God of Restoration and Repair

Rev’d. Caitlin Carmichael-Davis reflects on the resurrection life in Christ through the poetry of Philip Larkin, the scripture of Isaiah, the prose of Marilynne Robinson, and the paintings of Stanley Spencer. 

 

I was once told that you don’t get back what you lose. Lost is lost. Your childhood, your children’s childhood, those who have died, those long summer days of happy completeness before the photographs become pain.  Life is a process of learning how to lose, as life shrinks and reduces and more and more is lost and disappears.

 

Truly, though our element is time,

We are not suited to the long perspectives

Open at each instant of our lives.

They link us to our losses: worse,

They show us what we have as it once was,

Blindingly undiminished, just as though

By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Phillip Larkin, Reference Back

 

If this is the lesson life teaches us, it seems unlikely that the afterlife will be about getting things back. Lost is lost. Our resurrection, our heaven, will be something new.

 

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?.

Isaiah 43.19

 

Yes, I thought, that seems true. Christianity cannot be about making those holiday photographs complete again, those Christmas tables whole. If being ordained has taught me anything it is this — sorrow is weaved into the very fabric of our lives. Under the cheerful ordinariness of Sunday morning coffee, grief lurks unspoken. That wish could easily become the whole of one’s religion. Some sort of destructive spiritualism, a religion of the dead.

 

So I lived for many years with a sketchy, figurative, amorphous vision of the afterlife, a non-interventionist God, an ephemeral Jesus. Christianity was difficult to grasp, I said. Part of its very strength is its shifting oddness.

 

And then I read this:

 

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him — a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like. He is known to have walked upon water, but He was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad — such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

 

There is an oddness, of course, to all these stories. Those distant words “Talitha koum!”, the Jesus who passes through walls and disappears at will. And yet, distracted by strangeness, I’d missed the consistency and the domesticity. While Jesus was on Earth he mended families, resurrected he returned to eat supper with his friends.

 

Memory is part of resurrection — part of a God who is greatly moved, greatly troubled, groaning inside at our grief for those we have lost. Restoration of our relationships is part of resurrection — Thomas’s doubts and Peter’s denials healed by the energy of God’s love. In so many of the stories, incomplete tables are made whole —Jesus returns to eat, to fill the space and the loss and the memory he had left.

 

And if the raising of the widow’s son, the centurion’s daughter, Martha’s brother describes Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus’s resurrection describes our own, then this will be a resurrection of domesticity and relationship. These are stories which endow the small importance of our homes, lives and memories with all the power and wonder and oddness of this God of undefeatable life. Judaism had always understood the power of memory to create reality, that memory and loss have a creative as well as a destructive power. In these stories that intimation reaches its fulfilment. For out of memory and death God brings into being wholeness and life.

 

spencer - reunion

Stanley Spencer, Reunion of Families

This is what Stanley Spencer showed in his Resurrection paintings. There is a physicality of joy and hope and reunion, Jairus’s daughter become real for all creation. The promise of that distant, chaotic, heat filled day is heard in the familiar greenness of the Oxfordshire countryside, “Talitha koum!”. The beautiful strangeness and physical domesticity of resurrection suddenly visible.

 

As I stand, hand resting on a coffin, commending the departed to God, I believe “That memory will fulfill itself, that the missing, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long”. That our God is a God of restoration and repair. That the lost will be found.

 

 

Lila: Life, Blood, and Birth into Love

Jamie Franklin reflects on parenthood, God’s love for humanity, and the miracle of birth into love, through ‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson. 

Published in 2014, Lila is the third book in Marilynne Robinson’s rightly celebrated Gilead trilogy. It is also, in my opinion, its crowning glory. Robinson is a deeply and obviously Christian writer, and yet she is also widely accepted by the broader society as one of the greatest living Western novelists, winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature and being chosen as an interviewee by no less than Barack Obama due to his affection for her books.

