1991. p.34-39)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Life, Death and Love, Chapter Three

A Prayer

Merciful Spirit of God,

Move Thou across the chaos of this, the deep and dark waters of my life.

Cast the shadow of the wings of Thy presence over the chaos of my heart:

over the anger at unseen and fearful powers I feel tearing me asunder, powers I cannot name, powers I have begged Thee to rebuke yet they surround me still;

over the evil I find myself doing, the evil I hear my own voice speaking; the desperate things I do to bring this terror to an end in my own ways, in my own time;

over the places within me shattered by despair at Thy silence at my cries and longings for Thine aid;

over the places broken because Thy hand did not stay the brutal, unspeakable and unseen evils that assail me;

over the sadness that has crushed my fragile hope. My faith has been ground to dry dust;

I fear for my life. The night is so vast and dark, I am helpless against its horrors.

o Lord, hear my frail voice before it goes still, before I cannot find the faith to beg Thee any longer for Thy hand to heal my wound.

I lay this, my chaos before Thee.

Spirit of God, pass over the face of these my dark waters and let there be light once more. Divide the waters, dry my tears. Create in me all manners of wild and glorious things, constellations of joy, seasons of exhilaration and rest, places of angelic praise, places of deep mystery, places of firm footing. Let Thy Spirit work its blessed and holy fear within me. Let it gather up what has been broken and shattered and create something of your sacred imagining. I then will know certainly Thou art indeed the Creator, the bringer of holy order within me and the Savior of my soul.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Life, Death and Love, Chapter Two

Meeting God

When I remember God I am troubled.
When I sigh, my spirit grows weak.
Thou hast held my eyelids watching,
I am so troubled I cannot speak. Psalm 77:3-4

I have always wanted to meet God, to see Him, to have a vision, to hear a whisper in the night, to see the uncreated light, to feel an overwhelming presence, or to even wrestle with Him like Jacob. But I never have, not in those ways. Yet I know I have. And so have you.

You see, not all encounters with God are catastrophic, supernatural, crippling or easily recognized. Some come quietly and unannounced. There are no "seven warning signs". You may be driving and you find yourself miles along from the last intersection you conciously remember. You realize at odd times that you have been staring through someone, maybe the bank teller or even your spouse at the dinner table. You may be washing your hands and look up into the mirror and see someone else, perhaps a total stranger to yourself.

You may be holding a half ripe tomato at the produce counter and somehow, somewhere deep inside you go empty, empty as a beggar's plate. There comes a disquieting want within you. It leaves you hollow for a moment, then it is gone. You make the turn, cash the check, dry your hands and you shake off the feeling like a cat-nap and go on, distracted by the next thing you see or hear.

This feeling, like all inexplicable feelings, weaves itself into the fabric of your days. It may be a brief sigh, a momentary sadness, sometimes a deep weariness. It is not quite darkness. It is not truly light. It is not quite despair, it is not hope. It is not quite fear, it is not peace. It is a vague notion that you once possessed something precious and it is now missing. Or perhaps that you were once possessed by Someone Precious and it is you that is missing. It is a twinge of homesickness, a feeling that you belong somewhere but are not there; or that you belong to someone but have lost touch. This fleeting melancholy is easily dismissed in the frenzy of the day because it does not paralyze you or cause you to break out in uncontrollable weeping. It can be evaded by turning up the radio, finding a conversation, making a phone call or even searching for a perfect tomato.

But in the night, when there are no distractions, no tasks, when there is no one but yourself and all that is in you and all that is missing within you, it is then that the feeling is no longer a vague notion but a troubling and persistent void. It is then that, even if you claim to know no God, you have within you an empty and hungering place that you fear to name because to name it would be to know to Whom it belongs and for Whom it hungers. You know with fearful certainty that someone precious is missing. You almost know for Whom it is you are longing. It is a Lover whose face you would know if you saw it, whose name you would recognize if only someone would speak it, whose heart you know is longing for you. It is our Beloved who longs for us in the still of His nights, to whom we know, somehow, somewhere, deep within our own hearts, that we belong.

