What do you do with a statement like the following, when your hopes have not materialized, your loved one has died, your partner has left, you have been swindled, or your prayers have not been answered as you had prayed they would?
“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just one,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him;
he watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.” – Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
There are so many points to take up in that Psalm! “From all their distress He rescues them.” That didn’t happen the way I interpreted it – I thought that RESCUE meant extrication from the crisis, healing for Katie, cancer defeated, life restored. You know, like a rescue in a lifeboat – you don’t go down with the ship, you get off the ship and it goes down without you. You are taken to land and you pick up the rest of your life – you may have lost your luggage, but not your loved one, not things you thought you couldn’t live without.
Well, that is not what happened; Katie died, and we were left to go on without her. There was plenty of distress, inside and all around. So how can I accept a piece of writing such as that Psalm? What can it possibly mean? What value can it have for me?
Immediately following Katie’s death, it would have created tension and angst in me, but five years later, I know that it is true. He “is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” He is close, when I call on Him. He has saved me; though my spirit has been crushed, it is being renewed through His grace. The writer of the 2nd letter to the Corinthians says it better than I can:
2 Corinthians 4:7-12 New International Version (NIV): “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
What a collection of paradoxes! But does paradox mean they aren’t true? I think not – I think that it may take paradox to speak to mysteries that are larger than our human minds can grasp. How can we speak of such divine activity except in similes, metaphors and parables? This is where Richard Rohr’s writings help me navigate the uncharted waters:
“I don’t think the important thing is to be certain about answers nearly as much as being serious about the questions.
“When we hold spiritual questions, we meet and reckon with our contradictions, with our own dilemmas; and we invariably arrive at a turning point where we either evade God or meet God. Mere answers close down the necessary struggle too quickly, too glibly, and too easily.
“When we hang on the horns of dilemmas with Christ—between perfect consistency and necessary contradictions—we find ourself in the unique place I call “liminal space.” Reality has a cruciform shape to it then—and we are taught best at the intersection of order and disorder, where God alone can make sense out of the situation and we must surrender. All real transformation of persons takes place when we’re inside of such liminal space—with plenty of questions that are open to God and grace and growth.” – Richard Rohr, adapted from Holding the Tension: The Power of Paradox (CD, DVD, MP3)
Whatever your questions are, your unresolved grief, crisis, or catastrophe, I pray that you will hold onto the hope that you are not abandoned – because you are indeed beloved. Time itself doesn’t heal, but being patient and looking for the light, day by day – sometimes moment by moment – will yield evidence of goodness, which leads to gratitude. Gratitude sheds light on reasons to hope, and the light gradually becomes brighter.
As I listen and watch for God’s movement, it is apparent that reality does have “a cruciform shape” – that the cross is the pattern of our life here on earth. There is suffering inherent in the frailty of this existence. It isn’t personal, but the loving interaction between God and His creation (which does not always look like RESCUE) is indeed personal. God is for us, and we are made for God (if you can’t make peace with the word “God” just now, you could try substituting the word “Love”). As it says in 1 John 4 (J.B. Phillips’ translation),
“God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. So our love for him grows more and more…”
The experience of catastrophe is an opportunity to go deeper into that Love, if we are willing to take the risk of surrender. We can also choose to turn away, because God does not force us. Trusting after a catastrophe is not easy; in my experience, it is not neat and tidy, it is not a straight line forward, and it is not painless. It is not even welcome – I would prefer to have Katie back, and would much prefer not to know what I know now – but that is not an option open to me.
I first truly saw the cruciform reality of my life in the place where I had to let Katie go, and begin to come to terms with God in that intersection, with the facts of her passing (which I dislike intensely) standing all around me. It is a work in progress, to be sure. There are days when I wonder whether this place, this earth with all of its brokenness, is some form of hell; there are days when it seems like heaven. I have no answers, but I am learning to live with the questions.