Tag Archives: Easter

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

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In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Yet for Christians, Friday and Sunday are equally crucial. The horror of death and the beauty of resurrection are both essential. The tension of Saturday, between death and life, loss and victory, suffering and healing, is where we live. We are mortal, decaying, sin-sick creatures. Yet our redemption is secure in the resurrected Christ; we will be made new.

Art is a gift that God gives us to help us cope with Saturday life. In Real Presences, Jewish literary critic George Steiner wrote about this “Saturday” approach to art: “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

In the face of the unspeakable horrors of Friday, “even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless,” wrote Steiner. But likewise “In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The arts are fundamentally “Sabbatarian,” argues Steiner. “They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Indeed, the arts are fundamentally about navigating the inherent restlessness of human existence–a grasping after shalom, equilibrium and peace in the midst of a chaotic, tortured and lamentable world.

For Christians who make art, the temptation is often to move too quickly to Sunday. Thomas Kinkade is the easiest example; but we see it as well in the predominantly cheerful genre of worship music and the notoriously saccharine positivity of evangelical-made movies (e.g. Fireproof, God’s Not Dead). Christian films do an injustice to the gospel when they present a kumbaya world where all believers are happy and life is a nicely wrapped package with a heavenly bow on top. Certainly hope is central and the resurrection is a paradigm-shifting lynchpin for those who follow Christ. But so is the cross. The humility, the pain, the shame and the struggle of Christ on the cross is not to be shunned or avoided by Christians; it’s to be embraced and imitated. And what a beautiful thing that is.

A Jesus who suffered is a Jesus we can know, because if we know anything in this world, it’s suffering.

I like how poet Christian Wiman describes his faith in My Bright Abyss:

“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

Jesus was not a powermonger who established a religion with a sword; he established it by being shamed on a cross. He was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The best Christian art is right there with Jesus.

“Lord, why? …Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me.”  (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life)

“What did I do to deserve this? … How? God of Elijah. How?”  (Sufjan Stevens, “Drawn to the Blood”)

Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell is an album that embodies a Saturday aesthetic.

On one hand the album seems to be decidedly “Friday” oriented, fixated as it is on the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who died of cancer in 2012. Yet the album isn’t named only after Carrie. It is also about Lowell, Sufjan’s stepfather who become one of his most valued friends (these days Lowell runs Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty).

We see the tension of Saturday both in the album’s title and in its individual songs, which speak of Friday–death, blood, drugs, vampires, driving off a cliff–but give hints of Sunday in its pastoral reminiscences of childhood in Oregon and associated bursts of love, wonder and hope. In “Carrie and Lowell” Sufjan sings of a “season of hope (after the flood).” In “The Only Thing,” Sufjan suggests that God and faith (“signs and wonders… blind faith, God’s grace”) keep him going in the midst of despair. In “Fourth of July” a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother focuses on the heavens: birds of various sorts, fireworks, stars, the moon.

There is a sense in the record that Sufjan, like Christian Wiman, resonates with the idea that in Christ, “God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.” In his song “John My Beloved” Sufjan identifies with the bittersweet emotions John (“the beloved disciple”) must have felt as his intimate friendship with Jesus mixed with the reality of being separated by death. Yet even as he seeks comfort in Christ (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”) he also makes no claim that faith is the solution to all pain. The song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is all about Friday, skeptical as it is that the “shadow of the cross” brings meaning to the previous song’s “shadow of me” musings.

And yet the album’s closing song ends with an eschatological nod to Sunday. “My Blue Bucket of Gold” uses the imagery of a fabled Oregon gold mine to channel the pain and longings of the album toward a search for something higher, something heavenly: “Search for things to extol… Lord, touch me with lightning.”

Oh that more of our art would hold Friday and Sunday in such elegant tension, helping us through the fog of this liminal, Saturday space; the heartache and hope of the “now and not yet.”

The Horror of Grace

In Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), there’s a scene that absolutely floors me, because it captures something so true about the way humanity deals with grace. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (whose son was recently kidnapped and murdered) goes to visit her son’s murderer, in prison for life. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive her son’s killer. Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness.

And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass from her, Shin-ae finds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful. “You look better than I expected,” she tells him. She goes on to tell him that she’s found peace, love, and a “new life” in God, and that that’s why she’s here. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit him. But then the shocker. The prisoner has also come to faith in Christ.

“Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says.

“Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God…” she says, very tentatively.

