Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Perplexed, but still hopeful

Untitled, Ben-Zion,
New York, 1950s
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—
    these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, 
   not choose not to be.
     (from “Carrion Comfort”
      Gerard Manley Hopkins,1887  )

We see through a glass darkly – but there are times that seem darker than others. Winter nights close in; the accumulating sorrows of friends and family pile like snowdrifts against our windows. We find ourselves wishing for summer, or surfing vacation rental websites, longing for escape. We wrestle with hope: Is healing possible? Is wholeness an illusion? Does it make sense to invest, again, and again, in systems that seem irrevocably broken, in people who seem determined to fail?

Reading Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort”, I find myself wondering what struggles sapped his strength, stole his joy, led him toward the dark place of doubting God’s goodness. His poem points back toward Jacob, running from home, wrestling in the dark with God.

And it calls to mind Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, confessing his own  temptation to despair.

For some reason, we pretend that conversion to Christ is a guarantee of a smooth and easy ride. Trust God and all will go well. Believe and your problems are solved. Let go and let God.

Praying Monk, Frank Brangwyn, Belgium, 1930s
But there’s Hopkins, a Jesuit priest in his prime, bruised by his dark night of the soul. And Paul, acknowledging that he and his fellow workers were “under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1).

I could list countless friends, faithful people living lives of deep obedience, who struggle with unexplained tragedies and wrestle with doubt, with a sense of abandonment that rivals David’s when he cried out:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me,
   so far from my cries of anguish? 
I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
   it has melted within me."  (Psalm 22)

If suffering is part of the human condition, God's people are not exempt.

There’s a word play in 2 Corinthians 4 that we miss in English translation. Paul says “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Aporeo (perplexed) means to be without resources, in doubt, not knowing which way to turn: stuck. I’m beginning to feel that’s my natural state. Daily, I find myself perplexed. I don’t have what’s needed. I can’t do what I promised. The challenges I face are more than I bargained for. My resources are few, my wisdom is slight, and the situation is beyond me. I laugh as I write this: I thought that state of perplexity would end when I stepped away from full-time ministry with youth. Instead, it’s more pronounced, as God leads me into more and more perplexing missions, with fewer resources at hand.

Paul says: aporea, but not exaporeo. Perplexed, but not to the point of despair. Without resources, but not without hope of help. In doubt, but not in such confusion I can no longer pray, or trust, or wait. Stuck, but not - literally - "out of a way through."

When I look back on the past year, and the years before that, I see that some of the moments when I was most perplexed, God was most at work. Those places where I found myself standing still – uncertain, doubtful, at the end of my resources, ingenuity, understanding - God’s grace intervened, sometimes in ways that were immediate and dramatic, much more often in ways that could only be seen looking back across time.
The Man with the Burden
Rachael Robinson Elmer, New York, 1913

Yet there are situations where I still wrestle, still stand in perplexity, still see no sign of resolution, no clear way through. What then?

In Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 4 I find clear advice for my own cases of “aporea”:

One: Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. He says it at the beginning and end of the chapter: We do not lose heart.

Easy to say. Not so easy to do.

Two: Admit, acknowledge, even embrace weakness. We aren’t the ones who need to be strong. I love that. We are jars of clay. Frail, flawed, struggling creatures.

I’ve certainly had the temptation, at different points along the way, to “look strong for the kids,” to try to hold it together. That never works. Much better to say “I’m struggling here. But don’t worry: God will help us.”

Third, Paul says: Keep your eyes on what’s ahead. Don’t let this present moment drag you down. “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

I have lots of areas of weakness, but one in particular has sometimes been a problem. I hate long, high bridges. I start focusing on the side: the flimsy rail, the too-close edge, the long drop to deep water below. And then I focus on myself: my sweaty hands, the fact that I can’t breath. If I can keep my eyes and attention out ahead, I’m okay. If I start thinking “what if . . .” I’m in trouble.  

The bridges are hard. But the other side is worth it.

And these struggles we face are hard, but they’re not the end of the story, just as those miserable bridges are never the end of the road. As Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

I pray that will be so.

We travelers, walking towards the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessings brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
                  (Sabbaths 1999, IV, Wendell Berry) 

The Pilgrim of the World at the End of his Journey,
Thomas Cole, New York, 1846-47

This post is part of the January Synchroblog on hope, done in partnership with Provoketive, an online magazine devoted to creating space for dialogue about faith, life, justice and culture. As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome. And if you're needing wrestling with hope yourself, or in conversation with others who are struggling, please take time to visit some of the other websites linked below.