Thursday, September 18, 2008

But the Greatest of These

Graham Greene, an English Roman Catholic, wrote a dark, brilliant novel, The Power and the Glory. It centers on a Roman Catholic priest on the run. The story is set in the1920's, in a southern state in Mexico where the Marxists have taken control (which actually happened in his lifetime) and subsequently executed every priest except this one. To make matters worse, the man is a fallen, broken man who has gotten a woman pregnant, breaking his vow of celibacy; and he has drowned his shame in a lifetime of alcoholism. His daughter and her mother despise him. The common people live in the tension of both desperately clinging to his existence and the hope associated with his office, and at the same time rejecting him as shameful and a loser. He lives in the tension of his abject moral failure and at the same time the unrelenting call of God to serve His people. Thus, when he finally escapes into a neighboring state, he cannot live with himself. "The whiskey priest," as he is called by the masses, goes back home into a Marxist hell.

It is not long before he is captured and identified by a Judas-type character as the long-sought whiskey priest. The Marxists exult that at last the land will be cleansed of all religious influence. They hastily prepare his execution, drag him to the wall, and shoot him to death.

Where's the significance in that? What worth could a life like that possibly have? Honestly, what is the worth of your and my lives? That's at least part of what Greene is asking.

Or to put it another way, is there anything which "carries over" from this life to the next? Is there anything that happens here which lasts forever, which we will find somehow present in the Age to Come? Does anything we do here that carries eternal worth, thus infusing it today with ultimate significance?

The classic answer of evangelicalism, at least since the early 1900's, has been "faith." Faith in Jesus Christ carries over. We will find it present in the Age to Come, as well as the fruits of it. Faith is the means by which a person crosses over into salvation. It speaks of one's worth to God, and our participation in another's coming to faith, as we would say, speaks of the significance of our lives as well. All of this is true, biblical, and to be treasured.

But it is a grossly incomplete answer, according to Scripture.

Does not St. Paul say that three things abide? Faith, hope, and . . . love (I Corinthians 13:13). Paul is saying that these three carry over. What we do in faith, hope, and love are eschatological in their essence. They arise in the Age to Come and break in upon us in this Age of the Already but Not Yet. They connect the two Ages. Therefore, they have worth and provide significance.

But listen closely to all of I Corinthians 13:13: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Acts of agape love, you see, a love which only comes from God and simply cannot be done or conceived of or embraced or participated in except in and through Jesus Christ. . . acts of agape love that arise from the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus are the primary evidence today that we are citizens of the Age to Come, of the Kingdom of God. They are a key measure of our significance.

In my favorite of all U2's songs, Walk On, a song about significance and crossing over to a place we've never been, Bono does a voice-over riddle in the opening measures, saying, "Ah love, it's not the easy thing - the only baggage you can bring; love, it's not the easy thing - the only baggage you can bring is all that you can't leave behind." In other words, acts of love, the kind that only comes from the heart of God, through the life and death of Jesus, is the only "baggage" we get to take with us into the life to come. These are the evidences of our significance.

As the whiskey priest is executed, it is clear to every reader, every participant in the book, that his life is meaningless, worthless, insignificant. He is a loser. Nothing remains. And yet, in the two pages that remain in the book, three miracles occur - you will have to read the book to find this out for yourself - but three miracles are the sign for the Roman Catholic of the sainthood of the person. And only later do you realize, as a reader, that he loved the woman with whom he had had a child. He loved his daughter. He loved the people of God. He loved the lost masses. And, in a moment of grace in his last night, in a dank jail cell, he loved God.

The only baggage you can bring is all that you can't leave behind. Which means self-sacrificing love that comes from the heart of God. It's all we can take with us.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Tears In A Bottle

When my mother began to need daily attention, we moved her from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to be near us. She lived in an apartment just 4 miles away, where she lived as normal a life as possible, and with us helping in whatever ways she needed. But in March of 2005 she was stricken by a series of small strokes and, probably, a mild heart attack - and almost died. She never lived on her own again, living successively in a nursing home, an assisted living facility, and then another nursing home. At one point, she begged me, clinging to me, pleading with me to do anything to get her out of the last of those facilities, saying, "If you don't get me out of here, I'm going to ROT! I'm going to DIE!! Please, Paul, you've got to save me!" But there was no other good solution, we kept her there, and she indeed, in a sense, rotted before our eyes. She just slipped away, probably suffering little debilitating strokes daily or often - for she just quietly disappeared in loss of consciousness, awareness, ability to access and articulate thoughts or memories, ability to feel hardly any emotions. . . she withered away until one day in June 2007, she lost consciousness entirely, breathed with a death rattle, and died.

