A Universal Wound

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It is hard to ignore the volume of people in the Bible with wounds which were used for some end. God uses all sorts of people with all sorts of physical or spiritual maladies—people with limps in their legs , barren wombs, tragic diseases, and thorns in their sides. Similarly, look through the lives of Christians in the past and you are bound to discover wounds that never stopped bleeding in them. Flannery O’Connor had her lupus, Charles Spurgeon had his melancholy, Henri Nouwen had his loneliness, Samuel Rutherford had his grief. We each have particular wounds, but perhaps there is a wound that is common to us all.

I am (ideally) a quarter of my life through, and I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Why does it seem like there is no relief to certain longings of mine? Why is it that in my most meaningful and rich conversations with friends that I still find myself nostalgic over a conversation that was so recent? Why does loneliness exist in me even with really good friends at my side? Why do some days I feel immense joy in the mundane while others I feel an echoing emptiness? Why does it feel like there is a festering wound in my chest that on my worst days feels unbearable and on my best days simply dormant?

Kierkegaard and the writer of Ecclesiastes probably would have combined to say that this was the part of me that was aware of eternity but is constrained to the temporal, in other words: everything ends but I feel in the details of my life that I  was intended for something more… a life without ends. Friends go in and out of our lives. Work sometimes feels satisfying and then sometimes feels devoid of any meaning. And even after the most joyous moments in our lives we often begin to feel the melancholy of no longer existing in those moments. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” We look to the sky for heaven, a thing everlasting, and look back down to see that in everything else there is a beginning and an end. We look back with nostalgia on Eden while waiting eagerly for the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens in which in Jesus we will reside eternally.

This tension is like a wound in all of us, and all other wounds whisper of it. All pain, all death, all loneliness, all sadness feels abnormal to us. It is the way it should not be rather than the way it should. Rarely do we ask the question “Why did this have to happen?” in response to something good. As Timothy Keller once said, “how can we consider the world abnormal unless there is some standard above nature?” Similarly  Tolkien in one of his letters wrote:

“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.”

We experience this sense of exile because we were once intended for something far greater than the sadness we currently experience. We long for the eternal intimacy with God and others that we once had. It is a wound we have all been dealt. But it is God who continues to use our wounds. To ignore them, to deny this great wound, is in a way to ignore the God that has entered into the tragedy of our condition to bring us back to the Tree of Life.

We are often so fixated on relieving this wound on our own that we attempt to try to numb it with all sorts of remedies that were never intended to fix a gash of such depth. An obsession with money, success, sex, romance, status, whatever it may be, we all try in different ways to alleviate the pain of what we once had. The rich young ruler inquired of Jesus what he might do to inherit eternal life and walked away with sadness at being told to give away all he had. The way to eternal life in Jesus was at odds with his own attempts at addressing his wound. It would have required the painful removal of the self-sutures already in place for a deeper healing to occur. It was Jesus who was frequently around those who had no way to ignore their infirmities: the lepers, the prostitutes, the lonely, the lame, the sinners. Those who knew their sickness all too clearly were the ones who often saw the permanent healing the Physician had to offer.

I imagine Kierkegaard (a quite wealthy man) may have had something like this on his mind when he said, “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic if it is pulled out I shall die.” For him, this great melancholy within him forced him to wrestle with eternity. It rattled him and inclined him to imagine a life outside the bounds of the one he lived. He noticed the wound and realized his attempts at solving it on his own were futile to bring any serious healing. His great wisdom, his great wealth, none of it could bring satiety, and his wound reminded him of that. But rather than leading us to despair this wound can remind us that, as Paul said, “…this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

For Jesus to bring the healing of eternal life it took nothing less than bearing the horrible conclusion of this great tragedy and terrible wound.  George Herbert in “The Sacrifice” communicates this conclusion with Jesus speaking from the cross, “All ye who pass by, behold and see; Man stole the fruit, now I must climb the tree; A tree of life for all, but only me. Was ever grief like mine?” God uses our particular wounds for certain reasons, some which we may never know, but He used the wounding of his Son to bring healing to this festering, eternal wound of ours. At an infinite cost to Himself, this wound finally found its cure— though we still wait eagerly for that eternal weight of glory. In Him, this universal disease will not have the last word, and like Aragorn said after absorbing the wounds of his friends to rid them of their afflictions, “I came in time, and I have called him back… His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart…” 

 

 

Desiring Permanence

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The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” I sometimes wonder if this means he has placed in our hearts a longing for permanence.

Unmarried or married, most of us will admit that we long for a place we can eventually “settle down” or “raise a family”.  If you are like me, perhaps you just want a place where you know that those closest to your heart are always close to your home.

Marriage and family are probably the most permanent things we can expect within our lives in the highly transitory culture that we live in. And being unmarried can often strike fear into many, including myself, because for most it sounds like a life lacking permanent companionship.

Of course, no relationship is permanent. Marriages fail, kids leave the house, tragedies happen. Death still ends the happiest of marriages, yet even the writer of Ecclesiastes knows that even though death comes to all that you should still “enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you because that is your portion in life…” Despite life being a vapor, the Preacher still knows that in our lives we find comfort in our toil through companionship. Even earlier in the book he mentions that “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” The Preacher recognizes our need for loyal friends (not just spouses) in the hardness of this life.

Ever since Adam was alone in the garden, we as humans have desired companions. We have desired friends to go about life with us and to help cultivate the Earth through our work. However, because of the Fall we  no longer possess a permanent residence. We like Adam and Eve are without a permanent home in this life. Yet even in being banished from Eden, Adam and Eve were sent out together. Marriage is a taste of the home we once had without actually being there. However, again, all marriages end. Even Jesus Himself said that in the resurrection, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Those unmarried taste a permanence of something to come.

As earthly marriage is, in some ways, reminiscent of Eden, being unmarried is, in some ways, a hope for the new heavens and new Earth. Both of course hope and reminisce of that which once was and that which will be. This is not to say one is better or worse than the other, but both offer complex challenges. And for those unmarried, it means the longing for a permanent home may feel more keen and more exasperated because it is not as tangible. This I find to be both a blessing and a curse. Like the Apostle Paul said, “Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that…For the present form of this world is passing away.” The longing for the permanence we tangibly lack hurts, yet it makes us more eager for “the things of the Lord” or more desirous of that which will not pass away, as Paul would have it. Although marriages may no longer exist, besides between the marriage of Christ and His Bride, I can not imagine that the friendships we have in Christ will ever be lost. Whereas those married may have a sample of that Marriage to come, those unmarried also get a taste of something permanent to come—vast, rich friendships when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. 

As we experience intimate years with friends and then hear news that they must move on, we are reminded that this life only offers glimpses of permanence. This life is damn hard, and we need those companions, whether they be our spouses, our Hermoines, our Rons,  our Eddies, our Faithfuls, our Hopefuls, or our Sams, to remind us that the fleetingness of this life is not all that is. As Paul said, “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 to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” We need friends who, among many things, long for that permanence with us. 

There is certainly a better day coming: a day when friends do not depart, a day when tears are no longer lost on the graves of those we love, and a day everlasting in communion with the very One who has always been and will always be. The One who has called himself “the beginning and the end” has written eternity on our hearts, and like Augustine once wrote, “he has made us for himself.”

“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night in the city, and they will have no need for the light of a lamp or of the sun. For the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 22:4-5