The eponymous Lila is a multi-dimensional narrative that illuminates Lila’s present by gradually revealing to us her past. We find her as a child ‘just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping’ and we come to understand that she was neglected by her parents to the point of death when her salvation arrived in the form of Doll, a mysterious woman who takes upon herself the burden to remove Lila from her abusive situation and to give her the best life that she can. Doll and Lila spend the latter’s formative years wandering around from place to place, sometimes alone, sometimes with a gang of similarly rootless nomads headed up by the ruthlessly pragmatic character of Doane, who at one stage abandons Lila on a church porch when Doll is absent for a few days and hence not around to take care of her. After the death of Doll and a period in the hell-like prison of a whorehouse (the book’s language), the present of the book finds Lila in Gilead, the hometown of preacher and genuine man of God John Ames, living in an abandoned shack. Ames meets Lila, falls in love with her, marries her, seemingly unconcerned about her past, and then has a child with her, a baby boy. He is also very old, but I am fairly that his exact age is never mentioned in any of the novels. The moving denouement of the work finds Lila’s existence transformed by the relentless love of John Ames, whose affection for her is something that she finds it hard to accept much less to comprehend. Ames’ age, however, means that inevitably Lila will be left alone to raise their son at a not-so-distant point in his young life, the tragic side to love, being the fear and the inevitability of this sort of parting.

I was deeply moved reading Lila, and I have thought about it a lot subsequently, particularly around the time of the birth of my own son, Rupert, and our continued raising of our one year old boy Rafe. The temptation of critics of Lila (though I’m not aware of any) would be to say that it is a fundamentally patriarchal text that indicates that the woman Lila’s only possibly redemption could come in the form a male hero-character. This criticism, though tempting, would be to miss entirely the point and hence the power of the story. The fact is that Lila is twice saved and twice utterly helpless: the first as a little girl, neglected by the selfishness of her parents, and the second as a woman, whose life has gradually declined into a state of sub-human non-being. The first time, she is saved by Doll; the second time, she is saved by the prodigal love of John Ames. A leitmotif in the novel is the continual reappearance of Ezekiel 16:6: ‘And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.’ Indeed, the book could be seen as an extended commentary upon this passage. The fact is that Lila stands for all of us: we are all helpless, like the little girl sitting outside on the stoop of her house; no eye pitied us, nobody had compassion upon us, but the Lord came to us in his grace. This is the love that Lila finds it so hard to accept, to draw near to. But it is the love by which she is ultimately transformed. It is a love which is sheer grace, totally unnecessary for God to give but absolutely vital for us to receive. It is giftedness and prodigality.

I watched Rupert being born (I really watched it) and this verse came back to me powerfully: ‘I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.’ When Rupert’s head popped out, I could see nothing else but blood. When eventually his little body followed it was entirely grey and it took him a few second to draw breath to cry, hoping that someone, something, would be there to help him on the other side. He was covered in blood and meconium and other unidentifiable gunk. Strange images occur to you: I thought he looked like a small, hollow sock, so inhuman and incoherent did he look at that moment.

Children simply cannot live without love, not just because they need it emotionally, but because if somebody didn’t care for them, from the moment of conception in the womb to their birth and early fragile and vulnerable days and ever beyond, they would die without hope. And, in that sense, we are all, every single one of us, however imperfectly, literally loved into being. If somebody hadn’t taken pity on us; if somebody hadn’t seen us wallowing in our blood and from then on said to us, ‘Live”, we could not have done so. Maximus the Confessor says in the Four Centuries on Love, ‘We do not know God from his being but from his magnificent works and his Providence for beings. Through these as through mirrors we perceive his infinite goodness and wisdom and power’. Childhood and infancy is unquestionably one of those mirrors, in which, as parents, we are invited to participate in an imperfect way in the perfect parental love of God for us, and, in which, as children, we first learn utter dependency and reliance upon another which is the crucial, base and fundamental fact of our existence. As Maximus taught, if we can have eyes to see these things, then truly we can sense God’s presence among us. Nowhere is this clearer to me than in the beauty of my children’s lives, in their love and dependency upon me, and in my love for them.

And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.

I finished Lila during a long period of reading late into the night. After I had finished, and despite the fact that we have been trying to get our toddler Rafe to sleep in his cot recently, when he awoke a bit later on, I took him to bed with me and allowed him to sleep with his arms around my neck, in the still darkness aware of the mystery of his being.