This God and No Other

Josh Applegate

If we want to know what God is like, there are good places to look. In Genesis, we discover God is Creator, God is life. From Exodus, we discover God as deliverer, sustainer, the One Who Never Abandons. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God is absolute holiness, the bewildering gift assuring us that divine love is never capricious and divine justice unquenchable. In the prophets, we discover that God moves toward the oppressed. In the wisdom books, we discover God as intimately concerned about human flourishing. Page after page, there are endless revelations, none of which fatigue the cosmic reality of God.

If you want to know what God is like, we might also be wise to explore Creation. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist tells us. We discover much about God by contemplating, by enjoying with wide-eyed wonder and reverence, God’s handiwork. How better to know an artist than to ponder her art? How better to get into the imagination of a novelist than to read his stories? The heavens, with the skies and the mountains and the creatures and the rivers, proclaim to us the wonder of God.

And we could talk about friendship and love and desire and beauty. There are a million ways to discover God in this God-drenched world.

However, if we truly want to know what God is like, we go first to God’s fullest revelation: Jesus. When God wanted to provide us God’s decisive self-expression, God gave us Jesus. And to know what Jesus is like (what God is like), we must reckon with Jesus’ cataclysmic moment. We must reckon with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

God is none other than the God who gladly, though enduring great agony and grief, surrenders his own life to rescue another. God is the one who takes upon himself all the violence the powers of this world, both religious and political, can dish up. God is the one committed to healing the evil of the one driving the nails as well as the evil of the one enraged to vengeance. God is the one who refuses to answer his accusers, allowing the Cross – and then the Resurrection – to speak the final word. God is the one who refused to call the angel-warriors, surely poised with flaming sabers, to his defense. God is the one who spoke words of tenderness, even while gasping for breath, to the precious few huddled around his naked, heaving body. God is the one who cried out words of crushing sorrow and abandonment precisely because he refused to abandon his friends or his enemies. God is one who loves to the bitter end.

God is the one who died not only for his few beleaguered friends but for the very ones who hung him on this crucible of death. God is the one who in his broken body extinguished every pretense of human righteousness, human justice, every human dream for self-reclamation. When we encounter perfect love, we murder it; and God is the one who knows this acutely. God is the one who came to finally, irrevocably and at great cost, do something about the delusions we don’t even know we have. God is the one who came to do the final task of love, to die. God, in Jesus, is the one who, in some great mystery we cannot fathom (and God help us when we think we’ve got it) showed up, took our abuse and our ridicule, and in that one astounding reversal “died for our sins” – that haunting phrase.

This is the God we worship, and no other. The God who hangs on a cross of brutal death. The God who descends into the fullness of our agony and annihilation. The God who would rather die than let us die. The God who went into the bowels of hell and came out the Victor. The God who went into death, for us, and now proclaims life into every dead and ruined person and place. Whatever vision we have of God, it must begin here.

O’Connor: Walking Backwards in Holy Week

illustration by Greg Ruth

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 93, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of Twitter if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. Did you know that O’Conner’s first claim to fame was when she was six? A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia, to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she would explain later, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness? If we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our glib announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.

We need art that carries us into our full experience, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our true hope: ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death.

We’ve taken our first steps into Holy Week, and is there any stranger, any more backwards way,  to heal, to bring peace, to renew the world, than to willingly endure ridicule and torture, to embrace death? Is not Jesus’ march to the Cross a long walk backwards?

Broken on Good Friday

christ cross stone

In 1983, Eric Wolterstorff died in a tragic accident while climbing the Alps. He was 25. His father Nicholas, a theologian and philosopher from Yale, journaled his sorrow in the months that followed. Among his weary words were these:

I tried music. But why is this music all so affirmative? Has it always been like that? Perhaps then a requiem, that glorious German Requiem of Brahms. I have to turn it off. There’s too little brokenness in it. Is there no music that speaks of our terrible brokenness? That’s not what I mean. I mean: Is there no music that fits in our brokenness? The music that speaks about our brokenness is not itself broken. Is there no broken music?

If we are to walk backwards in our world and if we are to reckon with the true horrors, then we need broken music. We need brave people who are not afraid to linger in the falling-apart places. I do not mean folks who by their disposition only see the bleak, for bleak is thank goodness not at all the whole of it. I do not mean artists who use the grotesque as their shtick or politicians who use our fear of calamity to bolster their power. I mean people who know the Beauty of the world but who also know there is a wasteland in the human soul. People who know Love but who also, deep in their marrow, know how many of our nights and days are overwhelmed by sadness.

And we do not need people to pontificate all these sorrows we know full well but are unable to escape. We need brave souls who will enter with us, who will help us meet our afflictions honestly and help us grapple in the dirt. We need friends who know that we must, like Jacob, wrestle into the cold midnight with an angel or a demon – who can say which just yet?

We need musicians who will sing the song with us – and sometimes for us – that we have not yet been able to sing. We need poets who will write the costly verse, born out of their own travail, and then offer it as gift to those of in such disarray that we are unable to locate the language. We need writers who, after they have cut their skin and their soul and bled onto the page, say, “Come, I’ll walk with you for the next hard mile.” We need preachers who don’t merely give us homilies from on high but who wonder with us if the good news could be true – and then preach with the conviction of one whose very life hangs on this hope. We need the broken ones.

Of course, offering one’s broken self for the healing of another is central to the Christian narrative and to how our faith takes on flesh in every time and place. Good Friday gives us a God broken. A God shattered under a dark sky. A God with us in our bleakest place. A God spilt out as balm for our wound, as hope that points us toward Easter.