When All is Not Bright

 

… a personal reflection

Tampa (AFP) – Life expectancy in the United States dropped yet again as drug overdose deaths continued to climb — taking more than 70,000 lives in 2017 — and suicides rose, a US government report said Thursday.

The drug overdose rate rose 9.6 percent compared to 2016, while suicides climbed 3.7 percent, said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

-from Kerry SHERIDAN’s article US life expectancy drops again as overdoses climb

 

As confusion and losses stack up in a person’s life many, now more than ever, begin to seek a way out of their humanness wherein the pain is acutely felt. They will take drugs and medicate in hopes of stopping the screaming in their heads. It is the pain that tells us that we are alive and human.

I can relate. At one point in my life years ago I carried with me the same hurt locker. I had experienced losses caused by my own doing and losses beyond my control. Having been married and divorced, I then lost closeness with my children and years of my life. I lost a son in a tragic car accident. I lost a job when the company I was working for no longer had orders coming in. A truck rear-ended my car as I was on my way to a new job. I received a herniated disc in my neck and a concussion and many painful nerve-affected nights and tons of medical bills. That block of time was crushing. It was also confusing.

Trying to sort out the events, trying to make sense while inside the hurt locker, is well nigh impossible. I tried to mitigate the pain through medication, but the pains in my body and in my heart were overwhelming. There was screaming in my head that would not stop. Couple that pain with the need to continue making ends meet and trying to keep your head above water is…well-nigh impossible. And so, Impossible was the name on my hurt locker. I desperately wanted to remove myself from the locker and go to a place where I didn’t have to think anymore. When you are crying at your desk you know that something had to give. But it wasn’t going to be me. It had to be despair’s grip.

I came to the realization out of my relationship with the Lord that all of my presuppositions where being up ended. The first one to go was that I believed I was strong and could handle whatever came my way. In that dark hour I understood that the Lord had broken into my self-composed life and was making all things new. This all happened the weekend of Easter. And though I had heard the words of Easter proclamations all of my life, I finally understood that the Lord’s resurrection was the means for me to be resurrected to new life here and now. Nothing was impossible. The stone in front of the hurt locker had been removed. I was freed to be human once again. What I had endured became “I do exist, by the grace of God”.

 

It is easy for a Christian, I believe, to think that any bad thing that happens to them is a result of judgment for past sins. With all of the talk of heaven and hell in many churches it is easy to frame events in terms of reward or punishment, in almost Pavlovian ways. And, onlooking Christians are eager to point that out. Read the oldest book of Scripture, Job.

To be sure there are ways in which we dehumanize ourselves and come to believe that there can be no resurrection day and if it happened it would look like today. We live in a culture of dehumanization: abortion, drugs, ‘free’ sex, rife consumerism, and words, rites and traditions emptied of meaning. Christian holidays are paganized. Individual rights that are demanded cut people off from a community of shared human values. When body parts and their redaction become cause célèbre you know the culture is in trouble. When any thought of joy is replaced by the fatuous roose of commercialized store-bought happiness, then you know you are in trouble.

One can drink their reason for life to death. One can sit in isolation and loneliness on the internet arguing points of nihilistic bent. Social media is anything but social. Those who pattern their life after media come up empty and as impersonal as the data bytes that transfer the images to their screen.

To be sure, there are consequences that are derived from one’s sinful behavior. And, that is good to know. One needs to bump up against the wall of one’s own doing to know that there is cause and effect, a principle that even rationalists and atheists embrace.

To finally be sure, we must frame our understanding with redemption. That was the revelation that occurred to me. Resurrection and redemption. The impossible is beyond me and is only doable by the Son of Man Who loved me and gave himself for me.

 

The intent of this post is not to put a happy face on any one’s suffering or losses or pain. You do not see the sunny side of life inside the hurt locker. Rather, this post has been written to provide hope. And it is hope which brings about true-life expectancy – abundant life in this age and the age to come. Hope is born of resurrection and continues with redemption. Suicide says” All is lost. There is no hope if I can’t produce it with within myself”.  You can’t.  Hope is beyond you.

Here is hope: you are known by God. Consider that the announcement of the birth of the Son of Man was to lowly shepherds tending sheep in a field. The announcement they received wasn’t “We bring you tidings of great minimum wage!” No, the angelic message was…

And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest,

    And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Some life-saving suggestions. When I was in high school, I walked many nights through the neighborhoods after supper with my family. I doubt that my siblings knew this. I walked because I needed to resolve all the inputs into my life: my personhood, and the mental, emotional and social goings on around me, including all that the sixties dropped on me, including the Vietnam war. I walked to find resolve to go on.

