birth pains

I think we are ready for 2016 to be over.

The quick succession of high-profile deaths (Florence Henderson, Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie), the mass shootings and weekly reports of unwarranted police brutality, the fallout from the recent election has us stretching out for some invisible remote, fingers thumbing for the fast-forward button.

“Doesn’t it feel like the world is getting worse?” my roommate asked me as we drove through my hometown, the sun’s rays fading on our shoulders. The question hung in the air, heavy from days of red-rimmed headlines and dried tears.

“Maybe…” I answered. “I try not to think about it.”

Try is the word of choice here because I, we feel the strain of how unutterably difficult our world is. Every generation experiences a little of its falling apart and grapples with the question of what to do as we sit watching smoke rise and night fall.

When I think of this year, of the intensification of #BlackLivesMatter and the refugee crisis and increasing Islamophobia and the Pulse nightclub shooting and Standing Rock and the further litany of tragedies and injustices strung along this year’s timeline, I feel the ache Jesus alluded to when he responded to his disciples’ question about “the end of the age”:

And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.Matthew 24:3-8

Birth pains. I’ve never experienced labor in regards to babies, but I resonate with the kind of labor involved in struggling through daily life in a world wracked with conflict and suffering. The signs Jesus describes…I’ve seen them. I’ve seen such darkness in human hearts–including my own. I’ve sensed the contractions of division within our families, within our communities. Yet where I might view all this as harbingering one colossal downward spiral to the End, Jesus names what I see as…a beginning.

Beginning of what? Jesus encourages his disciples to not be alarmed, but I can’t help but imagine their faces as he told them this, and it’s easy to picture because the same expression has crossed my face. How are you supposed to face all the pain around you, in you, without surrendering to the temptation to hide, build higher walls, and curb your gaze to the little havens you create just to survive?

As humans, we are accustomed to anxiety driving us rather than hope. Anxiety is a familiar frenemy (using contemporary parlance here) that keeps us hyperaware of the flaws in our foundations, dragging us through each day with gritted teeth because the alternatives it poses are too terrifying for us to handle. Hope is reserved for Hallmark cards, the kind that blare out in high-pitched harmonies when opened and get cut off the moment you clamp the pages closed. It’s inevitable, so why prolong the music when it won’t last?

This type of thinking probably sounds melodramatic, fatalistic, forlorn…and you’re right. But I also think that each of us struggles with this deep-knit anxiety over the future that nice words can’t dissolve. Even those of us laboring to make this world better despite the obstacles have these moments where we are just floored by the breadth of suffering around us. We can’t comprehend the amount of pain that slips through the grooves between our fingers; we can’t cup the devastation in our hands and see it all at once.

If this is supposed to be the beginning of birth pains, leading to some great Good, how do we begin to abide in that reality?

My pastor once shared with me a diagram of the Gospel story arc: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation (or Restoration). He explained that each of us views our world and areas of our lives through these lenses at different points. Sometimes we luxuriate in the newness and innocence of what we see and experience; sometimes all we can see is the brokenness around us. Then there is the lens that allows us to acknowledge both the debris and the efforts to build up and out of it. It doesn’t diminish the weight of pain and how complex it is, and neither does it blanket systemic injustices like racism. It offers no pert, simplistic answers to the question of suffering. Instead, the lens of Redemption encompasses a “living hope,” as another pastor recently described, a hope founded on certainty for the future, the assurance of what will come.

For me, I cling to the certainty is that Jesus is Lord, and this incoming Advent season reminds me of that. This is no opiate, nor a velvet-edged platitude. The Jesus story is radical, and it should rattle our routine to the core. Prophecy preceded him, social upheaval followed him, and Death itself died with him. Then from a three-day dawn came the greatest riot our world has ever seen as Jesus rose from the dead and declared that we are a people on the road to restoration. That is our identity–not a global bruise of still-bleeding communities trying to fight evil but doomed to languish, but a people of hope. We are people of a hope renewed daily when we choose to trust Jesus with our individual futures and the Future of our world. The fullness of that restoration has not arrived yet, but the process has begun.

