Emptiness and Eternity

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I don’t want to feel empty. I don’t think any of us do. We all operate in some capacity to fulfill a lack within us. Whether it’s a lack of food, a lack of comfort, a lack of intimacy, whatever it may be, we run from the feeling of being empty.

In this world, those that have no need are those who are typically esteemed. Whether with money or sex or control, to face emptiness is to be weak. It’s hard-wired into me to run from my own emptiness and vulnerability. I would rather live with naive control than with the honesty of facing my own empty hands.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted will be met with an abundant answer to their emptiness in light of the Kingdom of God. The Christian life is an upside-down life where the empty, the destitute, the grieving, and spiritually bankrupt are told they will be blessed unlike those that think they are filled.

Life has always felt painful to me. I struggle every single day to believe in the hope Jesus provides and not because I don’t have a lot to be thankful for.

I sat in church today next to two friends who, both within the last week, lost someone close to them. They brought with them the emptiness of a lost loved one and shared that emptiness with us so that we could mourn with them. They offered us something very special: they offered us the hope that their emptiness (and ours too) would be filled someday in the light of Jesus. As mourners we embraced each other, and as those hungry for good news, we heard the good news preached. And as those starved for eternity and unity with our beloved, we feasted upon the bread and the wine.

Now I’m home, and I still feel the emptiness profoundly. It’s an ache I’m not expecting to go away anytime soon. But what I’ve tasted has a hold of me and sustains me and keeps me longing for more.

Between Wisdom, Sorrow, and Hope: Ecclesiastes and Lord of the Rings

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 “Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” -Ecclesiastes 7:3-4


It may seem a bit strange but Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” universe and the book of Ecclesiastes may have quite a bit in common. If you know me, you may know that I have a bit of an obsessive personality especially when it comes to random, niche fantasy universes like Tolkien’s. I don’t think I can overstate the fact that the lore of Middle-Earth was created by a perfectionistic genius. It seems that behind everything in this universe is a backstory and behind that backstory is another backstory. I expect all of of you probably know of Gandalf, but do you know of the Valar (essentially an angelic being) who taught Gandalf?

Nienna, the weeping Valar of Tolkien’s universe, is one of my favorites characters within the LOTR universe. Not only did she mentor Gandalf in the way of hope and wisdom and sorrow, but she indirectly (or perhaps directly) contributed to the sparing of Gollum which subsequently led to the destruction of the Ring of Power. Nienna, many argue, is the reason Gandalf was the only wizard among the five wizards who was not corrupted in his tasks within the realm of Middle Earth because her wisdom taught endurance. Here’s what the Silmarillion has to say of her:

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. … and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.”

Nienna taught pity and endurance in hope. She had the strange ability of bringing strength from within sorrow and fusing sadness with wisdom. She does not eliminate sorrow but perhaps could be said she waters it as she watered the dying trees of Valinor to keep light and hope alive. She, among all other characters, perhaps best embodies “The Long Defeat” philosophy of Tolkien particularly because she is immortal and thus must remain hopeful until the end of all things.

The strange sorrow of Nienna always existed within the universe of LOTR. From the beginning Nienna saw the tragedy that would follow the Creation of Middle-Earth. She knew that horrible tragedy and evil would exist within the world thus her portion of Eru Iluvatar’s song which contributed to the Creation of Middle-Earth became one of lamentation:

“So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began.”

This song of Nienna was woven into the very foundation of Middle-Earth’s existence. But her song is not one of despair. As it is seen in Gandalf and those who visit Nienna, her song is one that moves sorrow in the way of hope and endurance not towards hopelessness or despair. She was perhaps the strongest and wisest of the Valar, yet her strength was mixed with sorrow. So great was her wisdom and thus great was her sorrow. The writer of Ecclesiastes seemed to know this too: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

To hold wisdom and sorrow together is a difficult task. It seems we’d often take the alternatives of (to steal a phrase from Augustine) “delusive happiness” or despair. But there’s no use talking of wisdom if there’s nothing in the end for us. That seems to be the mysterious hope in the character of Nienna and the writer of Ecclesiastes: if all is a vapor, why write about it? If the end of Middle-Earth is an end in terror and chaos, why grieve over it and continue in hope? If evil will win, why persist in the fight against it, like Gandalf?

Hidden away in some supplementary writings from Tolkien about the LOTR universe is a debate between two characters, Finrod and Andreth, about the problem of death, human destiny, and a cause for hope. With Finrod being an immortal elf and Andreth being a mortal human you might imagine there would be some difference of opinion. Finrod at one point asks Andreth if she has hope, which she responds, “What is hope?… An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known? Then we have none.” To which Finrod responds:

“That is one thing that Men call ‘hope’,” said Finrod. “Amdir we call it, ‘looking up’. But there is another which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust”. It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy. Amdir you have not, you say. Does no Estel at all abide?”

