Wednesday, November 29, 2006

love has made me hollow, love has made me whole

I came across this beautiful, moving poem in a wonderful book called "Finding God at Harvard - Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians." It's a collection of essays published in 1996, and this poem was written by one Poh Lian Lim. She's a doctor who grew up in Malaysia and graduated from Harvard in biochemistry, before receiving her M.D. from Columbia University. She is currently practising in the States.

De Noche

I am hollow for loving
without return.
I am chambered, echoing
only your name.

falling from wretched fingers,
a handful of shriveled grass
died this long hot shimmering summer,
in the little well-loved garden;
to the eyes worn with wearied hope
the rains never came
(and tears cannot sustain life).

a whole year the wound waited,
willful with venom, throbbing with desire;
alternatively a fever and a shaking chill,
bone-deep, world-vast, consuming as a fire.

rising on a morning sweet with spring
the light spills warm onto the windowsill
the violets purr, delighting in the sun.
all the world is radiant blue and gold;

and far beneath, the distant traffic hum
beside the gray-blue Hudson
murmurs ten o'clock silences
and a leisurely cup of coffee.

and wondering if I'm missing much
of that lecture when it's really
so much nicer sitting here,
listening to the gurgle of pipes;

till, piercing deep and twisting
some thought of you comes, swifter than desire
(vivid sunlit flickers of the now-closed past)
pain catches on my breath; I recognize
familiar as only an adversary is,
in one vast inchoate cry
blotting out all affections and appetites merely human,
my old and hopeless yearning.

I wrestle, reaching wildly for a grip
on this pain that lives by the pulsing of my heart;
and in the darkness of my unknowing,
bitter with tears,
flung out like rope into the abyss
paying out endlessly
prayer yet brings easing
for this one night.

I am come into a Presence.
passionate with patience
familiar as sorrow,
stern as a rock that questions dash against
and die like waves away

into a stillness
worn and dear as a mother's hands,
a space of mercy, a space or quiet
a dear and gracious place.

and shall I truly know
some day
that high, glad, lifting joy
that lilting happiness?

I am open to the earth and sky
washed by rain and dried by sun,
the scarecrow stands in empty fields
as happy and as free.
And wheeling seasons circle like the birds
in my embrace
transparent now of any fear

and love has made me hollow
and love has made me whole.

De noche iremos, de noche - By night we shall go, by night
que para encontrar la fuente - seeking to find the source
solo la sed nos alumbra - thirst alone our light
solo la sed nos alumbra - thirst alone our light

I don’t think I really understood heartbreak until last weekend. A dear friend’s father had passed away so very suddenly.

I went to the first memorial service on Friday, and the burial on Sunday. Seeing a family torn apart by grief, yet hearing my friend thanking God for so very many things, and singing hymns of hope as the coffin was lowered into the grave, I could not help but weep.

We are none of us, immune from hurt. It's a fact of life in the fallen world that we live in. Sheltered as I am, I never had such a close encounter with heartbreak until that day. Lesser things than death, like break-ups and broken relationships, break our hearts. The thought of being completely cut off from someone whom you have known and loved all along, never to see them or to speak to them again, things never again being the way they used to be, the end of a cherished relationship as it were… I don’t think I ever knew how badly I could hurt till that Sunday.

The only thing that comforted me in the midst of all that despair, was knowing that God himself is not immune to heartbreak. God himself knows exactly what it is like to lose a loved one. God himself suffered infinite heartbreak, ultimate loneliness, and complete abandonment when He was cut off from the Father on our behalves - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – so that the Father can say to us, I will never leave you nor forsake you.

When Jesus died on the cross, God the Son was cut off from God the Father – they who have known and loved each other for all eternity – so that we could be brought in from the dark. It must have been agony beyond comprehension. It must have been hell.

So maybe this is love. Unchanging, unfailing, and completely unconditional. Self-denying, self-giving, and utterly sacrificial.

So maybe this is freedom. So maybe this is peace. So maybe this is joy. To know that you are loved that much.

So the seasons whirl around me - the tender buds of spring, the bright blue heat of summer, the golden leaves of autumn, the silent snow of winter (there is a season for everything) - but I hold them all lightly in my embrace.

Transparent now of any fear.

Dominus Illuminatio Mea. The Lord is my light.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I know the heart of life is good

Two Sundays ago we went to watch The Philharmonic Orchestra play at the Esplanade. I’m not a massive classical music fan, more of a philistine than an aficionado, but we were there to watch Cherfy and some other friends play. The second, and longer, piece that the orchestra played was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, more popularly known as “Leningrad”.

I confess to be largely clueless about a lot of the finer details of classical music. I never even made it past Grade I piano – I was (and still am) one of those bad Asian children who never properly applied themselves to the violin or the piano. However, I’ve often found myself enjoying symphonies about revolutions and wars, finding them vigorous and exciting. But in my limited forays into the world of classical music, this is the first time that I have found myself confronted with pain so stark and anger so raw.

The symphony was written in the midst of World War II, and is dedicated to the city of Leningrad. The German siege of Leningrad started in 1941 and was only lifted in 1944. Almost a million people died. The concert programme quotes musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky: "No composer before Shostakovich had written a musical work depicting a still-raging war, and no composer had ever attempted to describe a future victory, in music, with such power and conviction, at a time when his people fought for their very right to exist as a nation." The programme notes tell us that Shostakovich wrote the finale for the symphony, titled "Victory", while seeking refuge in Kuybyshev, having been evacuated from Moscow in the face of a looming German attack. The Moscow premiere of the symphony was performed to the sound of air raid sirens by musicians who were themselves ravaged by the war.

I simply could not imagine how Shostakovich could write of victory in the midst of despair, and how those musicians could play to the sound of falling bombs and wailing sirens. At the time it must have seemed like complete and utter madness. Or was it, a hope so improbable, so outrageous even, that it just might be true?

No it won’t all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good

sings John Mayer on his (rather excellent) new album, Continuum. 60 years on, many of us only know the second world war as a series of movie vignettes. Pearl Harbour. Schindler’s List. Saving Private Ryan. Life is Beautiful. But the horror of death and destruction remains a daily reality for so many. How do you know that the heart of life is good? How can you know that? Is that just the privilege of the lucky few who happen to have been born into conditions of (relative) peace and prosperity? Is hope the prerogative of the powerful? How do you look despair in the face and still hold out hope?

The Bible speaks of hope in the strangest of terms. Hope does not disappoint. Romans 5:5 Since when was hope ever certain? When faced with so much brokenness in the world, and in myself, I want more than just a vague altruistic belief that it will all be all right in the end. I want to know, for sure, that everything wrong will be put right. Is this nothing more than a naive fantasy, mere wishful thinking on my part?

When confronted with the premature death of a beloved brother, Jesus said to his grieving sister, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." John 11:25-27

Jesus raised her brother from the dead, bringing him out of the tomb alive.

It’s so amazing, that in the face of tragedy, death and despair, Jesus promises us more than just escape, or even compensation. He promises us resurrection, both spiritual and physical. The complete redemption of all creation. There will be hugging in heaven (as Tim Keller likes to say).

At the end of history, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. God will make all things new. Everything sad is going to come untrue. Because nobody expresses this better, here is Dostoevsky once again.

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.

And so this is the certain hope that we have. I know that the heart of life is good, and that it will all be good in the end. Because at the heart of the universe is a God who does not stand aloof and apart from our suffering, but directly involves himself in it. Jesus suffered infinitely so that he could eventually defeat suffering once and for all without destroying us, for so very often we are such a large part of what is wrong with the world. But I know for certain, that one day everything will be put right, everything broken will be mended and made new, for when Jesus rose from the grave, triumphing over death, he gave us a taste of the coming victory.

Tim Keller's 9-11 sermon (based on John 11, preached the first Sunday after 9-11-2001) is freely available