In Times Like These: Learning to Love by Letting Go

In times like these, we’re called, like God’s own passion, to find home again–to relocate our hearts in suffering by finding the greater joy that comes by letting go, and the home-coming of being found again.

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As we are all thrown into a world of shifting sands and ever-changing government advice, our hearts and minds have been moved into a new place of uncertain feeling and worried apprehension. Setting out from Oxford to Heathrow, I faced this new world. I sat with my hands in my pockets, fearful of being exposed to COVID-19 and therefore, infecting others. I had been informed by my family in Australia that my grandfather’s health had deteriorated, and I needed to travel back home. And yet, as the bus had set off, something drew my vision out of my worries to the vista in front of me.

The glow of an early spring evening dimmed over Christ Church College where my professor’s quarters were. I realised this was the first time I had left Oxford not knowing my return. With tears in my eyes, I vividly remembered all its churches, people, studies, and city life–the laughter, the tears, the creative thoughts, the encounters with God—my first real adult home. I didn’t want to leave it. In fact, I wanted to hold on to my life, and the rich community forged here. Yet it gnawed at me to get home to my family in Australia and see my grandfather in time. A strange gift came in that moment I wasn’t expecting. As the bus drove past an otherwise empty city, I realised just how much I loved those who inhabited this place. Not knowing if I could return, the strange and ironic gift of this moment was that I suddenly knew how much I valued this place, and the rich treasure I had been given in it.

As I watched the vision through the flitting yellow of daffodils and parks, I thought of C.S. Lewis’ own moments on his ways in and out of Oxford. Lewis had focused and identified this feeling of displacement of desire in his own work, adopting the Romantics’ word sehnsucht. In The Weight of Glory, he describes this nostalgia or sehnsucht as desire which awakens the “idea of the spiritual world as home—the discovery of homeliness in that which is otherwise so remote—the feeling that you are coming back tho’ to a place you have never yet reached.”[1] In Augustine’s City of God, it is through the cities we live in that we find a deeper desire or nostalgia for a future City which God has promised where our current sorrows will at last be transformed into celestial joy.

It is in this same city Lewis experienced similar moments of desire, sorrow, communion, or friendship that led him to God:

“Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year after year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it.

All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt, you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.”[2]

It’s easier to give something up as part of a spiritual discipline, say, to fast, or, as in my life as a celibate man, the general concept of marriage. But the harder rub, the tragedy and gift of desire, is that we’re called to give a person up.

Getting to the airport, I went to the check-in desk. I was pointed towards a clerk who looked at me with a forlorn face as I explained why I was even attempting to travel in lockdown.

“Sir, we’re sorry but there’s no way you can travel tonight. We don’t know what will happen but any planes landing in Australia are all booked up. Stop-overs are blocked until further notice.”

I knew I wasn’t going to Australia. I would have to head back to Oxford. The strange redoublement of joy I felt in a similar movement of grief for my grandfather, is that I now knew, after years of living in between, that Oxford was home. And yet I had in that moment been called to give my grandfather up to God.

I’d given up so many in the past, always with great pain. Rilke, the Austrian-Bohemian poet, identifies the far greater sacrifice of letting a person go: “We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.”[3] It’s here that we are invited into God’s life. In the cross, the Lord doesn’t just decide to sacrifice himself in our place. Rather, something even more profound happens. The Father lets the Son go. He gives him up on the cross in the eternal Spirit for us. The Son gives up the security of the Father and “through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God,” facing the death that was rightly ours.[4] In times like these, we’re called, like God’s own passion, to find home again–to relocate our hearts in suffering by finding the greater joy that comes by letting go, and the home-coming of being found again. It requires us to let people go into realities like death and risk losing them, not knowing if we will receive them back again, and yet trusting that this God will save–indeed resurrect.

In times like these, we’re called, like God’s own passion, to find home again–to relocate our hearts in suffering by finding the greater joy that comes by letting go, and the home-coming of being found again.

In this unknown time, we will go through many losses and sorrows, and learn to let many go. We are bracing ourselves for them as the virus takes lives, but the wonderful hope of the gospel, of the God who is revealed in the beauty of the man, Jesus Christ, is that we can let those we love go precisely because we are held by the arms of the God who saves. Precisely because of the One who let his Son go on our behalf and embraced us in the eternal Spirit of this same love, we can entrust and give those we love up into these same arms that will resurrect us. It may be a grandfather. It may be a friend. It may be a loved one, which we are called again to relinquish and let go. We must also let ourselves go, turn from sin, and turn to Christ and be saved. That is where the haven of sweet rest comes for our souls in times like these. By looking to the God who will restore all in the Resurrection, we are able to peer again into the shadow of this unknown with the stronger confidence of this boundless hope.

[1] They Stand Together, 316

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 146-147.

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, (Vintage, 2013), 107.

