Saturday, April 25, 2009

Editorial: Bearing Witness

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "You are not at peace." They were startled and terrified, as though they were all ghosts. He said to them, "Do you not even know why you are frightened, why doubts arise in your hearts? Look at your hands and your feet; see that you yourselves are broken. Touch your wounds and see; for ghosts do not have flesh and bones as you do." And when he had said this, he showed them their hands and their feet. While they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" He gave them pieces of broiled fish, and they took it and ate it in his presence.

Then he said to them, "Remember my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that you would suffer for my sake, and that my kingdom is not of this world. But you do not need my name to suffer. The world will hurt you because it is not of my kingdom, and I am going away from you. But take heart! For I have overcome the world, and in the wounds of your sides and in your hands and feet you bear witness to my coming and my going. And verily I tell you that on the last day the testimony you bear in blood will be washed away. Repent, and you will be forgiven. The kingdom of this world will be condemned by your blood, and you will be raised up as the stones and pillars of the kingdom that is to come."

It didn't go that way, of course. But I'd like to think it could have. I'd like to think that we might all share in the recognition that absence and presence, comings and goings, mark a relationship as surely as the nature of the people in it. And that's what we do, right? We throw coming-home parties and we give the people we care about a proper sendoff, because it matters where they are and we aren't the same for their leaving or their return.

And I would certainly like to think that all the ridiculous sufferings of this world, all the cruel absurdities that chance and will and powers and principalities unjustly inflict upon us are the things that condemn it, just as much as our own idolatries and betrayals condemn us personally. I'd like to think that God's kingdom acts by vastly different rules, and that every time one of us is arbitrarily harmed the tally grows against the anti-kingdom of this world because our sufferings are not meaningless, but that by living through them we are gathering an account of what a world without God is like.

And obviously, I do believe these things. But I doubt that we are very good at thinking through and acting on their implications. The absence of God doesn't get much play in churchy circles. Sad Saturday barely makes it unto the back of most bulletins, let alone very many minds. And if you ask people what Tenabrae is, you might hear something about it maybe being a band. (I'll admit it was a new service for me, and an instant favorite).

I've said a few times, for comic effect, that I made a horrible atheist because I kept going to church and still tried to pray. But that was precisely the right thing to do, both during college and the longer stint after graduation. One of the things that our culture has so massively wrong is that non-believers leave the church. It's the faithful who should go out into the world! And it's the devastated who should flock to congregations as places of healing, comfort and shared witness to what happens when God isn't there anymore, because God's absence matters in the way that a lovers' does.

But you see how backwards that all sounds. We celebrate God's presence constantly, and the last thing we are prone to do when we lose faith and hope is to talk to people in the pews about it. At least, that's the last thing I'm prone to do, and I assume I can't be alone in this regard. But it shouldn't be a confession! It should be a conversation that doesn't surprise anyone. We should always be singing the Psalms. Because the world does hurt, and it hurts beyond our capacity to bear it. That's what suffering means. But it should never mean that we are alone, and it should certainly never mean that no one has time to hear our witness, our testimony, to see and touch the wounds in each other's sides.

"I come not for those who are well, but for the sick." That's one statement of Christ's that I won't invert. How often we miss that. How often we sit in the pews and face the altar, as though Jesus Christ himself might not walk in the door at any second. As though the face of Christ incarnate were not written into solemn passersby. And how often we sing songs of light and providence, as though our silent pains and pangs, as though all our doubts and debts and darknesses were not hymns of unspoken yearning for the God most high.

1 comment:

brd said...

How true this is. And how true that yearning to be transparent about both our beliefs and our gasping unbeliefs. I once read a book called The Faith to Doubt. It gave a certain reverence to doubting, which isn't necessarily unbelief and certainly not disbelief, but rather a prodding, a questing. And it is a necessary part of faith for people who must think about their faith.

Another of the pre-Easter services that I love is the one called Stripping the Altar. That speaks so solumnly to the absense. It is not just Christ gone, but that in his absense there is nothing else left at all. I describe this in a comment to the post I did on Tenebrae.

Thanks for your thoughts.