The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Wednesday evening presents itself without ceremony, bleak and forbidding, halfway between Monday’s pleasant promise and Sunday’s warm replenishment. I stand and turn off the light switch in my office, and with it I snip off the threads of responsibility that suddenly come up in my mind to tie me to the computer and the phone. I have to deny the urge to stay and finish my tasks. They never really end, and if you don’t make a decision to stand and walk away, you’ll just stay tied up in them.
The drive home is as about as alive as it ever gets in Staunton, Virginia, except maybe when there’s a parade or something. Schoolteachers rushing to finish their shopping before dinner, truck drivers murmuring into their radio mikes and trying to get through town as quickly as possible, rednecks smugly aware of their egregious bumper stickers, attorneys guiding their Mercedes’ serenely through the melee, millennials glancing up from their phones every few seconds to make sure they’re still on the road, angry middle-aged white people judging everyone else from our vantage point of obvious adequacy: All of us engaging with each other as little as we possibly can to get where we’re going, like raindrops hurtling down our narrow silver corridors of mock solitude, not knowing – or, perhaps, just not admitting – that we will all end up in the same shallow puddle on the ground when we get there.
I avoid the pull to philosophical rumination on the futility of traffic, and arrive home to the normal scene. Kids are putting their school things away and setting the table, and my wife stops stirring the chili to kiss me and ask how my day was. We talk and eat, ask and answer, pause and hurry, think and share, in the predictable rhythm of every Wednesday night. But then my wife takes the keys and heads off to the grocery store, and all of a sudden I remember: the library has a book sale tonight!
They had me at books. I am an inveterate book-lover and buyer, and there are few activities I enjoy more than browsing stacks looking for a next great read. In 10 minutes the girls and I are there, scattered to the four winds of literature and written knowledge. I am hopelessly ensconced in the fiction section with my arms already full of biography and history and art, Emily is lost in children’s detective stories, Beth is gathering up some kind of drivel about animal superheros.
I do eventually emerge from the piled-up drifts of novels and make it to the Religion and Spirituality table, where to my astonishment I find the hidden jewel that makes this trip eminently worthwhile. It’s a book I had actually reserved at the library weeks ago, and the website kept telling me hadn’t been returned yet. It is Henri J.M. Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. Gasping at my good fortune (with a twinge of guilt because good Reformed Presbyterians are neither supposed to believe in “good fortune” nor, probably, ever stoop to read Dutch Catholic quasi-mystics on spirituality), I balance all my other books on top of Billy Graham and Stormie Omartian, and am instantly swallowed up in his words.
It is not your normal book on love, however. Nouwen was a thinker and follower of Jesus who went deeper into the darkness of his own soul than most. The cry of his soul was not “Lord, how long?” It was “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And it shatters me to my core.
Here was a love that did not commit the ever-present sin of postmodern evangelicalism, trying to insist that Christians can walk in the Way of the Cross and at the same time ever really be enviable by the world for our ascendancy of success. Here was a love that did not turn away from the voice of despair in its search for truth. And he speaks directly to me – to Jeremy – as he tells his story, so very much like my own:
People cannot give you what you long for in your heart.
The pain hardest to bear is your own.
There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss.
I saw the endless depth of my human misery and felt that there was nothing worth living for.
Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain.
His words crash against my soul like torrents of velvet rain, gentle and Godly, eloquent and moving, ruinously accurate. People who speak easily of loss, without their voice catching or stumbling over their words, betray that they have never really lost anything or anyone they cared for deeply. But sometimes one begins to talk, and the rips and tears in their voice convince you that they know – they know. And you cannot listen without weeping.
For his was a story of defeat. It was not someone recounting the victorious Christian life to admiring throngs of bestseller-buyers, or dispensing nuggets of wisdom on how to suck the marrow out of people and things. It was a soul crushed by the world, a depth of poverty known and felt, a love ruined and twisted into agony. It was a heart that suffered a devastating and ever-increasing series of defeats, and that in the end was defeated by God Himself. It was there, and only there, that he found peace.
And over the cacophony of all the words, external and internal, I at last hear the voice of Jesus. He speaks to me with the same innate knowledge of pain, the same careful handling of suffering that only comes from having experienced it, the same depth of compassion, of which I have only ever heard echoes from other people, no matter how wise or saintly they are. He says to me that the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and that He refines us as one refines silver, so that He can say of us They are my people, and so that we can say of Him The Lord is my God.
Hearing I believe, and believing I know that this is the greatest and most triumphant defeat of all: to be made into the image of Jesus, participating in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by all means possible we may attain the resurrection from the dead. This is the great hope onto which we hold as we see the shallow puddles of grief form below us. And even as we watch they rise up into a mighty river of joy, that makes glad the City of God.
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