Finding solidarity with the suffering Christ

crucifix-2-flashAll of us have our own image of Christ ingrained in our imagination.  It’s the image that confronts us when we close our eyes in prayer.  It’s the one representing He whom we worship when moved by a particular hymn or praise chorus.

I raised this idea in a Bible study on the epistle of John.  The epistle, I argued, was basically a commentary on who Christ is: fully human, fully divine–the word, Logos made flesh.  It gives us a vision of who Christ is with graphic language, affirming that “water, blood, and spirit” bear witness to Christ’s work on the cross.

Then I asked the class what kind of “Christ” showed up when they pray.  Many people, myself included, had trouble answering that question.  Not many folks wonder what “image” of Christ their prayers or worship conjures for them in the midst of a spiritual experience.

As a Protestant since childhood, I always had as my image of faith that of an empty cross.  I had a glow-in-the-dark cross on my bedstand to help me sleep at night.  Later, in middle school, Mom and Dad bought me a gold cross to wear around my neck.

There weren’t any crucifixes in my household, no icons either.  “We have an empty cross,” my parents told me, “Because Jesus had been raised from the dead and is alive in our hearts today.”  Perhaps they told me that to make sure that I didn’t turn Catholic (I had been baptized Catholic, and my parents went to a Protestant church only a year after I was born); I don’t know, but it stuck with me.

In high school and especially college, however, when art became important in my life and faith, crucifixes did start to make an impression.  There was something about seeing Jesus on the cross that made an impact on my heart and enriched my prayer and worship.

It’s been years now and I have traveled a little longer down my spiritual path, and I no longer see those two images–the empty cross and the crucifix–as conflicting or contrasting symbols.

I think there are times when we need the victory of the empty cross.  It’s the image that communicates the end of the story, the triumphal finish in which all death will be defeated.  All of us will be raised with Christ.

We also need the Christ who died on the cross and is beholden to it.  We need that reminder that God chose to feel pain, to suffer on our behalf.  We need a Christ who knows how we feel when tears are our only companion, when we are left alone with sorrow because our friends fall asleep in our Garden of Gethsemane.

After the loss of his son to a tragic hiking expedition, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that it was the crucified Christ, not necessarily the Risen Christ, who brought hope.  He needed Jesus on that cross to show up because it was that Christ who related to Woterstorff’s own grief.

He reflected on the crucifix, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers.  The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.  Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God…Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it” (Lament for a Son, p. 81).

Facing tragedy in my own life, I admit that I know what Wolterstorff is writing about here.  I too am not ready for the “victory in Jesus” hymn but insist on the Christ who we sing about in “Man of Sorrows, What a Name.”  That man came back this past Monday, in fact, when 13 more victims succumbed to gun violence in our nation’s capital.

It is the crucified Christ indeed who comes to us as one in silence, humble head bowed, eyes and mouth closed.  There are no answers there, but a very real sense of solidarity.

The cross will surely be empty later, but for now I see myself there with Jesus.  He and I, broken and battered, with something profound and meaningful held in common.  And there, through that darkest valley, I shan’t fear no evil, for God is with me.

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Childloss and Unbearable Grief

The Virgin Mary, who was told long before her son was an adult that the arrows of sorrow would pierce her own heart, is an inspiration to those who lose a child. She reminds us that we are not alone.

When I sat down with Ernest and Lacy (not their real names), I did not have much to say.  They had lost their daughter several days ago, and what can one say about the loss of a child that can make things better?  Their tears were still fresh; the Kleenex box was about half-full.

As a chaplain to senior adults in Decatur, I said what I usually say in these circumstances: “Tell me about your child.”

In between sobs and long periods of silence, Ernest and Lacy told me stories about their beloved daughter, age 63, who lost a battle with cancer.

Then Ernest and Lacy told me what I always hear from mourning parents: “A child is not supposed to go before her parents.”  This was especially heartbreaking; they both celebrated 90th birthdays just last year.

I have been serving senior adults in this capacity for nearly eight years.  I have seen almost every kind of hardship–everything from death to the grief that results from losing the ability to drive.  I sat with way too many people who lost a child or grandchild.

The fifteen minutes I spent with Ernest and Lacy, however, were among the hardest in all my ministry.  While I heard their stories, patiently sat with them in silence, and provided sacred space for them to sob, I could barely compose myself.  I almost had to excuse myself twice for fear that I, too, would not be able to control the onslaught of tears that accompanies such tragedy.

