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Posts Tagged ‘resurrection’

William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?

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I went through a really rough couple of months this year. Nonetheless, in it I came to know something of Jesus that has been greatly significant for my faith. I would like to stress that this refers to a specific period in a specific person’s life and I am in no way providing reflections on some kind of universal suffering. I understand that suffering escapes definition. It is better understood piecemeal in the particular stories that individuals and communities choose to share with others. I won’t be sharing my “rough couple of months” but only indirectly by way of my reflection on these.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). As promised, after three days in the grave, Jesus is risen from the dead and appears to the disciples. As glorious as it is,  however, there remains for the disciples the enormous task of making disciples of all the nations, by whom they will be hated (24:9-14). They will be called blessed for sharing his sufferings (5:10-11). And, before joining him in his resurrection they must join him in his crucifixion (16:24-25). It seems that Jesus’ being with the disciples is not only in the love, hope, and power of the Spirit, his body which is the church, and his future return, but his being with them is also in the call to crucifixion. That Jesus is with us is the confirmation of our suffering.

(The above refers to specifically Christian suffering, i.e., taking up your cross is an active and voluntary identification with Jesus in his suffering that characterises being Christian. My concern here, however, is not only with these sufferings but also suffering that is not specifically Christian. Indeed, this “everything-else-suffering” forms part of the precondition of Christian suffering, as God on the cross has identified with all human suffering and death).

While the New Testament provides much material on suffering, such as its littleness in relation to the coming return of Jesus and the new life that he offers (e.g., Rom 8:18-30; 2 Cor 4:7-18), or, not unrelatedly, as a way of building character or faith (e.g., Heb 12:3-13; 1 Pet 1:6-7), this is not all that Scripture provides. The Book of Job, for example, counters other Jewish wisdom literature of its time that advocate righteousness (fear of God, obedience to the law, being just in your relationships with others and the land) because it is the righteous who will prosper. But the wicked, who act as if there is no God and do to others as they please, will surely have their comeuppance. Job, however, is a righteous person who is thrust into the depths of suffering. In one day, a series of events takes away all of his livestock, servants, and children. While he is still grieving these losses, he gets covered in sores from head to toe. Three of his friends come to comfort him. But they are ill-received. They consistently locate the source of Job’s suffering in some sin that must have brought judgement upon him. Yet Job will not buy it. He turns his attention to his Judge on high, perplexed at why in actual fact the wicked do prosper and the righteous often suffer: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7; see whole chapter).

For me though, the most important part of the Book of Job is the two chapters just before the last where God answers Job’s complaints. The disturbing thing is that God does not really provide an answer:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

(38:4-5).

God goes on to rebuke Job with further questions on the wherefores and whatabouts of morning and night, the rains, the constellations, and exactly how numerous animals undertake their daily lives. God seems to be saying that the answer to Job’s suffering cannot be found by reflecting intelligibly on the nature of God or the world. Suffering is a fact inasmuch as everything else is a fact. There’s probably a lot more there, and, as said above, this is not all that Scripture has to say of suffering. What can be said on my part though is that the fact of suffering means first of all that it is. It’s not something that if we look hard enough actually is not. Secondly, while nonetheless affirming the particularity of everything that is, suffering as a fact is as factual as everything else. To affirm the fact of suffering is to affirm its albeit violent and disruptive arbitrarity. Thus to say that suffering is a fact is at the same time to say that it is not. It is not, in the same sense that everything else is not, that is, it is not because it is seen in the context of the arbitrary totality which encompasses everything and is “just there,” without any connection to some transcendent purpose.

Job is a type of Christ. In the Book of Job we see the righteous Christ in a suffering that does not acknowledge this righteousness. (We also see a resurrection of sorts, but that can wait for another time). The cross bares the utter factuality of suffering. No longer is it that suffering is a fact only for the world. He from whom “All things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3) has given himself completely to suffering and death, asserting it not just as a fact for us but a fact for himself. So, too, the cross bares the utter arbitrarity of suffering. It is true that Christ suffers out of love, a suffering for us, that we may gain infinitely from it. But it is such a death that the whence and whither of any why for this suffering is swallowed up in the moment of death itself, in the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). There is no purpose, only utter arbitrarity and nothingness: he from whom all being comes has been swallowed up in non-being. If we say otherwise, have we said that Christ has given himself to death?

It is true that the resurrection must be seen on either side of this, proleptically in the hope of the Old Testament, the miracles and sayings of Jesus, and the transfiguration, and then on the other side, in its actuality on Easter Sunday. But the fact of suffering which Christ takes upon himself means also a separation of himself from resurrection. In that “moment” of humiliation and death on the cross, there is no resurrection. Resurrection is the impossibility that God raises that which is not, from the dead. It has its own absoluteness that in a limited sense precedes but in its true sense comes after the absoluteness of death.