The next time you find yourself sighing, shrouded in a mist of melancholy, let yourself be troubled. Be still. Close your eyes. Do not speak. Listen. In the hollow chambers of your empty heart a soft and almost recognizable voice echoes there. It is His voice in a whisper calling out for you. To be silent and to listen, to be troubled at the calling and not knowing how to answer it or even what it would mean to answer is enough if we enter the emptiness, because the troubled heart is the one He has touched and it is there that He awaits.

Life, Death and Love Chapter One

It is a Terrifying Thing

"But I, O Lord, have cried out to Thee for help, and in the morning my prayer comes before Thee. Lord, why dost Thou reject my soul? Why dost Thou hide Thy face from me? I was afflicted and about to die from my youth on, I suffer Thy terrors; I am overcome." Psalm 88:13-15

There is a dark side to spirituality.

Everyone who has walked with God knows this truth or eventually finds it out. If you have not yet had the experience or deny it is the believer's lot I will not argue with you the verity of the experience. I write this book assuming it is so; I know it is so. I don't know why it is so. I don't know where it comes from or what its purpose is. I don't know if God causes it or if He just uses it because it just IS and He is God and thus is the only one who can use it. I do know to walk in the Light means I will some days find myself standing at the edge of a dark abyss wondering if I should cast myself into it in hope against hope that God is in there somewhere. I know there is a joy only to be had from believing in God, but I know too there is a holy sorrow that comes only from believing in Him.

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, the writer of Hebrews says to the evildoer. But the Psalmist knows it is equally terrifying for the one who loves God. It seems it is a greater agony and frustration to be terrorized by rejection by our Lover, God, when we are madly in love with Him. It is truly a terrifying thing to be skillfully broken by omnipotent hands, to be left in the dark by the Light, to be abandoned by the Omnipresent One. This indeed happens to great people of faith and not only, as we would imagine, to infidels and blasphemers. Jacob, Job, Moses, Jeremiah, David, Paul, Origen, St. John of the Cross, Martin E. Marty, Frederick Buechner, (where do I stop?), all experienced it. Jesus and Job cry out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"; the apostle Paul described it as "despairing of life itself, having the sentence of death within ourselves" in II Corinthians 1:8-9; "the dark night of the soul" is the name given it by St. John of the Cross in the 12th century; Martin E. Marty calls it "the winter of the heart". "The heart of sorrows" is my chosen name for this experience, but truly all name the same thing: It is the Gospel at work in us, the experience of the maddening finitude and ambiguities of life bound eternally to the Infinite and Mysterious God by the certainties of love and death and the wild promise of a resurrection.

The dark side of spirituality is the truth that, whether we like it or not, or whether we understand it or not, pain is most often where we meet God. It is in the dark night of the soul that we meet God in a way we can in no other place. It is the experience of the absence of God that makes His presence most acutely known. It is in the winter of the heart that we feel most forsaken by God. Yet it is standing there, abandoned by Him in the cold and dark, lost in a bleak and unfamiliar place, if we will wait for Him, that we will sooner or later meet God face to face.

And, yes, sometimes it means waiting to death.

Life, Death and Love: Introduction

I decided to move "LIFE, DEATH AND LOVE: A Journey Through Spiritual Despair"
to an independent blog site. This is a reposting of the original post about my lost manuscript to Pithless Thoughts Following this is the first couple chapters that I posted there. I will post the entirety of the manuscript only here and not on my personal blog.

