Fiction, Imagination and Community – pt 2

Following up on my post on Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books: her essay on Imagination and Community shows how reading fiction teaches us to empathize with imaginary people.

Amid her dense prose, another concept moved me. “Presence in absence” is how Robinson alludes to fictional characters we learn to care for, even though they do not “exist.” “Presence,” she says, “is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is… a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.”  Here I believe she touches the heart of spiritual reality. Jesus left our world of space and time, and yet millions of us sense his presence here and now. That does not make him a fictional character; rather, fiction helps us to grasp how presence in absence can be experienced.

Call it imagination if you will, but everyday experience shows its power. People we love but are separated from remain real people in our imaginations. We see them, hear them, sense their presence. This is more than memory of past companionship, or anticipation of reunion. It is can carry us through long periods of separation without loss of relationship with another person. Our love for them, and theirs for us, persists even in absence. And this, Robinson says, “Jesus has epitomized.”  He is gone but he is here, he is absent but always present. Or in another metaphor, he and the whole spiritual realm are now separated from us by a veil that becomes almost transparent at certain moments.

Robinson goes on to draw a connection with community (communion?): “Presence in absence – I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community…. [which] consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.”

Thank God we can live “by faith and not by sight,” and love our loved ones in their absence, and Jesus in his absence, without them becoming less real. And by imagining the lives and needs of people we know less well, we enter into community with them.

Fiction, Imagination and Community

During  a recent vacation in coastal Georgia, I was re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection When I Was A Child I Read Books. Her intellect is a constant challenge to her readers: many of her sentences are dense with meaning, each clause carrying an idea that is worth a whole essay of its own, if not a book! So re-reading is a must, and a great reward – as it was with her great fiction duo Gilead and Home (fictional nourishment for every pastor).

In When I Was A Child… Robinson pens her characteristically vigorous defenses of Calvinism,  the Old Testament rightly read, American individualism, and the immense value of fiction. The essay on Imagination caught my attention once again. Robinson ponders the life of a fiction writer, who spends her time describing imaginary people – their thoughts, their actions, their dialogs, their paths through life. “What a strange activity,” you might say (if you had never read fiction, or a children’s story).

But Robinson shows how imagining the lives of people we know only a little, or hardly at all, is the very foundation of human community. Only as we develop some aptitude for imagination, empathy, identification, can we enter into the precious, warming, supportive interchange of lives that we call community. If we have no interest in other people’s lives, then even when gathered with them, we are merely an association of individuals and not a community. And interest in other people demands imagination. “What are they thinking?” “What are they going through right now?” “How would they react if I suggested X?”

If you have been a part of a good community, you know how this works. Frequent exchanges of views, concerns, stories, ideas, needs, lead to a level of knowledge that encourages us to learn more. “How can I help them?” becomes a part of our imaginary exploration of people.

And this, says Robinson, is why we should all read fiction. This is how we train our minds and hearts to identify with other people. This is where we learn to care about the outcome of events in the lives of people we don’t know – because they are imaginary! Pastors especially should be great readers – not just of biblical studies, theology, culture – but of fiction that enriches not only our language, but our imagination.

Lord, help us to grasp that as we use our imagination to empathize with other people, we discover a little more of your infinite and perfect knowledge of us all.

Doing God’s Will

The Passion narratives of our Lord are full of irony. Who was doing God’s will? Jesus alone, it would seem. But everyone else thought they were!

Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus’ whereabouts to the Temple authorities are obscure, and probably mixed. Greed? Disillusion? Wanting to be on what he calculated would be “the winning side?” The chief priests and the Sanhedrin: envy of Jesus’ popularity with the crowds, fear of  Roman repression? When they had all had their say, the Temple authorities were able to convince themselves that they were called to rid the nation of a “false prophet” who was leading everyone astray. Maybe Judas believed the same thing, at least for a while. So they incited the Roman authorities to crucify another “messianic pretender” who threatened the pax Romana. It was all sick and sad, and at times sadistic. A good man, who the common people recognized as a Godly prophet, was destroyed.

Yet when we read a few pages further from the  Gospels to the Acts of the Apostles, we discover that after the Resurrection, Jesus’ fearful followers have a bold new interpretation of what has happened. “A man accredited by God to you… was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross…” What was God’s will, and who did it? That Jesus should die, and his enemies unwittingly fulfilled God’s purpose!

