Friday, March 21, 2008

God's Friday Thread

Do not be deceived - our cause is never more in peril when a human looks about himself, at a world in which all traces of God seem to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken - and still believes.

--CS Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters"*

It's fun to tell the cruelties and casual foolishness of the world to take a hike (language alert, from the title on down); it can be a catharsis and a valuable pressure-bleeder for tense folks. Sometimes it's just what I needed. It isn't the way for me to go this week, however. Today I think that I need to keep that stuff here, "to ponder these things within my heart" so to speak. Today, if I would simply blow off that sort of thing, I wouldn't be doing it with the right heart - I'd be doing it because, in a way, I felt a little too good and important to have to deal with bad drivers, inconvenient weather, and a busy offline schedule.

Well, this week, I suppose it's my turn to take a hike.

Christianity has a full quota of paradox, and today is the apt summation of it all - today is the day in the Christian calendar when we celebrate the murder of God.

It must really tick off the atheists. Not only can't they succeed in killing Him off themselves, but they have to watch Him turn their fondest dream into eternal victory for those who love Him. And in their defense it seems rather on the outset that we're simply full of it. Paradox bears an uncanny resemblancce to flat contradiction. There's a big difference, however. Contradiction is when you run into something that ruins everything; paradox is when you stumble across the one and only thing that makes everything work.

Experience bears this out. One usually only finds contradictions while sailing along, and they bring it all to a halt, but a paradox always comes along when things are hopelessly snarled, and show you a sudden clear path. When you meet a contradiction, something has to give, but a paradox makes you realize that both things have to stay, no matter how much you'd love to drop one of them.

This is the sort of thing that I've been running into lately - and the paradox above all is that, without the sudden contradiction in how my life has been lately, I never would have noticed that I was missing one half of the Christian paradox, and having only half a life as a result. (Take THAT, logic!)

A strong summation of what I'm trying to say is right here, thanks to Nina.

One common accusation against Christianity is that God does mean stuff to us, and then demands that we stick to it in order to please Him. Some of God's strongest believers have even come close to this themselves - such as St. Teresa of Avila snarking to God, "If this is how You treat Your friends, it's no wonder You have so many enemies." The truth of it is, it's not God mistreating us: "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) But it's also true that we don't necessarily like to hear that answer, especially when we feel disconnected from Him - it's well and good for Jesus to overcome the world, but I can't even overcome my cel phone bill.

Now, the same man who told His followers the above would that very evening beg not to face this day. Not 24 hours later, He would be dead, abandoned by all his friends, after crying out "Why have You forsaken Me?" If there's anyone who knows what our hearts are capable of saying to Him, it's He who said it Himself in those last hours of torment.

We know that in spite of it all, He ended by saying "Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit," and then we have Easter, and there's eggs and chocolate and we get to sing Hallelujah in church again, yippee. But that's going too fast. It's a mental defense: when we emerge from personal darkness and are amazed to see the sun rising again, we don't want to think of those times, because while we're in them they last a week for every minute. In a small way, we get a taste of eternity: we don't just feel the sorrow of the now, but in that now we feel all the sorrow we're already carrying, and the absence of the joy we had (our hearts made more hollow for having once been so full), and can only see the prospect of the same days stretched to the grey horizon. As disturbing a concept as Hell is, it is no stretch to know that it is real when one has been in such straits and felt that there was no escape. After all, one never reaches a horizon.

This is where this particular Friday becomes, for us, Good. We do in fact have a God who has felt despair and abandonment. Plenty of faiths promise us happiness, Christianity not the least, but if we want one that offers a God such as this, who also promises that He is with us even in the valley of the Shadow of Death, we may wait long before an alternative to Christ presents himself. That is the paradox, without which the death of Jesus and our own miseries become unsolvable. For it is plain that God did not visit death upon His Son: "Do you not think that I could call upon my Father, who could send twelve legions of angels to my aid?" (Matthew 26:53) It was more a matter of knowing that the power of the world would never tolerate being usurped by the Kingdom of God on earth, nor resist the opportunity to seemingly end any chance of it ever arising.

Neither does He visit our troubles on us - in all honestly, many of my own troubles are of my own making. But even those visited upon me by others are not His will. "Neither this man nor his parents have sinned; but that the works of God would be revealed in Him." (John 8:3) Jesus isn't talking about the man's blindness as a work of God, but his healing, his eventual freedom from that limitation - a freedom that in this case the man could literally never see, just as we cannot see past the horizon. God knows this, and without changing that truth, He works a wonder, and brings the horizon to him. He does so for us as well, by His death, not that either He or His Father have sinned, but that the work of God may be revealed. He is not above turning our struggles to our profit; and this should not be strange. What is strange is how we heap praise and congratulations on people (especially when we're those people) for turning our problems into advantages, but them hold God guilty and refuse Him the chance to do the same thing.

