Thursday, December 23, 2010

A simple plan… goes horribly, horribly wrong.

We had a great itinerary for traveling back to the US for Christmas. Let’s call this plan Alpha. Alpha was sleek, streamline, familiar, and beautiful. Alpha was to take about 16 hours door to door- quite reasonable for traveling between a small town in Scotland and Midwest America. She was the best plan we could hope for, especially in traveling with a 10 month old baby.

Then winter weather pummelled the UK, particularly London- which, of course, was our connecting city. At 2:30AM, Alpha was dealt a serious blow- we learned that our flight from Edinburgh to London was cancelled.

Yet there was hope she could be resuscitated- another flight to London was to leave just an hour earlier than ours. We awoke very early in the morning and took a taxi to Edinburgh to try to get on it.

Alpha passed away shortly after we arrived at the airport- the queue at the service desk for our airline would haven taken at least 6 hours, long after the departure of the alternative flight to London.

At this point it became clear that we were at a dead end. London Heathrow airport had not been accepting flights for a day or two, and it was obvious there was no way we could be rescheduled on another transatlantic flight before Christmas. Since many transatlantic flights were leaving from London, we needed to get there to make our connection.

Arriving just after us at the airport were our friends Kevin and Chaiss with their young daughter. They too were on the cancelled flight to London; they too just wanted to get home for Christmas. Realizing we were in the same situation, we split a taxi to Glasgow airport (2 hour trip) in the hopes that we might catch a flight to London and make our connections. Alpha just might not be dead after all.

We arrived in Glasgow to find Alpha’s ice cold corpse- the service queue for our airline was long and their flight to London was also cancelled. But both families decided we needed to keep trying, so we entered what would be a 4 hour queue for our airline’s service desk.

When finally reaching assistance, plan Beta was birthed. Beta was like a port-a-potty: ugly in almost all respects, but gets the job done. Beta was an evening flight from Glasgow to Dublin, an overnight in a hotel in Dublin, and early morning train to Shannon (in southwest Ireland), a noon flight to Boston, a short layover for a connection to Chicago (or, for our friends, to Houston).

Beta died just a few hours later at the boarding gate of the flight to Dublin. All flights to Dublin cancelled due to snow. Back to the service queue for another 4 hour wait.

At about 10PM the kind airline worker gave us plan Gamma. Gamma was like Beta’s homely sister- very similar, but not as good- it was a day later and took us through New York rather than Boston. We needed lodging for the night in Glasgow, and all the hotels near the airport were booked. A phone call to a very accommodating friend of mine who happens to live in Glasgow saved all 6 of us from sleeping in the airport.

After a rejuvenating night’s sleep and some wonderful hospitality, we prepared to return to the airport… then Dublin airport closed for a few hours, then indefinitely. Flight cancelled, death to Gamma.

We immediately hatched plan Delta. Delta consisted largely of desperation mixed with sheer determination. Delta was 2 hour drive to the west coast of Scotland, a 2 hour late night ferry over to Belfast, Ireland, and what would be a 6 hour overnight taxi to Shannon airport where we would resume following Gamma.

Already worn down from 2 days of (mostly just attempting to) travel, the ferry was nauseating but surprisingly luxurious. Exhaustion was in full effect. The taxi journey, which endured from 11pm to 5am and essentially crossed the entire island of Ireland, involved terrifyingly hazardous winter conditions. While both kids slept on the ride, no adults did. Oh, and the taxi cost more than my original transatlantic plane ticket- but it got us to Shannon.

In the end, Delta was successful- Shannon onward was uneventful, apart from the delirium induced by slept-deprivation.

70 hours of travel, a total of 7.5 hours of sleep. It’s hard to rightly describe this experience: exhaustion, hope, frustration, patience, devastating disappointment, resolute determination, fervent prayer. Yet God’s grace was evident in a sweet, easygoing and sleep-anywhere baby, good traveling companions, hospitable Glaswegian friends, helpful taxi drivers, kind and sympathetic strangers, hard-working ticket agents, everything we really needed just when we needed it, and Kate’s first Christmas with all our family.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How Deep the Father's Love for Us?

Our church’s denomination recently decided to allow for the use of worship material beyond the a capella singing of metered Psalms (although also specified was that the Psalms ought not be entirely abandoned). This decision sits well with me, but that discussion is not the purpose of this post. Rather, I’d like to hash out some fragmented thoughts I’ve ruminated over the past few days, thoughts occasioned by one of the first non-psalms our congregation sang. Last Sunday we sang How Deep the Father's Love for Us by Stuart Townend. Lyrics are as follows:

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

I’ve always enjoyed the song, finding it edifying in both corporate worship and my personal spiritual life. I regularly sing it to Kate as she falls asleep. However, after the service several of us theologians were chatting over tea and a few expressed objection to the song’s line “The Father turns His face away,” contending that it was essentially misguided and wrong, not least because “never were the Son and the Father more unified and in agreement than at the cross.” (Quoted as best and I can remember it, but this certainly captures the gist of the complaint)

I was a bit surprised by this strong resistance and I attempted a defence of the line and the song as a whole, which was generally met by polite acknowledgment and further discussion. Yet as the day and then week went on I became more dissatisfied with the inadequacy of my “from the hip” response. “The Father turns His face away” is a good way to express a truth about what happened on the cross (although of course not exhaustive or comprehensive), and this post, then, is my fuller defence of Townend.

