As a Progressive Christian I often talk about God as transformative love – a powerful and compassionate energy that surrounds, infuses, and transcends our existence. Jesus understood God as a personal force, ‘Abba’, which embraced the excluded and championed the ostracised. This personal force was therefore both contentious and upsetting for those who liked societal arrangements as they were. However for those on the margins of society this force was surprising and liberating. ‘Love’, ‘compassion’, ‘freedom’ and ‘inclusion’ are all words that point to the power that operated through Jesus and impacted on their lives. That power we call God.
Most traditionally minded Christians who pray to God as “Father” or Jesus as “Lord” would not generally dispute this understanding of God. When they use “Father” they are not thinking of a male shaped deity who wants to control, but use the word as shorthand for a God who cares and protects. Similarly “Lord” they would say is not a hierarchical militaristic metaphor but a way of talking about the primacy of Jesus’ love. ‘God is love’, as the writer of the Johannine epistles said centuries ago, remains the normative Christian understanding of the Divine.
The problem for both Progressives and Traditionalists is Good Friday. On that day the Divine ceases to be known as love. We experience abandonment. And normative comforting theology is tsunamied away. It is a day of disconcerting silence.
Some paint Good Friday as God the Father and God the Son working out a deal. “Look kid,” says Mr Deity, “if you want to save the world you got to do this suffering number. I’ll look the other way, and you just hang in there.” “Okay Dad”, says the kid, “I’ll try not to look sad.” Both are said to be acting in and out of love. Good Friday is just the pain before the gain.
The problem is that it doesn’t take much to figure the deal is morally bankrupt. Loving fathers don’t freeze their feelings and let their sons be tortured and killed. The means does not justify the ends. If God was all loving and all powerful then God would have intervened. End of story. So either God couldn’t have intervened [not all powerful] or wouldn’t intervene [not all loving]. The cosmic Father/Son deal doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when you have an anthropomorphic deity who is supposedly the final word on love.
Good Friday is vital in the Christian calendar because it challenges us to wrestle with the notion that God is more than anthropomorphic projections or metaphors of intimacy.
The wind is one of the metaphors that I use when trying to explain the limitations of an intimate deity. Like God you can’t see the wind but you can feel its effects. God blows where it wills. God can’t be wrapped up, domesticated, or walk hand in hand with us. God is more than relational metaphors. Unlike a loving parent, sometimes the wind abandons us and we are left bereft, becalmed, and alone.
Abandonment is a spiritual place that many have ventured into. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus cried from the cross. Yes, it’s a line from a Psalm – yet Jesus, despite what some theologians believe, was not launching into an antiphon of praise, but an utterance of despair.
Abandonment is to wake up in the morning to an empty universe, and to go to bed at night with no comforting presence. Abandonment is when prayer is meaningless, and worship no better. With any and every phone call or text to God there isn’t even an engaged signal or an emoji – just an eerie silence. This is the valley of the shadow.
If you are not at the place of abandonment, then be quietly thankful. And be gentle with those who might be experiencing it.
If you are in the valley of shadow then remember those rules many of us learnt as children about being lost in the New Zealand bush: Don’t panic. Don’t run. Don’t let fear or depression overwhelm you. Stay still. Fretting will not help. Light a little fire if you can. If you are with others huddle together for warmth – for your body and your soul. And trust, as the Jewish mystics say, that the Hidden God will be seeking you.
None of the great spiritual traditions of the world offer simple solutions to the question of abandonment by God. At best they offer a series of stories or metaphors that in part contradict one another. There is no one answer that will fit every time, or everyone.
So here is another metaphor I sometimes use when trying to make sense of abandonment. I talk about God as the journey itself. God isn’t the destination, or the road, or the travelling companion, but the journey itself. God is the different places we come to, places of joy and serenity but also of pain and despair. The valley of shadow is therefore a place within God. It’s a place that we arrive at through no wish or fault of our own. It is not a result of our faithlessness or bad luck or genetics or because you stole that packet of lollies from the Four Square Store when you were seven.
The cross was Jesus’ place of abandonment. It was painted by the artists-of-story as forbidding, forlorn, and dark. Pain and death resulted. His crucifixion was seen as a political and religious necessity by the powerful, and totally destructive and pointless by his followers.
Whatever you believe about Easter Sunday one thing is clear: Jesus’ didn’t carry on living, growing old with Mrs Jesus, and having grandkids. His death was real. His pain was real. His abandonment was real. The God that he had lived was gone; and until we take that seriously we will not begin to fathom Good Friday.