Love, Loss, and Power: Emmanuel in the Depths
By Rick Quinn
I can never remember the date, and it has sneaked up on me every year since. I remember it was the third Sunday in Lent, and we had just finished Sunday worship. It was a gorgeous spring day with the kind of bright pastel blue sky that envelops you with a sense that all is right and always will be. I was in a children’s ministry team meeting, and my phone buzzed. My brother’s name popped up, and I let it go to voicemail, as the meeting was coming to its conclusion. As the meeting ended, I stepped out of the side door where the church’s prayer garden was and took in the vivid green foliage. I thought I could hear their inaudible chorus: the beauty of life is everywhere.
“Hey, Jeff. Sorry for missing your call.”
“Rick . . . Valerie is dead.”
I still struggle to put words to this experience. Shock. Emptiness. Numbness. Vertigo. Pain. Anger. Fear.
Like that, my whole day—no, my entire life—changed dramatically. I was suddenly on the road toward my parents’ home west of Atlanta with the responsibility to stop in Chattanooga and deliver the news about my sister in person to both sets of my grandparents. How do you make any meaning out of the news that their vibrant granddaughter in her early thirties was gone, leaving behind a grief-stricken husband and twin toddler boys not yet three?
Threshold experiences have a way of cutting to the core of the claims we make about God. My paternal grandmother’s first reaction still haunts me. It was a question she would repeat over the coming weeks and months, “I know we are not supposed to question, but I keep asking, ‘Why?’.”
Threshold experiences have a way of cutting to the core of the claims we make about God.
In a somewhat obscure movie from the 1980s, The Mosquito Coast, the main character, played by Harrison Ford, angrily rejects the gift of a denim-covered Bible offered to him. “You mean God’s ‘owner’s manual’? It doesn’t work so well, does it?” he spits out. The shock of that phrasing has stuck with me. It is the unspoken truth within his bitter retort. There is a temptation to treat the witness of scripture like an owner’s manual for the divine. It’s a temptation rooted in fear of the unknown and a desire to avoid the complexity of life with its attendant joys and tragedy.
In the weeks that followed, many well-meaning but painful and misguided words were shared with me. “God needed another angel.” “There is a greater good.” “Sometimes, we just don’t know God’s plan.” I was neither comforted nor angered by these bits of counsel. I know the many times I turned to rote formulas that arose out of my discomfort with the thought of dwelling deeply with the raw pain of another.
As a student of religion and theology, I encountered the inherent difficulty of our language about God and how we often crave certainty over vulnerability. In his recent work, theologian Thomas Jay Oord asks us to consider the primary metaphor of our understanding of God (Oord, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils). Do we derive our notion of God’s love from putting the idea of power first (more specifically, the power to coerce and control things), or do we derive a notion of divine power after prioritizing love as the guiding metaphor for understanding God’s nature? It's a profoundly important question and gets at the heart of our life together.
I encountered the inherent difficulty of our language about God and how we often crave certainty over vulnerability.
To follow the former (love understood through power) is to proclaim a God who deals with us only in transactional terms. Things happen for a reason. There is a plan. It is not ours to know. These notions often squelch lament, but it sneaks out around the edges. “I know we aren’t supposed to question, but I keep asking, ‘Why?’”
To start with love is to take the scriptural witness of the Incarnation seriously. It is to begin to grasp that power is defined through the lens of love and is found not in controlling every event but in a radical relationality that gathers everything within the divine embrace. It is to take Emmanuel seriously. It is to claim, as Fr. Richard Rohr writes, that “everything belongs” (Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer). It is what theologian Jurgen Moltmann means when he proclaims that the “godforsaken” is within the life and experience of God.
To start with love is to take the scriptural witness of the Incarnation seriously.
This is the God proclaimed in Philippians 2, revealed in the depth of the emptying self the writer invokes with the word kenosis. Poet David Whyte names a common human delusion, the idea ". . . that we can take a sincere path in life and not have our heart broken." Open and relational forms of theology dare to consider the radical grace contained in the notion that this is also the path of God’s love—revealing vulnerability at the heart of God’s interaction with us. My loss, my suffering is not an isolated, particular experience I bring to the attention of an indifferent God. My experience of loss is always already God’s own experience of suffering love in which all things are gathered into God’s radical love, an ongoing gathering of all into the trajectory of God’s pull toward wholeness and restoration where nothing is cast aside. To know this experientially is to open ourselves more fully to the deep, sacred interconnection of all things.
My experience of loss is always already God’s own experience of suffering love in which all things are gathered into God’s radical love…”
It doesn’t silence or shame our lament or the righteousness of our questions and pain. But it may open a path to more deeply moving into the radical connection of all things in the one in whom we live and move and have our being; the one emptied out in a perpetual self-giving love. In the depths of my grief, I found myself inextricably bound up with others. I found that a community of those grieving with me would raise the alleluias of that Easter season for me because I could not sing the songs of Zion in the foreign land of despairing grief. Only there could I hear the call to the depths of God’s vulnerable, emptying love, a love that—as Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 8—reveals that the boundaries of death are permeable and cannot ultimately separate us.
Rick Quinn is a writer and Christian educator who lives in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. He is also a contributing music reviewer at popmatters.com. Rick is part of the lay leadership team at McKendree United Methodist Church in downtown Nashville.