Estel and Amdir seem to be reoccuring themes within Tolkien’s writings. A way I might distinguish them is by calling Amdir a temporal hope and Estel an eternal hope. Amdir may at times be extinguished, but Estel may still remain because it is rooted in something far deeper than human experience or present turmoil. But this hope must be rooted in something.

Andrel follow’s up this question with some remarks of those who still follow that which is called “The Old Hope”:

“They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through the years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.”

Sound familiar? This tale of the Creator entering into the world to bring about restoration? I imagine this Old Hope is what Nienna and Gandalf held within them. Nienna’s grief was real and saw all the horror that can exist in life, but still she held the hope of an eternal ending that would undo all the pain and all the evil. Here’s an ending of supreme joy, an ending Tolkien would say was derived from something greater.

“This [Christian] story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true…But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

There is no ending better, and there’s no ending more true. Amidst the sorrow birthed by disappointments and tragedies of this present condition there remains still a hope rooted in something eternal, a hope in our Creator coming to us to bring us life everlasting with Him.

The Long Defeat

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“Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass… Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.” – Samwise Gamgee


I’m often tempted to think that all the good things we fight for and try to hold onto are simply a fool’s errand. Like Samwise said, “how could the end be happy?” especially when it seems that despite our best attempts, evil and death still seem to have the upper hand. Sometimes we experience victory, but often those victories seem to be like a flickering candle in an otherwise overwhelming darkness. Faced with impossible situations, conditions, and relationships, we either give in to the darkness or keep holding on in hope.

The Long Defeat is a reoccurring theme in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, and it’s one that we might all be familiar with. When one evil dies, another seems to always inevitably take its place. When one tragedy is avoided, another always seems to loom on the edge. We’ve trained ourselves to think that if one door closes that another one must open, but sometimes we are simply stuck in a room with no more exits. Sometimes when a bad thing happens a good thing doesn’t come to fill in the gaps of our losses and heartaches and disappointments. Often we feel like Frodo and Sam during their journey to Mount Doom, pushing forward with only a flicker of hope on an exhausting path in a dark and decaying land.

We’re left wondering: when will the evil and suffering that surrounds us be finally and totally stamped out? When will we see good finally put evil in its permanent grave?

I hope soon.

As Sam goes on to say, “there’s some good in this world… And it’s worth fighting for.” Even in a long chain of lost battles, the darkness can’t squelch the fire we carry. The road may be battered and beaten and may seem to indicate it’s not even taking us anywhere, but still we go on fighting that good fight. We endure knowing that evil won’t always win, and that there is still good to fight for. As Tolkien said, “We all long for [Eden], 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’.” And that exile will not always last, and that darkness will someday pass.

But still we go on waiting and holding on for the day when Jesus will come with healing in his wings and a sword from his mouth to bring restoration and justice to this sad, broken world. And I hope and pray for that moment when this long defeat of ours is at last met with a glorious and permanent victory.

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…” 

 

 

Desert Longings

There are days and weeks throughout the year that I find myself lost in dry and deserted places—places of spiritual dryness, emotional apathy, and mental exhaustion. I do not often know how or why I end up in places like them, but I can tell you that I would rather be in a storm than in a desert. I would rather the rain to be violently upon me than not at all.

I have been reading a fair bit of C.S. Lewis lately. And he, among many other of my favorite writers, is someone who really stretches my heart as well as my mind and encourages me to keep hoping and to keep longing, to recognize the Beauty beyond the beauty, and to see the Story within the stories. And for someone who has a naturally pessimistic personality, hoping is something that usually feels a fair bit foreign to me.

The longing and the hoping hurts of course, because it presupposes a deficiency — an intimacy not known, a meal not shared, a death unavoided, or a beauty only slightly revealed. Most days I feel some dull lack, while on rare days I taste something so rich, so wondrous, it is hard to imagine anything better. But those days in the desert, where the longings feel too much to bear, often seem the longest and most noticeable.

It is one thing to be searching for water in a desert, and it is quite another to have been in the desert for so long that it becomes consciously assumed that there is no water and never was any water to be found. Like a sponge shriveling from lack of moisture, the days I am tempted to give up hoping consequently are the days I assume that sponges were never intended to absorb. Hope seems to always be the inverse of despair.

