holy saturday

You wouldn’t expect the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection to be sunny and windy, full of spring and allergens and life, but here we are.  Regardless of the weather, this day and its conceptual meanings has always been really important to me, capturing imagination and emotional interest.

This time last year, I was in Luxembourg with Hannah and Jessie, about to head back to Oxford and unable to get T.S. Eliot out of my head. What I saw then as a potential thesis turned out to be something deeper, a lifelong obsession with the space that we’re occupying right now: the space between death and resurrection.

Every year, I feel like we overlook this day. While our theological focus is (rightly) fixed on the crucifixion of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, there are no services for Holy Saturday (I had to look up that name because I’d never heard it). There’s a reason for this: today is the day that we practice waiting.

I can’t imagine what today would have been for Jesus’ disciples: the man that you’ve followed for three years, that you knew was the anointed one, that you thought would free you from Roman rule, has just been put to death by that very regime. For the disciples, it was a day of fear, a day of doubt, and a day of despair. I’m reminded of Hans Holbein’s painting of Christ in the tomb:

holbein-christ
It struck Dostoevsky enough for him to include it in The Idiot, and looking at the painting brought him to the brink of an epileptic seizure. When he spoke to his wife about it, he said, “A painting like that can make you lose your faith.” With good reason: seeing Jesus in the tomb, beginning to decay with a thin form and discolored extremities, lets us know just how much we need the resurrection. This is the darkest moment, the nadir of kenosis (emptying out); it is also the most essential moment, when human incarnation meets divine power. Everything – everything – hinges on the fulfilment of the resurrection.

This isn’t just an important lesson for a single day, either.  We live, right now, in that vast space between our own death and resurrection as we continue to wait for the return of our resurrected Lord. We struggle with fear, and with doubt; but we know that, because of Christ, we refuse to despair.

I’ve talked about Eliot’s Waste Land before on here, and a lot of people look at this poem as a hopeless picture of a lost and broken generation.  When I read it, though, I see the same space we’ve been talking about: a land yearning for restoration – for the Fisher King to be restored by the Holy Grail, which holds, unsurprisingly, the blood of Christ. Last year, I was having a lot of doubts about the nature of God. Did he really love me? Was he really good and just, strong and saving? And it sounds so strange to say this, but Phlebas brought me back.

I reread part four of The Waste Land, which has always been my favorite:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

This may not seem like the most hopeful passage, but it gave me hope again. Phlebas hasn’t been left for dead. As he sits in his watery tomb, the current comes. Something new swirls around him – a sea-change, something that will alter everything. A resurrection.  His Death by Water is a baptism.

After the torch-light red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

The waste land captures this Saturday perfectly, for the disciples and for us. The space of this world is corrosive. We are surrounded by death – it’s the trajectory of everything in this fallen world, and without Christ, it would be ours, too. But we just have to fix our eyes on him and wait.

This is why this space matters.  We’re not good at waiting. We want things immediately – Christ’s return, or God’s answer for the pressing questions of our lives. This is the space I’ve found myself in right now, as my friends’ future plans roll in in waves and I continue to be suspended – like Phlebas, it seems. I don’t know where I’ll be this summer, or next year, or the year after that. I don’t know what I’ll be doing. Like Elijah did in 1 Kings 19 (thanks, co-leader Matt!), I’m trying to listen for the voice of God past the winds, the earthquakes, and the fires – I’m trying to hear him in the gentle whispers that come into my life. And I’m trying to serve him, not my own ideas of success or the world’s ideas.

I’ll leave you with one last Eliot quote, this one from “East Coker” (my favorite of the Four Quartets).

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Find yourself here, in the middle way, between death and resurrection – and learn to find peace with God in the waiting.

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a handful of words from good friday

There’s this feeling that steals over me sometimes, starting flickeringly in my heart and moving up into a lump in my throat – it’s the quiet feeling you get right after you wake up from a nap or after you’ve cried out everything there is to cry.  It’s a specific sort of peace – I thought I would call it rest, or relief, but now I think it’s deeper, the type of rest you only get after you have given everything and embraced the stillness.

I feel it when I’m writing, sometimes, when I hit that unstoppable stride when nothing else in the world matters – I think it’s called flow.  But mostly it comes when I’m praying, when I’m worshiping, when Christ strikes me so deeply and so ecstatically that I open my mouth to cry out but nothing really emerges.  I can sometimes call it the Holy Spirit, but he speaks in various ways.