The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me. He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.”

And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt, as she’s confronted by something she didn’t see coming.

“God… has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief.

“Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace… My repentance and absolution have brought me peace. Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”

This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison, she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that even the killer of her own son could be saved by God’s grace, and that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving the killer, offering him the only real absolving he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice–how can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child-killer be on the same leveled playing field in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.

This, I think, is the greatest, most mind-blowing quality of God’s grace, while at the same time being the hardest for humanity to swallow: His grace is sufficient for all, and it saves unconditionally, based not on our merits or relative levels of moral stature. We’re all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God and alienated from him, and thus we all need exactly the same grace from Him to repair the breach.

I need the same grace as anyone who has ever wronged me.

Trayvon Martin needs the same grace as George Zimmerman.

Jason Russell needs the same grace as Joseph Kony.

Barack Obama needs the same grace as Osama bin Laden.

Mother Theresa needs the same grace as Hitler.

Charlie Sheen, Tim Tebow, Whitney Houston, Joe the Plumber, Kim Kardashian,  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Benjamin Netanyahu, the pepper spray cop, Susan Boyle, Madonna, Jerry Sandusky and the boys he molested… All are hopeless and condemned without the exact same grace. That is: the grace of God, freely given through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, who–though perfect and undeserving–bore our sins on that dreadful but majestic cross.

It’s absolutely scandalous, and for many, a pill too hard to swallow. We’re prideful creatures, us humans. We want to believe that “right” living warrants us  a better standing in God’s eyes than, say, the killers and thieves and pedophiles. We don’t want to believe that we are in exactly the same predicament and in need of exactly the same salvation as the world’s most evil person. We want God to reward us for being good and punish others for being bad. Deep down, pride is what leads many to resist the free gift of grace… because they can’t stomach the notion that earning or deserving are not words that exist in God’s economy of grace.

But if we can just get over our pride, emptying ourselves in the same way Christ did both in how he lived and died, the “free to all” nature of grace begins to look beautiful rather than horrific (as it did to Shin-ae). Grace becomes life-transforming precisely because it takes us outside of ourselves, freeing us from our sinful chains and narcissistic self reliance, instead focusing our attention on Christ–and what HE did that Good Friday not just for me, or you, or the “good people,” but for the world.

Holy Week Prayer Requests

We praise you for the wait, oh Lord.

For the now: the darkness building all around, the tornadoes, the hoodies, the fear.

For the not yet: the reconciliations to come, the healing, the sunrise, the joy.

We praise you for the tension of light meeting dark, valley meeting mountain, weariness meeting rest.

In the midst of our political malaise, economic hardship, cultural degradation and existential funk, give us hope.

Grant us patience for Sunday, even as the blows of Friday take their toll.

Quiet our hearts this week, Oh Lord, and help us to remember your passion.

Help us to remember it on the stressful days, when we’re sitting in traffic, doing our taxes, staring bloodshot into a screen, locking ourselves out of this and that.

Help us to remember it on the lonely days, when we want to see someone but can’t and want to be somewhere other than where we are.

Help us to remember it on our prideful days, which is every day. Remind us constantly of your sacrifice, and of our calling to pour ourselves out for others, as you did.  Help us to love one another, to lay our lives down for our friends.

Knowing that you defeated death–that you made a way–let us go forth with courage, saying the things we struggle to say, embracing the pain we so ardently avoid, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call.

Let the morning we celebrate–the morning you rose–be the morning ever on our minds, even through the long nights.

It’s a Good Day

I always wondered why it was called “Good Friday.” I mean, Jesus was brutally tortured and hung on a cross. There were dark skies and earthquakes and torn veils. Seems more like “Bad Friday,” doesn’t it? Really, has humanity ever had a worse day? The one time the God of the universe was actually walking around in human form on earth, and what do we do? We kill him. That’s pretty bad.

Yet we call it Good Friday. And sure enough, it is a good day. In spite of the horrors of the crucifixion, in spite of the horrors of our own sin and depravity, it is a good day. Why? Because of the last words Jesus uttered before he gave up his spirit: It is finished.

These are words to remember.

In the darkest hours of the night, when nightmares and migraines and monsters keep us from sleep. When car crashes and hospital bills and blood tests make us fret. When sirens and helicopters and cancer loom in the background.

It is finished.

