Thursday, February 26, 2009

On the Question of Suffering

I've had this post written in my head now for at least a month, if not more. A week ago, perhaps, I finally put the words down but I held off publishing the post partly because at first it involved more of my family's story and I felt conflicted about putting it out there. Secondly, I could hear myself groan inwardly, "Why, Jenny, why must you always go there? Why must you always play in the deep end of the pool?" Besides, who am I to talk about God? I am not a theologian; I am not even a good Christian.

However, in my own mind, since writing about my abuse, I felt the need to then clarify how that impacted my faith in and understand of God. As I wrote that blog, I kept thinking to include it, but I found it impossible to do so, mostly because I would have been trying to cover too much ground in one blog and the impact of both subjects would have been lost.

Also, lately I have seen a lot of posts about Lent, which is, if I remember correctly, identifying in a personal way with the suffering of God as He redeemed us. Perhaps it was not coincidence that I finally wrote out this blog at this time and so obedient to what seems to be providence, I will publish it. But I have taken out the personal references to my family's story, as I'm not ready to put it out there.

When I was on the verge of eighteen years old I spent a lot of time in my room reading the Gospels. But not just reading them; bringing them to life. One of my favorite chapters to read in this way was when He quieted the sea. He was asleep in the stern on a pillow before the storm came up and I would read that and then pause.

I would imagine the sea spread out around Him, quiet now and hot and sunny and the overwhelming smell of fish everywhere. And the little boats that followed around Him, the quiet voices carrying over the water and the lap of the water against the sides of the boats. And how He must have been exhausted and dirty.

And I would imagine that I was an apostle, the forgotten woman apostle, nameless and lost to history, but there all the same. What would I do if I were in the boat with Christ? Why, I would lie down close to Him, my head on the same pillow and listen to His even breathing, the rhythm of His human heart, made to be broken, and I would fall asleep curled up next to Him, the sky bare and bright above, until the storm came.

I read the entire four Gospels like this; it took me weeks. Reading through the last chapters was sometimes such agony I had to put the Book down and not finish. It was during this time that I had a particular dream, one that has stayed with me since.

In the dream I am lying in a hammock high above a jungle, in the tops of one of those astoundingly high trees, where the air is fresh and all one can see is the verdant green, rippling tops of other trees spread out around one. Christ is in the hammock with me, I knew Him well. We did not speak, there was no need for words.

We had been there I do not know how long when He sat up and got off the hammock, leaving it swinging. I felt annoyed at Him, left behind. Why would He leave me? But He didn't come back and so I went after Him.

I found that the hammock was actually close to the ground, I swung my feel out over the edge and found that I stood on the jungle floor. It was close and crowded with green. Winding away in front of me was a narrow little path of damp dirt. I followed this, bending and twisting to avoid the branches in my way and caught up with Him.

"Where are you going?" I asked. "Why do we have to go this way?"

He did not answer, but He lifted the branches out of my way and made sure they would not snap back at me. There came a light between the trees and then we stood at a little clearing. The sky was overcast, low and heavy with rain. The trees stood close and dense all around. The clearing was carpeted thickly with moss, deep and green, thicker and more luxurious than any carpet.

He went into this, knelt down and picked something up off the ground, and then another piece. I went over to Him and saw that He held a shard of pottery in His fingers. It was very old and worn and had ornate carving on it. He fit the one piece to the second, carefully trying all sides before putting one piece down and reaching for another.

I looked around me more closely; I saw that the entire clearing was embedded with shards of pottery. Some had made their way to the surface entirely, others were half buried; I knew there were more buried so deeply they couldn't be seen. The entire surface of the clearing was littered with them, thousands of pieces of broken pottery.

"Don't bother," I told Him, putting my hand on His shoulder as I stood beside Him. "It's impossible. You'll never get it all back together again." I shook Him a little, but He went on with His work, slowly, carefully, intent.

And then it came over me like a wave and it rocked me back on my heels. The shards of pottery were myself; my heart, that had been broken and battered and beat into a thousand tiny pieces. He would be working on it for the rest of my life, it would take Him that long but He would not stop the work of slowly picking up piece after piece until He had it all put together again. The force of this realization caused me to wake straight up.

This is how I know that God is good. I know because I see Him at the beginning of creation, when it was all in His thought and He looked over everything that was and everything that would happen and He saw my face and He said with decision, "Her. I cannot live in a world without her."

But He had such a bitter choice. He did not want my automatic companionship, my adoration without conscious choice. He wanted me to be able to look around me and choose Him because I wanted to. This meant that I was free to choose anything else I wanted, and so was everyone else.

This meant that unspeakable damage would be wrought. In a personal level, this meant that I would be raped at the age of three by my great uncle and that he would go on doing this, unchecked, until I was seven or eight. Christ saw all this before it even began. He saw how I would be unable to choose Him; I would be lost in the death of my own choices and those around me from the time He choose to put everything in motion. So He determined to take my death upon Himself.

But that did not save me from suffering. It did not protect me as a small girl, it didn't stop history at large from unravelling in its irrevocable and terrible path. After all, God died for my abuser as well. God wanted him in this world as much as He wanted me. How does this make God good?

It makes Him almost complacent, amoral; seeming not to care what consequences came about from His burning desire for our companionship. When I look at Him this way, I rail at Him for setting me up.

My mom told me a story when she was trying to come to terms with the fact of her abuse and the goodness of God. She told me that she imagined God in the room where it was happening, in grief throwing furniture around, destroying things, tears running down His face.

I saw this, but it did not satisfy me. God was impotent in this picture. Grief stricken, yes, but standing in the wings while travesties occurred before His very eyes. How could He stand by? How could He have allowed it to happen?

When I was a young girl, every Christmas season began with the first weekend in December. During the first weekend in December, enthusiastic amateurs, classical music lovers and members of church choirs the country side round would all gather to stand in line, bundled up against the cold, chattering away in friendly tones, as they waited to register for the Messiah Festival held by Franklin Pierce College.

We would make up the choir; professionals were brought in from Boston or maybe even New York city to sing the solo parts. As one, in a crowd of hundreds of others, I would rise to my feet, my score book heavy in my hands, and lift my voice to music written hundreds of years ago, to words already ancient.

"Surely he hath borne our griefs," I sang before the sea of faces, "...and carried our sorrows. . . . the chastisement of our peace was upon him..."

At some point in my life, I no longer know when, it hit me, what that meant. If He has borne my grief, this means that He wasn't just standing by, watching what was happening to me. He was feeling it upon Himself.

This means that, when He looked over creation before He spoke it into being, and when He decided that He could not live without me, He did not merely say, "Well, she will suffer, but it will give her character and then she'll be able to minister to others."

He did not even stop at saying, "I will take upon myself her sins and die in a human body, in incredible agony, so that she can walk right past the angelic, holy host and into my arms." No, He did not stop there.

He said, in essence, "If unleashing the harrowing power of free will upon the world means that I must suffer upon myself the rape of a three year, I will suffer such; I will take that grief and every other that she will suffer upon myself. She will not suffer alone. I will not hold myself back from any bitter and humiliating consequence of My beloved creation."

When I understand God in this way, I know that I will never leave off being the nameless woman apostle, even if sometimes I smell like fish and get into angry, one sided arguments with Him.

1 comment:

KJ said...

Truly our God is so much Bigger than we can ever imagine or understand! And yes, He is Good even in the midst of suffering. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and realizations, and your dream of the work of Jesus in our broken and damaged lives.

This post goes along well with that paragraph from another post that I emailed you about; God's redemptive power and ability to transform us is unlimited!
~Kimberly :)