How often we – the crowds and the followers – get it all wrong, only to find that God was working out his purposes all the time! We pray, we study, we debate, we rally, we plot; and yet we still fail to grasp God’s will in a given situation! It ought to humble us, over and over, that we are so blind.

Yet can we not then learn to be deeply grateful that God in his grace and mercy “works in all things for the good;” that he achieves what is “in accordance with his pleasure and will” despite us, and yet also through us? Should we not learn over and over that “‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’  declares the LORD.”

Thank God that he is not bound by our sense of what is the right way, and that even our wrong motives and wrong actions can be used by him to bring about his perfect will. Lord, help us to wait upon you, and seek your thoughts, and not be so sure that we can “figure it all out” and pray/demand that you will do things “our way”! Fallen people, we are often confused. “Forgive us, Lord, for we do not know what we are doing.”

Living Out Life on Holy Saturday

In a fine article in Christianity Today, prolific Christian author Philip Yancey describes his experience in ministering to the grief-shattered families of Newtown, CT after the murders of 20 of their elementary school children and 6 teachers. What do you say to people in such a situation? Read the article yourself for some deeply insightful and compassionate words.

One paragraph stayed with me. “On Good Friday, Jesus absorbed the worst of what Earth has to offer, a convergence of evil and death… Easter Sunday gives a sure and certain sign of contradiction, demonstrating that nothing can withstand the healing force of a loving God. We live out our days, though, on Holy Saturday, aware of the redemptive power of suffering while awaiting the restoration power of creation made new.”

Living on Holy Saturday. We know only too well the power of evil; sin and death haunt us all. We have lived with them too long. And so we struggle  to find our way forward in the dim light of Saturday, waiting for the sun to rise on Easter Sunday. We know it will happen, because it has happened. Jesus’ rising is the once-for-all declaration that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well…” But we are not there yet. How do you live out a lifetime of Saturdays?

A good friend has been critically ill now for almost two weeks. On a Friday, day four, he was “as sick as you can be and still be alive,” said a physician. On Easter Sunday, day thirteen, he took a miraculous step forward. Now he looks like a man who will live! He is still far from well. Weeks may yet pass before he can be discharged home. Even then he may live with a medical condition that requires constant “management.” But the corner was turned, and in a very real sense “his life returned” on Easter Sunday.

Like him, we all live mostly on “Saturday,” with hope and prayer, but not yet fulfillment. Only the faint gleams of Easter sunrise, ministered to us through the love and prayer of family, friends, community, sustain us. Christ has risen, we too shall rise, but there are many Saturdays to endure yet.

Lord, give us grace to live in hope – Easter hope – that we shall be changed, and that we can live in faith through our Saturdays.

Easter For All

For a retired pastor, this has been a wonderful Easter season – no more stress over composing about 6 new sermons, or worrying about flowers and pageants; just enjoying being seated beside my wife as we worship!

And I get to listen to other pastors’ sermons, and I learn new things, and have my faith renewed. So herewith just a sample of what I heard that I needed to hear. Some of it is so obvious that you might wonder how I could not have known it, or could have forgotten it! But such is pastoral life: it’s easy to forget in the rush of doing.

“If we are delivered from condemnation by the Crucifixion – the atoning death – of Jesus Christ, why do we need the Resurrection too?” asked one of the magazine articles I read this week. I needed to hear again the simple answer. We are fallen people who need forgiveness; we fear punishment for our sins, known and unknown. So to be told that Jesus won for us forgiveness of sins by his death, brings the deep reassurance that we need – God still loves us, and he forgives us for Jesus’ sake.

But even if we have known this for years, we are still plagued by the ongoing presence of sin in our lives. We have been delivered from sin’s penalty, but not yet from its power. The answer to this is the Resurrection: Jesus’ Rising demonstrates to us that new life is available to all who are joined to him by faith. And that new life is not simply an extension into eternity of the life we now live, but is a present gift. We receive a spiritual infusion of God-life, which is what we need to conquer the power of sin.

One pastor I heard (three in the past three days) marked out the process: as the Spirit moves you, in repentance bring specific sins (small or large) to God and say “Father, forgive me for, and deliver me from, X, I pray.” Only then is the burden of guilt removed by forgiveness, and the power of that sin lifted from your life.

