Christchurch: a pastoral reflection

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

And yet the gift of consolation has always been a significant part – and that most difficult – of the work of a pastor. It is certainly among the most difficult work in which human beings engage, a work particularly difficult for people of faith. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the very depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering and the existential paralysis that it births. So Stanley Hauerwas:

To ask why we suffer makes the questioner appear either terribly foolish or extremely arrogant. It seems foolish to ask, since in fact we do suffer and no sufficient reason can be given to explain that fact. Indeed, if it were explained, suffering would be denied some of its power. The question seems arrogant because it seeks to put us in the position of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only God knows the answer to such questions.

Or consider the words of Simone Weil:

There is a question which is absolutely meaningless and therefore, of course, unanswerable, and which we normally never ask ourselves, but in affliction the soul is constrained to speak it incessantly like a sustained monotonous groan. The question is: Why? Why are things as they are? The afflicted man naively seeks an answer, from men, from things, from God, even if he disbelieves in him, from anything or everything… If one explained to him the causes which have produced his present situation, and this is in any case seldom possible because of the complex interaction of circumstances, it will not seem to him to be an answer. For his question ‘Why?’ does not mean ‘By what cause?’ but ‘For what purpose?’ … [S]o soon as a man falls into affliction the question takes hold and goes on repeating itself incessantly. Why? Why? Why? Christ himself asked it: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ There can be no answer to the ‘Why?’ of the afflicted, because the world is necessity and not purpose …

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderful book Lament for a Son:

What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.”

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Christian community takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff, again:

Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench.

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Jesus community is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word!

The cross of Christ is God’s final word to the problem of suffering, because the problem of suffering is the cross itself. So Jürgen Moltmann:

The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being.

Most of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut up and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

Much of this groaning, of course, is articulated and graciously given to us in the Psalter, and particularly in the psalms of lament and of disorientation, a recovery of which in both corporate and ‘private’ worship would go a long way to re-marry and re-form faith’s truth claims with the ambiguities of human existence. Walter Brueggemann is characteristically helpful here:

It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented … It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does. I think that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgment of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s ‘loss of control.’ The point to be urged here is this: The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.

Finally, for now, there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’. A Christian response to suffering is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat suffering and paralysing fear as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision that God intends for human flourishing.

Advent Reflection 12: Not an ethereal figure

‘So deeply is this need [for love] rooted in human nature, and so essentially does it belong to being human, that even he who was one with the Father and in the communion of love with the Father and the Spirit, he who loved the whole human race, our Lord Jesus Christ, even he humanly felt this need to love and be loved by an individual human being. He is indeed the God-man and thus eternally different from every human being, but still he was also a true human being, tested in everything human. On the other hand, the fact that he experienced this is the very expression of its belonging essentially to a human being. He was an actual human being and therefore can participate in everything human. He was not an ethereal figure that beckoned in the clouds without understanding or wanting to understand what humanly befalls a human being. Ah, no, he could have compassion on the crowd that lacked food, and purely humanly, he who himself had hungered in the desert. In the same way he could also sympathize with people in this need to love and to be loved, sympathize purely humanly’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; vol. 16; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 155.

Conference on Bible and Justice

The University of Sheffield is organizing a Conference on Bible and Justice for 29 May – 1 June, 2008. The Conference promises to bring together scholars from around the world to explore how the ancient texts of the Bible can play an active role in addressing twenty-first century social concerns.  The purpose of the conference is to foster discussion about the relevance of the Bible to modern social issues, and promote bridges between the academic field of biblical studies and the various endeavours for a just world.
Areas of focus include Human Rights, Economic Justice and Environmental Justice.

Keynote Speakers are Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University), Timothy Gorringe (University of Exeter) and John Rogerson (University of Sheffield, Emeritus). Other speakers include James Crossley, Philip Davies, Daid Horrell, Louise Lawrence, Mary Mills, Hugh Pyper, Christpher Rowland, Gerald West, and Keith Whitelam.

Faculty members and research students are invited to submit abstracts, which will be accepted until 24 January 2008, and participate in this conference. For more information visit the website or contact conference organizer, Matthew Coomber.

