“But God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast
There is safety in the moments when the shit has hit the fan
Not some vindictive motherfucker, nor is he shitty at his job
What words to hear” — “Persevere,” Gang of Youths
“[…] Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.” — Luke 4:20
I saw this guy once, being pushed in a wheelchair, who had no arms and no legs. And my God, that rocked me. It’s a weird thing, to see someone and have no clue what to do. What do you do? Throw some cash at him? Send up a few hail marys? Maybe even asking the question of “what to do” isn’t the best place to start. But I think a lot of us try to deal with our own discomfort by trying to “fix” others, and although I hope to become good at sitting with people as they talk of their pain, seeing it is another story. It is one thing to wrestle with the idea of suffering. It is another to witness it, and another to know it. But of course, we don’t have to go far — just examine your own life, or have the courage to look at the lives of those near you, and you will find yourself met with sorrow, and unfulfilled hopes, and grief, and enough trauma that you wonder how the hell any of us get through it. It is true that we see through a glass darkly, but I think we see grief face to face. I find myself praying that same prayer as that father in Mark 9: I believe, help my unbelief.
Not too long later from seeing that man on a sandy road, I came across a homeless Arab girl, her feet caked in dust and tears, who begged me for money. I lied, as so many of us do, and I looked away. I am haunted by that moment.
A few months before all of this, just two weeks after getting home from my first trip in Kurdistan, I learned that a kid in a refugee camp I had frequently visited had been killed by an electrical fire. His family’s tent burned, and so did he. I remember sitting in the suburbs of Atlanta thinking about this little kid, and how all my evangelical upbringing told me that his current reality is just as literal as that electrical fire that killed him. Because, well, he’s Muslim.
And I just sat there, contemplating that, and said something to myself like, “I’m sorry, but that shit makes no sense.”
For me, questions of God, existence, and eschatology have always been wrapped up in experience. Theology is autobiography, after all, and our lives tell a story about us just as much as we tell stories about our lives. In his book, In the Shelter, Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “to live well is to see wisely and to see wisely is to tell stories and to tell stories is to tell of things that are always changing, because even if the stories don’t change, the teller does, and so the story always moves. Hello to the stories we tell.”
And I think, amidst all of my travels and escapades, and all of my days staying at home and all those hours spent in coffee shops, and all those times in the Caribbean and all those dusty walks in the Middle East, and all those books I’ve read and all those books that have read me, I’ve come to the realization that life must be lived, in all its terror and beauty, and that maybe all those tears and all those questions and all those lonely days and all those books have, in one way or another, been asking questions of me. And if there is one thing I’ve learned about questions, it’s that they are worth listening to. Not for the sake of answering them, but for the sake of stepping into your life, of listening to your life.
Frederick Buechner has this quote where he says, “here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” And I think that perfectly sums up the stories of all of our lives, and it’s a paradox I cannot rid myself of. I do not believe in the ying and yang of life; I do not believe there is a “need” for suffering, for grief, for evil, for sin, for any of the darkness we encounter. But I know that it’s all here, that it’s all a reality of what it means to be human, to live a life, to be alive. And I am in awe of those who tell their own stories of grief, and I find myself in every story of those who no longer can face the grief. Who choose, in one way or another, to say no to life. And yet even in that choice is a choice for life, a life that is different than the one now, a life without all the pain and grief and suffering and sadness. And I find hope in that Palestinian Jew, who “shared in [our] humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). And while this is no doubt the fear of our actual deaths, and all the existential fears and burdens and anxieties that come with it, I think that his indestructible life also frees us from all the many deaths that occur before our eventual death. “Nothing gold can stay,” as Frost said, but maybe one day. Maybe one day.
I pray that what that kid in the refugee camp encountered after his death was not the hell from my childhood, but rather a tender hug from the One who trampled death and shattered the gates of the grave. Death comes for us all, but I believe that resurrection does, too. And damn, that’s the hope that keeps me going.
I quoted Luke 4 earlier, that interesting moment when Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah and then sits down, announcing that the text he read has been fulfilled. He reads Isaiah 61:1-2….partially. This text in Isaiah ends with “[…] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God […],” but Jesus leaves out that part about vengeance. He proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor and then….rolls up the scroll. Maybe that’s why “the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him” (Luke 4:20). Like many of us Bible nerds, growing up in VBS with competitions about how many verses we can memorize, those synagogue goers were likely familiar with that passage. To leave out the part about vengeance (particularly God’s vengeance) is to invite the listeners in to a reimagining of not only the Scriptures, but of God.
I imagine that, like me, some of those listeners felt a questioning of their own lives, their own beliefs, their own presuppositions. A question of invitation, of reimagination. And for me, it has been that “reimagining,” that rethinking, that has given me hope. I think about that kid, the one who died in a fire in a Middle Eastern town the majority of the world has never heard of (it’s called “Arbat”, by the way). I think about the cognitive dissonance I’ve felt, visiting a family with no running water who lives just a few miles from me. I think about all those times I’ve denied the humanity of those experiencing poverty, or homelessness, or violence, or hunger; truly, it is in those moments when I understand the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I even think of those moments when my own hurt and pain has led me to hurt others, or at the very least to not offer presence to others. One of the worst parts about my own internal suffering is the double-edged temptation to not open myself up to giving or receiving love, or even joy. But, in refusing neither, my isolation that was meant to protect me always leads to that chasm the rich man found himself in — a chasm that is only crossed through the giving and receiving of love.
And yet, in listening to my life, I’ve come across a phenomena I never expected — which is, as Eugene Peterson writes in Run With the Horses, “long before we ever got around to asking questions about God, God had been questioning us.” And I think that most of the questions that we ask, and the questions that are asked of us, have less to do with a formulaic answer and more to do with the mystery of being human. “Jesus is the answer,” a lot say. Maybe, depending on the question; but I think life is more complicated than that, and if there is one thing I know about the Gospels, it’s that Jesus often responds to a question with a question. In Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter, he often ends paragraphs by saying “hello” to the topic at hand. I’d like to do the same. So hello to asking questions, and to being asked. Hello to the holy wrestling of life, and to the sacred art of not knowing. Hello to coming to believe that God is not a “vindictive motherfucker,” and to asking the question as to why I ever thought he was in the first place. And hello to the questions that lead us deeper and deeper into what it means to be human. May we listen to our lives; as Buechner says, “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Selah.