I could allow the lens of the Fall, of everything that is screwed up, to overwhelm my eyes…and sometimes it does. There are depressed and raw, smarting days. But again and again I re-learn how to rest in the truth that God is good–and not only when my circumstances are good. In response to that truth, my sight gravitates towards the healing already in progress, already at work among us. Rather than getting consumed with the question of pain management and pain containment, I find myself enabled by God’s love to both see the good taking place in my environment and do good. The hope ringing in the Jesus story invites me to join in on a movement of renovation greater than any HGTV project could aspire to: We are invited and equipped to participate in no less than the renewal of all things for the good of all.

The aftermath of the election has triggered anxieties about our future. There are so many people I love who are angry, scared, confused, and estranged from those they used to call friend and neighbor. The more I read and watch, the more I hear bleak whispers in my mind coalescing, speaking of a congealed pain at the heart of my nation that cannot be fixed. They tell me, Keep fighting if you want, but if things are this bad now, what can truly change? 

It may feel like this election only points to how broken we are.

A scene comes to mind, one from the Disney movie Zootopia which, rather fittingly, came out this year. Zootopia surprised a lot of us by examining a wide span of issues like xenophobia and prejudice, but I want to highlight one scene that I think sums up the crux of the story. The rabbit police officer Judy Hopps has just thrown her city into frenzy with her thoughtless suggestion that once-predatory animals are biologically-engineered to be savage. She watches her community unravel as fear of the Other takes hold, and animals pit themselves against each other, convinced that this or that group must be the enemy. Not only that, but her prejudice-tinged words hurt her friend, the fox Nick. Overwhelmed by the painful repercussions of her actions, Judy approaches her boss with the intention of resigning her police commission:

Judy Hopps: I came here to make the world a better place, but I think I broke it.

Chief Bogo: Don’t give yourself so much credit, Hopps. The world has always been broken, that’s why we need good cops. Like you.

The words of a heavily-muscled animated bull may seem like a strange place to find wisdom, but I think Bogo’s point merits reflection, especially in these times. The world did not get more broken with Trump’s election to President. The election did not break us. The election revealed what we have been wrestling with as a country all along and heightened the urgency to engage it. No one person can take credit for the space of tension and hurt we inhabit.

But remember, we’re in birth pains–not death pangs! Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 remind us of this reality, and we cannot let ourselves be defeated by the sheer heft of wrongs when they have the potential to galvanize us into actions that contribute to the healing God is already pressing into motion. Healing is at work in our economic system, in our local and national policies, in our racial divisions, and we are to be active participants in it. We are to constantly seek ways to cultivate justice and empathy and community through our relationships, our jobs, and any other use of our time.

However, we don’t just need “good cops.” We need cops braced by this living hope, judges informed by it, teachers inspired by it, activists sustained by it, politicians challenged by it, doctors guided by it, pastors ignited by it, social workers comforted by it, and all of us, ALL OF US living out of it. As Evelyne Reisacher, professor of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Relations at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it: “We are not people of despair. We are hostages of hope.”

The kind of hope based on the certainty Jesus represents, the certainty that God is redeeming our world and delights in us working with Him towards that end, will not fail. As much as we may beg for this year’s ending, we can’t stay in that pleading place. Each of us has work to do, a space we uniquely fill when we see smoke from the world’s wreckage rise to choke us. We tell it Not today. Here we echo TV personality April Daniels’ declaration: “First they came for the Muslims and we said ‘not today motherf****'”. Let us stand in the unrelenting spirit of those words today. We will not allow existent divisions to define the totality of our future. We will not commit to a downward spiral while God gifts us breath in our lungs and hearts with the divine capacity to love against all odds. That is hope with teeth, and let no one wrest us from the future we are building today.

 

5 thoughts on “birth pains

  1. Pingback: aurora | graceriot

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