[4] Hebrews 9:14b

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A World in Search of an Ending

We make sense of difficult or unstable situations by finding a fitting ending. But there seems to be no end in sight with the COVID-19 crisis. What can we do?

Like most wise critics, Frank Kermode spells out his sizeable ambitions in modest terms: “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” According to Kermode, one of our abiding means of sense-making consists in finding a fitting ending that furnishes us with a stable set of coordinates by which to locate the beginning, middle, and end of the human journey. Hence his title, The Sense of an Ending.

The sense of an ending, however, is often precisely what is lacking during protracted periods of crisis. This has certainly been the case as we confront the latest global pandemic. Despite our wealth of technology and scientific insight, we simply don’t have all the answers. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t yet know how or when all of this will end. As of this writing, the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t have a clear expiration date, and this is a key aspect of our deep confusion. Witness the nervous tic of apocalyptic forecasts and end-of-the-world memes. We’ve arrived at a historic juncture where films like Contagion, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead now function as prophetic texts. We simply don’t know what to make of something without a defined ending.

Adding to the confusion is the wide disparity in our experiences. While under-resourced healthcare workers battle a rising tide of infections, many of us pace around our homes binge-watching shows and trying not to obsess over the news. Others find themselves suddenly without a stable job. Then there are the people trudging to the frontlines of service industry work, risking infection with each route they drive, each item they scan, and each package they deliver. Yes, we’re all in this together, but this is not a uniform territory and your own social standing plays a major role in your response. While I’m grateful to the many celebrities using their platforms to tell us to stay home, we need to recognize that many people simply don’t have that luxury. Whether it’s lack of housing, work, or supplies keeping folks on the move, a public health crisis is not an equal opportunity offender.

Our most essential sources of solidarity are humbler than our glamorous social media dispatches—namely, relationality (we need each other), sinfulness, and mortality. No matter how outstanding our resources, we are not self-sufficient. When this calamity finally abates, it will not be because we “defeated,” “conquered,” or “vanquished” an “invisible enemy.” Such thinking falls prey to the same illusion of control that continually clouds our judgment. Rather, one more crisis will make way for another. COVID-19 does have an expiration date. But it won’t be the last pandemic. Our tragic well of wars, plagues, and famines hasn’t run dry. This is Albert Camus’ sober conclusion in The Plague, a novel whose hero sees all vaccines as temporary fixes at best, profound sources of false consolation at worst. Left to its own devices, our vale of tears will remain a vale of tears. The world is looking for more than an ending to our current global pandemic.

Unlike the cyclical dynamics on display in Greek epics like Homer’s Odyssey, Kermode points to Scripture as offering an inherently open-ended picture of history. Since Christ’s triumphant return represents the consummation of the ages, this event casts a redemptive shadow over all earthly struggles, no matter how abject or destitute. Far from turning a blind eye to the magnitude of suffering that infests our world, Christ’s promise to “wipe away every tear” performs the double feat of simultaneously dignifying human pain while denying it ultimacy.

When we’re suffering under the illusion of human self-sufficiency, the Christian vision of the end of human history often seems ominous. “Lord, please wait until I’ve died quietly in my sleep before you return.” Recognizing the spiritual immaturity of such prayers does little to quell their emotional power. However, when we gain a clearer perspective of what life in a fallen world actually looks like; when it becomes impossible to hide in our myriad distractions; when our convenient lifestyles are disrupted, we gain a picture that’s truly apocalyptic in the sense that it reveals our world from the standpoint of eternity.

If we restrict our gaze to “life under the sun,” Camus is right: We fight a ceaseless battle against the forces of destruction, with no ultimate victory in sight. Viewed from the vantage point of heaven, we see what Paul the apostle vividly calls “creation groaning”—the innate longing for wholeness that punctuates our world. Far from an invitation to despair, the view of a fallen world offers the only full-blooded hope available. Numbered in the inventory of our world’s countless atrocities is a Roman cross on which hung our Lord and Savior. Christ’s subsequent resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God the Father don’t swallow the torment he endured on the cross; they transfigure it. Seemingly tranquil times frequently find us staring vacantly into the sky and hoping for a gentle lifespan in which God promises minimal interference outside of church. We would do well to heed the words of the angels to Christ’s disciples after the ascension: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Don’t miss the fact that the phrase “same way as you saw him go” is putting heavy stress on the fact that this will be a bodily return.

Though angels aren’t necessarily calling to us, we can at least allow the headlines to break our reverie and recognize that our Lord’s return carries with it the promise not of another temporary policy, peace treaty, or vaccine, but of a full restoration that’s as glorious as it is permanent.

In this sense, Christianity offers the most unsentimental “happily ever after” of all time. Regarding our suffering, no cosmic erasure takes place. Only real tears can be wiped away after all, and only the Savior who endured our scorching gamut of sin and suffering is qualified to wipe those tears from our faces. It’s to him that we must now look. His is the only ending that makes lasting sense.

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