Despair tells me the deficiency I feel is an existential joke— that I was created with this inconsolable longing simply because the universe is a cruel accident and unable to provide for it, and that if I can not find satiety in this life then I never will. But hope tells me the deficiency will eventually be met with fullness in eternity and in some time this fragmented and sad world will transform into something full and consummated. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

In those desert places I can not tell you that I enjoy the desert itself, but without those walks through the desert, the longing for a Water that finally satisfies would never have appeared without the sun beating down on me and without the sand burning the soles of my bare feet. It is in the desert that my tongue becomes dry for something I had once taken for granted. In the desert is where I am stripped of everything good that has made me settle short of an ultimate good. The desert reminds me how deep my longings really are, and how rarely I allow myself to sit in those longings. Again, quoting Augustine, “He has created us for himself.”

It is in these water-less places that I am occasionally reminded of the revelations of St. John, that one day all will be new and that we will sometime soon drink deeply of the One who has given us this thirst and has paid for it to be quenched:

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.'”

Inside Out: When We’re Left Longing

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**This post contains spoilers to the film Inside Out. Proceed with caution**

Samuel Rutherford, a Puritan pastor known for his soulful letters, once wrote to one of his congregants from his jail cell, “I would not exchange my sadness for the world’s joy. O lovely Jesus, how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

I recently had the chance to see the new Pixar animated-film Inside Out which I found beautiful and full of wonderful truth, but also asking important questions like, “just what purpose does sadness have in this life?” We all feel it, some more than others, and I had (have) to wrestle with the implications of that question: should I not just avoid sadness? Should I not just shove it in the corner of my soul and continue on in my own naive joy?

Samuel Rutherford was a man who knew the co-existence of joy and sorrow all too well. A man who lost his wife and two children, who battled depression, and was exiled from his church congregation by the High Court, Rutherford knew both grief and hope. Quite different than despair, Rutherford’s sadness was characterized by longing. As I’ve read his letters, many have brought me to tears. There’s a joy amidst the sadness, and I’ve only been bettered by having read them (and I’d highly recommend them).

In Inside Out, there was a moment that left me gutted. The imaginary-friend, Bing Bong, began grieving over the fact that he was removed from his creator’s consciousness and was left wandering in the maze of his creator’s unconscious memories. He was forgotten by the one who loved him. He was without purpose and without a friend.

But for the first time in the film, Sadness found purpose.

Sadness sat next to him and allowed him to grieve, to cry, and to just recognize the sadness that should rightfully exist in him. It’s good to recognize our unfulfilled desires for things like friendship and a place of belonging. Like Sadness and Bing Bong’s conversation there’s relief in those expressions of grief. For some reason, we heal by acknowledging our troubles. Like Rutherford’s own troubles expressed in his letters, I was offered consolation and the space to feel sad for want of restoration.

But why? Why is there relief in recognition of something that doesn’t necessarily have an immediate answer or resolution?

The most profoundly troubling thing in Inside Out for me was that Bing Bong was eventually forgotten entirely. There was no resolution for him. He fell into a pit of oblivion. Literally.

So why would recognizing that there are things in my life that are painful be of any use to me?

Why would longing for what was or what could be leave me any better than not longing at all?

For Rutherford he would not “exchange his sadness for the world’s joy,” but only in light of the sheer fact that there must be something better – a future hope held fast in a past reality, “how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

If not for a future hope, I can’t honestly say I’d be able to live consciously with sadness. If my future is like Bing Bong’s, what’s the point of sadness? If not for a future hope, all joy is worldly, temporary joy. I’m with Rutherford on that, and yet, a future hope is nothing without grounding. What does it mean when I’m told to just “keep on keeping on” if keeping on just means I’ll eventually hit a dead-end?

I, like Rutherford, long for the intimate kiss of Jesus, for His – already but not yet – embrace of me, and I’m only assured of that by an objective reality in the cross. The cross that “smelleth so sweet,” so sweet, yet so painful. A cross that was bore for us that we may experience lasting joy, but a cross that we too must bear.

Sadness has a purpose, for I suppose that without sadness in this life we can’t experience real joy. Without sadness, hope is nonexistent, or to give an example, I’d never long for intimacy if I never felt lonely. A severance of longing, or numbing, is one great way to defeat real joy. Attempting to fill our ultimate longing with things that will never fill it is another.

Longing contains both joy and sadness, and I’d never long for Jesus without recognizing my own longings. To recognize those longings, or to grieve, is often excruciating, but I’d never need Jesus without that need.

We can’t remove sadness without also removing joy.

We can’t long without suffering.

We can’t be kissed without the cross.