On the days when you don’t want to wake up because you know there is way more to do than can be done, when you feel like you’ll never make a dent in the checklist. When all that you wish you were is exactly what you cannot be. When you say the wrong things and love the wrong people. When you long for the good ole days. When scotch is the only way you can make it through. When you look at the world and it hurts your gut.

It is finished.

When it all comes crashing down: bones, taxes, therapy, pottery, dishonesty, Sunday School, workman’s comp, babysitters, yoga, coffee, car insurance, insecurity, vitamins, piano lessons, treadmill, facebook, failure, success, love, loss… remember that all the trouble we’ve seen has been seen before, every hardship endured on some other rocky road. Christ took it upon himself and assumed the burden. Friends: it is finished.

“In this world you will have trouble,” said Jesus on the night before he died. “But take heart!” he continued. “I have overcome the world.”

Overcome the world? You better believe this is a good day.

Emptiness is Abundance

“The most expressive form of art today in connection with religion might be sacred emptiness; an emptiness which does not pretend to have at its disposal symbols which it actually does not have. In all realms of life today we must have some emptiness. … On the basis of a preliminary sacred emptiness, something may develop.”

-Paul Tillich

I believe in the desert. I go there perennially, to remind myself how much I believe. Last weekend, I went out to Joshua Tree, which is a desert National Park about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s a vast, empty, preserved land of rocks, cactus, desert flowers, and lizards. And it’s in my backyard—just an hour away from one of the most hectic, crowded, chaotic cities in the world.

It’s desolate. There’s really not much to see out there. No waterfalls, no amazing mountains, no grand canyons. There is hardly any water anywhere. And it gets hot.

But oh is it beautiful. On a cool spring morning, when the heat is still at bay and the smog hasn’t yet wafted in from L.A., it’s as clear and clean and magnificent as just about anywhere on earth. I can see why U2 named an album after the place.

It’s a place that makes one forget that the world is abuzz just miles down the highway, that there are outlet malls and casinos and Rat Pack mansions down in the valley (Palm Springs). It’s a place that reminds you that flowers can grow in the unfriendliest climates, out of chalky moon dirt that sees rain maybe 8 times a year. Above all, it’s a place that reminds you that there is beauty is the desolate and abundance in emptiness. There is so much inferred in the lack.

In terms of how we live, what we long for, and what we find beautiful—so often the nexus of it is something that is absent. Absence drives our existence more than just about anything. Absence, I suggest, galvanizes us in our protestations against apathy, malaise, and debilitating continence. It gives us a reason to be passionate, to burn brightly and agonize over things like truth and beauty. It gives us hope; and we need hope.

It is no coincidence that so many of our great art works and stories summon the glories and beauty of days gone by, or envisage other worlds, or invoke the images and destinies of what might be (horizons, open roads, the unknown future). All of this is about the beyond: something absent and thereby unbound by our mortal limitations. As Jack Kerouac writes of his restless journey in On the Road, “It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard—mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.” We live for mañana, for tomorrow, for in our minds, tomorrow can be anything.

One of my favorite pieces of art is The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In that book (which I read every April), mañana is embodied in a green light that flashes from the dock of Daisy Buchanan—a light that Gatsby watches from across the bay, pining for something that remains absent in his life, despite his many successes. “It had gone beyond her, beyond everything,” Fitzgerald writes. “He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

For Gatsby, the green light was not really about Daisy, for she was just as mortal and flawed as him. His ambitions, like every human’s, were ultimately pointing toward that which could not be satiated within himself, or within another person, or with anything in this life. The green light is forever absent in this material world. And yet it still flashes, constantly, through the fog and across a vast expanse. It beckons us to look toward it, to look beyond, to see that the land it sits on is absent, but the light shining from it is present in our world, gleaming in our eyes and illuminating the darkness.

As we approach Easter, one of the most beautiful images of absence that I have been meditating on it that of the empty tomb. Like a sunset, this image is simultaneously joyful and tragic—joyful because it symbolizes a resurrected Jesus, tragic because it is a tomb: we see ourselves (and everyone we love) in it someday. When Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus first encountered the angel and the empty tomb, their immediate reaction was confusion and fright. Had someone stolen the body of Jesus? What was going on? But, as with so much in this life that appears stark and hopeless, there was a silver lining. Jesus was alive. There was hope through their tears, a holy reassurance in His absence. As the women fled the scene, they were “afraid yet filled with joy” (Matthew 28:8, TNIV)—and I wonder if this kind of joy isn’t the best kind there is. Joy amid fear, amid uncertainty, amid absence.

