Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Reconciliation: "Our Pain and God's" - Martin L. Smith

As part of my 2013 Lenten Journey I'm reading
"Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church" by Martin L. Smith.

Below I've transcribed from a section titled, "Our Pain and God's" which illustrates that
"[the] true grief experienced in repentance comes from being admitted (if only slightly and fleetingly,
since we could not bear total empathy with God) into the feelings of God."

          Many pages could be written analyzing the psychological intricacies of guilt: it is enough for the Christian penitent to be aware of the ambiguity of guilt feelings and to have the common sense and humility to acknowledge that our feelings during repentance will be mixed. And we should expect to feel the pain that is wholly appropriate and authentic and indicative of a mature conscience. These authentic feelings of grief call for expression, not denial or mistrust, or a cheap soothing-away. It is human and fitting to feel pain over our actions that have wounded those we love, for example, or violated our own integrity.
          Focusing solely on our own pain over wrongdoing, and the pain we feel in sympathy with those we have wounded, only deals with the outer edge, as it were, of the mystery of repentance. The heart of the experience is that we sense the pain of God. The true grief experienced in repentance comes from being admitted (if only slightly and fleetingly, since we could not bear total empathy with God) into the feelings of God. Here we have to leave behind the conventional picture of confession as a formal report of transgressions to a judge and lawmaker. Our relationship to God is utterly different. God is affected immediately and intimately by what we do and what we are. Far from being a remote third party observing us critically and dispassionately, God is our very life, the creative, sustaining environment in which we live and move and have our being. Our lives are rooted and enmeshed in God's; our acts and thoughts that proceed from trust, love, care, faithfulness, and everything that makes for justice, peace, and creativity, delights and thrills God. Similarly God is thwarted, rejected and pained as we defend ourselves from love and act out of fear, faithlessness and greed. Because God is love, God is infinitely sensitive and vulnerable to us. At this point we return to the principle set out in the beginning of this book: "Only the injured party can forgive."

Borrowed copy from St. Stephen's & the Incarnate, Washington, DC

          You are unusual if this way of looking at God's involvement with us comes easily to you. Have you made this breakthrough of faith or does it seem strange, even shocking? Meditation on two key passages of Scripture may be timely.
          Consider the conversion of St. Paul as it is told in Acts 26. Paul was brought to a standstill on his journey to Damascus by a revelation of the risen Christ. He heard the voice of Christ asking him not "Why are you persecuting those who believe in me?" but, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" The risen Lord appeals to him as a victim. Jesus is so much in and with his disciples, he is so indentified with them, that he suffers as they suffer harassment and persecution. Saul had no idea that his life was enmeshed upon the person of the Lord. Christ had been spurring Saul to recognize him and have faith in him, and now Saul's resistance has been broken down - "it hurts you to kick against the goads".
          Another passage of Scripture you could turn to is Matthew 25 beginning at verse 31, the separation of the sheep and the goats. In this vision of the judgment of the Gentiles by the heavenly king the issue at stake is how they treated the needy, the "brothers" of the king. It is revealed that in every case the king himself has been the direct recipient of their charity of the victim of their neglect. "I was hungry and you gave me food…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me."
          Deeply suggestive as these two passages are, they are not the key to the disclosure of the pain of God. That key is the cross of Christ. In the crucifixion of Jesus all God's dealings with humankind, and all our dealings with God, are brought into one burning focus. "God was in Christ"; the rejection of Jesus is our rejection of God and of God's love. The crucifixion sums up and concentrates the rejections of all times and all people. And the torture and affliction of God's Son, the unique embodiment in a human person of God's eternal living Word, reveals the age-long vulnerability and pain of God suffered since we first exercised our freedom to refuse the love of God. In a moving passage from Helen Waddell's novel, Peter Abelard, Abelard's friend Thibault finds an image for the way the cross reveals God's vulnerability, in a cut log lying near them in the forest as they contemplate the cruel death of the snared rabbit.

"And then I saw that God suffered to…"
"Thibault, do you mean Calvary?"
Thibault shook his head. "That was only a piece of it, the piece that we saw in time. Like that" - He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. "That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across.
That is what Christ's life was. The bit of tree that we saw…"

          There is an unmistakable significance in the fact that the risen Christ could be recognized by his wounds: "And he showed them his hand and his side." This is he who "reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature" (Heb 1:3). So, it has been said, "The hands that hold us in existence are pierced with unimaginable nails."
          You may find yourself hesitating at the brink of taking a risk, the risk of sensing God's pain at your failure to love with all your heart and soul and mind. The feeling threatens to be overwhelming, appalling. In fact the authentic God-given grief of repentance is truly paradoxical in character, because joy comes with it. The spiritual mothers and fathers of the early monastic movement coined the telling phrase "joy-giving grief" to describe Christian penitence. The more we realize how we grieve God's life, and the more we sense how close is the intimacy that God has established with us in Christ and longs to renew and deepen. By being close enough to us to feel rejection and lovelessness, God is close enough to overcome our struggles to escape from love. Despair would come only if God were an unmoved and distant judge, personally untouched by our acts and thoughts but able to exact our obedience.
          In reality, we are given our awareness of how deeply we have grieved God along with the realization of the intensity of the divine love for us and of God's unfailing readiness to forgive. […]

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