Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Despair and the Ultimate

At tragic times in my life, when disastrous circumstances overwhelm and all hope seems lost, I drown in despair. And I feel, unbelievably, even worse, because as a Friend, a follower of Jesus,I am supposed to be one living in hope and joy.

The Good News of Christian hope is the answer for the world of despairing humankind, of those who suffer in agony. So why am I still caught in suffering and despair?

In the last several years of my life, I've reached a final nadir, lower than my own worst pessimism could have ever imagined. Keep in mind that I don't have terminal cancer, haven't lost loved ones in a tsunami like the one in Asia that killed hundreds of thousands, haven't lost my home...

No, my own despair is in the midst of the relative comfort of California where most citizens live with more physical necessities and amenities than 99% of humankind ever had.

But my particular despair is still genuine and debilitating and
destructive, keeping me often from accomplishing more in the world to reduce others' suffering.

However, rather than dwell on the ugly facts, let me hasten to a wondrous discovery that came to me one day deep in my bereft hopelessness.

It suddenly dawned on me that Jesus, though the messenger of God--is here with me--with all of us who suffer and agonize. I am not talking about his triumph but of his own despair, his cry from the cross--"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Matthew 27:46

In the past, I had read that verse umpteem times in my life before, but they had been words to study, to ferret out their literary relationship to previous texts in the Old Testament, to understand their abstract theological meaning...

But now, suddenly, they were words for me, to me...words that made me realize Jesus has been where I am, has felt that hopelessness that totally empties and yet gluts one with agony. He has gone deeper into hopeless despair than any drowning of my own, down more into the abyss of loss.

Not only did he lose his career, his relationships with others, his family, then was betrayed, and finally endured excruciating physical pain--he suffered all of those--but in the end he was executed, numbered with the criminals, the terrorists, the rejects on a cruel Roman torture device where the pain was unbearable. In Roman justice only the worst of the worst were assigned to the cross.

And with this shocking discovery--that the son of man experienced ultimate despair and felt totally abandoned--I realized that there is still hope for me (and for all others who suffer much worse than myself).

And then there came back to myself historical memories of the many spiritual leaders who also at times lost any sense of hope, who felt abandoned by the very One who was center-most in their lives: George Fox, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen...

It never ceases to trouble and shock when I re-read in the Gospels how even John the Baptist, who had first announced Jesus as God's Chosen One, later in prison became so devastated in his grief, so hopeless, that he severely doubted Jesus was truly God's answer to human suffering and evil.

From the "dark night of the sou" of St. John of the Cross to the present, so many Christians who have lived for hope have gone through the abyss when all assurance has seemed lost. George Fox at one point spoke of how he experienced an "ocean of darkness." As I recall, he suffered with despair for at least two weeks, so bereft that he lay in bed unable to function.

Now at this point in my reflection I could launch into the traditional good news message of salvation that energized the first Quakers so deeply they traveled across the known world to share their faith--and I do, very deeply, have faith in that wondrous story--but my intention in this meditation is of a different sort; it's to communicate the vital truth that no matter how deep our loss, how terrible our agony, how absolute and ultimate our despair, God is there for us, with us, within our terrible loss.

Indeed, God suffers all that we deeply and so ultimately suffer; God carries within God's essence the pain and suffering of us all, indeed of all the pain and suffering of the Cosmos. Before God saves, God loves, identifies, experiences, suffers with us.

Of course, this makes no sense from a scientific or mathmatical point of view. It is spriitually discerned, an ethical truth not a sense observation. God is not an object that can be weighed in objective scales. God is the source of all being and becoming, so can only be known subjectively.

Furthermore, such incredible hope does seem when looked at rationally to be absurd.

Still, I think we ought to seek to love God with all of our mind, even though ultimately God is beyond human comprehension.

But the wonder of wonders is our hope that Ultimate Reality actually cares and suffers with us and for us--we finite beings, conscious primates on a small planet in minor solar system in one small edged swirl of the cosmos.

Despite the ruthless nature of the observable world, the good news is first and foremost that Ultimate Truth experiences what we experience and most deeply loves us even at our worst.

Despite my best efforts, I've never been able to give myself to God ultimately, except in fragmented inspired moments. But thankfully, the Divine in contrast, has given ultimately to us.

Hope in the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

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