When evening had come

As long and, at least in places, ponderous as the Bible might seem, narratives tend to move at a breakneck pace.

Passages of time are noted but not inhabited with detail, as when the Apostle Paul rattles off years spent here and there as mere background to a couple of weeks of church meetings in Jerusalem.

Mark’s report of Jesus’ burial breezes through minutes and hours that must have dragged like days for the devastated disciples. Jesus had been dead for some time,  according to the Roman officer’s report to the Governor.  In fact, evening had come and the human debris of the grim business commenced that morning had hung on the cross for the better part of a day.

Dragging hours in which Peter hid out with the nauseating knowledge that he’d denied knowing Jesus and, by staying away from the cross, continued to abandon him.

The better part of a day in which every second was infused with pain for Mary, who watched her son suffer and die, and helpless John, tasked with comforting her while agonizing over the loss of his beloved friend.

Motionless minutes of emptiness and humiliation for  disciples who had expected Jesus to change their world, staked their futures on him, and now sat as losers, eventually shuffling home because there was nothing else to do.

Then there was Joseph of Arimathea.  He was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.  But somehow, his adrenaline didn’t crash.  He went boldly to Pilate to claim the body of Jesus for burial.  Joseph seemed to know that God’s game wasn’t over, that even in the shadows the kingdom was advancing.

Joseph must have been pacing and muttering, because it took time for the Romans to process his request.  The Governor, Pilate, was surprised that Jesus was dead, crucifixion being a Roman method for making terminal pain linger.  So he sent for the Officer of the execution detail.  We are used to rapid fire communication – in our day Pilate could text the Centurion,

Pilate: INRI dead ?

Centurion: y

But that day in Jerusalem would have required an aide to go find the Centurion, possibly in another part of the city, and then bring him back to Pilate, while Joseph waited and night set in.

The long hours of Good Friday and Holy Saturday replay in Christian lives today.  We enter them in the grinding days and seasons in which our God seems hidden if real at all.  Our questions and prayers seem to go unanswered.  The evil in ourselves and our world runs amok.  The habits of prayer and worship leave us cold.

Yet the powerless passivity of Jesus on the cross and in the tomb are written into our affirmative statement of faith, the Apostles Creed,

[Jesus Christ] suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.

Intriguing that the Creed shifts from the passive voice – Jesus was buried – to the strange activity of He descended to the dead.

To meditate on Jesus in the tomb is to join with Joseph of Arimathea in expectation and boldness, lugging what feels like a powerless Savior in a cold cave on a dark night, still believing that something is up.

It is to hold onto the possibility that God is advancing the kingdom in us even when the grim hours drag on and on.

The Thief On His Own

“Paradise,” you said.

Can you hear what I’m thinking?  It hurts too much to breathe, let alone talk.  And anyway you’ve stopped talking, too.

“Paradise,” you said.  “Today.”  And with you.  But you’re not saying anything now.  

Even in all this crazy pain – my useless body is straining to keep breathing and it’s helping these Roman dogs torment me – I felt joy when you said what you did.

But I thought you would help me along the way there.  And now you’re not saying anything.

My partner on the other cross isn’t talking either.  I could see the disgust in his eyes when we talked about Paradise.  I can’t say I blame him.  My last words out loud were to snap at him for mocking you.  His eyes have angry heat – he’s still alive and hurting like me.

But you.  It’s like you’re asleep now.  Are you going to wake up and say something else?  Are you going to help me through this pain and pathetic fear and walk with me to Paradise?

Oh God, I don’t want to cry.  The Romans and this deadbeat crowd of gawkers would take pleasure.  But Paradise.  You said I was going to Paradise with you.  And now you’re not saying a thing.  Are you already there?  Why did you leave me alone?

How can you be like this? How can you not care for me?  I know you felt alone, too.  I heard you call out that holy song, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  And when they mocked you I spoke up, painful as that was, on your side.  But now you say nothing.  

Well, I know some of those songs too.  Even a thief hears the prayers sometimes,

“Friend and companion hast Thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.”

Will I just wake up in Paradise?  O do I need to keep suffering until you wake up and talk to me again? What?  What must I do?

Here come the soldiers with spears and iron rods.  This is it.  They’ve had their sport and now they want to go back to town so it is time for us all to die.  No respect for our lives and our deaths are boring them.

