The scene opens on the ancient grounds of Camp Pragmatics where newly arrived recruits stand uniformed and ready before Drill Sargeant Joe Lamech Skull, now in the middle of Company 666‘s morning drill.
There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.
Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.
Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.
And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.
Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.
Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.
It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.
Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —
Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love —
The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —
There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call “Despair” —
There’s Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —
And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —
To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they’re mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —
Isaiah 53: 2-5
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
I’ve been reading David R. Helm’s Commentary¹ on Jude while finishing up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. She’s a gifted writer is Mantel. Her incisive yet poetic imagination will send chills up your spine. And Helm unfolds his commentary with a literary feel that many theologians sadly lack.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”
They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”
He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
(Daniel 3: 16-18, 24-25)
Even if the fire should scorch
The flames should singe till sight is lost
And flesh burn off like candle wax —
Even if dreams deferred
Rot the heart and sicken hope
To shriveled bones like raisins in the blaze of day —
Even then I will not bow to gilt or gold
To fortune’s prince or hell’s hot blast
For a Love stronger than death.
Don’t stand there with your sword drawn —
Or in your case, the pen — as if
You see the fires of hell in my tongue
And the corruption of corpses long dead
To the ravenous lusts of the flesh —
Warning of eternal judgment.
Mark 14: 66-72
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.
“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.
But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.
When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.
After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”
He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
This morning I read chapters 12 through 14 in the book of Job, the words of a man alternately addressing God and his deluded comforters in the midst of his suffering. Immediately after, I read the first chapter of Luke. The juxtaposition of the two readings left a strange sensation, a net of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, the sunrise of salvation and the nihilism of pain.
Oddly, there came to my mind, Agatha Christie’s psychological novel, Absent in the Spring, and Shakespeare’s sonnet from which it drew its title.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Caught in the pain of loss, the poet’s world is colored by it. What used to penetrate his senses with beauty now sharpens the knife’s edge of absence. Everything is a shadow of what it once was or ought to be and he is deeply aware of it.
Not so the narrator of the psychological Christie novel. She is absent to her own loss, that is, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. For a brief time an awareness of her loss, her failure to “be there” for those she claims to love, all of life that she’s failed to see and missed, cuts into her consciousness. Her grief is almost unendurable and she is overwhelmed by regret. She determines to change and make amends. But the moment passes like a mirage in the desert heat. She returns to her narcissistic life “absent” once again, oblivious to the misery of those who need her the most.
The pain of loss absorbs Job’s consciousness. But he engages with God through it all. While his “comforters” try to justify his suffering, Job goes straight to the One who can get him though it. He will not “curse God and die” as his wife advises. He will not absent himself to his suffering. He will neither deny it nor flee from it. Instead, in his suffering he looks for God. He remembers who God is. He knows that whatever the season, the summer of abundance or the winter of loss, God is unchanging, steadfast in love and faithfulness and sovereign in power. This knowledge emboldens Job and shores up his hope so that he doesn’t fall into the despair with which Satan tempts us during hard times.
It is the first chapter of Luke that puts it all in perspective. This is where Christ’s birth is announced. Zechariah breaks into a joyful song of expectation and Mary bursts into a paean of praise as her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Jesus’s birth breaks into history, the history of the world and our own personal history. His birth is pivotal to our understanding of temporal loss because His birth is the moment in time when the eternal becomes more real, more true, more present than absence caused by loss, whether the loss of health or loss through death.
His presence overtakes the absence. His reality in history, in the flesh, through His death and resurrection, overshadows everything. Eternity trumps the temporal. And by the word of God through the Holy Spirit we glean it daily as God who suffered here on earth suffers yet with us, making more real to us the glory that awaits us when we see Him face to face.
Praise God for that day!
Job 19: 25 (NASB)
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.”
2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Hebrews 2: 14-15 (ESV)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Yesterday I saw this on Twitter: I just wanna go home, wherever it is … The writer was a young Indian woman and an author with over 21K followers. But her age, background, and success at her vocation fades into irrelevancy beside the plaintive cry of her heart.
Those simple words struck through the heart of me because I remember as a child, sometimes, out of nowhere would come an inexplicable longing, and wherever I was, even if with my family at home, I too would say aloud to no one in particular: “I wanna go home.” And the moment I said it sadness would flood my soul and I would be reminded of the absence of something or someone vital to my well-being. But I couldn’t define what it was. Or who it was.
I wonder, have you reached the point in your Christian walk where weakness is strength? Where your weakness becomes a source of joy? If you have, then you have found true humility and more: you have found wisdom. And wisdom is a Person. Jesus Christ.
As C. S. Lewis puts it,
It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.…Grace substitutes [for hubris] a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” (The Four Loves)
Joy in total dependence? It goes against the grain of our tendency towards self-reliance. In our pride, complete dependence is anathema.
More than two thousand seven hundred years ago, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “And I … am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory” (66:18). And He did come just as He promised, in the incarnate Savior, Jesus Christ. Now many peoples of all manner and kind, from every nation, gather to proclaim His glory and praise His name.