Where's the signficance in that? In all of that? In any of that?

Or what of little Ben Towne, the 3-year old son of dear friends of our daughter Annie. The Townes are dedicated, generous, mature followers of Jesus Christ who have served a great church in Seattle for years. Who, one day about 2 years ago, discovered their first born son has an extremely rare form of cancer from which few survive or live beyond a few painful, awful years; and for whom the only hope in treatment involves severe pain, the kind of pain that eerily makes one wonder if Ben were to survive, would he be forever scarred deep inside. Ben is undergoing the terminus of his latest experimental treatment right now, and he writhes in pain because the medicine is attacking his nerves, not just the remaining cancer cells.

Where's the significance and worth in suffering like that?

Far greater, weightier, deeper, more thoughtful people than me have wrestled with these things, and I don't even pretend to have anything to add to what they have said. I am only wrestling with it because of how suffering has invaded even my little corner of the world and raised the question, "So, what really matters?" And especially in this blog, "Where's the significance in suffering and death?"

One thing that strikes me about the story of the people of God is the recurrence of the theme of suffering as redemptive. As if something good is going on when suffering is invaded and indwelt by the living God. So it is that a Suffering Servant would one day come from God to Israel and so identify with the people of God that he would enter into their sufferings, taking them as his own, absorbing their pain into himself. He himself would not be able to grasp the meaning of it, nor see what was happening, crying out in despair,

"But I said, 'I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." Isaiah 49:4a.

And yet still he clung to faith in the living God, the One and Only, who reveals who He is to His people in His proper Name, which our translations notate with "the LORD,"

"Yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God." Isaiah, 49:4b

Later, we discover that this very Suffering Servant, in taking not only the unjust, undeserved sufferings of the people of God upon himself, but also the just judgments of God against His people into himself, puts to a final death these sufferings - for him and for all who follow him.

Likewise, and to the astonishment of too many Christians in the Western world, we discover that to follow in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant means a continued manifesting of the incarnate life of Jesus in his people. Which means that the people of God suffer with the sufferings of Christ still today. How could we be "in Christ" and thus "know Him," and not know something of the loss, grief, horror, pain, bewilderment, sadness, heartache that the incarnate son of God lived on earth?

"That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead." Philippians 3:10-11

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be manifested in our bodies." 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

And then Paul, who is speaking as an apostle, goes on to say that his sufferings are actually, as Jesus' were, for the sake of the people of God (Colossians 1:24). And I don't mean simply that sufferings are for our own transformation. They are that. It is in the dying to self (Augustine's transformation of desire) that much fruit comes (John 12:24-25). Contentment is only found in the midst of deprivation, which becomes our teacher (Philippians 4:10-13). Agony alone seems to tear off our comforts so that we at last discover that God alone is our Desire (Ps. 75:1, 3, 6-8). But Paul is going beyond all of this and teaching that somehow, although no doubt in a far more modest and lesser way than that which came through the apostles, the sufferings of all who are in Christ impact, build up, strengthen, help the people of God, too.

But not only that. There is also ample reason to believe that the blessing that apparently arises out of our sufferings is not simply for the people of God, but for the whole world as well. Following directly out of the 2 Corinthians 4-5 passage where our sufferings in Christ are the issue, Paul moves directly into how we as a suffering people are to embody the reconciliation of God as ambassadors to the world. The message is that what we do when suffering is part of the ministry of reconciliation Jesus sends us with to the world (2 Cor. 5:18-19). As a Congolese Nyabiando pastor said recently, "People are tired of listening to empty words." And Joseph Lusi, a Congolese orthopedic surgeon said in response, "We have to show Jesus."

It may be that we must cry out with Augustine that we are "radically ignorant of what we actually accomplish in our actions." It is certain that we will have to suffer by faith believing that there is any worth to be found in it. But that's the story we have been born into, the one that Jesus told and lived out, and the one that our union with Christ empowers and makes real.

In the end, I begin to understand that God has come down and entered into the harsh realities of what it means to be human in a tragically fallen world. That he redeems it. Makes it somehow "worthwhile." Claims it as significant. And perhaps most wonderful of all, in a way that actually transcends all that he might be able to do with such sufferings, that he makes it worth it because he is in it personally with me.

"You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?" Psalm 56:8

My tears are in his bottle. He has kept every one of them.