Site icon Jake Owensby

Birth Pangs

Joy and I recently visited Washington to attend the institution of our new Presiding Bishop. Around the edges of that event we took a little time to see some of the sights.

D.C. overflows with stately monuments and impressively solid buildings. The architecture in our capitol announces durability and strength. We glimpsed monuments to past presidents and lingered over various collections at the National Gallery.
Eventually we moved to our chosen focal point: The Holocaust Museum. On our previous trips to D.C. Joy and I had never visited it. Aside from our desire to know more about one of history’s most horrifying and heart-rending stories, we were looking to learn more about our personal story.
Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”

My mother was detained in one of those Nazi concentration camps. At the age of 15, this typical Catholic girl was arrested and sent to Mauthausen just outside of her hometown of Linz, Austria. Knowing more about the German genocidal project would tell us more about the youth—and the fragile and fractured adulthood—of the woman who raised me.
As much as these considerations motivated our visit, I was drawn by a different stirring in my soul. Lately I have been longing for a more intimate relationship with Jesus.
It’s not that I feel distant from God or that I’m struggling with theological doubts. On the contrary, I have been spared Mother Teresa’s aching sense of God’s absence, and my own theological growth remains steady but consistent. Rather, I feel in my marrow that there is even more to know about this Jesus. I’m getting glimpses that make me want more.
And so, you might wonder, “What on earth made you think you would find Jesus at the Holocaust Museum?” 

Maybe you think that my search would have been more fruitful in the Bible or in the starry night sky. In the laughter of children or the countless small acts of mercy that anonymous saints perform every day. In the improbable flight of bumblebees or the vastness of the sea.
And it is true that God reaches out to us through Scripture and the creation. As St. Bonaventure, the medieval Franciscan philosopher and theologian put it, the Creator leaves fingerprints or divine traces on the entire creation. After all, everything is God’s handiwork. The beauty, the goodness, the power in rainbows and butterflies and lightning flashes are a reflection of the source from which they derive their being.
God is the Creator and the creation reflects its divine maker.
And God is the Redeemer. We encounter the Redeemer most clearly in those things that are beyond human repair.
Edward Hopper’s “Hotel by a Railroad”

Like whole villages exterminated for being Jewish. Like children thrown into the ovens. Like hopeful young women and men worked and starved to death.
The events of the holocaust stand at a historical distance. But we need only scan the news of the world, glance down our own familiar streets, and look around our own hometowns to find countless examples of tragedy and horror beyond our capacity to heal or repair.

ISIS terrorists slaughter scores of civilians as they shop and dine and go to a concert on what should have been an ordinary Friday night in Paris.

Children die of cancer and at the hand of abusers who were themselves tormented as children.
Thousands of immigrants are fleeing oppression, torture, and death throughout the Middle East. Their villages have been shattered by gunfire and bombs, their families scattered, their loved ones killed and maimed by warring factions.
A friend of mine recalls the day his toddler opened the door of his moving car and fell to his death.
A man heard an intruder in what he took to be an empty house. He fired at the figure who jumped out of a closet to scare him. Too late he recognized his teenage granddaughter lying lifeless on the floor.
There are some things that we simply cannot fix. We cannot make them better or get over them or put them in the past. Some things wound us so profoundly, shake us so utterly, that our universe seems to have fallen into jagged pieces.
This is just the sort of thing that robs some people of their faith. For instance, my friend Joan had been a faithful Episcopalian. Her only son had grown up to be a successful tech entrepreneur in California. One night he dove into his backyard pool, struck the bottom, and drowned. Joan told me that a world filled with such tragedy made it impossible to believe in God.
Paradoxically, I have been stirred to seek God in precisely these shattered places, in places whose tragedy and horror seem to defy a compassionate God. And it is Jesus’s own words that drew me there.
His disciples were wowed by the Temple’s massive architecture. And Jesus said that the Temple’s stability and permanence was only an appearance. It would be toppled, smashed beyond recognition.
Vicente Manansala’s “Madonna of the Slums”

They would see war and earthquakes and famines. These were not going to be the first stages of God’s restoration or the necessary means to some good, divinely inspired end. Neither were they going to be the results of God’s wrath. Jesus was a realist. This is the world we inhabit.
As beautiful and breathtaking and nurturing and healing as our world is, it is also scarred by cruelty and senseless injury and soul-crushing loss.
And this is what Jesus said about all of those things that threaten to end us, to grind us into oblivion. In Jesus, these things will be turned into birth pangs. What in our own hands could only be an ending will, in the hands of Jesus, be the beginning.
In Jesus, God shows up in the worst possible places. Jesus is God’s solidarity with us in the worst that reality can dish out. But because Jesus is, well, Jesus, he is the last word.
That is the message of both the manger and the cross. In his birth Jesus turns a mean hovel into the hall of the king of kings. And his death on the cross overcomes death through an empty tomb.
There are things in this life that we cannot fix. We cannot make right. We cannot get over. But we can bring them to Jesus. To the Redeemer. Jesus heals what for us are even mortal wounds.
Jesus’ primary healing instruments are you and me. Sometimes this means simply showing up and listening. Sometimes it means opening our homes, our borders, to strangers. Sometimes it means putting our compassion for others above our commitment to our own standard of living.
But Jesus promises to redeem. The seal of his promise is the cross and all of his followers who take up their cross in the name of Jesus.
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