Yet we must go further than a separation of resurrection from crucifixion. In the suffering of the cross, Christ enters into death and is emphatically separated from his Father, and the Spirit of life who sustains him. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that this separation is prefigured. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Jesus does not want to submit himself to death, yet he knows this is the Father’s will, indeed, his will (e.g. Phil 2:6). He thus lays aside his desire for self-preservation and submits to death. But in this sense he is forsaken by God. The Father has forsaken the Son in neglecting to answer his prayer, “let this cup pass from me.” The Father has forsaken the Son in submitting him to utter meaninglessness. So, too, Jesus is forsaken by the Spirit. In death, the Spirit of life who kept so close to Jesus in his earthly life, indeed in all eternity, has allowed death to overtake him (Matt 27:50).

This is not the end of the story but it takes place at its disturbing center. The crucifixion reveals not so much the presence of God in suffering but his absence. The absence of deliverance, purpose, and life in the Father and the Spirit, and in the Son the absence of the sufferer from comfort. Jesus suffers alone. Nonetheless, this absence at the heart of the crucifixion demonstrates just in what way God is present in human suffering. He is present in the Son, suffering alone, but, paradoxically, with us. He is present insofar as suffering and death are now facts for God. Thus, so too is God present in the Father and the Spirit, in the Father sending his Son and in the Spirit in bringing the Son to us and making him real for us. God is absent, but this is not any absence. It is the awful and beautiful absence of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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Here’s another marketing ploy for readers to continue reading while I fervently try to box a little bit more of reality with language. Enjoy five sonnets written over 2008 and 2009. I haven’t read them for ages. Twenty-One, written on becoming twenty-one, also had Milton in mind when writing it, mainly lamenting the amount of life that’s gone to waste so far. Making sure, written out of my own cynicism in my inability to live up to my own ideals. Maranatha, disillusionment with my lack of compassion for people the world over, and that any desire I had to help others was actually more of a desire to find my own purpose in life. Poker for communists, on celibacy. A better tomorrow, a nice one to close on, as you can see from this miserable line up of other poems, expressing one of those rare moments in life when you grasp the reality of real hope.

Twenty-One

These formative years:
They are passing
with rapidity,
like a rabbit you would
see running from a gunshot. I shot

again, and the cuddle-wrought
fugitive contracted into a ball

of fluff. If an instant were a lifetime,
then in that instant of this life

one last elastic bound
cast my prize to his safety. And
I walked on dejectedly
into possibility; and I walked on
an empty stomach.

* * *

Making Sure

We’re not falling away
due to adversity,
but we are falling as we rise
in our prosperity. Hear this
new something we have

to complain about: life–
it’s too easy. Our excess is emptiness;

there’s really nothing there.
So we buy books

to make sure we’re saved.
Our Christian friends tell us
Christian things
to make us better Christians
so that one day we’ll be really good Christians.

* * *

Maranatha

When leaden souls burden
my shoulders, or if the blood
of the condemned swells
in my heart, then consecrate
this entire individual to the God who is

love. But between desert mosque and isolated
rainforest, though I could search for a niche to love

people, in searching I search for myself.
This skin envelops the multipartite and immeasurable

being: Bones, ghost,
psyche, etc. Give me some time away from
myself! Jesus will save the nations,
albeit my motivations are
a precedent for my procrastination!

* * *

Poker for communists

The pursuit of
happiness is all pursuit; the yellow
brick road concedes
infinity. Arise, dying body! Life within
continue! You may envy the resting

stillborn, who faced neither despair
nor desire, but we exchange fists

with eternity. Tell me how
Buddha, apostate of world and wife,

grew plump on nirvana. Tell me how
Jesus’ disciples could discount
godly union for fear of divorce. Tell me
how a couple could love to the utmost of human possibility
then forfeit it all to death.

* * *

A better tomorrow

The majestic king of beasts, through bringing
death, lives on flesh, and glorifies
his Creator. The humble plankton
perishes in a whale’s belly, yet sings
praises to his God. Eternity is now, forever

is today, and this breath finds its meaning
when breathed for you. Each moment

is just a reason to know you, and you
make each momentous. Although now the world

is lard in our blood and heavy
in our lungs, each choke
anticipates the coming perfection; and
though now we but know you
in spirit and faith, we will see your face.

Look Jackson, you’re too old for piggy back rides now; someone’s going to lose an eye.

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If the foolish, call them “flowers” –
Need the wiser, tell?
If the Savants “Classify” them
It is just as well!

Those who read the “Revelations”
Must not criticize
Those who read the same Edition –
With beclouded Eyes!

Could we stand with that Old “Moses” –
“Canaan” denied –
Scan like him, the stately landscape
On the other side –

Doubtless, we should deem superfluous
Many Sciences,
Not pursued by learned Angels
In scholastic skies!

Low amid that glad Belles lettres
Grant that we may stand,
Stars, amid profound Galaxies –
At that grand “Right hand”!