Some of us have pets. I currently have Henry, my parrolet, to keep me company. I am considering adding finches to my home. I relate to birds.  I placed a bird feeder on my patio. I’ve noticed that birds are flighty when they sense imminent danger but return when they feel safe. Birds remind me of life in the moment. They are fragile beings. They, like me, have open mouths to feed and so they return to the one who feeds them.  I had to return to the One who feeds me daily, in the moment.

 

We are right to cry “Lord have mercy!” And, we also right to cry “I must have mercy on myself and not do those things which bring judgment on me by their very nature! I have sinned, O God, have mercy upon me a sinner!”

 

A prayer:

Father of all mercy, have mercy on me. I am distressed. My heart is like wax. It melts before every fear. I am depressed. I am confused. I am not able to exist except at your pleasure. I am at the bottom of my life. Restore to me humanness. Return to me with Thy salvation. I’ve heard that my Redeemer lives. Redeem my life from destruction. Redeem me from all my transgressions. Restore my soul. Amen.

 

The Problem of Evil, a Good God and a Different Way to Be Human

Recently, on my daily train ride into the city, I had, for me, a ‘typical’ conversation with those standing in the vestibule. The subject:  going to church.

A fellow passenger brought up the fact that he attends to a certain church. Another passenger then mentioned that she attends a Catholic Church. I mentioned that I attended church near my town. A fourth passenger, a young woman carrying a black bag decorated with astrological and satanic symbols and the word “Spirituality” written boldly across the bag, looked up from her hand-held device and said, “I don’t go to church…Too much hypocrisy.” She said this looking directly at the woman who mentioned her attendance at a Catholic Church. The young woman went on to mention the priests and young boy abuse scandals.

I regrettably glibly said, “We are all hypocrites. Some people realize this and attend church to change their ways.” We then went on to discuss other things.

A deeper and honest and loving discussion on my part would have brought up the truth about God and the hard questions that she and I and all of us face in our daily lives. There are certainly questions of man’s brokenness, his hypocrisy and profound questions about evil, suffering and… a good God?

If you have read the ancient Book of Job then you would have come across man’s earliest known and hardest life question as the basis of Job’s story: Why does a good God allow suffering and evil?

And, if you have read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (a Russian novelist (1821-1881)) “The Brothers Karamazov” you will have come across thought-provoking questions of the problem of suffering and evil. There, one would find man’s most pressing concerns in story form; concerns about God, good, evil, suffering, doubt and faith.

The Veritas Forum video below presents an insightful conversation at Duke University. Issues of war, pacifism, suffering, evil, moral ambiguity, hate crimes, death, the UN, International law, forgiveness and the Kingdom of God are broached by N.T. Wright, a well-known New Testament Scholar and author. He provides answers to many universal questions and places the answers in the context of the Kingdom of God and not the society at hand. The video introduces N.T. Wright and his book “Evil and the Justice of God”.

A conversation with Professor N.T. Wright at Duke University:

Unwrapping Up

This past year has been an incredibly agonizing one for me due to unexpected family events and the subsequent heartrending trauma that accompanies such a trajectory.  At the same time, though, I’ve become increasingly aware of a fundamental shift going on in my own nature – the shedding of my flimsy oft pretentious human nature to reveal Substantial Reality.  The nexus between these two versions of my person has been continued prayer for others and a regular partaking of the Eucharist.

 The whole divestment process has not been easy. In fact, it has been acutely painful, its unpleasantness much like what Eustace described to Edmund in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawntreader.  Here Eustace relates his dragon skin being torn off by Aslan.

 “The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. but the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.

I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, however many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear he made was do deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – (with his paws?) – Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes – the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. and then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”

Here’s what is being peeled away from me (not for the queasy!):

 – A sentimentality of the kind that keeps my soul inbred, subservient to its self-rationalizing self-pity.

 – The desire to control a situation or someone to obtain a pleasant outcome, to soften reality’s blow and effectively deny its painful truth. 

 – Pretense.

 – The need to look good so as to impress others with my abilities, the need to compete for another’s attention hoping to gain the pride of place.

 – The impulse to take action when waiting would be the most prudent – not easy, but prudent.

– The lack of acceptance at face-value of knowledge presented as feminine – intuitive, passive, receptive.

 – The lack of acceptance of wisdom as a gift from God and therefore not derived as a human accomplishment.

The list, the shedding, goes on…

 As this painful process continues I am beginning to see my Real self emerging. This in turn has invoked in me a need to return to my baptismal vows and to those baptismal waters that I at one time had thought only help serve to moisten and seal the earnest of one’s inheritance in Christ.  Little attention did I pay to my rapidly developing dragon skin. 

 Today, by fire and trial and Aslan’s claws, I am being freed of the hardened outer layer of self-protection and I am submersing myself in the waters of my baptism.  In doing so, I, the vulnerable suppliant I, has become alive to the REAL – the “perfectly delicious” Real.

 This peeling away is all about knowing Christ and the fellowship of His sufferings. That is True Reality.

