Strange Mercy

"... and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Location: Mid-Atlantic Sprawl, United States

I'm a former idealist turned 'defensive pessimist' who has concluded, after living on two coasts, two continents, and an island, that most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically. Awareness is the key to understanding this; but once we understand it, we may transcend it, choosing, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

War Zone

I am blessed, and often cursed, with a highly retentive memory. While it is an extremely valuable asset in my work and my writing, it can be a source of great pain in other areas of life.

This pain, and the memories and events contributing to it, has held me back from posting to this blog as frequently as I would have liked. Not because I am ashamed of pain or unable to articulate it; after all, my most prolific blog, Gale Warnings, is all about pain. About learning to face it, to recognize its source, to sort out what is and is not our responsibility when dealing with it... learning that we do indeed live in a predatory society, but we can still find ways to avoid being either predator or prey.

Gale Warnings primarily addresses the psychosocial aspect of this pain, and seeks to find psychosocial solutions for it. But this pain also has a spiritual aspect - and that requires a spiritual solution.

This spiritual pain is the pain at the heart of "theodicy", the theological question of how we reconcile God's apparent goodness and mercy with the suffering at the heart of the world.

I have come to believe that theodicy is a question raised by experience, and sharpened by memory. Suffering brings it to our attention, and the more 'invested' we are in creation, the more suffering we recognize in our surroundings. Paradoxically, it seems, the more we learn to care beyond ourselves, the more we suffer as we come to truly see and feel the pain that others know.

I have been unable to take much, if any, comfort from the stock answers proffered to those who wrestle with this issue. Many of these answers ["It's God's will and that should settle the issue"; "We can't expect to understand it"; "God must really think a lot of you if he chooses you to carry such a burden" "Oh, you can always have another child" [yes. People actually say things like that and consider it "comfort"] are, to my thinking, pat evasions, intended to comfort the other person by shutting us up. [Here, stop thinking about that, you're upsetting the horses and I want to talk about the ball game.]

But we were made to think, and see, and care; and to tell us that the answer lies in refusing to do that which makes us human is no real answer at all.

I have also found small comfort in the Book of Job, which is the remedy offered to the overly thoughtful when all else fails. For years, I've looked at that Book with jaundiced eyes. At a time in my life when everyone I loved was dying all at once, my own life was threatened by a "benign" medical condition, and I was working in what can be charitably described as a rattlesnake pit, it was small comfort to consider that a blameless and forthright man once suffered worse things, thousands of years ago, 'just because'; it was even less comfort to see God Himself explaining that He had brought about those sufferings 'because I can'. I would close the book and think:

What about all Job's kids, what about his animals, his servants - didn't they count for ANYTHING? Are we really expected to consider them all as mere replaceable commodities? They were real, they felt, and before they died they were surely afraid and in pain. God, how COULD you???!!!! And this is still going on today. All over the world. Rwanda. Bosnia. Every 'inner city' in the country... in the world. And in my life as well on smaller scale. God, how CAN you DO this - how can you PERMIT this - and expect me to believe in your love????!!!!!
Not comforting, to say the least.

And then I read Jung: "Answer to Job". And realized that I was far from being the first or only person to wrestle with this. Jung, despite his somewhat unusual personal history, was a true lover of God; and he too faced this question and found it impossible to ignore or dismiss. His answer might seem like the standard catechism: Christ died for our sins, He came into the world as one of us to become a blameless sacrifice for all our sakes. But Jung goes beyond that.

In Christ, Jung says, do not forget that we have God incarnate. And therefore, in Christ, God himself has entered this world, made Himself vulnerable, given Himself over to suffer as we suffer, to die as we die, making Himself the equal of the smallest creature on the planet that finds itself suddenly imperiled and destroyed. It is not enough that God's eye is on the sparrow as it falls. In the Incarnation, for all intents and purposes, He became that falling sparrow. And that was the true, honest answer to the suffering of Job: not 'I did it because I can', but 'because you suffered, so shall I; because you must, I will.'

This helped, but still today the sparrows fall.

And innocent beasts are killed on the highways, and shining fish choke to death in the Dead Zone of the Chesapeake Bay, and little beautiful children scamper into minefields and never come out again. And hardworking, decent family men lose their jobs by the thousands; and their wives and mothers and daughters are laid off; and drug dealers and Ponzi schemers rub their palms together, and leer.

And for years I have grieved this, and expostulated to God about it. Never failing to believe in Him, and seeing His love and His "strange mercy" wherever I could truly find it; but never, never at peace with what is, when what is - is so completely with odds with what He claims He wants for us and all creation. Unable to understand the purpose of suffering piled upon suffering, so far beyond anything that is necessary to teach us compassion and caring that it becomes blasphemous to think that suffering has any real meaning at all. 'Because you can?' became my mantra. 'Why in Your name do you WANT to?!!!'