If the foolish call them flowers by Emily Dickinson
* * *

A mural of Emily in her hometown of Amherst

    This is one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems. When at first I read it a couple of years ago I didn’t quite see what was going on but I wanted to stick at it because something about the poem kept me coming bamck to it. At the time I could find no decent analysis wherever I looked, possibly because I didn’t look hard enough, but also because this isn’t one of Emily’s more well known poems. This quality blogger’s post on the same poem popped up not too long ago and the rest of her posts are worth a read for Dickinson fans. This particular version of the poem was all I could find across the internet, with it’s intrusive capitals and mocking quotation marks. I thought I’d leave it as is, because I don’t really have the authority to mess with it.
    I was first introduced to Emily by way of watching the Simpsons (the same medium by which I discovered Walt Whitman). Lisa follows Bart to military camp and, being the only girl, finds herself in her only lonely quarters: “Solitude never hurt anyone. Emily Dickinson lived alone, and she wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known… then went crazy as a loon.”
    I’m not sure how accurate Lisa’s conclusion is, but Emily certainly did spend a lot more time alone as she grew older. Wikipedia informs me (although I already knew (because I read the read the article ages ago (so Wikipedia is informing me on something it has previously informed me))) that “fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime”.
    Emily asked that her poems be burnt after she died. A bit of wishful thinking there. But this is what makes her poetry so perfect. Emily Dickinson, for me, is the exemplary existentialist. Her poetry is a look from the inside into her life. She wrote most of them with no intention of being published. She wrote a few in some written exchanges with friends. But the better part of her poetry was an assertion of herself against existence, a questioning of God and science, life and death, sexuality, rationality, beauty and everything in between. Because there is no intended audience we have access to the unadulterated leanings of Emily’s introspective heart and mind. Regarding literary movements, she managed to get in before getting tied up in the lameness of realism.
* * *

Emily grew lily of the valley in her garden

    The overall message of the poem is exceedingly simple. And beautiful. If you think you’ve got it sorted upstairs, don’t be overbearing towards other people. Life is so much more than knowing this and that.
    Emily opens the poem with two types of people, the foolish know flowers by their general name, as ‘flowers’, and the wise, or savantswho can tell you the scientific name of each flower, ‘classify them’. Note that she doesn’t say, ‘If the foolish call them begonias and forget-me-nots’, and then compare this to more scientific terms, but that the foolish really only can, like me, say that this is a flower and that is a tree. Interestingly enough, I’d say Emily fell into the latter category, herself an enthusiastic gardener (a constant gardener maybe) who also pressed and collected flowers for a hobby. The poem, although essentially an apology for the underdog, doesn’t seem to have her shying away from defending academics from their naysayers too: ‘just as well’ should not be read in the idiomatic modern sense, ‘Just as well I brought my wallet with me!’ but in a more literal, word-by-word, sense, ‘If the Savants “Classify” them /It is [valid] as well!’ However, we cannot ignore that there may be a sense of self-deprecation throughout the poem, or a criticism of Emily’s own failure to live up to her humble ideals of the simple life and calling flowers flowers.
    Although there is no ‘but’ or ‘yet’ to introduce the next verse, which seems to be a more decisive dig at smug intelligentsia, the contrast is evident and sets up the next point that the poem makes: The learned who can detail the theological idiosyncrasies of Revelations (the last, controversial book of the bible, dealing with the end times, a hot topic considering Emily’s time and geography) need not belittle those who find it a bit more perplexing.
    ‘Could we stand with that Old “Moses”‘… is quite grammatically enigmatic. This verse threw me for a while until I’d read quite a bit more of Emily’s work to understand her style better. If you notice the dashes, you’ll see the sentence doesn’t finish until the end of the next verse. It almost makes sense when you realise this and read the two together, but just a little more imagination is required. It basically reads, ‘[If we could] stand with that Old “Moses”… /Doubtless we should deem superfluous…’ The Old Testament story which Emily is referring to is God allowing Moses to look upon Canaan, the Promised Land (a metaphor for heaven in Christianity and Judaism), but without entering it: ‘”Canaan” denied’. If we, like Moses, could stand before Canaan and look upon it, our vision and purposes in life would be drastically altered; our attention would turn to the sciences which angels engage in, rather than our more earthly pursuits. But remember that Emily’s denouncement encompasses the theological too: ‘Those who read the “Revelations” /Must not criticise…’ Her criticism is not aimed at just one quarter of academia.

I still don't understand Revelations...

    If Emily is calling to attention the relative purposelessness of higher learning then what is she advocating instead? Her conclusion looks forward to the Resurrection (a common theme in Emily’s poems), where the righteous and unrighteous rise to be judged at the end of times. ‘Belles lettres‘, literally, ‘fine letters’ is a French term to refer to literature as an art form. Considering ‘Revelations’ is the only piece of literature Emily mentions in the piece, along with the colourful nature of the book, she’s probably making reference to it. Being ‘Low amid’ the Revelations basically compares the standing of the foolish next to a piece of literature better approached by the scholarly. Emily asks that this be put aside and everyone, regardless of their level of erudition, may stand at the right hand of God.

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