God or god? (part 1 of 2)

My daily starting, mid, and ending point: I am a Christian believer. I ascribe to a faith, a conviction about, a confidence in the existence of a God as revealed in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. As I read and reflect on Jesus’ story as recorded in the Bible’s gospel accounts, as I believe in Jesus, I behold in him the incarnation, the embodiment in space and time, the enfleshment in human life of divine love and justice, unconditional generosity and equality.

On most days, my faith holds together, makes sense to me and holds me together, allowing, encouraging me to act with love and justice toward all around me. (As human, I confess that I am limited by my perceptions and perspectives, my preferences and prejudices; how I view, understand, and respond to others and things. In this, my love and justice, even at my best, are provisional, falling short of the perfect impartiality of my God.)

By “on most days,” I mean that I can hold, sometimes in anguished tension, this world’s lights and shadows, joys and sorrows (or perhaps, truth to tell, I maintain this equilibrium largely less by conscious attention to life’s dichotomies and rather by focusing on whatever is before me, momentarily mindless of the ongoing cosmic clash between good and evil), so to remain upright and moving forward in seeking to do love and justice, in striving to be loving and just.

Then comes a day that disrupts, destroys my balance, painfully reminding me anew of life’s fragility and the friability of my equipose.

Sunday, June 12, was such a day in Orlando, Florida, and swiftly around the world. A person, driven by animus toward the LGBTQIA community and, perhaps as now speculated by some, psych-social/psycho-sexual maladjustments, and, doubtless, motivations unnamed and unknown, even to himself, murdered 49 people, wounding another 53.

There have been other days like this. Many. Too many.[1] More, it seems to me, as I age. Or maybe in my aging I am more aware of our inescapable mortality, thus more alert to the stages, especially when accelerated by vicious acts of human hands, along our inexorable human pilgrimage from birth to death.

In my grief, my hurt, my anger, my helplessness, I cry out, borrowing the psalmist’s words of eloquent despair:[2]

My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

Why are you so far from helping us, from the words of our groaning?

O my God, we cry by day, but you do not answer and by night, but find no rest.

My God, is it because you do not hear or care or because you are not there? Are you God (more or less), the creator and judger and reconciler of all – good and evil – things? Or are you god (more or less), a creature of human invention, a figment of human imagination?

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am especially mindful of the approaching June 17 one-year anniversary of the murders of nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, by a person acting out of a virulent, violent racism.

[2] Psalm 22.1-2

reflections on suffering, 5 of 5

In thinking of God as one,[1] thus one with all creation and human experience, which includes suffering, I discern afresh the power of the cross of the Christian story. The cross, for me, makes meaning of suffering.

Crucifixion, Aaron Douglas, 1927

It is not, I think, that Jesus, in his crucifixion, suffered more than others. Sorrowfully, all too numerous are the historic and present day examples of dying meted out by the cruel hands of human animus that meet and match the measure of the physical and mental, psychological and spiritual anguish of the cross.

Nor do I believe that Jesus suffered for us in the sense that we, in life, no longer need take up and bear the cross of suffering. As life in this world remains a terminal enterprise, we will continue to suffer.

Rather Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering was, is, and (given all that we know of the world and ourselves) will be so damnably repeatable. The cross, therefore, squares with our experience; shining an illuminating, harshly truthful light on the way the world is and the way we humans are.

Even more, the cross of the Christian story followed by resurrection proclaims that suffering can be made meaningful as a gateway to new life.

Still more, the cross is a symbol of relationship, of being joined in the suffering of this life; God with us and us with God. Thus, the cross bespeaks solidarity. Not a solidarity that suffers with another, only for a moment stepping into the pain of that experience, and then stepping out again. Rather a solidarity that, in embracing, entering, climbing up and dying on the cross of the reality of suffering, rises to live and to breathe, to work and to bleed with the world to change the reality.

Suffering. We all suffer. Yet its meaning does not lie in its mere repeatability, but rather in a compassion that yields a solidarity that compels us who suffer to stand with all who suffer so to change the often nightmare of what is into the dream of what may be, indeed what God intended at the dawn of creation.

Illustration: Crucifixion, Aaron Douglas, 1927

Footnote:

[1] In this notion of the holiness and holism (the oneness) of God, my heart and soul cleave to the teaching of the Deuteronomist, especially in the recitation of the Shema (Hear!): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” or “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6.4). These English translations, to make the Hebrew readable and understandable, employ the verb “is.” The Hebrew, literally rendered, reads, more emphatically: “The Lord, our God, the Lord, one” (my emphasis, for “one” is the key word).

reflections on suffering, 4 of 5

In reflecting on Hebrews 10.30-39 and asking a question about divine retribution and reward, I suspect something is amiss in a view of God, though historically long-lived from ancient to post-modern times, who is expected to save the faithful from all suffering. Something may not be quite right in thinking of the divine, as my dear friend Elin Whitney Smith oft says, as a “Mighty Mouse God” who, in the time of suffering speedily shows up, singing (or perhaps backed by the chanting of an angelic chorus), “Here I come to save the day!” Mighty Mouse

The notion of an “on call” or “speed-dial” God who, as the Cosmic Interventionist, dutifully stands by ready to intercede to make things right has a certain appeal, especially in an uncertain world where forces, natural, human, and spiritual, operate with liberty and, at times, with malevolent energy. However, this characterization of God isn’t a part of my theology. The God I have come to know (indeed, if “know” is a fair word to use) is far too majestic and mysterious, thus alway beyond my fullest comprehension.[1]

What I do know is that suffering happens.