I never took careful notice of what happened to this man immediately after he got his sight. He didn't even know what seeing was, and once he had it it's reasonable to expect a lot of high spirits and good times to celebrate his deliverance. Getting dressed down by the Pharisees and tossed out of his community instead could hardly have been fun; it was probably the last thing he expected. But nobody would consider it better to put his eyes out instead. Likewise, he would never be better off as he was, and he has the grace to see that the trouble he's going through isn't the point. He has reached the horizon: "One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." (v. 25) He holds steadfast despite adversity: "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." (v. 33) In return, he gets a faceful of the dirt outside the synagogue, the reproach of his religious guides, and the derision of the crowd that must have gathered to watch the hubbub. In the midst of it some strange dude he doesn't recognize lifts him up, dusts him off, and asks him, "Do you believe in the Son of God?" (v. 35)

Apparently, it's no stranger than anything else that's happened to him. He just asks, "Who is he, Lord, that I may believe in Him?" On getting the answer, he worships. (v. 36-38) One could perhaps think that this is foolish of the man, when we would probably have been prepared with a sharp answer - along the lines of, "Who is He, that I may puncheth His head for all the crap He causeth me?" But would that answer open the door we were just flung out of? Would it make us any less dispossessed, any less homeless? In fact, it would make us something worse than merely unseeing - it would make us unthinking, and ungrateful. Walking inside the Valley of the Shadow of Death may be no treat, but the moment we decide to quit walking, we lose all hope of ever leaving.

I do not think God is pleased by our suffering, but He realizes that we are in for some suffering anyway. Believers and non-believers alike can be despressed, and afflicted. Each alike has the prospect of eventual escape, but that escape entails trusting in the One who makes it possible, much like escaping a plunging airplane requires us to trust the parachute. It seems at first that the parachute is only going to weigh us down, or that it's madness to jump out of the plane in the first place - but we're not safe in there, and we can't use the parachute inside it. Nor should we be fooled by those who do jump and then refuse to pull the cord.

Suffering makes plain the Valley in which we sit, and need to get out of. When the sun shines down on us in here and we think that it isn't so bad, really, we are in danger of falling into a snare. The man born blind could certainly feel the sun on his face while begging by the well in town, but he wasn't getting anywhere that way. He could well have chosen to stay there after his eyes started working, because what work could he do anyway? He could hardly have learned a trade. or been fit to work one, by sitting uselessly day after day by the well. He could have taken his good fortune and made it a reason to stay where he was - and that is the second half of the paradox, the part that I was missing. As a result I have been stuck in the mud, glad only for the sun shining on me as I sank.

I mean, life is very good right now. But I am, in fact, not out of the mud yet. When I go to Mass because the sun is shining and Jesus and me are like totally BFF, I'm not really doing anything requiring my faith or my courage. When Nina goes to Mass despite telling God to take a long flying jump into a pile of rusty lawn darts, she is. Based on that evidence, her faith is working far harder for her than mine for me, and is open to more grace from Him. The hard training is no more fun than doing crunches and resisting cookies, but she climbs farther and find a more rewarding experience from doing it that way. And in the end, she will see and understand Him far better than someone who has shirked the good fight.

"Shirk" is the proper word. The sun doesn't shine forever. My life is so good right now that I get caught thinking of how sad it is to lose it, as I know I must someday. And iff I were paying attention this would be an opportunity to grow in faith. When I escaped my depression of several years ago, one of the things I would do is think about death. It sounds quite backwards and macabre, but when I was depressed I had no energy to think about it - nor would I have gotten anything useful from it. It was only in health that I could do this. Well, I'm far happier now, but I don't know that I'm healthier. Thinking about death once made me mindful that my home lay beyond that horizon, and that thanks to God I could reach it. Now, I'm stuck in the mud, and leaving it scares me - not the natural sorrow everyone feels, but outright fear: in fact, sometimes a terror that keeps me awake at night, afraid that there will be no waking, in this world or any other, and nothing beyond the horizon but void.

I feel somewhat guilty when I read about the kinds of struggles that Nina and some of my other blog friends are going through. My terror is all of my own devising, but they have real problems, and because of what I've done to myself, I don't know how to help them. I hardly even know if what I have to say (and there's way too much of it) is any use - when I was morbidly depressed, "Be of good cheer" sounded an awful lot to me like "You suck. Something is wrong with you because you aren't happy."** Well, yes - happy is preferable, and depression is a symptom of something wrong, but ignoring the sympton isn't going to cure the problem. I can't be rid of the gout by pretending my foot doesn't hurt and chowing down at the raw shrimp bar. Hearing "Be of good cheer" made me feel like those guys couldn't get what I was going through. Praise God that He does get it, having gone there Himself. The help isn't in anything I can say, but in Him, and what He did for us on Good Friday. Easter could never have happened without it.

In short: I read what some people go through, and think of how little I get out of my blessings, and I am rebuked. Thank God that this is indeed a good day for it.

* quoting from memory - I don't have it verbatim but there's no "block paraphrase" code in HTML so we'll just have to muddle through.

** one problem I have with certain preachers is exactly this tendency - they're all Easter, no Good Friday. They teach a Gospel that leaves the impression that struggle is our own damned fault: and I mean damned in the literal sense, that it is evidence of our deficient faith and lack of salvation. In fact, as I've strived to show here, struggle is inevitable in life, in or out of the Church, and to avoid it is to miss one of our greatest opportunities. Healthy and happy are not always the same thing.

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