Much of the imagery of the song is drawn from Scripture itself (see “ransom”, last line, and Mk 10:45), particularly the events of the crucifixion as narrated in the Gospels. Although we must recognize the possibility that Townend is misunderstanding or misusing these images, I contend that this is not the case. In the song’s context he speaks of Jesus’ pain, wounds, and suffering, of those who mocked him, and of his cry of “it is finished”; following this I suggest that with the line in question, “The Father turns His face away,” Townend refers to Jesus’ cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34).

The line in fact is attempting to express a truth also expressed in Scripture—not only did the cross involve physical agony for Jesus, but apparently involved some felt absence of his heavenly Father as well. I will below argue that this absence is best understood as being spiritual and relational, but first we must consider Ps. 22, because Jesus in this cry is quoting the first line of the Psalm. (I draw from Beale, G. K., and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007, pgs 98-99.)

In Psalm 22, vv. 1-18 contain the psalmist’s dire situation where he hits the point of despair. His enemies attack him and cast lots over his clothing (vv. 16-18). He cries to God for deliverance (vv. 19-21) and promises to proclaim God’s great acts once delivered (vv. 22-25). This deliverance will be, in the end, so great that the whole earth will worship (vv. 26-31).

Remarkable are the close parallels between Ps 22 and the events of the crucifixion. Consider the similarities: a cry of abandonment (vv. 1-2), despising and mocking (vv. 6-7), taunting to the effect “if he’s really on the ‘in’ with God, let God deliver him!” (v. 8), an experience of suffering that results in personal “emptying”—being “poured out,” being depleted of strength, etc. (vv. 14-15), wicked onlookers (v. 16a), piercing of his hands and feet (v. 16b), and the casting lots for his clothes (v. 18).

But what about the end of the Psalm? The deliverance? A major question is this: was Jesus in his cry of dereliction alluding to the whole psalm, including the victory at the end? If so, even in his expression of abandonment his words anticipate the victory with which the psalm concludes. While this is possible, and certainly seems to find realization in the empty tomb, we must not diminish the identification of Jesus’ experience with the first part of the Psalm. Further it is unlikely that the gospel writers wanted us to directly see the whole of the psalm in Jesus’ quote of this one verse, as this is not something that Jesus does elsewhere in the Gospels. We should not yet look towards Jesus’ vindication in his use of this verse, so as to undercut the reality of his abandonment (although the hint does seem to be there in the overall gospel narrative).

Rather, we should say this: in some way Jesus, in his humanity, genuinely did experience or sense the abandonment of his Father. Church history has largely seen this as a moment of divine abandonment. But abandonment in what sense? Certainly not in every and any sense, because both God the Father and God the Son were in complete unity over the decision that the Son would take on human flesh and go to the cross. The sense in which Jesus on the cross appropriately felt abandoned by God the Father is admittedly somewhat mysterious, but we can get at it a bit when we take up the common Scriptural imagery of Christ being a sacrifice of atonement for sinners, of the work of Christ—including but not limited to his death on the cross—being substitutionary for us. Two examples must suffice: Rom. 3:25 “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [or ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation’, gk hilastērion], through faith in his blood.” and 2 Cor. 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The beautiful mystery, the glorious wonder is this: God himself took on flesh, suffered and died in our stead so that we might not experience the abandonment and relational separation from God that results from our sin. Jesus experiences abandonment, suffering, and death so that we might not; he rises victorious over sin and death so that we might do the same.

I’m not sure I can say much more about what it means for the Son of God to experience abandonment, what it means when we sing “The Father turns his face away.” The depths of this wonder constitute one of the richest mysteries of the entire Gospel narratives. Yet mysterious, we know this to be true: that which was due to sinners for their sin has been wiped away, for Christ “became sin” for us. God himself fully addresses the demands of his justice—which, I should add, are fundamentally personal in God’s case—and the demands of justice drive the wrath God has towards sin. Justice cannot be shrugged off, and God is not God if he does not respond to sin and evil with due wrath. However, we must also insist that it is not a loving Christ who is placating the angry Father; it is both the love and justice of the full Godhead that meet together at the atonement. Remember that Christ and the Father are not to be severed in respect to the will for redemption—the Father’s love and the Son’s love are the same, just as the Father’s just wrath and judgment towards sin is the same as the Son’s (all authority to judge is given to him—John 5:27; Rev. 14:10; 19:11-21).

As Christmas approaches and we celebrate the Incarnation, may we all also reflect on the Atonement, for the two cannot but synthetically be separated. The infant born in the manger was the one who would become sin for us on the cross, where the Father turns His face away so that you and I might be brought to glory, so that all that is wrong with the world might be made right, and so that our sins might not separate us from God.

Indeed, how deep the Father’s love for us.