Seeing the Dying God

“And the entire area — including the graveyard and ash dump in the valley, and all the fields in the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the Horse Gate — will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be destroyed.” — Jeremiah 31:40

“God gives of God’s self, and that is what saves.” — Jarrod McKenna

“Death swallows Jesus, not realizing that the life that is in Jesus will swallow death.” — Chris Green

Life makes sense. Until it doesn’t. I think that’s all of our stories, really. The coming and going, the puttering and pattering of life. Moving on and holding on to whatever it is we have, whether it’s faith or doubt or the paycheck that comes in every other week. And we let go, too, sometimes of the very things we once held so tightly. It is as if life is a constant juxtaposition of many births and many deaths, and the denial of either one is a denial of the joy or grief of what it means to be human. And yet, it is in the facing of this juxtaposition that we may be thrusted into doubt, especially if we are people of faith, whatever the hell that faith may be. After all, faith in cynicism makes little sense when you catch yourself smiling, and faith in God makes little sense when you see God damned on a tree by the very world he came to save. But of course, in our damning of him he blesses us, for he came not to condemn the world but to save it. And yet, to even begin to consider the story of a crucified God with that of a crucifying world, alongside our own stories of joy and sorrow and births and deaths and laughter and tears, is to agree with the psalmists and the prophets that sometimes life makes little sense and that God himself seems to offer little help, or perhaps none, in helping us understand the world we find ourselves in. But of course, in our need for certitude, we calm ourselves with platitudes and verses such as “God’s ways are higher than ours” and believing there is a reason or purpose for all the pain we feel, but then the human God comes along and slaps away our platitudes as he witnesses profound suffering and offers no answers but his own tears. I am not sure if we can yet handle a God who grieves; we wish for God to tell us why, to assure us that everything happens for a reason, that the little child who died did so because of some Divine plan, but Jesus does not tell us that. He no doubt assures us that one day all will be well and all manners of things will be well, but the reason he gives is not a cheap verse but rather his life, and with the giving of his life his resurrection as well. He is just as scandalous as he is beautiful, just as challenging as he is inviting. Can we trust him? This God who is so intimately present with each of us and yet so often feels absent? Who, as C.S. Lewis says, shouts to us in our pains, however quiet he may seem? Some days I do and some days I don’t, but I know that if I cannot trust him, there is no one and nothing else that I could. And maybe it is in those days that life makes no damn sense that I can enter more fully into what it means to follow the One who said he came to bring life.

A few weeks ago, I got lunch with one of my favorite professors. Along with being an adjunct professor and a psychologist, he’s a world traveler and someone who I’d consider a sage. We spent much of the time talking about my time in Iraq the previous two months, which was an internship he had recommended for me to take. As we crossed the street from the restaurant back to his office, I walked to my car and he stopped for a moment. He looked at me, with a faint smile, and said, “life makes sense, until the Sunni you meet looks more like Jesus than you do.” And then he walked away.

Father Kenneth Tanner, pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, poetically writes that, “when the Word became flesh and moved into our cities and seaside villages, it was the painted eyes of the adulterer who beheld him, and the tainted hands of the tax collector who in invitation took his hand; it was the ears of the doubter, ravaged by existential darkness, and the hate-tortured heart of persecutors — grown up temple-attending and law-abiding bullies — who first heard his voice. And what they saw, and what they touched, and what they heard was the love that created them, and the love that desired them above all else, a fire of love that would remake their clay into vessels of living water, who when poured out together become a river that waters all nations, and into lanterns who radiate the uncreated light of a kingdom that will never end.” And of course this is the same love that we see and touch and hear in those moments when we are soft enough to have eyes to see and ears to hear, when the songs of birds no longer annoy us but rather awaken us to that deep magic of love and life that is deeper still than the coldness and bitterness of all our pains.