Can you hear these thoughts?  Have I been talking to myself all this time?  You’re not even twitching.  Are you gone already?  Gone to Paradise?  

I don’t care if the tears come.  You – wherever you are – are my last bit of life.  Remember me, please.  Remember me.

No consolations for you!

All of their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God.  God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners.  If he did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.  This is why it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness.  (John of the Cross, The Dark Night I.6)

Am I wrong or does John sound like a spiritual version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi?

OK, laugh track off. America’s religious life is marked by “spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.” Christianity or any other religious system is meant to make one feel good.  Prosperity Gospel, spiritual-not-religious and moral therapeutic deism are expressions of this reality.  The guiding creedal affirmation is, “It’s what works for me.”

John of the Cross presents the alternative, which is to seek  God rather than stop short and wallow in the finite things – even good things – that God creates.

Life’s passing consolations throw a parade on Palm Sunday.  Jesus gets a hero’s welcome into Jerusalem. He is praised, waited upon and called upon as the only one who can make things all better.  Human affirmations play into our gluttony for consolation, as a friend of mine points out,

The stones (the people of the temple of God) that would go through that dark time, a time of humility and being silenced, would have to contend with persons who would be a Christ to them. When an individual is going through a hard time, he will reach out to anyone around him in the hopes that a consoling will take place… Jesus was saying that in order to grow into a lively stone of the temple of God, one must not lean on every shoulder that comes his way.

And we know that the shoulders of the welcoming Palm Sunday crowd were no place for Jesus to lean.

A few nights after the big parade Jesus has dinner with his unreliable friends.  He beckons them (and through them, all of us) into a dark night, without handy consolations, but promising something greater,

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.  ” (John 13:36-38 ESV)

Jesus posits a path marked by denial and failure that will ultimately bring Peter to share the place of his Teacher and Lord.  In another of his writings, John of the Cross described the practice of Spanish mothers who rubbed bitter herbs on their breasts to wean their children.  Fullness of life with God – what the Apostle Paul often terms maturity – requires weaning from consolations.

On Friday, Jesus will cry out Scripture’s least consoling passage, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?  Saturday is the profound darkness of the tomb.

Sunday…

 

Poked awake

“Sleep” is busy.

Dreams, now and again pleasant but usually not so much.  Thoughts, the agitated kind, creep in and pile up extra misery to go with the eventual alarm clock.  (How is it that we shift from childhood’s anxious anticipation of Santa to adulthood’s dreads?)  Loneliness, it’s crushing pressure increased by immersion in darkness.

Sometimes I receive something else – a door that shuts on the intruders.

It might be the Lord’s Prayer, or mental wandering among the Beatitudes. Sometimes my heart and mind fill with tender thoughts of other people and their needs, and I find myself in a rich time of intercession.

I wish that I could boast in this.  I would love to tell you that I keep late night vigils because I am a disciplined champion of prayer.

But these are moments that John of the Cross calls dichosa ventura – “happy chance” or, in more pious translations, “sheer grace.”  They are God’s doing, not mine.  They come without my effort.

Instead of raising my hands to the music of angels, I am more like Elijah, passed out from the day’s worries and exertions, only to be poked awake for a divine feeding.

The Psalmist starts out with a claim of active effort, but when all is said and done recognizes that it is God doing the heavy lifting through the night,

I think of you upon my bed, I remember you through the watches of the night

You indeed are my savior, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.

My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.

Psalm 63:7-9 NAB

I pray this morning for all who suffer theft of rest by the world, the flesh and the devil.  I pray that God will fill your soul with more than comforting thoughts and will set you to his life giving work – praising God, extolling his Word and lifting up other people – even as you sleep.

Uhhhhh

When we meet Elijah, he’s delivering God’s bad news of a drought.

The rain stops, so Elijah is validated as the real deal.  God provides for him despite the affliction on the land, and even gives him a big victory over the bad guys.  (I Kings 17:1-18:40)

When God decides to open the heavens and water the land, Elijah goes up Mt. Carmel, which looks out over the Mediterranean.  Watching for rain clouds to rise over the sea, he assumes a strange position,

And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” (1 Kings 18:42-43 ESV)

Commentaries don’t agree on what Elijah is doing or why he does it that way.  Some assume a position of prayer, which seems to be what the New Testament sees; others keep it simpler and suggest that he’s exhausted from all of his exertions and the ascent of the mountain.