Art should not shy away from those things we associate with absence—loss, sadness, depravity, uncertainty. For without absence, there would be no reason for art. Art comes from the heart, and every human heart is like that empty tomb on Easter morning: missing something.

Lenten Promises to Keep

The middle of Lent. 17 more days until Easter. It’s a time of waiting, anticipation, sadness and hope. It’s wearying and rejuvenating in awkward intervals. It’s Psalm 88 one minute and 89 the next.

It’s life.

My life has been crazy busy lately, though it’s nothing really new, and it’s not like everyone else in the world doesn’t feel the same way. We’re all busy. Life is always on the brink of being too much to handle. For everyone everywhere at every time in history, it’s been a struggle.

Today I was thinking about how grandiose and overwhelming existence is. There is so much wonder and beauty to be experienced, so many roses to be smelled, so many puppies to be pet, so many interesting variations on earth and sky to be seen. It’s downright daunting. Just when you think you’ve seen the best thing— Boom! There’s something better. Around every corner and at nearly ever turn, there are new adventures and new experiences to have. New lessons to learn. People to meet.

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep

So wrote Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s a poem about the alluring beauty of a forest during a snowstorm. A rider is passing through it, entranced by its splendor, tempted to linger. But he’s got places to be, obligations to keep. Miles to go before he sleeps.

So often I feel like life is a snowstorm and I’m just passing through, unable to really stop and play in it or experience it for what it really is. There’s too much to do. The business of life doesn’t allow for much lingering. There’s just not enough time to do all that the world beckons me to do.

There’s not enough time.

Those are numbing words. No one wants to hear those words, but we all know they’re true. And oh is it painful to admit: there are places I will not get to see, people I will not get to know, books I will not get to read. There are songs I won’t sing, paintings I won’t paint, films I won’t film. There are things I will only ever be on the outside of, looking in. And it’s not just the lofty “life goals” stuff that gets consumed by the breakneck tempo of life. It’s a day-to-day thing. Every morning we rise, with a list of things we must do and hopes for what we might do. Every night we go to sleep with a few things left undone, a few things that might have happened differently.

I think this tension—this ability to have vision, desire, ambition, and longing for so much more than our temporal faculties could permit us—is one of the most significant tensions of life. It’s painful, but unavoidable. As much as we might try to aim lower or dream smaller, it’s an inevitability of life that we will always be plagued by the ceaseless handicap of “miles to go.” We’re always looking towards an end—a sun that is forever racing away from us, as the world turns.

I suppose it’s a Lenten comfort though—that even if the sun sets far too soon everyday, it also rises.

Coffee and Easter

I gave up coffee for Lent. That’s coffee as in drip coffee, cappuccinos, lattes, and anything of the sort—both caffeinated and decaf. It’s been horrible. I mean, I must have been addicted to coffee or something, because it has been a struggle everyday these past few weeks to not drink it. One major problem is that my office is right outside the department’s coffee machine, so I smell it wafting in every morning, like one of those vintage “Peter comes home for Christmas” Folgers commercials. And it doesn’t help that I spend many of my weeknights writing at various coffeeshops, where variations on tea or chai can only go so far to filling that “keep me awake and vibrant” need…

It’s like the feeling of being outside of some circle, of looking in on a world of pleasantness and pleasure and not being able to participate. But I guess this is the point of giving something up for Lent. It’s supposed to help us identify with the 40-day period in which Jesus retreated to the wilderness and fasted—eating nothing and praying constantly. Next to that, my giving up coffee seems terribly insignificant.

The amazing upside to the whole “no coffee” tragedy is that during Lent, Sundays don’t count. Because it is the day of Resurrection—the day death was conquered—it is a “free” day from our wanting. The forty days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter do not include Sundays, thanks be to God.

It makes coffee taste all the more magnificent on Sundays.

To lack a beautiful pleasure like coffee for six out of seven days is actually not the worst thing in life. Having six days of missing goodness is always better than six days full of heartbreak or sadness. I’d rather be without a good than with a bad. But in life there’s always a mix.

All I know is that coffee tastes great on Sunday mornings. Also, mountain forests smells divine after an afternoon rainstorm. And doesn’t the sun seems to shine brighter on the day classes let out for summer break? And sleeping in on a day when you have nothing to get up for. Don’t even get me started.