‘East Coker’, Part IV – T. S. Eliot

I’ve been thinking (and writing) of late about Forsyth’s contention concerning the ongoing judgement of the cross in history – a judgement borne out of the very tetelestai of this supreme act of God’s grace and which finds ongoing reverberation in the human experience. Thus I was excited when I came across this poem by T. S. Eliot from his Four Quartets from the East Coker series. It just had to be blogged.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good

Dylan Thomas and Luke 7:11–17

Last Wednesday I posted on a lectionary reading for the coming Sunday. For those preparing sermons on Luke 17:11-17 for this Sunday, here’s a few thoughts. Simone Weil once wrote: ‘Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.’ Compassion, what Schopenhauer called ‘the basis of all morality’, is the word that comes to mind when I read this passage. Walter Brueggemann notes that ‘compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.’ He goes on to argue that we should understand Jesus’ compassion not simply as his personal emotional reaction but as public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern in the face of the numbness of the society he serves. Jesus penetrates that numbness by his compassion. His criticism of injustice and dehumanising ideologies leads him to enter into, and finally embody, the hurt.

Australian poet Les Murray describes such one:

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly – yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

While it is commendably true that the crowd identify in Jesus’ action the action of God’s prophet, there is much more going on in Luke’s passage. Here is the heart of God—the ‘God of the poor, friend of the weak’—receiving the gift of weeping from one who had nothing else to give.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the funeral of a young person senses that more than something is amiss. Grandparents and parents grieving while she who should be out playing is laying in a wooden box. Sharon Weber laments:

How can you be gone?
I wasn’t finished with you yet.
Now I have to “finish with you”
without you.

It all feels like the helpless despair reflected in Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’, or Wilhelm Kotarbinski’s ‘The Grave of a Suicide’. And we intuitively sense that what is going on here is connected to a bigger reality, a wrecked world gravely out of joint, and that, in Peter Forsyth’s words, only ‘something deeper than the wrecked world can mend [it], only a God of love and power infinite’—if such one exists at all.

Luke’s text gives us no clues as to why this son died. Was he ill? Did he commit suicide, overcome with grief at his own father’s death? Was he executed by the state? Was he a soldier, killed in a senseless war? We simply do not know because we are not told—perhaps deliberately so. What we are told is that Jesus was there at the time of this widow’s grief, his heart went out to her, he spoke to the dead son, and gave him back to his mother. The disciples and large crowd were filled with awe, praised God and gossiped about what had happened.

During WWII, after a German V-2 rocket attack killed a child in London, Dylan Thomas penned his famous poem, ‘Refusal To Mourn The Death, By Fire, Of A Child In London’. In this poem in which art and death embrace, Thomas deals with the question of whether death is permanent or temporary. If, because of the resurrection, death is temporary, then it is acceptable, Thomas proposes, for us to mourn, for this process of temporary grief is commensurate with the temporary death. But if death is permanent, then, according to Thomas, grief must be repressed by refusing to mourn. The poem’s final line reads, ‘After the first death, there is no other’. Its meaning is perhaps deliberately ambiguous. Does it point to a second death? Or does it betray a more pessimistic belief about death’s permanency? Little wonder that Thomas doesn’t know whether to grieve or not. Perhaps the best insight we have of Thomas’ own hope is in the first line: ‘Never until the mankind making’. Is there a suggestion here that Thomas will mourn, but not yet; that he will mourn when God’s word spoken at time’s beginning is heard again, ‘Let there be light’? Thomas goes on to both affirm and enrich the movement of life and death by sowing his ‘salt seed’. He can do this because although he is journeying and mourning through the valley of the shadow of death, he maintains an uncertain hope that the mourning will end. Moreover, Thomas’ poem suggests that were it not for the resurrection, ‘the stations of the breath’, to come, then all humanity has been betrayed. Certainly, Luke’s story invites us to recall the resurrection of the Resurrector himself.

Just as clergy in the Middle Ages employed mural painting to cure body and soul, so here does Luke graphically use word painting to point to him who would heal and restore us. Certainly Christ does not heal us as a doctor might—standing over us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us, and then leaving us to heal ‘naturally’. Rather, as James Torrance reminds us, Christ becomes the patient, assuming the very humanity which is in need of redemption, and anointed by the Spirit in his life of perfect and vicarious obedience for us, our humanity is healed in him. When God became human in Jesus Christ and took his own humanity to the Cross, Jesus brought the presence and reality of God not only into life, but into death. He came to those who were bereft of faith as well as those who professed faith. God came to those who were sick unto death as well as to those who were given strength of health and life. In Jesus Christ, God en­tered not only into the dying of humanity, but into the grave of humanity. Indeed, God knows more about what it means to die than any of us because the tomb of Jesus became the tomb of God. No one goes to their grave alone. No longer does the grave represent the terror of godlessness, for God had his own grave here on earth.

We cannot read Luke’s story without sensing that this is one of those times when we must understand the present in light of the end, present death in the light of the death of death itself. For this One would face not only his own grave but the overcoming of such. Indeed, the overcoming of death in this One Man is the death of death for all.

Published in the June edition of Lectionary Homiletics.