I walked out of today’s Good Friday service like this, this mix of sweet and salty, of pleasure and pain.  God is awesome, and in that word lies both fear and beauty, glory and ferocity.  There is still a lump in my throat, the inexplicable pleasant urgency of suddenly having a great and terrible tale unfolded and laid out before you – a tale intricately woven through our entire lives, existences, species, and fabric.  It’s a story of death and betrayal, but it’s mostly a story of redemption, life, and love, because the former allow the latter to manifest more beautifully and fully.  It’s ours only because God has made it so; he has humbled himself to human life and to death in order to let us be a part of it.  He pulls us into his world.

In these moments I see all the themes that I have loved for their truth emerge, the themes that have summoned up this feeling of rest in my soul – life, death, the substantiality that waiting affords, the pain and the broken striving of our race, the eventual renewal and much-awaited resurrection.  I see them converge and connect and my soul falls to its knees.

I have been worrying about thesis preparations for a while, now.  I am considering writing on these three days we have entered into – the days between Good Friday and Easter, the gap between death and resurrection that occupies the historical space, the lives of those who are dead in sin, and the waiting we all do while we still live in a land laid waste.  When the priest quoted T.S. Eliot I nearly cried – perhaps I should take it as a sign.

So, I leave you with this very short, very scattered post – take substance from the waiting, rest in the lull after your tears, and continue to seek out the things that tie us together and make us human.

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Read this: “East Coker,” T.S. Eliot

a list of nineteen points

At the end of last week, one of my favorite Walden employees asked me what was weighing on my mind.  “I’m trying to get to know you!” he said.  I realized that I hadn’t perhaps been as open as I was with people I already knew.

Here is a list about me based on some recent events:

  1. I’m always willing to talk to people about what they believe and what I believe; it’s excessively important and I try to be open about it.  I appreciated my friends in Boston who were so genuinely interested in discussion.
  2. I was torn up over killing a bug because it was beautiful, and because I did it for convenience’s sake.
  3. I could not have conceived of a more perfect internship than Walden, where I read and wrote and sensed magic in its very walls.  I found people there who understood.  I didn’t want to leave.
  4. Journaling always makes me feel better.  I wonder if it matters what I’m writing, or if the simple motion of a pen across paper would evoke the same feeling.  The act of creation is restful.
  5. I love the show Gravity Falls; I miss my brother.  The two are inseparably linked.
  6. Last week, I had a twenty-four hour mental gymnastics match about women in the church.  I still don’t have the answers, but I trust that God loves me.
  7. I have to teach myself to let ideas go without writing them down (see: this list).  I’m paranoid I’ll forget something deeply important.
  8. I have watched so much Teen Wolf lately that I try to justify it through literary analysis.
  9. When you move to a new place for a short time, you should logically keep to yourself in an attempt to not get attached before you have to leave again.  I try to make as many friends as possible.
  10. I have a knack for correctly cooking terrible things; I wish it were socially acceptable to eat out alone.
  11. I am attuned to my body’s quirks but cannot understand its refusal to properly function.  It’s immensely frustrating for me.
  12. Although I have felt the deepest affection for God, my understanding friends, my family, good stories, dead authors, and pet dogs, I don’t know that I’ve ever been in love.
  13. I like to find the possibility of magic in antique stores, strangers that look like centaurs, and the feeling of the wind.
  14. I love when people are expert in areas that I am not so they can teach me.
  15. I am sometimes careless when I drive alone; I am more cautious with other people’s lives.
  16. In Davis Square, I saw a newsstand made to look like a monster and sweaters kindly knitted for two statues, and these tiny things pushed my love of Boston even higher.
  17. I want to be seen as intelligent and insightful; I wonder how much of what I say is genuine and how much is monitored for the way that I perform myself.  From something as gentle as telling jokes in a way that will make my best friend laugh to feigning knowledge of a subject, I’m guilty of this.  Even this list reflects that.
  18. When people draw me into stories or theses with language that tickles my mind I experience the feeling that my heart is trying to push words through my mouth that I cannot speak.
  19. There are nineteen points because I don’t want to turn twenty.

I think I’ve changed over my time in Boston, and I wanted to perhaps find out who I’ve turned into.  I hope it’s better; however, glancing over this, I definitely need to spend more time with God.  Don’t I always.