Whatever he is or isn’t doing, he’s down in that position and he isn’t moving.  Head on the ground, he growls at a servant to go look for clouds.  And when they are sighted, he sends the servant to announce it.  Only later is “the hand of the LORD on Elijah,” and he gets up to run with the next message.

When our older son was small, he liked to do pratfalls.  When he met new people, he wasn’t into all the conventional pleasantries.  He’d throw his hands in the air and swoon to the ground.  My wife and I called it “Going Uhhhhhh…” because he would sometimes accompany the act with that sound for emphasis.

So Elijah goes “Uhhhh” before the LORD on Mt. Carmel.  I feel some affinity these days.  I’m in a place of dark comfort, if that makes any sense.  Not happy clappy, but not bummed.  I just paid bills, which usually raises my anxiety, and I was calm and content.  Again, not “up,” but aware of God’s reality and care.

I know, I know.  To the upright and pious, God’s reality and care should make me perky.  But I’m not there.  Some commentaries point out that the spot on Mt. Carmel with the best ocean view is not the summit, but a place somewhere down the western slope.  So I’m not on a mountain top, I’m going”Uhhhhh” somewhere down the slope, letting the LORD do His stuff while I stay still.

I won’t presume to name this territory I inhabit.  Maybe I’m mental.  But I like being off of the last several months of ups and (mostly) downs.  And I wonder if God’s grace is taking me to the place celebrated in the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross,

I abandoned and forgot myself,

laying my face on my Beloved;

all things ceased; I went out from myself,

leaving my cares

forgotten among the lilies.

(One Dark Night, stanza 8, Kavanaugh & Rodriguez trans.)

 

 

 

Not Dark Yet

I’m trying to communicate something magnificent here but I keep typing platitudes. “God meets us where we are.” Sigh. I think it was Gregory the Great who compared preaching to seeing a great blaze, then trying to display it for others but only giving off pathetic little sparks.

OK, I’ll stick with it. “God meets us where we are.” That includes terrible and seemingly ungodly places. The Psalms are a traditional part of daily prayer because in them God breathes words we might be too ashamed to offer. He comes to free us from pious constraints and to enter His presence in Spirit and Truth through Jesus.

This morning I offered a portion of Psalm 143. I’m down, dealing with (being dealt with by?) depression. So there was mercy and freedom in God giving me these words to pray,

The enemy has pursued my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground.
He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.
My spirit is faint within me;
my heart despairs.

So God meets us where we are. But he doesn’t come to leave us there. Elijah was in dark isolation when God came to renew him and send him out with power,

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:4-8 ESV)

Depression can become an idol. We might choose to adore it. The whole suffering artist/sensitive soul schtick. Like it’s cool to name drop Sylvia Plath, even if you’ve never read a syllable of her poetry (she wrote poetry, right?) God meets us where we are, even in depression, but doesn’t want us to stay there.

St. John of the Cross likened the Christian spiritual life to the ascent of a mountain. St. Teresa of Avila expressed it as moving from the outer to inner chambers of a castle. No place along the way is the ultimate destination – God is always calling us away from what was and toward what will be in Him.

A peeve of mine is the superficial citation of “dark night of the soul” (John of the Cross) as a meme for depression or just having a lousy day,

“Man, my boss is a jerk. I don’t know why I took this job in the first place.”

(Friend makes caring, “pastoral” face and says) “You’re really going through a dark night of the soul.”

That has zero to do with what John was describing. I won’t even try to convey it in a puny blog. But the “dark night” he describes is beyond depression or ecstasy or anything else that mires us in self awareness. It involves a profound, mysterious and God-given suspension of self so that intimate unity with God is enjoyed.

So while God will meet us in depression, which feels quite dark, that’s not where God wants to leave us. There’s a more profound but much better darkness toward which the soul is beckoned. That’s John’s dark night,

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

Depression is dark. But by the grace of God, there is a better darkness into which we can come. I don’t know that he was after this same idea, but Bob Dylan expressed it well,

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there