I did this because I want the book to stand on its own without people having to wade through my personal blog and my intermittent rambling about my life. All of the content of this blog is copyrighted and the property of myself. Not that I think anyone will be interested in actually publishing this, but what the heck...I went through hell to get these words, I think I'll keep them as my own. So, here is the original post and introduction to "Life, Death and Love: The Heart of Sorrows, A Journey Through Spiritual Despair"

I found an old manuscript for a book that I wrote during the late 80's. I remembered writing it, but the computer I wrote it on long since died and I thought it was all in there. I was cleaning my bookshelves and found a tattered manila folder and in it was a sheaf of yellowed, wrinkled and hand-edited papers: my manuscript for "Life, Death and Love: The Heart of Sorrows". It was a time of spiritual desperation that I still vividly recall, but for the most part no longer exist in. By God's mercy, I only now visit the shadows of spiritual desperation, not live in the dark abyss continually. I may post it entirely here, I may do excerpts... I don't know. Much of what is in it is intensely autobiographical and personal, as perhaps a book on spiritual despair must be since it cannot be written about adequately from an academic viewpoint. Anyway, here is the introduction. Perhaps more to come....

LIFE, DEATH AND LOVE: The Heart of Sorrows
A Journey Through Spiritual Despair


This is a book about sorrow. It is not about crisis, of some extraordinary evil or desperate station in life dealt you by fate or choice or Satan or God. It is of a kind of life, a life of mourning, of a spiritual melancholy, of perpetual sorrows of a depth and intensity that can only come from believing in God, or longing to believe in God in the face of the chaotic ambiguities and havoc of life.

This book is for the ones who find the experience of spiritual joy elusive. It is for you who feel guilty because you fake the happy Christian life to be accepted by a group who, deep inside, you believe are for the most part faking it too. It is for those who find more reasons to question God, to rail at Him, to argue with Him than to praise Him. It is for those who have a deep and hurting hollow place within them that no sermon, no prayer, no scripture verse, no spiritual exercise has ever touched with healing. It is for those who struggle silently with a sense of abandonment and loneliness in the midst of friends and lovers. It is for those who are exhausted by desperation and waiting for God. It is for those who sometimes feel they can wait on Him no longer and consider death a treasure to be sought more than life. It is for you who have considered suicide because death held out to you an enchanting promise that no logic or philosophy could dissuade you from believing.

I do not come to you like Job's friends with the mirrors and smoke of religion to magically turn the reality of these struggles into a shared illusion of joy. I will not try to tell you a step-by-step plan on how to overcome the sorrows because I do not know one. But neither do I seek one because I am not yet sure that they need to be overcome, or that they can be, or even that they should be. As fearful and as dark as the sorrows come, if they come from God it would serve us well to dwell in them, seek their wisdom and learn their ways: Their ways would lead us to God Himself, the Healer of the broken hearted. So all I will tell you is what I have experienced of God, His presence and absence, about humanness and hopelessness and fear and forsakenness, about faith, about love and hope in these, my sorrows.

I do not presume to think that in my struggles I have asked God any new questions, observed some new manifestation of God's ambiguous presence and appalling and embarrassing absences, or cursed God more articulately for any of it. I make no pretense to have suffered any more angst over the futility of existence or fallen any more deeply into despair at injustice, decay, and finitude than anyone else who walks this world with clear and open eyes. I seek only to cast the Light upon the experience, the One True Light that does not seek to trick the eye and hide the wrinkles and spots, but reveals the realities in all their harsh and glorious truths.

Of what value is this if I cannot give you answers, you ask. If nothing else, you will know you are not alone in your sorrows, nor lost while walking in this way, nor are you unspiritual or lacking faith. I write so you will know, even if you are raging at God in the shadows of death, you are indeed longing after and deep within the heart of God, that you are not opposed to Him and cast off by Him. You will know that yours is the common experience of the prophets, the apostles, and of all true lovers and friends of God.

I give you this, Life, Death and Love, each with its peculiar sorrows. They are each an odd road sign that points into the abyss, the unmapped caverns of spiritual despair. They lead us there because, if we will risk the journey, it is there in the darkness that we will find God silently waiting.