The Tree of Life Envisioned

Recently I viewed Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It would be difficult for me to adequately describe the effect this movie had on me, the emotion and reflection evoked from me as a Christian parent who has lost a child.  This movie operates, more than any I have ever seen, on an intimate meaning-of-life level while the breadth of its vision enables us to direct our eyes away from ourselves and out into the vast cosmos. And in doing so, synchronicity with creation is summoned.

 Life’s deepest and most pressing questions, the universal “whys” behind all of life are posed using the simple narrative of the lives of the O’Brien family of five. Underlying the film’s basic premises of wonder and questioning is the ancient wisdom book of Job, for me the touchstone of the film.  I believe that each viewer’s prior contemplation of life’s deepest questions would certainly individualize the film’s impression on the viewer.  Without individuation, though, the movie is just an amalgam of exceptional pictures and music – a mood piece. I see The Tree of Life as being a spiritual movie and not a religious documentary and therefore I believe it will affect each viewer differently.

 Without going into too much of the narrative detail, detail which may deprive you of the movie’s impact, here is my initial impression of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

 Though I was ready for the usual exceptional visual imagery – Stanley Kubrick’s movies come to mind – that is part and parcel of Malick’s cinematic talent (see also his Days of Heaven) I was blown away by the large scope of the movie:  creation, the meaning of life, the existence of suffering, nature and grace and the Creator. 

One of the visual and emotional pleasures of this movie is that the images are offered to us in prolonged time frames – there are no frenetic montages matched to every blink of the eye. The absence of the modern movie restlessness allows us to contemplate the force of those images. We are then able to react with deeply held authentic feelings and at the same time not feel the need to immediately dispose of those feelings so as to be ready for the next emotional roller coaster ride of images. In this way the movie parallels life:  creation and real life takes place over time.  I believe the movie honors the fact that God takes time to accomplish His purposes – in the universe and in the saga of our lives. And, as the movie depicts, we do not understand God’s ways but, as I have seen, God, who is outside of time, uses time to reveal His Nature and His Grace to us.

 Malick rolls out before us a grand sweeping chromatic scroll of the universe. The visual imagery, often shown in natural lighting is enhanced with beautifully evocative musical selections including works by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Smetana’s The Moldau River, Preisner’s Lacrimosa, Cassidy’s The Funeral March and Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs Symphony. Such music invokes us to come present to the spiritual within our souls.

 The awe-inspiring and overwhelming dynamic universe centers around and is grounded by a tree in the backyard of a family’s home in Waco Texas, circa 1950s. Using a minimalist script this family of five provides creation’s human narrative: father (emblematic of nature), mother (emblematic of grace) and their three young sons.  The father, the mother and Jack O’brien, the eldest son and main character give us our viewpoints. Later on in the movie Jack’s character is played as an adult by Sean Penn. The adult Jack becomes an architect who creates buildings derivative of his own hard-edged “nature”.

 Within this family life narrative we see birth, growth, maturation, anger, relational distance, death, sorrow, loss, envy, survival, strife and sin. Along the way the ever pressing questions of life are whispered to our ears using voiceovers.

 As I mentioned the display of the immensity and dynamism of the created universe provides the backdrop for these most important issues of life, questions that this family of five and certainly any sane person on earth ponders at some point in their life:  Where is God?; Does God see what is happening?; Does God care? Are we left on our own? What about evil? What about the loss of a child? Why is there suffering?

 After the death of her son Mrs. O’Brien asks, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” “If God is good and cares about us, why does he make us suffer?”  Throughout the movie we are engaged to ponder these hard questions and to once again look through a glass darkly for the answers.

 Watching this film I was also reminded of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the philosophical lessons Smerdyakov learned from Ivan, regarding the impossibility of evil in a world without a God.

 In depicting some of the range of God’s creation we see vast spatial distances which hold myriad galaxies and we also see, looking through other end of the telescope, intricate microcosmic details.  We are reminded that the Creator God is ever beyond our finite comprehension. For this reason I am thankful that Malick chose to countenance theism and not a Woody Allen-type nihilism that turns its back on God and mocks Him every time.

 The movie begins by referencing the oldest piece of wisdom literature in the world, the book of Job. The stage is set with God responding to Job who had cursed the day he was born after being overwhelmed with trouble, suffering and loss.  From Job 38:4, 7:

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

 Throughout the movie there are other paraphrased Scripture references including Job 13:15, “I will be true to you whatever comes.”

