Spiritual/Mental [Un]Rest

The Scream, painted in 1893 during a time of intense personal pain, has always haunted me. There is something haunting in the face of the painting’s subject, something sos evocative about the open mouth and hands held over the ears.

The_Scream.jpgSome psychologists conclude that, over his lifetime, Munch experienced bipolar disorder with psychosis. This particular painting was inspired by a visual hallucination in which he perceived the sky turning to blood. As everything crunched together in his imagination, terror struck him: he is quoted as having said,

“I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My  friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”  

Munsch’s experience and his artistic representation of that experience both serve humanity, allowing us to see into the kind of pain others may feel. Though we often hide it well, each of us experiences various kinds of loss and hurt. It may not come in the form of a visual hallucination, but it may more often come in the form of loneliness, isolation, distrust, hopelessness, or lack of self-worth.

We moderns are not the first to experience deep pain and alienation from ourselves, others, and God. Elijah, an ancient prophet, and Jesus, who we Christians understand and believe to be the incarnate Son of God, both experienced deep pain and rejection both from other people and from God.

In I Kings 19, Elijah is running for his life, terrified of an evil queen and complicit king, feeling unguarded and alone. He cries out from his soul,

“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors [I Kings 19:4b].”** 

That’s heavy stuff. It’s along the lines of suicidal ideation, to be sure, though thankfully he voices his anguish to God [a safe place if there ever was one!]. He’s ready to die, alone, afraid, and exhausted from the depths of his soul to his physical body and psychological center. He is absolutely spent, desiring death, yet courageously-and surprisingly-places this desire in God’s hands.

We’ll take a look at how God responds later.

Right now, let’s zoom forward quite a few centuries and check out a dark moment Jesus has right before his arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and burial.

He’s with close friends, praying before, quite literally, all hell would soon break loose and come tempt the world into believing evil is the larger power in the cosmos. In his darkest hour, he wants the support of friends to pray with him:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me [Mt. 26:38].” 

Jesus is pretty low, from my read. Overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death sounds like spiritual and mental breakdown. Was it an acute bout of anxiety-a panic attack? I don’t presume to know, I’m just an observer reading the text and wondering out loud.

Soon, he asks for relief from God:

…he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will [Mt. 26:39].” 

So let’s hop back to Elijah, who had just told God he’s ready to die. How does God respond? The response is immediate, timely, fitting. God gives Elijah a snack and lets him continue his much-needed nap:

…an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again [I Kings 19:5b].

Elijah wanted to die, but God wanted him to live.

Instead of death, he gets a nap and a snack.

And that’s not all.

A few chapters later, instead of experiencing the death he once wished for, Elijah is either the only or is one of just two people [Enoch being the other, but it is less clear] who are taken directly to be with God:

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11].

Ironically, after begging God for death, Elijah never dies.

Now let’s move back to Jesus, who we left praying in Gethsemane. He gets very different treatment than our Old Testament friend, Elijah. God is silent, allowing his own son to suffer at an overwhelming juncture:

  1. He doesn’t get a nap, but his friends fall asleep on him [twice], failing to pray when Jesus most needed spiritual support.
  2. He doesn’t get a snack, just some gross vinegar wine whilst bleeding out on the cross.
  3. He doesn’t even hear a word from God, at least not one that’s recorded in our text. He is utterly alone for his final hours, dying alone with only a few friends left to honor him at his final hour.

God does not take the cup from Jesus, spare him this crushing, torturous aspect of his earthly ministry, and we don’t even know if there was any consolation offered to him from anyone, save the sympathy of Pilate and his wife, both Romans. And Pilate’s sympathy certainly didn’t stop him from enabling the religious leaders in their mission to kill this man claiming to represent a kingdom not of this world.

But Jesus is raised from the dead. 

God was at work despite the total despair Jesus felt at the end of his life.

There is so much to learn here, but here are some things that stick out:

  1. Like both Elijah and Jesus, our laments [and yes, any emotion including anger, joy, jealousy, yeah-anything] is always safe with God, and better expressed and externalized than repressed and hidden.
  2. God doesn’t always answer in the way we desire, but we do know our advocate before God, Jesus, has experienced unanswered prayer-and the pain native to humanity. Jesus identifies with our pain but also knows the supreme joy that comes with being “the firstborn over all creation” [Colossians 1:15]. He has seen torture, loss of friends, and an excruciating death-but also the triumph of new life and victory over evil.

The resounding joy Jesus experienced as the firstborn over all creation means he knows what it’s like to move through human life, death and through death into new, full, whole and transformed life.

And, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, we get to follow him on this life-giving and hope-filled path.

***

 

 

 

 

*Heller RH: Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York, Viking Press, 1972, p. 109)

**All biblical quotes are from the New International Version.

Advertisements

Let Go? [Never!]

Silas, our 3 year old, learned to ride a bike yesterday.

He asked a little girl, Autumn, if he could borrow her pink Frog bike. As she consented, I thought about how to make sure to preserve the integrity of the bike itself since it was clearly on the more expensive end of kids’ bikes.

5xldN+jER4uLQLxa1n0aYg

I was shocked at what happened next.