Doubt is a funny thing. It can make you feel like both an exile and a prophet. But of course, those two are hardly ever mutually exclusive. In the great tale by George MacDonald, Lilith, Mr. Raven says, “you doubt because you love truth.” Indeed I do. But perhaps more than truth, I love love. And maybe that is the only certitude any of us ever want, really: to know we are loved, and to know that we can love. Beneath all of our inhibitions and fears and secrets and defense mechanisms is, maybe, that longing. To know love. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “there are no final proofs for the existence of God. There are only witnesses.” And if I had to bet, I would say that the greatest of these witnesses are those who love and live deeply, so much so that they are far more concerned with the livelihood of their neighbor (or enemy) than they are with solving the most complex and abstract theological arguments. For whereas the theologian may be concerned with metaphysical philosophy, it is the prophet who is concerned with the poor — and who says that is precisely where God is at. To forget that truth is to forget what it means to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Jesus is the Bread of Life, and yet at the same time, when we give bread to the hungry, we are feeding our Lord.

A few months ago, when I was in Iraq, I remember driving down the highway in Sulaymaniyah while listening to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2, on the way home from visiting with refugees. The song reminded me of another bloody day, Bloody Friday, or March 16, 1988, the day that over 5,000 people (predominantly Kurds) died from a chemical bombing in the city of Halabja (a city just an hour away from Sulaymaniyah). I visited Halabja a few days later, my soul haunted by the small array of Saddam-Era Iraqi tanks and a fallen fighter jet scattered in a dusty, overgrown field. And yet, just a street over, I saw a poster advertising a “pot of weapons exhibition”; in the center of it was a picture of a woman arranging flowers in a pot that had been converted from one of the very bombshells dropped on Halabja just a few decades prior. It was here, in this predominantly Muslim-country, among a people group neglected by much of the world, on the outskirts of the Iranian border, near mountains littered with mines, that I saw the embodiment of Isaiah 2:4. Swords into plowshares. Bombshells into flowerpots.

To see those flowers sprouting in a piece of metal that once held mustard gas is to see hope. And yet, the sad truth is that just like myself and everyone and everything else, those flowers will one day die, returning to the very dust that once held their life. Here today and gone tomorrow. Perhaps Nietzsche was right in saying that hope is the most insidious of Christian virtues. As Dante writes in his Divine Comedy, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” And while Dante says this in the context of a platonic and medieval understanding of hell (one that has been detrimental to Christian imagination and doctrine), the teacher of Ecclesiastes may very well apply this statement to all those who enter this world, this world that so often feels like Gehenna rather than Zion. As the cynic of faith truthfully writes, “better than [the living and the dead] is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:3). And yet, just as we must hold our joys and sorrows together, we must hold the truth of Ecclesiastes and Easter together. Blind optimism does nothing for our pain, but neither does cynicism. Nashville-based Jungian psychotherapist, Tony Caldwell, says that “we avoid other people’s pain precisely because we don’t know how to deal with our own.” But the story of Jesus, this brown-skinned, Palestinian man who most of us wouldn’t care to notice, is the story of the God who comes to us, who is with us and indeed has always been with us, who promises that yes, against all the large and small deaths we face, the end is music and all will be redeemed, so that one day we will be able to look not only at his scars but our own, and be able to tearfully rejoice in light of the resurrection of every bit of life ever lost that this man, who so many say they know not, knows each of us regardless and is indeed the son of God.

We cannot escape the frailty of human existence, the paradox of a life that ends in death and a death that ends in life. Life must be embraced, in all of its beauty and terror, for we know that He who loved us into being is above us and below us and in us, bringing life as he broods over and even immerses himself within the chaotic waters and fires of our world. As Dr. Chris Green writes in All Things Beautiful, “in spite of everything, and without ignoring anything, we can live at peace with temporality, striving to love as we have been loved, pondering in our hearts the mystery of his life, which ends, as ours must, in death, confident that all things, past, future, or present, can be made beautiful because time is Christ’s and we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” The One who is Life was swallowed by hell and then returned the favor, so that now even the most darkest places of human existence are made holy because Christ is holy and he has been there. Selah.

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