Comment with small things that speak to who you are! I’d love to get to know you more.

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tragedy

When I first set out to write this, I was thinking in purely literary terms of the four genres of expression – comic, tragic, lyric, and epic.  My friend texted me last week after I read the Waste Land, “What do you think the purpose of tragedy is?”

In light of this week’s nearly apocalyptic events, however, I think it apt to discuss, at least a little bit, the purpose of tragedy in literature and in our own lives.

I hadn’t really known the answer to that question before.  I’d read Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Death of a Salesman, and related to them in a deep, basic way – I could feel the twisting of my gut as the inevitable suffering played out.  And there’s a lot to be said of it – it reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, provides us with a cathartic pity and fear so we can better live our own lives.  It shows us that there are forces at work far outside our own power.

All these are important – wildly so.  But there is one more, very simple thing that I realized while reading through Eliot’s Waste Land for the thousandth time: tragedy shows us the brokenness in the world and in relationships, and, by our deep, instinctive reactions to the events, shows us that things were never meant to be like this.

We live in a gloriously constructed world, filled with great beauty and a great potential for love, experience, and happiness.  At the same time, however, I think that we can forget its inherent brokenness – even as Christians, we tend to think that we are basically good, that this world can make us happy, and that we don’t really need anything else but ourselves.

Until, in a week of darkness, a city is bombed and riddled with bullets, a plant explodes and levels everything in its path, a sinkhole opens in the middle of a city, deadly letters are sent to world leaders, an earthquakes shakes miles of nations, and an already hurting country is bombed, its civilians murdered.  Oof.

Seeing this is so, so hard.  I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen.  I don’t know.  Thankfully, I’m not Him.  That can be so hard, and so frustrating, and so painful to see families broken and people grieving and souls hurting so desperately.  But I do know that He’s got a plan in all of this.

I do know that this world was once a beautiful thing, where relationships with God and people could be whole and lovely.  And I know that we sinned, and we used that free will to break that relationship with God – and consequently, everything else fragmented as well.

This is the world that the Waste Land shows us so precisely, a fragmented, perverse, and lost world.  Critics have labeled it as a generational issue with “the modern world”, but there’s a reason we’re still reading the poem.  In our era of flickering images and sound bites and texts and tweets, we’re more fragmented than we’ve ever been before.  Relationships were already cracked, but this constant “connectivity” has widened those cracks until they nearly splinter apart.  We’re more isolated than we’ve been.

But here’s the great beauty of this revelation, this painful truth about our world: it’s where the gospel starts.  We think to ourselves so often that we aren’t that bad and that we don’t really need God.  This realization of the state of our world – more than that, the state of us – leads to either despair or resurrection.

We live in the Waste Land, and we can see that.  But the Waste Land also lives in us, which should scare you.  Eliot’s whole poem hovers on the edge of a knife, between death and resurrection.  The bones of the Phoenician sailor are at the bottom of the ocean, the land is dry and cracked and broken.  But, something begins to stir these dead bones, and the thunder cracks across the sky, waiting.  We hover on a rebirth into eternity.

When we begin to see our own brokenness, we see that we need to be rescued, and that we can’t do it on our own.  As mortals, we will fail, and die, and the tragedy will end with a poisoned sword or a watery suicide.  But God saw this broken world and came down into it as one of us, and he died – and when he rose from the dead to new life, the healing began.

If we accept our brokenness, we can now accept the salvation that’s so freely offered to us.  Eliot did, and was able to find new life in Christ five years after the hopelessness of this poem.  We come to hopelessness so that we can understand hope when it is offered us.  If we live in Christ, we live forever, and we live in hope of healed people and a healed world.

The dead bones of the drowned Phoenician sailor don’t die, “but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange”.  So then do we.  The rains fall upon the thirsty, dry ground, and we learn how to love each other again.  It has to start here, on an individual level, where the Waste Land of your soul is inhabited by a loving, personal God who revives you and brings you back to life.

As hard as we try to instill goodness into people, this world will still be broken while Satan roams it.  Does this mean we should stop fighting against the brokenness, accept the evil in the world, and give up? By no means! The devil has no power where God is concerned.  He can only bend what is already good and try to break what God has already created.  We can fight against him.   And sometimes it’s awful.  But we have the hope of an empty tomb with us, and that is more powerful than any desolate, hollow Waste Land.

My prayers for safety, justice, and deep healing are with Boston, West Texas, China, Iraq, Iran, and the rest of our world.  May God bless and renew you.

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Read thisThe Waste Land, T.S. Eliot ; Mark 13:8 ; my other friend’s post

suffering and human agency

I offer this as part apology and part explanation of my recent absence from this blog.  Last Thursday, we held the long-planned Veritas Forum at my school, for which I was the Forum Director, and, more terrifyingly, the emcee.  We brought in John Lennox from Oxford to speak to one of the hardest questions to answer: why suffering exists if there is a God who is both loving and powerful.  Why can’t He just stop that suffering?

I’ve spoken to several people about this.  Honestly, the answer that I give to most of them is that I don’t know myself, but if God is great enough to be in control, He’s also got to be great enough to have his own reasons for doing things.

I’m in the business of making connections and gleaning information, though, and Dr. Lennox pointed out several interesting things about this problem that we face.  Mostly, it brought up the idea of our own free will as a cause for much suffering.

Firstly, God is not a stranger to suffering.  He didn’t sit back and leave us to our own pain.  He has mourned over our suffering and sent His own Son – his own person – to a broken and needy world to take all of our pain onto Himself.  God understands suffering because He’s gone through it with us.

The next part.  Dr. Lennox mentioned that after an earthquake in New Zealand, he was reading a book about plate tectonics, and here’s the thing:  in order for us to survive here, the tectonic plates need to shift.  It’s a beneficial action.  However, the world is flawed, and when these plates grind against one another, you have an earthquake.  An earthquake isn’t just a fluke, but a malfunction of a necessary system.

And it hit me then that even this stems from the gift of free will.  When man fell, death, decay, and brokenness entered into our own flesh, yes – but they also permeated the fabric of our world itself.  Everything dies, and everything tends to entropy.

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21)

Creation groans to be freed from death just as we do, caught in our sinful decision.  “But couldn’t God have done better?” we ask.  “Couldn’t he have created perfect things that wouldn’t screw everything up?”

“Well, we can do that,” John Lennox responded.  “They’re called robots.”  Because eradicating the possibility of sin and suffering also eradicates the possibility of love.  We have free will so that love, one of our greatest gifts, can exist, extended from God to this world.  A mandated love is really no love at all.  C.S. Lewis, as usual, puts it beautifully:

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.”

There can be no yes without the possibility of a no.  It’s beautiful, really.  John says that we know what love itself is by looking to Christ, who suffered so greatly on our behalf! (1 John 3:16)  If the only way to experience a world of love is to take a world of suffering with it, I choose to take them both.

 

This free will, however, leads us directly to the thought that has plagued me this past week, though: after the influence of society and the power of God, how much agency do I have as a human being, acting in my own power?  If God controls everything, then which of my choices are my own? How does this free will impact my own life?

I’m beginning to understand, perhaps a little bit more, now, that although God is omnipotent, He still allows me to make my own decisions.  Of course there are the ones that I can’t control – death, nature, information that comes to me.  But I choose how I react, and although God may tell me things, I may still rebel.  When He tells me to follow Him, I still have to follow.

And that’s hard for me, because I am prone more to inertia than to action, to stability than to change, and to indecision more than what I choose.  In part, I’m terrified of where I’m going, because I don’t know it.  I’m afraid that I will regard an opportunity with indecision until it passes and I live with regret after that.

Yes, I want God to be in control of my life; I submit it to him.  But I also have to stop using that as an excuse to stop making my own decisions.  He hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of boldness, and this is where that great paradox of humble confidence has its inception.  It’s hard to do anything purely, without an ulterior motive, and this includes seeking the Lord.  I want Him desperately, and I seek to serve Him – this is true.  But it is also true that I am human, and selfish, and frightened.

I don’t have agency figured out, and I don’t think I ever shall.  It’s one of those knotty paradoxes that I am beginning to conceive, a great and intriguing both/and.

The two givens of the theorem:

a) God is omnipotent and in control of our lives

b) We have been granted free will to shape our lives.

And although I cannot fully understand this, I accept is as the truth of the matter.  We are free to make choices but also controlled by whatever consumes us.  But we choose what it is that consumes us.