I almost burst into tears because I was realizing several things that day.  For one, it does not matter if a child is 6 or 63, she is still someone’s “little” girl or boy.

Second, there really is nothing like the loss of a son or daughter.  The emotions that come with that kind of loss are different than the grief that follows the death of a spouse or parent.  And, as a father, I could empathize with Ernest and Lacy all too closely.

There was a sermon I once read by late Episcopal priest, John Claypool, that addressed child loss.  Years ago, Claypool lost a eleven-year old daughter to leukemia.  It was a year-long battle before she passed away.

His first sermon upon returning to the pulpit was on Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  The text is an awkward one since we cannot relate to Abraham’s unflinching willingness (and where is Isaac’s mother?) in offering his son without some kind of fight.

Claypool noted that his journey with his daughter was a lot like Abraham’s trek up that mountain.  The uncertainty and the mystery of giving up such a precious life was all too familiar.  When it was time to come down the mountain, however, Claypool’s story differed from Abraham’s.

Unlike Abraham, Claypool–like Ernest and Lacy–did not get to come down that mountain with his child.  It was unbearable grief that followed such an empty-handed journey.

If I were to visit Ernest and Lacy again, I would not do anything different.  I would not try to explain away the situation.  I would not try to use cheap cliches that merely make excuses for God or try to rectify a horrible situation.

All I can do is cry with those whose loss is too much for words to describe.  All I can do is sit in silence and make a sacred, safe space that permits a deluge of tears and a runny nose.

All I can do is recall a simple fact that preacher, William Sloan Coffin, realized when he lost his son in a car accident: the fact that when Ernest and Lucy’s daughter took her last breath, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

J. D. Salinger Reminds us of the Importance of Engaging our World for Christ

Several weeks ago, the death of J.D. Salinger sent ripples, if not waves, through the literary world. Salinger had more fanfare in death than in life, for he spent most of his life as a recluse in the darkest nooks of New England. In fact, when I heard of his death, I immediately asked, “Oh, was he still alive?”

Despite his clandestine lifestyle, Salinger’s popularity gained worldwide recognition because of his cult classic, “The Catcher in the Rye.” I read it when I was pursuing my master’s degree, and I remember that it challenged how I saw the world and humanity.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is about a wayward teenager, Holden Caulfield, whose angst practically drove him insane. According to Caulfield, the world is full of phonies that lean on presumption and pomp to get ahead in the world. The phonies of the world, however, could not keep his brother from dying and his friend from committing suicide.

Though Caulfield’s angst left him with very little sense of direction, he did have one wish that he wanted to fulfill. The wish consisted of Caulfield standing sentinel in a large prairie of rye where little children ran aimlessly toward a cliff. Caulfield, knowing that the children would die if they kept running, wanted to catch each child, thus saving them from certain doom.

The story, with all of its mysterious nuance and subtexts, is one in which the main character is divided between compassion on the one hand and hopelessness on the other. Caulfield so desperately wants to be savior to these blinded children, but understands the futility in trying to keep them from their demise. Caulfield is rendered powerless in the face of aimless tragedy. This powerlessness is the ultimate source of Caulfield’s angst.

Salinger’s novel is a parabolic metaphor for the angst that really defines our era. From the rebellious 1960s to the anxious new millennium, angst has played a large part in setting the tone for our economic, political, and cultural agendas. Consider that the so-called “populist rage” related to our current political atmosphere is symptomatic of the deeper angst that we all feel.

Even in the midst of angst, however, we, like Caulfield, long to save the aimless among us from blindly running off a cliff they do not see. We long to spread our arms and be the catcher that saves others from the calamities they face. When people plummet from buildings, and buildings plummet into the Earth, and the Earth’s future plummets into the unknown, we quickly realize that the field is too big. We feel so very helpless.

So God comes to us and gives us a choice. Do we run away from the field and isolate ourselves from the world like Salinger chose to do so long ago? Or do we continue to do what we can with what we are given, hoping that our efforts to join God in redeeming the world is not full of pretense?

W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.” The apostle Paul would agree. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, he wrote, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So, then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith” (6:9-10).

Join God in that which is holy, and don’t be, as Caulfield would say, a phony.