As I released the handlebars and relaxed my support on his back and arm, reality unfolded at a pace my imagination could not match. He was balanced and stable, moving faster than I could keep up with at walking speed.

I let go.

Silas was on his own, and he proceeded to ride all over the playground.

After recovering from the shock, my first instinct was to tell Kaile, which I immediately did as soon as I got home [I didn’t cheat and send a text message!]. She was, of course, delighted, so now we are left to brace ourselves for the task of keeping up with him.

Today, in the wake of this moment, I cannot help but continue to reflect on his newfound two-wheeled freedom.

Looking back a couple years, was meaningful when our boys first learned to walk; it was unadulterated joy to watch them first craft words [both boys] and sentences [still waiting on Maelin for that!]; it is presently an incredible gift to observe them interact positively [ie *not* hitting or pushing one another for any length of time].

But there was something so poignant about first riding a bike. It’s an either-or kind of skill. Unlike speaking, reasoning, and walking, riding a bike without training wheels is, unlike so many things in this world, rather binary. You’re doing it-or, well, not.

Suddenly, I was transported to a sloping driveway in Big Rapids, Michigan, in the very early ’90s. Probably not wearing a helmet, I remember piloting my $5 purple banana-seat down the driveway after my dad let go.

They let go.

I let go.

There really is something profound about this process of letting go.

Over a lifetime, each one of us either chooses to or is forced to let go of identities, occupations, relationships, habits. Parents have the very visceral experience of letting go as their children move to new levels of independence.

Along these lines, it seems letting go of one’s child is a process that comes with cultural expectations. As an American with many generations going back in time on both sides, my culture tells me I need to let go, to promote autonomy, to encourage my kids to find their voice and engage their world. While I have some nuance that I place on this strong push for independence, I generally agree.

And yet, for my family and community of faith, we have a special narrative framework in which all of this letting go / autonomy-seeking is couched. The story of God’s creation, preservation, and ultimate restoration of the world and the cosmos through Jesus is my larger framework, and any letting go I do fits into this bigger picture.

fullsizeoutput_b98
As I reflect on the present-tense grace and long-term hope that my faith offers, my mind also wanders to that time later in life when letting go hurts. Frankly, I assume my kids are going to reject my voice in their lives, whether gently or overtly. In the maturation process, I can’t imagine even most of childhood, latency, and adolescence to be free of challenges and heartache. I’m open to being surprised, but I brace myself as I hear so many stories from other parents.

I think of a friend who has a child in the Army. She worries about him, as one might expect, and prays for his well-being, certainly his physical preservation, even as she also prays for his spiritual, emotional, and relational journeys.

She let go.

I [am/will] let[ing] go.

And when my son rides off on his bike on his own, it’s a picture of my limitations as a parent. I felt tears come to my eyes as I walked home with Silas on his bike and Maelin [somewhat] content in the stroller, imagining our toddler at other milestones in his childhood and later years.

Back to the narrative framework of Christian faith/hope.

So many times in Jewish/Christian Scripture we hear the biblical authors referring to God as a Father. Some texts also give a deep sense of maternal qualities as well, and we conclude how something about God’s character is like that of a parent.

But here’s the problem.

Not all human parents are good. And sadly, some die before having the chance to parent, or they leave, or they’re separated as refugees, or they’re conscripted into a war, or…

Anyway, I’d contend that every parent [myself especially included] inculcates their child with habits and predispositions that are harmful. We could call it the filial passing-on of the sinful nature. Yes, we of course pass on tons of good qualities as well; but it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it? We are beautiful, good beings, created in God’s perfect image, yet we, to varying levels, are simultaneously corrupted at our core by sin.

It sounds old-school sometimes to say it this way, but the term *sin* can be quite helpful. In short, sin separates us from God and each other. Conversely, because of God’s transforming grace made apparent in Jesus, we are reunited with God-and with one another as well. As we experience the massive forgiveness God extends to us, we cannot help but keep one another’s sins in perspective.

Remembering God’s grace toward us, we are left with no other option than to extend it to others. 

But God doesn’t just forgive; God also restores. God gives 2nd and 5th and 194th chances, “grace upon grace” as John 1:16 phrases it. The grace we receive helps us pause, take note, then [eventually] search for opportunities to extend that same grace to others.

Back to letting go.

I think one of the most meaningful steps in the journey of faith is when a child’s faith becomes their own. The training wheels-mom and dad and church friends-eventually come off as we launch into an educational journey, military service, or a regular job, and at some point, so many of us discover there was something real and life-giving and salvific happening throughout our entire life, and we didn’t even know it.

On that same *letting go* concept, I’m struck with this closing thought:

Parents let go. Then their children, who often become parents must also let go; and the pattern continues. But God, from what is revealed in written Scripture, is and always will be a good and loving and patient parent. And he even loves us enough to always correct and restore and redeem our wandering selves. Instead of bracing for a future moment of letting go, we can be sure that in God our future is secure and safe, that through Christ our Lord is making all things new through the power of his Spirit.

Unlike Kaile and me and all human parents,

God doesn’t ever become disinterested;

God doesn’t become impatient with us; 

God doesn’t get disappointed in us;

God doesn’t leave us;

God doesn’t let go. 

***