Cultivating Calling and Pilgrimage is a meandering column documenting the pilgrimage of faith. It’s an occasional letter arriving in the mail from that shabby, wandering uncle you only see a few times year, describing the odd bits and bobs of books, songs, stories, people and places that have struck his fancy, put a lump in his throat, or kept him putting one foot in front of the other toward the Face of Jesus, that Joy set before us all.
Take all the time you need.
There is a life beyond this wall of black,
and you mean so much to me.
I wrote those lyrics nearly ten years ago. The truth is I didn’t believe them at the time. I wrote them hoping that I would grow into them. I needed them to be true. I had just experienced the death of a marriage. People use phrases like “I was in a dark place” for a reason; I felt like my nose was smashed up against a wall of absolute blackness. I could neither see nor imagine anything good out in front of me.
I can sing that song from a different vantage point now. Good things did come, and not even because I could imagine them, but mostly because they came looking for me in that place where I was trapped. Gradually (and with a lot of help) the pitch black void became dark gray fog, then a heavy mist, then a cloud bank where little vague shapes were just barely discernible. It took two or three years for the smoke to clear enough for the world to begin looking something like it had before, as my eyes learned to see just a few inches in front of me, then a foot, then to venture further out towards the horizon of hope.
Even then, like the box turtles we’d find in the woods as kids, that cautious hope would recoil back into its protective shell when hope itself felt too threatening. Hope can feel that way, of course. When we’ve been hurt badly, hope feels like being lured back into enemy territory—back into the places that nearly killed us before.
A few days ago, I read a little snippet of a psalm that I think I first learned by accident from the movie Forrest Gump, if you can believe it. Forrest’s best childhood friend Jenny pulls him into the cornfield, running, as her verbally and sexually abusive father comes out of the ramshackle house’s back door yelling for her, drunk and angry. They escape some way into the corn stalks, before Jenny pulls Forrest low to the ground and says, “Pray with me, Forrest!” Her prayer, “Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away” is repeated over and over. It’s not explicitly stated, but I can’t help but think that Psalm 55 is being alluded to, particularly verse 6, which says, “Oh that I had the wings of a dove, I would fly far, far away”.
Psalm 55 is also significant in Jenny’s case, since, in the psalm, the abuse is coming from someone who ought to be trustworthy, someone who holds an office of intimacy (a parent, family member, spouse, dear friend) with the victim, but who is abusing that office and those in their care. The abuse violates a covenant in verse 20, for instance, and the perpetrator is called a “companion” and a “close friend” in verse 13. Abuse can be a slippery eel, since it’s often well-hidden (unbelievable, surely melodramatic, to outsiders) and terribly disorienting (paralyzing and impossible for victims to communicate), which makes it seem outlandish and indistinct to those not directly involved, and thus tempting to minimize.
Go read Psalm 55 through, with the context of abuse in mind. Notice the natural danger responses—fight (“they assail me in their anger” vs. 3), flight (“I would fly far far away” vs. 6), freeze (“fear and trembling have beset me” vs 5), and collapse (“the terrors of death have fallen upon me” vs. 4). An enemy too strong for our psalmist has trapped him and he cries out for God to see through the charming exterior of the abuser whose “talk is smooth as butter” to the truth that “war is in his heart” (vs. 21). What happens? God doesn’t dismiss or minimize; He hears. And the psalmist assures us that God will “bring down the wicked into the pit of decay” (vs 23).
At any rate, as soon as Jenny can fly away, she does. In some ways, now that I think about it, Forrest Gump is a movie about Jenny and the simple pure love that kept pursuing her throughout her life as she ran here and there. I am remembering how dumbfounded Jenny is with Forrest because he doesn’t seem to have the capacity to give up on her. Her face is crinkled up in frustration and bewilderment as she demands to know why he keeps coming to find her. He answers as if it were the plainest, most obvious thing in the world, “Cause you’re my girl.” He loves her. He just does. There’s not much sense to be made of it other than that.
I ran across a little footnote last night in David Ford’s commentary on the Gospel of John,
In the death of his Son the Father offers life to his enemies. This is the ‘ultimate insanity’ of the revelation that this narrator is trying to convey to his readers. To believe in that ‘insanity’ is what requires a rebirth through the Spirit. The hostile world is the beloved world; the beloved world is the hostile world.” Minear, John: The Martyr’s Gospel, 41.