Perhaps then “God” – whom I understand to be the author and creator of life, indeed, life itself; the totality of all that I can know as real, all that I believe is real, including suffering, and, therefore, the unity, the oneness of all that is – is always the One standing by us, with us, and in us through all things.

Illustration: Mighty Mouse – original concept and image by Isadore “Izzy” Klein and Paul Terry, 1945

Footnote:

[1] Having said this, nevertheless, I am a person of prayer, which I believe to be less about my well-intentioned asking of God for blessings or benefits, whether for others or myself (although, indeed, I do!), and more, in the language of The Episcopal Church’s Catechism, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 856). This understanding of prayer mirrors and matches my sense of the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s appeal that I “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.16) and, even more, that I “present (my body) as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12.1). By “body” (from the Greek, soma), Paul meant and I mean all that I am and all that I have, which is to say my life. In this light, I can and do speak of my life of prayer, indeed, that my life is prayer and, thus, a reflection of the oblationary hymn (words by Frances Ridley Havergal, 1874):

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord to thee.

Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.

Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.

Take my voice and let me sing always, only for my King.

Take my intellect and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.

Take myself and I will be ever, only all for Thee.

reflections on suffering, 3 of 5

A flip side of the notion that suffering unmasks our human impotence, thus pointing to divine omnipotence is to look away from God and toward ourselves. To put this another way, whenever we look to God, gazing upon the divine majesty, we, in our reverence, are also humbled in immediate recognition (or, rather, recollection) of our humanness. In this sobering reminder, we, whene’er in the midst of suffering, are to embrace and enter fully that experience, which is an inescapable aspect of our lives, in the hope of discovering transformative possibilities.

As this, in some sense, was the counsel of my therapist: “Your experience is your experience…explore it more deeply. Therein you may find healing” (see: reflection on suffering, 1 of 5, November 3, 2015), I’d like to think there is merit in this perspective. I also do not doubt the integrity and dare not deny the sincerity of those who, looking back on their times of suffering, speak of valuable lessons learned. Chief among them, being grateful for life and health and taking neither for granted, being present in each moment with others and with one’s self and not spending too much time dwelling on the past or anticipating (worrying about) the future, being joyful in the daily gifts of sunrises and sunsets, seasonal changes of spring flowers and autumnal colors, summer’s warmth and winter’s cold, the smile and laughter of children and the patience and wisdom of the aged, verily, being and no longer doing as the primary mode of existence.[1]

Still, as learning is inherently a reflective task, it’s not the sort of thing that one (at least, for me) “gets” in the midst of the moment of suffering, which (at least, for me) produces far more weeping and cursing than insight.

Nevertheless, in contemplating suffering and potential outcomes, I do believe that our travails can sharpen our sensitivity to another’s pain. Yes, suffering can make us bitter and callous, particularly, I think, when our hardships, unsought and unwanted, are no fault of our own, but rather are the rotten fruit of unseen fates or the results of the work of other unwitting or less than kindly hands. Yet it is our human capacity to remember and to reflect so not to forget our trials that can deepen our compassion, leading us to do more than weep and curse, but also, like the Good Samaritan, to stand and serve with others in their tribulations.

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), Vincent van Gogh, 1890

In this regard, I look afresh at a familiar biblical text: Hebrews 10.30-39. The writer offers a less than comforting message of a living, not dead God, hence the One into whose hands all must fall, who condemns those who forsake their faith. The writer, far more hopeful, also recalls a time when the people by faith, in faith, with faith stood in solidarity with the suffering.

I wonder, however, turning away from us and gazing again at God: If God could be expected to exact vengeance on those who strayed, why then could not God have been counted on to spare those who, holding fast to their faith, remained steadfast under fire?

Illustration: The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Footnote:

[1]On this last point, I think of the words of self-development guru, Wayne Dyer: “I am a human being, not a human doing. Don’t equate your self-worth with how well you do things in life. You aren’t what you do. If you are what you do, then when you don’t…you aren’t.” Dyer prescribes that we, in the act, the art of becoming ourselves, embrace all of our experience, both joyous and sorrowful. And given my observations of my life and the lives of others, it does seem to me that our suffering oft can be the catalyst for our revising our view of life as less about attainment and achievement and more about being freely, fully, faithfully human, however defined.

reflections on suffering, 2 of 5

How do we, how can we make sense of suffering?

