Friday, March 30, 2012

An Excursus in Yellow

So here we are, within shouting distance of the end of this book.

Every day, down here in the study or slurping down coffee at a Starbucks, I've clacked away at a keyboard, immersing myself in thoughts of faith and the fascinating possibility that creation may be an infinite multiverse.  What does that do theologically?  Does Christian faith continue to be coherent in such a cosmos?  Does any other human being actually care about this, or am I so out on a limb that I'm functionally insane?  Hopefully not the latter.

It feels vaguely monastic, down here in my cave, steeped in Big Thoughts.  But the world rolls on.

Every weekday morning, for example, the pattern of the last year has been the same, one of those comforting furrows of life we groove on down.  I walk with the boys down the street to the bus stop, in tow behind our snuffling dog.  We talk, about school, about life, about gaming or what we've got planned that afternoon.  They say goodbye at the stop, and I wander on so that the pup can do her business.  We always stop at the same driveway.

But today, it felt different as we approached that driveway.  Both boys were wearing yellow, as would be many of the kids at their middle school today.   Yellow was the favorite color of the girl that up until this last week had lived in that house.  Earlier in the week, that girl...who we all knew, and who I'd watched grow up...was shot and killed by her father, who then killed himself.

The blood that stained that driveway may have been scrubbed away, but the pain has not.   Looking at the house, my heart just hurts for the mother of that dead child, her only daughter.  It hurts for the grandparents who so loved and helped raise that girl.  It hurts all the more to know that the pain I feel is just the faint albedo of compassion, as weak as the light of the moon next to the dark sun of loss that burns within that home.

And as I return to this writing, I find myself deeply aware that any theology that cannot speak to such a tragedy is worthless.

That's not to say that the first step in dealing with grief is to do theology.  Attempting this is the greatest mistake of the faithful.  It is a particular sin of pastors.  When someone's baby or grandbaby is dead, you weep with them.  You hold the grieving when they need to be held.  You hear their cries of anguish, and add your own.  You give them space if they need it.  You bring them food.  You mow their lawn.  If they're praying sorts, you pray with them.  You affirm whatever strength and faith they have.

You do not, not ever, not never, show up and start telling them what they should think and feel.  That has more to do with our desire to have power over a situation than it does with giving comfort.  Honor the need to mourn, really and truly mourn.

But questions may come, as a soul struggles to find a framework that will help it cope with an unbearable pain.  Here, faith must speak.  It must.  If it doesn't, it is [male cow excrement].

Seriously.  "I just don't know" simply does not cut it from the faithful in a time of that deepest anguish.  If your faith can give no solace or strength, and has no voice at the farthest place of human brokenness and suffering, then what the hell use is it?

That does not mean imposing your beliefs.  It does not mean insinuating that the other needs to accede to the All-Knowing Font of Wisdom That Is You.  It does not mean offering rehearsed platitudes, or little white lies that you don't really believe but that you think might be comforting because you read them in a book once.  

It means, when meaning is sought, that you can share what has given you strength.  You can offer up that which has allowed you to endure those moments of deepest hurt and loss.  That needs to be honest, caring, and direct.  Let them choose to accept it, or not, as with any freely given gift.

And so I look back across the words that I have written, and that you have plowed your way through.   It's all very heady and fascinating.  But it is more than just an intellectual exercise.   It is and has become a potent part of what I believe.  My Christian faith has been strengthened by it.

From this framework, how do we deal with the deepest loss?  How do we cope with mortality, and the inescapable reality of our human fragility?  Does this view of faith and the universe have anything to offer us?   It does, I think.  In some ways, it reinforces what the faithful have always known.  In others, it presents options for comfort that we may not have considered.

What hasn't changed?

What has not changed is that we can still affirm that nothing of a passed loved one is lost.   So much of the agony of losing a loved one is the powerful sense of their absence, and the sense that they are no longer with us.  In radically affirming the reality of God, and that God's knowledge of us is both existence and being, what we've explored together over these pages asserts that loss is only a matter of our perception.

