19 November 2007

Holy Places Are Dark Places

"It is shallow nonsense to say that God forgives sin because He is love. When we have been convicted of sin we will never say this again. The love of God means Calvary, and nothing less; the love of God is spelt on the Cross and nowhere else. The only ground on which God can forgive me is through the Cross of my Lord. There, His conscience is satisfied."

--Oswald Chambers

After a number of years, I have come back to reading My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers (that link is to a version with "updated" language; my copy has the original text, first published in 1935, but compiled from talks Chambers gave around 1915-17, according to the Foreward). It's challenging. Chambers strips away the warm fuzzies that we often wrap around the gospel. No sentimentality for him. The way of Christ is difficult, and all-consuming--or should be. The love of God does not overshadow the justice of God. Chambers' God does not say, "there, there, dear, we all make mistakes sometimes." Justice requires payment, forgiveness exacts a price, and the price is "the rending of His heart in the Death of Christ."

I am reminded of my absolute favorite C.S. Lewis book, Till We Have Faces. Much lesser known than his Narnia books, Faces is a re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, in the voice of Psyche's ugly half-sister. Doesn't seem like the myth would have much in the way of spiritual fodder, at least of the Christian sort, but Lewis does it. One of the images? concepts? that stays with me from this book is the contrast Lewis creates between the old goddess worship and the "new" Greek gods. The goddess the main character grows up with is a shapeless, smooth black rock, fearsome and bloody. She demands blood sacrifice. Her ways are dark and mysterious.

In contrast, the Greek gods are clean and tidy, with sharp angles and recognizable faces. They do not smell of blood and darkness. They do not inspire fear or demand too much.

"Holy places are dark places," says the ugly sister.

In my experience, many Western Christians like our religion clean and tidy. God is our Father, Jesus is our buddy, the Holy Spirit...well, the Spirit is in us, but let's not get too crazy about it. We soften the hard edges of sin and justice and the bloody sacrifice that was the Crucifixion. We see the Bible as a blueprint for life; we gloss over things that are not clear to us, that shake our comfortable certainty.

In other churches, I've seen names for children's choirs or Sunday School classes like "Jesus' Little Lambs," and I'm sure to the modern mind it conjures up cute images of furry animals cavorting in grassy fields. But that's not what Lamb of God is meant to convey. In the Lutheran liturgy (and the Catholic as well, I believe), we sing "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us." Jesus is the Lamb of God, because Jesus was the blood sacrifice for our sin. Lambs were routinely sacrificed under Old Testament law. So I wince when I hear children in the church being called "little lambs." (One could argue, I suppose, that the reference is to Jesus the Good Shepherd, but, still...)

By nature, I think, we don't like mystery. We want to know with clear certainty. We forsake the murkiness of blood and sacrifice for pretty gold crosses. We forget that God is not squishy and sentimental, that his love and his holiness are/were in conflict, that only the mystery and the heartbreak and the bloodiness and messiness of the crucifixion could bring us into any kind of relationship with him. And it was long ago and far away for us, so it is easy to leap over it to the resurrection, to the clean lines of theology, to Acts and Romans.

But, still. At the center of the Christian faith is that mysterious, shapeless darkness, smelling of blood and fear, howling with evil, abetted by indifference, with jeering, wild faces all around. Because of our darkness. Because of God's love, hard-edged, sharp, and ruthless.


Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

No comments: