Friday, December 29, 2017

The valley.

Lamentation of Christ, Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

“When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ 
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm; 
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.”
– Psalm 30: 6-7

“My tears have been my food day and night, 
while people say to me all day long,
‘Where is your God?’
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.”
-Psalm 42: 3-4

“When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?” – Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

Turns out I don’t control grief any more than I control God, which is exactly not at all.

Several years ago a dear friend who lost a child to leukemia told me that her mother had told her that grief was like a bowl of soup, and some people sip while others gulp. Although I love analogies and often find them helpful, this one planted itself in my memory and when my sister died suddenly and unexpectedly and the terrible time of its blooming arrived, I tried to wrangle it and formulize it and shunt the amorphous, vaporous yet black-hole-heavy beast of grief into its proportions. I’ll gulp that bowl, I told myself. I’ll prodigiously glut myself on it, hand myself over to it, let death reign in my body, and then I’ll be done and new life and hope and beauty and all good things will flower forth again. More than anything, things will make sense again.

And glut myself I did. In those stuporous first weeks I gulped down grief, or it gulped down me, and when dawn seemed to rise after the first month of catatonia I exhaled with relief. It’s mostly over, I told myself. Life can resume. And it did, for a time. And then it turned out to be merely an artificial dawn, a ruse of a spacious place, because the wave was retreating merely to gather its strength and pound the shore again and subsume any semblance of resurrection. 

The more I try to wrest new life from the wasteland, the more I try to wrangle the whole mess and piece together a mosaic from the shattered pieces of an invulnerable life, the more I try to wrangle a good story out of sorrow, the more I try to forcefully glue a neat little bow on the mire… the more my woeful inability to do so trumpets itself until it’s unavoidable. And I’m defeated. Is this where God wants me? 

There is nothing to do but wait for the miracle. There’s nothing to do but trudge joylessly through a valley of indeterminate length for an interminable amount of time. The glass-half-full non-Goth interpretation of this would be something like “God only gives you enough light to find the next step”. But I grow weary of covering things with platitudes, even true ones. Something in me begs to concede defeat, to have my full measure of wallowing. Is this faithlessness? Or is it surrender? I’m not sure anymore. 

The only thing I can wager is perhaps there is something valuable in sinking into the sorrow completely. Before the most meaningful Easter I ever had, I took Good Friday seriously. I didn’t flick it away as a minor temporary setback, a mere illusory obstacle. I didn’t quell it with promises or whitewash it with wishes. I dwelled in it and I let it dwell in me. I sat down in it. I fasted. I flirted with maybes – maybe death won. Maybe empire won. Maybe violence and power and all the coercive ways of the world are just the way it has to be. I imagined how the disciples felt as they scattered and struggled to hold on to Jesus’ prophecies and promises in the stark apparent reality of total defeat, or perhaps lost themselves entirely in doubt and fear. I imagined how Peter felt knowing that he had failed in the one way he had sworn he would never fail, the suffocating tide of shame that must have overcome him. It was too much to bear. Yes, I had heard the promises of Easter, but they were hollowed out by Good Friday, distant. Good Friday had leeched the power from their whispers, now just a faint, tuneless polyphony of the careless wind blowing around so many empty husks. Yeah, it got dark. 

But somewhere in that near-nihilistic silence, a defiant note sounded. No. NO. That’s not how the story ends. There is a power greater, a power that, unlike the world’s power, can’t be owned, can’t be tamed, and can’t be usurped. Its beauty is unmatched and in fact it is beauty itself, the wellspring from which all created beauty unfurls. I know my God. I know my God, and he is not a God of naughts. Or knots, for that matter. He is not a God of vain striving, of dead ends, of dead things at all. It all gets untangled in the end. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20:38). 

After Jesus, Leonard Cohen said it best:

God was ruler
Though his funeral lengthened
Though his mourners thickened
Magic never fled
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
Though his words were twisted
The naked magic thrived
Though his death was published
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

The heart did not believe. Because the heart was a quixotic dimwit, unacquainted with the ways of the world and living in a saccharine Hallmark movie hologram? No. The heart did not believe because it wasn’t true. The story doesn’t end in pain, in death, in destruction. But it’s hard to see that now, when there is only death, dying, barrenness and pain visible. There aren’t even any pleasant distractions if I choose to fix my eyes on what is seen rather than what is unseen. I’m mad that Lia won’t be here when my dad, who is in stage 4 COPD, dies. Or when mom dies, for that matter. She won’t be here if we (ever) have another baby. She won’t be here for a whole litany of things. She’s just… gone. To me. And it hurts like hell. But to him all are alive. This can’t be the end of the story, and somehow the resurrection, the new life, in whatever stunning manifestations it comes, will be richer, ever more miraculous, ever more dazzling because of – not merely in spite of, cause God’s much better than that – the 2.5 day wait. 

There’s part of me that still resists. God, in his sovereign goodness, in his light in which there is no darkness at all, left two and a half days between death and resurrection. Why? Why would Good Friday be needed? Why does that have to be part of the story at all? Why does the valley have to be borne? I don’t know. And I’m not going to glue a bow or pull out my Bedazzler on this one. But I do know that when I started writing this I felt like a sewing machine who had just finished sewing a turd on a trash can lid - a sentiment I borrow from Richard Brautigan and one which is the best characterization of utter futility I’ve ever come across – and now I feel a little bit better. So I’ll be that sewing machine, if God will still be God. And he will. And so I wait. Sometimes because I can muster genuine hope, and sometimes just because there’s nothing else to do. Either way, he is faithful.

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