Do You Know How Much God Loves Me?!?!
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.” - John 8:37
“If the cross is the place where the worst thing that could happen happened, it is also the place where the best thing that could happen happened. Ultimate hatred and ultimate love met on those two crosspieces of wood. Suffering and love were brought into harmony.” – Elisabeth Elliott
“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is… do you, Mr. Jones?” – Bob Dylan
The past year has been characterized by Things I Never Saw Coming. Among them: 1. I got a cat. And I love the cat. I love it so much. 2. My sister died.
Yes, one of these things is not like the other. My sister, the only sibling I had excepting my significantly older half-brother, the only sibling I grew up with, suddenly, shockingly dead. And much of the first few months after her death felt like fumbling insensate through a desolate, labyrinthine maze of death. (I’ve never been known for my understatement. Just ask my mom. Or Steven. Or anyone I’ve known for more than ten minutes). Death is at once the cruel definitive blot of a period and the interminably gravid expectancy of an ellipsis. So done, but so undone. So abrupt, but so resonant. Suddenly, death made its shocking entrance into my life as a reality – not something that happens out there, but which has happened in here, to someone I love, to someone with whom so much is left unfinished and unsaid. And its surreal denouement was riveted with aftershocks of guilt and questions and bafflement and haunted with flittering holographs of memories, imbued with even more meaning by her death.
But it was also saturated with an immediacy of God’s presence like I’ve never known before. So much receded into triviality. Life took on a dire urgency, a vividness that was both terrible and beautiful but so very real that I was almost afraid of it fading and life resuming its mundanity. The fragility of life was an immediate and inescapable truth instead of an abstract notion. At times that truth gave me a groundswell of fluttering panic and more often it felt like the freedom for which Christ set us free.
And I believe in truth it is. To live is Christ, to die is gain. And sometimes, just sometimes, I could truthfully echo tearfully, and with delirious joy, the words of Paul: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”
There was room: tragedy blew it wide open.
I was listening to sermon recently about space, and how the “Selah”s in the psalms were about pausing and creating space for God, about how God in the beginning created space and how we, as creators in His image also create space in the form of imagination. And I was reminded of that verse, John 8:37, that had dropped like a lead weight in my gut recently: you have no room for my word. The Pharisees had no room for his word – his grace - because they loved the self-justification of the law, the moral superiority, the power. The dead onus of the law that they wielded like a bludgeon produced a nacreous blindness to the real presence of God. They crowded it out. They had no room. And I’m struck by how often I have no room, what with screens and words and vapid thought trails and the constant procession of sensorial gluttony I feast upon, with my presumptions about how God will act, with my legalism masquerading (quite unconvincingly, might I add) as righteousness, with my fear and lack of faith and scorekeeping and vain striving. Oh, wretched (wo)man that I am! I echo with Paul? Who will save me from this body of death?!
Sometimes I look at the cross and I have urgent doubting questions. How can I believe what God is asking me to believe, something nearly impossible to believe – that this man, who was also God himself, being crucified was the dividing point of history, the point at which the universe collapsed in upon itself as the one in whom all things hold together bore the sins of the whole world (when mine alone must weigh a good three tons) and moreover this person is the lover of my soul, the only one who can give me rest and the one in whom I must believe to be saved? What does any of this even mean?! And why did it have to happen this way? Did God really turn away just before Jesus cried “Eloi, Eloi, sabachthani?” And what does that mean? What does that say about God? What does it mean for God to abandon God? Did Jesus become un-God in that moment, simply flesh, sin itself, absent spirit? But no: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Psalm 22:24)
And yet: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) How does the holy embrace the unholy? How does God become sin? A whole new cascade of questions is born and, bolstered only by the hopelessly jerry-rigged and tenuous scaffolding of my own understanding, my anxious mind finds no rest. It finds no space. And I leave no room for the Word, for Jesus himself.
Because as soon as I try to own the mystery, to parse it out and diagram it and inspect it with the tentacles of logic and reason and tidy cause and effect, to apply the perverse and sterile taxonomy of my human understanding, it dims and wanes and recedes. And I realize anew that I don’t own it, and I didn’t invent it, and I can’t box it. I can’t look directly at it, only luxuriate in it. The most high does not dwell in houses made by human hands. The revolution will not be televised.
One thing that delivers me from the desolation of complete unbelief is that if there is a God, he must be love, and being love he must have been and he must be willing to make himself known and comprehensible to his children. And so other times, I look at the cross, and just look. And look. And the theological ruminating, the tidy delineations, the explanations predicated on our deeply flawed notions of what constitutes justice, just turn ashen and fritter away. And then I think it’s the only thing, the cross, that in this world, in this drove of molten churning chaos, in this vale of voluminous lachrymosity, makes any sense at all. The place where, yes, the worst thing happened – but more, much more: the best thing happened.
What is this love that comes so low? This love that showers mercy where there should be nothing but the cold, hollow clack of a gavel and a sentence of condemnation? The love that stands so near, unashamed, while my accusers- including the one inside myself – shamble away in shame? The love that draws an orphan, utterly unmoored and lost in a chaotic cosmos of guilt and shame and condemnation, to the still center where she is known and known by, as totally loved as once totally shunned, as totally found as once totally lost. What is this love? It’s not normal. It’s not quantifiable, it’s not commodifiable, it’s not logical, it’s not reasonable. It’s preposterously unfair and inequitable. It is not to be understood, but rather luxuriated in, relished, delighted in, marveled at through tears and incredulous laughter. Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher? Paul, the great lover of both Christ and rhetorical questions, asks.
He is alive and well, oh so clever, ever pondering but never arriving, so close to the truth yet so far away. I found him in the strain of perverse curiosity that led me to check out from the library and read “Recovery” by Russell Brand: I remember so well the new age fatigue, the yogic malaise, the endless register of rulesy self-analyses and self-inventories and doggedly futile self-saving techniques. Religion is religion is religion. “We don’t bother with soteriology, because it’s too damn complicated,” he says. And it was. The rules. The eight limbs. The four agreements. The 21-day cleanse. The 108 sun salutations. One more hit of acid. And yet the glittering stairway to heaven I thought I was fastidiously building revealed itself as a rancid mound of bilge in the judicious light of day. I must be doing it wrong, I thought, and the cycle began anew.
Part of the beauty that drew me to Christianity was its simplicity. Just Jesus. Him and him crucified, saving me from my self-salvation schemes and the dizzying rollercoaster of bloated pride when I was doing ‘well’ and gutter despair when I more often failed and “fell through a trap door in the bottom of my soul,” as Denis Johnson says. But I still muck up the simplicity by thinking I’m smarter than I am, by pretending to seek Him when I’m really just seeking more knowledge. And Jesus recedes farther and farther away and I’m stuck in an impotent morass of frustration and doubt.
Because what is the point of knowing about love if you don’t know Love? What is the point of doctrine or soteriology or eschatology or missiology or really any -ology if it doesn’t lead you deeper into love?
My friend Marcia likes to approach people and ask “Do you know how much God loves me?!” She always leans in close, her eyes wide and glittering with awe, looking perhaps slightly unhinged, a giggle always poised at the edge of her breath. She says this and other things with a giddy, girlishly conspiratorial air as though she is just discovering profound truths about God for the first time. Like someone suddenly and radically born again. Like a child. Like a person once blind who now sees. Perhaps, even, like an effete self-styled intellectual disarmed and dumbfounded by the power of the cross.
May we all become slightly unhinged by the wonder of His love. May the cynical refrain of “how can it be?” be turned on its head by the cross and become the tearfully baffled worshipful rhetoricity of “how can it be?!” May we have room for His word. Amen.