Sunday, September 30, 2012

Aching Visionaries, Insistent Hope

There are many ways to handle sorrow, and I learned them all early: place blame fast and dull the grief with anger. Stuff the sadness in an internal cupboard and slam the door hard. Pretend it’s all fine, splitting fake smile from inner wound until the split goes so deep there’s no wholeness left.

untitled, Oswaldo Guayasamín, Ecuador
The ways we manage sorrow can leave us sick inside, staring out at a harsh world with little trust or joy.

But God invites us to something different: a healthy grief that acknowledges pain, laments loss and yet holds firmly to the promises of hope and healing.

I’m taking a break this week from policy and politics. I’ve been praying for the past four years for a young woman named Emily, hit by lighting over four years ago. My prayer companions and I are spending the weekend with Emily and her mother at Christ the King Retreat Center, in the Diocese of Albany, New York, attending a conference on healing, and praying, as we have been for four years now, for Emily’s complete healing.

In preparation for our time away, I found myself wondering, not about Emily, but about other situations surrounding me: when do we get to write people off? When do we get to say “lost cause”?

When do we get to say “hope is too hard. I’m done”?

I’ve been wondering that in lots of directions.

When I first met Emily, she was in a coma, with insurance company and doctors holding no hope of restoration. The story of that is on the page “Pray for Emily,” which I’ll update when I get home from our weekend. I remember the feeling of standing in her room, surrounded by friends I’d invited to pray, looking at her lifeless form. Pray for complete healing? How? Why?

We prayed, faith stirring, lifting, hope invading us. We prayed for complete healing. Get up, little girl! No movement. No change. We stepped away certain we’d been obedient to God’s call, uncertain about what it all meant, what we should do next.

That journey has continued, as over time Emily began to respond, to track people with her eyes, to blink in response to questions, to smile.

At home in a wheelchair, the gradual healing continued: movement of arms and legs. Strength to stand when placed in a support device. Ability to lurch forward when supported by someone stronger.

Wassily Kandinsky, All Saints, Russia, 1911
The human form is fragile, complex, wonderfully made, beyond understanding. Doctors puzzle over Emily’s hands: she can reach for cookies, can grasp things of the right size placed exactly in reach, yet full motion eludes her.

Therapists puzzle over her speech and vocal chords. She understands words, tries to sing along, but there is damage in places science can’t yet reach, and disconnects between nerves, muscle, brain. Her doctors have no experience of restoration for a brain so long without oxygen, a body so shattered by electrical shock.

We give thanks for miracles: removal of her feeding tube. Ability to sip from a cup.

And we pray for more: a return to complete health, full speech, an active, vibrant life.

This journey with Emily involves mystery on mystery. She lives almost two hours from my house, but once a month I pick up others on the way, and we drive to Stroudsburg to spend two hours in conversation, prayer, and a laugher-filled shared meal. Some days I go wondering if we’re wasting our time, wondering what God has in mind, reminded once again how much I dislike the trucks and ramps of Route 22, one of my least favorite highways, how tired I am of the endless construction north and south on 476.

As I drive home again, the Fridays that we go, I find myself certain, every time, that God is at work, that he has more to teach us, that as the story unfolds our hope will be rewarded. My fragile hope is strengthened, every time, not always by change we see in Emily, but by words of encouragement that emerge in our prayer, by whispers of confirmation, by a reminder that we live between: in this painful place where what is hoped for often remains unseen.

Thinking and praying about this matter of hope, I came across an excerpt from Nicolas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, written to mourn the accidental death of the philospher’s twenty-five year old son Eric.
"Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God's new day, who ache with all their being for that day's coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries."    (Lament for a Son, p.85)
Jesus Healing the Lame, Jean Lambert-Rucki, France, 1940
This idea of aching visionaries reminds me of Walter Brueggemann’s discussion of prophetic voice: as followers of Christ, we’re called to lament the empires of power and destruction, and to insist on hope, even when hope seems impossible.

There are Christians who say God no longer heals, no longer intervenes in human stories in supernatural ways. I disagree. Without confidence in God’s intervention, the Christian faith becomes an empty philosophy, a legalistic dualism insisting on obedience to abstract rules with no real help for our battered hearts and broken bodies.

There are also Christians who look at our political dysfunction and say “don’t bother. It’s not worth the effort. Just take care of yourself. It will never change.” Again, I disagree. We pray each week “Your kingdom come." That kingdom offers health to all, freedom from oppression, provision for the poor, reconciliation between warring factions. We’re called to be agents of that kingdom. Even when change seems impossible. Even when hope is hard work.

Russ Parker, our speaker this weekend, has shared moving stories of physical healing, and also of miraculous intervention in violent, war-torn places. Parker's own work of reconciliation has brought him to Belfast, Rwanda, Burundi, where Pierre Nkurunziza, the current president, a convert to Christianity, has been honored with numerous peace and leadership awards as he prayerfully works to demonstrate the kingdom of God in a nation long oppressed by tribal violence and factionalism. He was re-elected in 2012 by more than 91% of the votes in an election noteworthy for its lack of violence, and Nkurunziza's example of official restraint in the face of an opposition boycott. 

Reconciliation, healing, restoration, new life: hope calls us to the hard work of restoration, forgiveness, prayer, mercy, compassion. Those glimpses God gives call us forward, aching for how far we are from the health and wholeness we're offered, determined to see God's goodness, here, in this day, in this time, in a way that brings him glory.
"Give me a sign of your goodness . . . for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me." (Psalm 86;17)

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This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?