 I believe I also heard a paraphrased reference to Paul’s letter to the Roman church during a scene where Jack is praying: “I know what I want to do but I can’t do it.”  Also, there is an oblique reference to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church regarding the character of love:

  “There are two ways through life:  the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree of Life

 Beyond the infusions of Scripture, I saw revealed man’s unconscious need to bump up against someone bigger and stronger than life itself. And though we are infinitesimally small compared to the enormous universe we matter to God.  In another wisdom book of the Bible, the Psalms, the shepherd boy David speaks in awe of God’s intimate knowledge of His creatures,

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

  The film doesn’t seek to answer the questions of life but only poses them offering up grace as the consummate reconciler. As a believer in Jesus Christ I am transformed daily by God’s grace.  Just as important, I am forgiven and reconciled with God because Jesus Christ was nailed to another tree – the cross. His resurrection now provides me access to the Tree of Eternal Life. I know the One Who is the Answer.

A tree of life was planted in the garden long ago…

  “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”…

 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

 

While we ask God “Where are You in all of this?”, God is asking us “Where are you?”

Pretense, Part 1: A Look at Evil, Pretense and Suffering

In his book People of the Lie:  The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Dr. M. Scott Peck writes in the chapter The Encounter with Evil in Everyday Life that

 “The issue of naming (evil) is a theme of this work. It has already been touched on in diverse instances: science has failed to name evil as a subject for scrutiny; the name evil does not appear in the psychiatric lexicon; we have been reluctant to label specific individuals with the name evil; in their presence, therefore, we may experience a nameless dread or revulsion; yet the naming of evil is not without danger.

To name something correctly gives us a certain amount of power over it. Through its name we identify it.  We are powerless over a disease until we can accurately name it…The treatment begins with its diagnosis.  But is evil an illness? Many would not consider it so.  There are a number of reasons why one might be reluctant to classify evil as a disease.  Some are emotional. For instance, we are accustomed to feel pity and sympathy for those who are ill, but the emotions that evil invoke in us are anger and disgust, if not actual hate…

Beyond our emotional reactions, there are three rational reasons that make us hesitate to regard evil as an illness…I shall nonetheless take the position that evil should indeed be regarded as a mental illness.”

Dr. Peck goes on to discuss the three reasons. I will use summary quotes.

 “The first holds that people should not be considered ill unless they are suffering pain or disability – that there is no such thing as an illness without suffering….it is characteristic of the evil that, in their narcissism, they believe that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are psychologically perfect human specimens…For we realize that their inability to define themselves as ill in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is actually part of the illness itself…The use of the concept of emotional suffering to define disease is also faulty in several other respects. As I noted in The Road Less Traveled, it is often the most spiritually healthy and advanced among us who are called on to suffer in ways more agonizing than anything experienced by the more ordinary.  Great leaders, when wise and well, are likely to endure degrees of anguish unknown to the common man. Conversely, it is the unwillingness to suffer emotional pain that usually lies at the root of emotional illness.  Those who fully experience depression, doubt, confusion and despair may be infinitely more healthy than those who are generally certain, complacent and self satisfied.  The denial of suffering is, in fact, a better definition of illness than its acceptance.

The evil deny the suffering of their guilt – the painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy and imperfection – by casting their pain onto others through projection and scapegoating.  They themselves may not suffer, but those around them do.  They cause suffering.  The evil create for those under their dominion a miniature sick society.”…

 Finally, who is to say what the evil suffer? It is consistently true that the evil do not appear to suffer deeply.  Because they cannot admit to weakness or imperfection in themselves, they must appear this way.  They must appear to themselves to be continually on top of things, continually in command.  Their narcissism demands it…

Think of the psychic energy required for the continued maintenance of the pretense so characteristic of the evil!…”

“I said that there are two other reasons one might hesitate to label evil as an illness…One is the notion that someone who is ill must be a victim….One way or another, to some extent, all these people (the evil) and a host of others victimize themselves. Their motives, failures and choices are deeply and intimately involved in the creation of their injuries and diseases….

The final argument against labeling evil an illness is the belief that evil is a seemingly untreatable condition…It is the central proposition of this book that evil can and should be subjected to scientific scrutiny…It would, I believe, be quite appropriate to classify evil people as constituting a specific variant of the narcissistic personality disorder.”

Dr. Peck goes on to describe this variant of personality disorder:

“In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes all personality disorders, this one would specifically be distinguished by:

(a)    consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle.

(b)    excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury.

(c)    Pronounced concern with a public injury and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives.

(d)   Intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophrenic-like disturbance of thinking at time of stress.

But there is another vital reason to correctly name evil:  the healing of its victims.”

 *****************

 I have encountered some distinctly evil people during my life.  The common characteristic of their personality is the veneer of pretense with which they surround their lives.  They see themselves in a role, a grandiose, high-minded role.  There is nothing within themselves or outside themselves that will keep them from holding that image up before themselves or others. They will deny, blame and ignore what every one else can clearly see.  Their motivation, as Dr. Peck describes in the above chapter, is fear. 

Jesus said, “If the light in you is darkness how great is that darkness.”

Jesus’ perfect love can cast out fear…and evil.