From faith, I have always felt that we are etched forever into the fabric of being.  Nothing of what we are and were is ever forgotten.  That is true materially, but it is also true spiritually.  All of what we were, all of it, is utterly known to God.  In the connection with the Creator that we find in faith, the sense of loss we feel when we lose a loved one is not removed, nor should it be.  But it is leavened and gentled by hope and grace.  It is made more tolerable by the knowledge that they are not lost.  I find no reason within the dynamics of a multiverse creation that this cannot be so.

What has not changed is that we are dust and ashes.  What my own faith affirms is that we are knit together of the stuff of the universe, and as we come together, we come apart.  Our mortality is an inescapable part of our condition as human beings, one that we need to openly and honestly be aware of as we move from nonbeing to being to nonbeing.

We tend to blither our way through life, consumed by one moment and the next, forgetting that the span of our days here are limited.  Faith reminds us of that.  It prepares us for that reality.  It reminds us of how infinitesimally small we are, and yet teaches us to view our every moment here as absolutely precious.

Though our place in the scheme of a multiverse creation may seem even more impossibly humble, that reminder is a deeply necessary one.  Honor the time we have been given.  Accept that we are limited.

What has not changed is that there is a path of healing and grace from the place of suffering.  For the faithful, this traditionally involves the belief that "God will get you through this."  It is not a thing you rush.  Bopping in chirruping about how joyful you should be because Jesus is going to make it just peachy keen is always the wrong thing to do.

It's going to be hard.  It's going to suck.  It's going to hurt.  That's what suffering is like.

But it does not have to be forever.  There is a path of grace out of that dark place.  There is a place where you'll be able to live again.  In the self-perpetuating cycle of depression, that can seem impossible.   Yet all things are possible with God.  The reality of that statement only grows more powerful in a creation where all possibility can be known.  This can be healing, because having a sense of that as a possible reality can be, in and of itself, the key to the long journey of getting there.

The faithful have always said that God offers us that path of gracious hope.  Not all choose to walk it, a reality which has always been hard to grasp.  But the potential is there, as surely as we exist.

What has changed, just a little bit, is that God did not will their suffering.  This has always been one of the most awkward and counterproductive responses faith has to times of human anguish.  Saying "it was God's will" to a weeping widow or an anguished parent does more to drive people from God than almost any other statement of faith.

For the faithful, this may have been a necessary statement theologically.  If God is God, and the universe is linear and unchanging in its arc, then we feel compelled to say that.  For a few, this is comforting.  This is understandable on some levels, similar to simply saying, well, it is what it is.  I can do nothing about it.   It can help us let go of pain.

But for many, this is deeper anguish.  Instead of being the source of comfort and possible healing, the bond of grace and spirit that helps that circle stay unbroken, God becomes the one who inflicts the pain.  In our anger, in our suffering, in our despair, we flee not just the pain, but the God who would do this to us.

This is not a tolerable result.   If creation is as these last few chapters have described it, however, then it becomes more nuanced.  God remains God, but the particular anguish of this particular moment ceases to be an inevitable outcome of God's will.  Our mortal frailty and the compulsive human unwillingness to be excellent to one another become clearer causes.  The connection to God and the path out of suffering are less clouded, more obviously the source of hope and promise.

What has changed is that in God, it isn't just who they are that is preserved.  What they might have been is also preserved.   As my wife struggled to come to terms with what it would mean to lose a child, part of her own reflections included the loss of potential.  "But what about all your hopes for the child?  What about all of those things you knew they could accomplish, all those joys you hoped to share with them?  How do you ever get over losing that?"

For those left after a loss, particularly the loss of a young one, this is an immense thing.  It's not just the loss of the presence of the other.  It's everything that could have been.  It's every possibility in that young life, or every possibility in that relationship.

Recognizing this is an important part of mourning for the young.   But from faith, particularly a faith in which we recognize that our Creator is not limited to knowing only one way of being, there is the hope that in God, that potential is not lost.  If all things are known to our Maker, then the possibilities that are lost to us are not lost to God.  They are, in the endless creativity of God, as real as our own existence.

We'll still feel that loss, of course, in the same way that we feel the loss of that presence.  It is still a thing that calls for mourning.    But from faith there can be some confidence, in the face of the immensity of Being, that writ onto it is our best joy for that one we've lost.

And in that, and in the choice to turn our eyes to that, lies both hope and comfort.