And yes, I understand free will; and yes, I understand the Fall.

It was the fallen sparrows, and C.S. Lewis, and the Book of Revelation that brought me through. Late and belatedly, a journey measured in decades; writers and works that I read and loved in my earliest youth, but never managed to put together into a coherent whole. Until, by God's grace, through the blessing of that retentive memory that also brings such pain, I could see them all together, Job, John, Lewis and Jung: and take at last a greater meaning.

I have reached an age where I am not only saddened by innocent animal highway deaths, but shocked and frightened at the implications - if, in my area alone, I encounter X dead bunnies, Y dead foxes, Z dead raccoons per day/week/month, what kind of carnage must be occurring nationwide? And one of my daily prayers became: please, please please, let the creatures live today, please, for their sakes first and foremost, but then too for mine and for the sake of all those who care and see and weep; please, dear God, spare us the sight of carnage this day, and spare the creatures this pointless sacrifice; I beg you, Lord, please.

Carnage. Yes, that is exactly what it is. And as I continued seeing these things as parts of one whole, I began to understand that indeed they are. Indeed they are.

I felt as though I was driving through a war zone every time I traveled on the highways, and the reason I felt that way was because it was true. What I was seeing and grieving were, and are, the casualties of war.

And when has war ever kept its bloodied, reeking paws off the innocent? The innocent are its prime fodder. In human wars, civilian casualties are not decried primarily because they are not officially counted, or when they are, they are counted as inaccurately as possible. How many died in the firebombing of Dresden, and how many of those bore arms? How many deployed military died in the WTC on 9/11? or in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And how frequently do we speak, or even think, of these things?

The whole world is a war zone. From birth to death, we live in No Man's Land - if we're lucky. The war began as a war of the spirit, but it could never stay there; and in our created world, we feel and see its depredations most keenly in the flesh. But it remains a war of the spirit. It is greed, indifference, and the desire for 'more', 'faster', that kills the creatures on the highway. It is a system built on these things that forces us to be on the highways in the first place. And forces our children to be in foreign lands, bearing arms. The flesh and spirit together suffer this terrible, terrible toll.

And yes; I believe in the hope of the Crucifixion. I believe in the truth of the Incarnation. But I also see that outwardly, the war goes on to this day.

The apostle John, in Revelation, brought me humility and hope in the midst of this battle; for there he describes multitudes, in lamentation at the very throne of God, crying out to Him: "How long, O Lord, how long?". And these are the innocent dead, begging their Lord to end the war, to spare the innocents yet to die. Note that they remonstrate with Him at the very throne of Heaven. Note even more that He has chosen not only to have them there, but to let them speak so to Him. And note further that this matters, to Him, so much, that He showed it to John - as a promise and comfort and strange, strange mercy to those of us who cry to Him here, on the battlefield, every day. We cry, and our cry does not fall on deaf or uncaring ears. We cry, and because we cry, our tears are transmuted into prayer, into blessing.

C.S. Lewis, in "Mere Christianity", reminded me - at last - that this battle is true, but it is not all. The decisive battle was fought and won at Calvary and in the now empty tomb of Joseph; this I know; this I have known all along. But the implications, somehow, never 'stuck' with me until now.

This is a war, and therefore, like all wars, it takes place in history, in time. There is a turning point, but in history, in time. Past that turning point, the smaller battles continue. And they will continue until the enemy finally admits defeat, and the victor finally declares victory. Lewis, standing as he did in World War II London, could see this with great clarity; thank God that he did.

Yes. These are still battles, and innocents still die in them. But those deaths are no longer purely loss. Every such death does, now, have meaning; as does every innocent death that went before -

- from the start to the end of time, so far does "the light that is more than light" reach from that Cross on the hill.

And so, despite the heat of battle, may God bless and keep every one of us. As indeed, truly, He does and will. By His grace, through His Strange Mercy, I can believe this now.


Blogger Philomena Ewing said...

This is brilliant. What has happened to your blog ?have you given up ?

October 12, 2009 at 4:22 PM  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Thank you. I've just visited your blog and am awed...

I'm still here; but I've received even stranger mercy recently, and find myself greatly blessed, quite unexpectedly, after a long, long time in the desert - at a time when many people are suffering far more than usual.

It's difficult to deal with this, very difficult to express proper thanks to God for present blessings while attuned to the widespread, concurrent difficulties and misfortunes of others.

But that's the problem of grace [and the scandal of its particularity] in a nutshell.

I think Shakespeare's Lear had a proper response: "... to feel what wretches feel, That thou may'st shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just."

We are blessed that we may share, thus multiplying blessings.

So... rather than giving up, I suppose one could say I've been up, giving. With a full and grateful heart. But I haven't had much to say about it til now.

Thank you, again - for prompting me to share this.

October 14, 2009 at 8:34 PM  

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