Romans 8:26-28, 38-39
Paul writes to the church in Rome about paradox. These followers of Jesus argue with one another, struggle with their culture, and wrestle with Empire. And Paul tells them all things work together for good?!
The church in Rome suffers, and Paul tells them nothing – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God. Paradox – something that doesn’t seem like it could be true, but points to deeper wisdom.
As we often sing, “There’s a song in every silence, there’s a dawn in every darkness…In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our doubt there is believing…”
Paradox focuses our attention.
Like the artwork of Escher, these hands drawing each other. When you see this, does your mind spin? From hmm, to wait, that couldn’t happen, to hmmm, I wonder what that could mean. Its mystery invites us to step closer.
Depending on the translation of Romans 8 you’re reading, those “sighs too deep for words” can be translated as “groanings.” The Greek word is stenagmois, and it shows up in Stephen’s speech in the book of Acts. He’s reflecting on the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt, and how God heard their “groans” and rescued them.[i]
These groans move God to compassion, the same sighs and groans the Holy Spirit makes, comforting us, advocating for us in our suffering. On our dark nights of the soul when we cannot find words to express our prayers, we simply groan. When have you suffered like that?
But these are sunny, luscious dog days of summer – we’re harvesting zesty cherry tomatoes, we’re out at the lake, we’re going to baseball games! In the lectionary we come to a desert of shadow.
So what’s the blessing of desert and shadow in our sunny summer? As I’ve simmered in this text and these images, the blessing that keeps rising up is focus. The focus of paradox. We can focus on shadow on a sunny day – we can’t even see a shadow on a cloudy day.
Or the opposite – look at this beam of light. We can focus right in on this beam of light in a shadowy slot canyon. We see light most clearly when we're in darkness. We see a shadow only when we're in the sun.
It’s like yin and yang.
Yin and yang is a Chinese exploration of paradox. Unity and duality at the same time. Each is opposite, but they become whole together. The image is based on light moving across mountains and valleys, the white space is what the sun lights up, the black space is shadow, and as the earth spins, the shadows move. The dance of light and shadow inspired the yin yang symbol.
I see the yin in that picture – a canyon of shadow with one point of light. I see the yang in the scripture text, a dark night of the soul in the middle of sunny summer.
The yang is the white aspect, associated with sunlight, heaven, action, fire. Yin is the black aspect, associated with nighttime, earth, passivity, water. But wholeness comes only in the interpenetration, when the yang is part of the yin, and the yin is part of the yang.
Shadow cannot exist without light. We would not know light without darkness. There can be no above without a below.
This scripture and these images drew me into Aron Ralston’s story. Aron is famous through the movie 127 Hours, based on his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
Aron was hiking solo in Utah and fell, dislodging an 800 pound boulder that trapped his arm along the canyon wall. He couldn’t budge the rock. He tried amputating his arm with his cheap pocketknife but could barely cut his skin, let alone his bone.
On his fifth day in this canyon, hungry, thirsty, losing blood, he used that cheap knife to write his name, the month and year of his birth, and the current month and year. Then he etched RIP.
Watch a video of Aron telling this story:
There’s so much paradox in Aron’s story:
The pleasure of the bubbles on his nose in the driest desert.
Being with his loved ones while all alone.
Smiling in the most desperate situation.
The yin and yang of his own identity. He realized that his biggest mistake was to tell no one where he was going on this hike, that his independence and adventurous spirit, aspects of himself he’d been proud of, were also his downfall. Neither heights or depths could separate him from true love, he learned.
Love was Aron’s light in the shadows, and he realized how desperately he wanted to live. On the sixth day in his grave he chose life. He broke the bones of his arm by bending them against the boulder, then spent the next hour and five minutes freeing himself from that boulder with a cheap pocket knife.
He says he’s never experienced such intense euphoria before or since. Cutting his arm off was the height of his life, a moment of unmatched focus.
But Aron’s downfall, his stubbornly independent adventurous spirit that landed him in a slot canyon where no one would find him, that was the same tenacity that helped him survive. It’s a paradox.
We’re all like that in our own ways. