"A God you understand would be less than yourself." - Flannery O'Connor (The Habit of Being, 354)
I was in church a few weeks ago, and during communion heard the following hymn (and I wish I could figure out how to let you hear it, but I'm not that technologically adept. Click here to hear a portion, and I highly recommend buying it, and then listening to it as you read the words):
There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea; There's a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There's a welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; There is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.
There's no place where earthen sorrow is felt more than in heaven; There's no place where earthly failings have have forgiveness freely given. There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind; And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; And our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
Words: Frederick William Faber, 1862.
As we were driving away from church, I received a phone call. A friend's parents had both died in an accident. And I wondered, would God's mercy be wide enough to hold my friend through her grief? I thought about my friend and her family again when I read 1 Thessalonians 4:13: "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope."
It struck me that Paul wasn't denying grief, and yet he was placing boundaries on grief. I learned that traditional Greek culture placed boundaries on grief too. They tried to hem in grief through two strategies: the use of reason, and the use of stoicism. The Greeks were particularly afraid of women who grieved, like Hecuba. They were afraid of the societal impact of grief that got out of control. For Paul, Christians are expected to grieve, but they are expected to grieve in a different way than their culture has taught them. They are expected to grieve within the boundaries of hope. The problem comes when we skip past grief, when hope becomes too sentimental and mushy and out of touch with the depth of sorrow that death forces in our lives. Christians around the globe have just celebrated Easter. But most of life is lived on Holy Saturday, in a place between the cross and the resurrection. Most of the Christian life is lived with the knowledge and anticipation that because God raised Jesus from the dead, so too God will raise the rest of us from the dead. Because of the resurrection, Christians believe that tragic accidents will come undone. Because of the resurrection, we believe that God will renew, restore, recreate, and redeem. And yet we do not experience the fullness of that renewal. We wait, like the Thessalonians, for Christ's return. We wait, in the tension between the horror of death and the promise of eternal life. We wait in hope. We wait, in the wide, inscrutable, love and mercy of God.