I choose my God, loving and powerful Creator and Sustainer.

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A note: I’m aware this is an incomplete rendering of both topics.  Talk to me about it.

on revolutionaries

I’ve been a little bit obsessed with revolutionaries since seeing Les Mis, and although it’s waning now, I still wanted to examine why I felt so strongly for those who give their lives for what they believe in.

The revolutionary is otherworldly.  Men rarely follow mere mortals into death, but they will fight for stronger and more lasting things – ideas and the Divine.

I know that the trope of the revolutionary isn’t realistic, that revolutions today are bloody and futile and rash when there are other ways to revolt.  They’re desperate. But still I think that there is something attractive in the strength of ideals, because we are drawn to those who know for what they fight.

They have to be fighting for the right things, of course, because when you’re a revolutionary, you lose yourself almost entirely.  You become a man consumed, and at such a price, you’ve got to be sure that what you’re fighting for is worth the toll that it will eventually take on you, even demanding your life.

Something had unsettled me about Enjolras’ appearance in the Les Misérables movie, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I realized the last time I saw the movie that Aaron Tveit’s (marvelously acted) Enjolras was both the youngest and the oldest looking that I’d seen.  His extreme youth reminded me that the Revolution of 1832 was indeed a student’s revolution where the boys who died for their beliefs were hardly older than I am now.  It also contrasted so heavily with the ancientness of his spirit that it shocked me.  Enjolras is a tired old man in a young man’s body, and sometimes, as the revolution consumes him, his weariness begins to show through the cracks, and I began to fear that revolution would rip him apart and burst through those seams.

In The PreludeWordsworth speaks of this same condition in his friend, Michel Beaupuis, the pre-Jacobin revolutionary in the French revolution of the late 18th century:

“His temper was quite mastered by the times,
And they had blighted him, had eaten away
The beauty of his person, doing wrong
Alike to body and to mind”

Wordsworth notices that the revolution has stolen his friend’s youth.  And yet,

“a kind of radiant joy
Diffused around him, while he was intent
On works of love or freedom”

This is why we love them.  We admire the ones that turn their words into actions, whose lives are so transparent that there is no discrepancy between their beliefs and their deeds – a life without hypocrisy that seeps from the heart to the external.  When someone can live their beliefs out, as Wordsworth would say, “truth is more than truth”.  As a side note, we want to love someone like that, too.  Love isn’t really love when it exalts the other into an obsession; instead, we want a partner in a shared love, someone that we can love as we are both consumed by a greater passion.

The revolutionary, in his purest form, rejects himself in order to serve others and even to die for them.  In order to create a better world for his people, he gives his own life to make theirs worth living.

I know that this is a common theme with me, but I don’t think there is harm in repeating it: we are all men consumed.  The question is, by what? And is it worth the toll that it’s going to take on us?

If we’re truly living out our faith, we should be as radiant as the revolutionary, and the love of Christ should be ripping out of our hearts in order to touch those around us, breaking us apart in the process.  We look to the most revolutionary act of history for our hope – Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)  He gave his life to redeem ours and to change the fabric of our world from that moment on.

And that’s something worth both living and dying for.

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Read this: all aforementioned works.

Hear this: In a bout of revolutionary fervor, I unashamedly give you this: SING

Newtown

I’m sickened and horrified by what happened in Connecticut.  I cried when I found out the news.  These shootings keep happening, and it seems like they’re becoming more frequent, and more awful.  Something must be done.  I know that we’ve a right to bear arms according to our second amendment, but that right cannot continue like this.

Man is not basically good.  I know that, and this murder of innocent children only serves to appall me more.  Are people becoming more evil?  Perhaps.  Man is fallen and wicked, and that wickedness may be increasing.  Or maybe man is just as evil as he’s ever been, and the technological advances of recent years have simply given people more opportunities for great horror.

But we feel pain, horror, and disgust at this, and so I know that we as humans, made in the image of a Divinity who empathizes with the pain of his children, are not beyond salvation.

A final request that has been given by men much wiser than myself:  please stop focusing on the shooter, his mental instability, and his story.  That’s exactly what he wanted – fame and recognition for such an awful act.  Don’t give him that, and instead focus on the lives of the beautiful children and adults that were cut so short.

This is heartbreaking.  I wish I knew what more to say.  My prayers go out to the families of the victims of the shooting.