The Cross, forgiveness. The Empty Tomb, new life. We need both, and Jesus brings us both. Are we then perfected immediately? No. But we now can live at peace with God, at peace with ourselves, and by his grace increasingly at peace with other people. The new life that the Spirit puts in us allows us to grow in the image of Jesus Christ, and so to find the way to overcome the power of even forgiven sin to shame and haunt us…

God grant us to experience real deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, through his grace shown to us in Jesus Christ, our Crucified and Risen Lord! Happy Easter!

Foot Washing

Many Christians of all traditions gather for Communion on Maundy Thursday. The church I used to pastor has for decades held a short worship service followed by a simple  meal; the Passion narrative is read, and Communion is served at the dinner tables. It is solemn and memorable, and attracts a large attendance. I think it was one of my favorite evenings of the year.

Some years ago, our Associate Pastor suggested we might consider including Foot Washing as part of this Last Supper memorial. We discussed it, as our tradition requires, at meetings of the Board of Deacons. We were all intrigued by the idea. But despite discussions over several years, we were never able to figure out how to do it! Deciding who would do the washing and how was not hard. The difficulty was in deciding whose feet should be washed! It seemed impractical to wash the feet of everyone present – this would take longer than the Communion, and that was not an emphasis we favored.  We also anticipated that a few (older?) people might refuse to have their feet washed (see the Apostle Peter!), which would cause them embarrassment.

Perhaps we could wash the feet of a small number of people? But who? It did not seem right to select pastors, staff, deacons, or any other group – they would appear “chosen.” And as we would not think of serving Communion to only “a representative few,” why would we do that with Foot Washing?

So we decided, year after year, to table the idea for further discussion. Which is perhaps a pity. As many evangelical Christians turn to more liturgical worship, and gain new respect for symbolic actions, Foot Washing certainly deserves exploration. Plenty of “high liturgy” Christians do it. Perhaps you, the readers, have had some experience with it that might show us all some possibilities?

Meanwhile, may all who gather this evening to remember the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially his institution of the Lord’s Supper, truly “feed on him by faith in their hearts with thanksgiving” and experience his Presence.

I share with you my favorite Communion Prayer, written by Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge:

Lord, this is thy feast,
prepared by thy longing,
spread at thy command,
attended at thine invitation,
blessed by thine own Word,
distributed by thine own hand,
the undying memorial of thy sacrifice upon the cross,
the full gift of thine everlasting love,
and its perpetuation till time shall end.
Lord, this is Bread of heaven, Bread of life,
that, whoso eateth, never shall hunger more.
And this is the Cup of pardon, healing, gladness, strength,
that, whoso drinketh, thirsteth not again.
So may we come, O Lord, to thy Table:
Lord Jesus, come to us.

Who Died and Why?

Among the predictable Passion Week articles on “Why the Cross?” I again ran into the calumny that “atonement viewed as substitution is divine child-abuse.”  I am often struck by the unstated but evident denial of the Incarnation by people who write these reflections. To be sure, if Jesus was just a prophet “on whom the Spirit remained,” and not the  incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, then the LORD abused his prophet. But where is the NT affirmation that God the Son was the One who died?  And why the unwillingness to embrace the full OT picture of atonement as substitution, and to grasp the depth of the LORD’s covenantal promise to his people that he would bear the curse for them?

Read Genesis 15:

How can I know that your promises of offspring and land will be fulfilled?” asks Abram. “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram…” says the LORD.  Abram brought these and cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him… When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire-pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day, the LORD made a covenant with Abram, and said “To your descendants I give this land…”

How was the LORD’s covenant with Abram sealed? By the LORD himself passing between the cut halves of the sacrifices, saying (in effect) “may I also be cut in half if  my covenant with you is broken.” Abram’s descendants broke the covenant repeatedly, and as he had promised, at Calvary the LORD took the covenant-curse on himself in the person of his Son.

As Charles Wesley rightly understood, “And can it be… that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? ‘Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”  If GOD did not hang on the cross in darkness, then the charge of child-abuse stands. But if the LORD died for us, he kept his covenant with Abram, and with all Abraham’s descendants by faith.