In Forrest Gump, we allow ourselves to believe the ‘ultimate insanity’ of Forrest’s love for Jenny, because we understand that Forrest is simple-minded, more or less stupid, though lovable. It’s sad that we have to make excuses for goodness in order to believe in it, but I can understand why. We are jaded, disappointed, afraid. We feel we can’t afford to be so idealistic, as trust has cost us so much before. Innocence may be lost, but at least our naivete went along with it. We know Forrest is a naive dope, while at the same time, if we’re honest, we wish we could see things more like he does, be more like him somehow. But I can’t believe that God, in asking us to stake our lives on the goodness of His love, is asking us to be naive any more than, in order to receive that love, He’s asking us to first be innocent.
Though innocent, God is not naive, either. The knowledge of good and evil never was hidden from Him, and at the cross Jesus shows us that, if anybody could be an expert on evil without committing any, it would be Him. So we can’t do with Jesus what we do with Forrest: willfully suspending our disbelief in holiness, purity, or the ‘ultimate insanity’ of that kind of love by waving our hand and saying “It’s a lovely dream, but, poor fool, he’s off-in-the-head and just doesn’t know any better.” To take Jesus seriously is to be faced with a call to hope in a love that contradicts our resignation to the velvet chains of despair, and instead pokes at us like the Angel poked Peter in Herod’s dungeon, waking him for a prison break. Yes, like Zechariah said, the Messiah has called us to become “Prisoners of Hope” (Zech 9:12).
The only thing that I know of that can make any sense of that ‘ultimate insanity’ is that there’s more to the world than the world alone. There is, as a friend of mine once said, “a Person bigger than the cosmos.” We, and even the Scriptures, use words like foolishness to describe love like Forrest’s for Jenny or Jesus’s for His Bride. Because, by all stretches of human understanding, it is foolish.
Within the world itself, there is no adequate rationale for the love of God.
You’ll crack your head trying to make sense of it—best just to accept it. That’s where I am these days. I figure that if the Lord hasn’t abandoned me yet, then He’s not going to. God knows I’ve given Him reason enough, if His love were in any worldly sense reasonable. His fidelity and goodness are working off of some rationale that is alien to my earthbound brain. A love that I’ll never be able to get my head around; a love that can’t be argued, explained, or pinned down; a love that “stretches to the heavens” (Ps. 35:5).
The ‘ultimate insanity’ of God’s love. I can’t make sense of it. I can only bear witness to what the Holy Spirit testifies to my spirit—the reality of that kind of love that we feel is surely too good to be true.
We don’t buy it, unless we put it in the hands of simpletons like Forrest Gump. We know we are most like Jenny—addicted, deliberately distracted from our pain, cynical about love, imprisoned by trauma and shame. Forrest’s love is exasperating, bewildering. Protecting ourselves from pain often causes us to push away things we can’t explain or control. Jenny fights hard for a long time against the ‘ultimate insanity’ of her pursuer, because she can’t afford the cost of hope, since it would entail allowing those still-tender wounds to be touched. Only when she sees that the cost of running has outweighed the cost of vulnerability to love does she finally change her mind.
I spend a lot of time trying to “solve” the things I’m afraid of, to manage them myself. Often, I want to “solve” Jesus before I’m willing to trust Him. But, over the years, as the wall of black slowly lifted and ever since, I’ve been learning He loves me, poor holy fool. He just does. There’s not much more sense to be made of it other than that.
The featured image, “Winter Deer,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Matthew Clark is a singer/songwriter and storyteller from Mississippi. He has recorded several full length albums, including a Bible walk-through called “Bright Came the Word from His Mouth” and “Beautiful Secret Life.” Matthew’s current project, “The Well Trilogy,” consists of 3 full-length album/book combos releasing over 3 years. Each installment is made up of 11 songs and a companion book of 13 essays written by a variety of contributors exploring themes around encountering Jesus, faith-keeping, and the return of Christ. Part One, “Only the Lover Sings” is available both as an album and as a companion book.
Matthew also hosts a weekly podcast, “One Thousand Words – Stories on the Way,” featuring essays reflecting on faith-keeping. A touring musician and speaker, Matthew travels sharing songs and stories in a van called Vandalf.
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