Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Abandonment: the wolves, the ifs and the whys

This month I'm writing a series of posts on my experiences with feelings of abandonment.  Different seasons and events have brought that emotion to the surface throughout our time in Mozambique and it seemed that now was the right time to try putting these thoughts together.  You can check out my first two posts on this topic here and here.

To begin - let's start by talking about wolves. 

There's a fascinating video that I'll embed below entitled: "How Wolves Change Rivers." It tells the story of how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has had a number of surprising side effects.  Because of a lack of natural predators in that park, the deer population had grown unchecked and they consumed more than their fair share of vegetation.  But, after wolves returned to the region, the deer were forced to spend more time in the woods which allowed plant life to grow up and fortify the river banks.  In a relatively short amount of time, beavers and birds and bears and other creatures were able to make it their habitat again.  Within a short period of time, certain trees quintupled in size.  They learned that having the correct amount of predators in the environment ultimately made it a healthier and more beautiful ecosystem.

One temptation in the life of faith is to fall into a variant of the "prosperity gospel" which emphasizes health and wealth by teaching that humans have a God-given right to experience only blessings and abundance.  For example, there is a church building in our provincial capital that has a sign over its door offering to help people to parar de sofrer, or "stop suffering."  But is that really the kind of human flourishing that the Creator has in mind?  If Jesus himself suffered, should we expect to be exempt from that?

The above video provides a great illustration of this truth.  While the prosperity gospel expects the deer to roam unchecked (experiencing only blessing and prosperity).  The truth is that the wolves (difficulties, pain and loss) create a better (theological) ecosystem.   And an abundance of deer (blessing) actually hurt the environment, making it more tame.  Having predators (the wolves of suffering) actually makes for a healthier, vibrant system.

As painful as it is to admit it, suffering has an important part to play in the life lived with God.

"It's dangerous to try to psychoanalyze Jesus, I know, but let's go back once again to the night before his crucifixion.   Jesus has a sense of where things are going, and so he goes to pray in an olive grove called Gethsemane.  Matthew and Mark speak of his feeling 'agitated' and 'deeply grieved,' even 'to the point of death,' so much so that he doesn't want to be left alone (26:38; 14:34).  At this moment, if Jesus lived in an explanation-driven, plan-driven universe, we would expect him to pray, "I know this can't be avoided.  I know it is part of your plan.  So give me the strength to go through with it."  But that's far different from what he says: "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me..."  That word 'if' tells us something terrifyingly significant.  At this moment, Jesus doesn't have clarity about a predetermined, set-in-concrete plan.  At this moment, he wonders if there can be some other way.  But if not, he says, "Yet not what I want but what you want."  To go through with a plan is one thing.  But to step into the abyss of if is another thing.  And I sense a powerful resonance between this if in Gethsemane and that why on Golgotha.  Jesus isn't trusting a plan; he is trusting God.  He believes that, whatever happens, God can turn it for good.  I have tried, but I have never succeeded in imagining a trust more naked and pure than this.  In uttering that question why, Jesus validated that pain, abandonment, doubt and despair are indeed part of the human condition and they are even part of a life well lived.  But they are not the last word.  They can be questioned.  Jesus thus comes out in solidarity not only with faithful people, but also with doubters, questioners, and skeptics everywhere.  He sustained both my God and why God, naked faith and naked honesty." (McLaren, Naked Spirituality, p. 182-3)

I love this description of Jesus and how he trusted God through the ifs and the whys.  Abandonment and doubt will be part of our lives because the life we've been given to live is not a "predetermined, set-in-concrete plan."  God invites us to be co-creators with him and join him in redeeming the brokenness in the world around us.  But, to live that way is inherently risky because an environment that lends itself to cultivating spiritual maturity will not be free of germs and predators.  The healthy ecosystem will be the one that is wild - possessing both deer and wolves.

It is comforting to know that Jesus also experienced the pain of abandonment.  When I feel like I'm standing alone and the ifs and whys and wolves are pressing in, I'm trying to learn to remember that the Rabbi has already been down that path and he models the Way through times of abandonment and doubt.

May we follow Jesus' example and trust God even in the midst of the wolves, the ifs and the whys.

Grace and Peace,

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