Friday, October 7, 2011

The ferocious zeal of God

“What prepares you for that?” asked my wife, in tears, after the surgeon had left us alone in the ward.

It was Wednesday morning and she had been admitted to hospital on the Monday with excruciating abdominal pains. The diagnosis had raised the possibility of cancer. She was not ready to die.

You see it in other people. You hear about it when it is someone else. But, no, nothing prepares you when it is your own mortality that stands up to you and slaps you in the face.

She was terrified. I was scared, but at least it wasn’t my body that had threatened to kill me. I decided to read the Bible. There was a Gideon’s Bible in the bedside cabinet (thankyou Gideon’s), so I opened it and found Psalm 23. I tried to read out loud, but the words stuck in my throat. In between monumental pauses, I managed to croak and stumble to the end. It must have been the worst reading heard in human history ever, and my voice probably conveyed more fear than faith to her at this time.

The LORD is my shepherd;
         I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
         He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
         He leads me in the paths of righteousness
         For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
         I will fear no evil;
         For You are
with me;
         Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
         You anoint my head with oil;
         My cup runs over.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
         All the days of my life;
         And I will dwell in the house of the LORD

As I came to the closing lines, I saw something that I had not seen before. This was not a Psalm about dying; it was a Psalm about living, even in the face of death.

This week, when I waited with Janna as they tested and scanned her, deciding the best course of action for surgery, I have had the privilege of spending much of my day thinking and reading. I read an entire book that I had been recently given, and on the Wednesday I got through two thirds of the Book of Isaiah. I earnestly believe I did not do it as an escape. I did it because our dire circumstances forced me to engage the reality of the situation that we had been thrown into. 

I grew angry at the mindless pap that the television churned out. Its voice was void and empty and unable to reach into our lives. The glass screen said it all. It presented a rigid wall between its imperious pontifications and the flesh and blood of our trembling lives. It existed to project its sound and vision onto us, but it had nothing to say. It could not touch us. The gods of the 21st century western world were exposed in their impotence.

The Mater Hospital, where Janna ended up, was founded on a Catholic tradition, and it included an unadorned Chapel, where I whiled away some of the hours during Janna’s surgery. In Janna’s ward, and probably every other, there hung a small, stylized crucifix over the window. Here was a God whom I could worship; one that had entered into our humanity, to suffer and die that we might live. Unlike the proud gods of the television, sitting behind their hermeneutically sealed glass screen, this God not only touched our humanity, but humbled himself to come right into it. This God then picked up and carried away the things that contend against our humanity, even death itself, taking them into his own body and nailing them to the cross where they died.

This thought infuriated me, and it still does. It was that same feeling of frustration as I read Isaiah. My knowledge of Hebrew is, to be generous, rudimentary. However, I know enough to know that our English Translations struggle to convey not just the technicalities of the text, but also their beauty and raw power. In Isaiah 1:2, the prophet declares “Hear, o heavens; give ear, o earth; for the LORD has spoken”. It took me a whole evening the week before Janna’s emergency to read three words in the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls on-line, and I was amazed at the musicality of its native language. Yet, I could not hear it well. I did not have the tongue to annunciate the words. I determined to learn more Hebrew, so I could more fully appreciate those verses that so tantalized me.

Yet, there was something else that was tantalizing me. I could sense it like a giant wave building in the ocean. I could not see or hear it clearly, and the other waves disguised its presence, but I sensed it was there. I can only describe it as the ferocious zeal of God.

I could see glimpses of it in Psalm 23, and in the voice of the prophet. I could see it in the image of the crucified man over the window. I could see it in the kindness of our family and friends as they offered their love and support. God, whom had called the cosmos into being with His indomitable Word, was filled with a ferocious zeal for our living. He was committed to our living in a way that we could only faintly sense. We can hardly assemble the language to describe it. It was this ferocious zeal of His that had called us into being, and this same zeal had given us the capacity to surprise Him. This same ferocious zeal compelled Him to enter into our flesh and blood existence, and to do whatever was necessary, at whatever cost, to secure our living. 

And it was not simply an existence that He brought about for us, but true living. God’s single-bloody-minded and whole-hearted commitment to our living is not a religion, or a set of parameters in a mathematical equation, nor even the certainty that comes from accurate or reliable predictions. It is nothing less than life itself; life in chaos and uncertainty; life in which choices make a real difference; life in defiance of death, which seeks constantly to subdue, stultify and cow us.

It’s the Gospel of Grace, but in a context that we rarely get to experience. Janna’s reaction to the Surgeon’s bad news was perfectly natural; “Why me?” She quickly recoiled at the thought. She was humble enough to know that the flip-side to this question was “Why not?” The Gospel of Grace tells us that we don’t pre-qualify for God’s love; we cannot earn it; we cannot make ourselves ready for it. We cannot be prepared for it. Like the baby entering into the world through a borrowed manger, God’s life invades our lives in unexpected ways, whether we deserve it or not; whether we are ready for it or not; whether we are prepared or not. Why? So that He is vindicated in all He does. So, if He deigns to act on our living in ways that seem best to Him, why should He also not act on our passing in the same way?

This, of course, is nothing new. The ancients knew that their lives were held in the hands of the gods. They knew their mortality in ways that we have forgotten in our modern, headlong retreat from the thinking life. What was a revolution to them was the news of God’s ferocious zeal for our living; borne to them by the despised of the world - women and Jews.

It was like God had betrothed Himself to us humble creatures, made from the earth. What business had the Divine with us sons of the soil? And, as a man would seal the oath by cutting his own flesh and shedding his own blood, so God had scourged His own flesh and shed His own blood at the cross. This was serious, and we had better take it seriously. We had better take life seriously too, not because we had done something to deserve it or enhance it, but because God had committed Himself to our living. Misuse the life He had given us, or the life that He had given to our friends and neighbors, and it would be His ferocious zeal for our living that we would ultimately answer to.

In the face of such a ferocious zeal for our living, it ceases to be a question of what we deserve, but what we do. Who knows what will come tomorrow? Tomorrow has enough worries of it’s own, as the preacher from Nazareth said. Today is the day, and we will live in it, even if we see the shadow of death lengthen over it.

Nothing can prepare you for that day when you know you will die. But you can say that until that day, you will live. What is more, beyond that day, you will live because God’s ferocious zeal is with you in your living, and it will not be extinguished or diminished in your dying.

Janna’s surgery was a success, though she had her ovaries, tubes, uterus and appendix removed. The Surgeon found no signs of cancer, thank God (and all the medics involved). It was an endometriosis.

It would be wrong to call this a reprieve because we would be saying that death, not God, had done the reprieving. We live another day. Death has receded from us, but God has not. There will come a day when death has exhausted its terrible arsenal on us, but God, and His ferocious zeal for our living will remain undefeated.

I pray that I will never forget the glancing blow that this day dealt to us, and the tantalizing glimpse it gave me of God’s ferocious zeal for our living. I pray that I might find the language to speak this zeal into our lives, my life, Janna’s life, your life, that we can celebrate the living that God has given us, in all it’s unpredictable and surprising wonder and variety.

This is a song about living, not dying.

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