(In asking this question, a faint memory was triggered this morning. Via a cyberspace search, I discovered, quite beyond my conscious awareness, that throughout these reflections I am reworking and revising material from a previous blogpost [trying times, suffering, God & me, September 26, 2014]. I make no apology for this. As an empath, especially sensitive to the hurts of others, the idea, the reality of suffering resonates within me, literally pains me. And as an inveterate inquirer, I live to make sense of things. The question “Why?” ever resounds in the depths of my soul. As Jacob wrestled with the angel until he was blessed with a new name, Israel, “one who strives with God”,[1] so my tussling with suffering will continue until I die or until I receive the benediction of deeper understanding.)

An olden point of view. Suffering, convincingly, albeit painfully rudely, reminds us that we are not omnipotent. Suffering compels us, in postmodern-speak, to “keep it real” by acknowledging the ineluctable finitude of our creatureliness.

A theological problem, as timeless as the view itself, is that it is only a short step away to assert that our human frailty, our susceptibility to suffering is a sign or proof of divine power; that through the lens of our limitations God’s might is shown and seen. This is one interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s testimony, after bidding without success that God remove an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”: (The Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”[2] However, I think that Paul, contrary to the Hellenistic notion of human sufficiency that can rise above all hardship, here admits, even more, asserts the wholeness of his humanity. Yes, he has powers and abilities, yet he also accepts his limitations. Through it all, for Paul, God is God. The same God, though knowable, wholly mysterious, revealed in the Book of Job, which, from its first through to its last word, boldly wrestling with the ancient riddle of the relationship between suffering and God, remains silent in the face of mystery, offering no conclusive answer other than the inscrutability of God’s sovereignty.

The Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind, William Blake, 1826

In this, God’s utter incomprehensibility (that the more we know or think that we know about God, the more we know that we don’t know!), I recall those words spoken through the ages and yet still by folk at times of sorrow: “It is God’s will.” Though I accept and respect the well-intended nature of this common human response to tribulation and grief, at the core of the idea of suffering and dying as God’s objective for humanity I perceive a cosmos-sized sadism: divine power acting capriciously, cruelly at our expense. This is not the God I know or think I know and (I am sure) in whom I believe as revealed in Jesus.

What, where, then, is the sense of suffering?

Illustration: The Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind, William Blake, 1826

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 32.22-32

[2] 2 Corinthians 12.9a

reflections on suffering, 1 of 5

Trying times test our faith…

Faith in God. Whether God’s existence and, if believing that, then God’s benevolence.

Faith in ourselves. Our capacity to reason and to choose a course of action. Our power to pursue that which we purpose.

Faith in others. Our confidence in their care. Our trust in their support.

Faith in our values, given that our behavior in trying times may belie what we profess; what we say we believe, hence who we say we are.

The definition of “a trying time”? Whatever you say it is. For one thing I have learned. It does little good to compare trying times as if to say one’s experience is more or less valid, real or true than that of another. I recall the words of a therapist at a time when I sadly confessed my lack of growth, mired in my “long agos” and my “yesterdays”, unable to work through the more painful aspects of my formative years. After all, I protested, my parents hadn’t beaten me, locked me in my room for long hours, or denied me food as punishments for misbehavior (as was the case of a childhood friend who lived next door). “Your experience,” she said, “is your experience. Rather than compare it with others and, therefore, negate it, explore it more deeply. Therein you may find healing.” How true I have discovered her counsel to have been.

It also is true that suffering can befall anyone and does befall everyone. No one can avoid it. (Unless one is able to accomplish the impossible – retreating from life, having no thoughts or feelings, nurturing no expectations, entering no relationships, making no choices.) Suffering is the great leveler. The grand equalizer.

We all suffer. Be it physical, social, psychological. Imprisonment in pain so severe and constant that times of relief are distant memories and hope for release seems vain. Encompassed about by circumstance so threatening, terrifying that the thought of rescue ne’er arises. Isolation from others. Alienation from one’s self. Fear of death.

We all suffer. Sometimes to an extent that every dimension of a fulfilling life is endangered. Our sense of health and well being. Freedom of movement. Opportunity for vital relationships with others and with one’s self. Rewarding labors. Enriching endeavors. Awareness of having time to anticipate and to await tomorrow’s promise.

We all suffer. As this is so, one of life’s determined and, at times, desperate longings is the search for meaning in suffering. Tormented by meaninglessness we risk madness.

Torment II, Constantin Brâncuși, 1907

Where can we look, where do we look to make sense of suffering?

Illustration: Torment II, Constantin Brâncuși, 1907

reflections on suffering, a prolegomenon

IMG_0069Perhaps it is because of my inborn sensitivity to the strife in our world, both by the force of natural calamity and at the hand of human agency or because of the recent deaths of folk I know whose quintessential humankindness have touched and enriched the very heart of me, whose absences from this realm of time and space stir my deepest sympathies, and whose lives I especially commemorate and celebrate on this All Souls’ Day, or because, with the advent of fall, accompanied by predictably persistently dreary skies during the day and nights of fast-falling darkness, soon will come my annual bout with seasonal affective disorder or because all of the aforementioned coupled with causes beyond my conscious grasp, I, o’er the past days, have given my morning meditations over to the subject of suffering.

In the coming days, I will share reflections on this ineradicable existential reality.