Tag Archives: Good Friday

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

IMG_0596

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.”

Advertisements

Empty Yourself

Gaugain

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. It’s Paul exhorting the Philippian church to emulate the humility of Christ–a countercultural concept especially within the intense honor/status culture of Philippi, a Roman colony. But it’s also a passage that speaks clearly to all Christians today. Christ-like humility is the way we should live. It all comes back to this.

In a culture that beckons us to broadcast ourselves, pose for the Selfie, maneuver for maximum online exposure and obsess about our social media followings… It all comes back to this. Amidst our impulses to privilege our success,  our security and our every whim and inkling in the direction of the great idol of happiness, it all comes back to this.

Humility. Pouring ourselves out for others rather than pontificating on Twitter or posturing on Facebook. Serving the needs of others before sulking about what we don’t have. Seeing ourselves rightly and privileging the Other in a culture that worships the sovereign self. As Spurgeon once said, “Humility is to make a right estimate of oneself.”

It’s simple, and yet it’s always a struggle.

If the most fundamental and original sin of mankind is pride, the most fundamental virtue is humility. It’s Christ-likeness in microcosm. It’s not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. It’s giving ourselves away for Christ and his gospel, which is also to say giving ourselves away for others.

Life is short. The universe is huge. I am but a tiny particle in a millisecond of God’s ongoing epic. No matter how great I think I am, my life is but a vapor in the wind. Humility isn’t just a virtue I’m called to; it’s reality.

On this Good Friday, I think John Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer” offers a beautiful articulation of what it means to humbly serve our Servant King:

I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

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.

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.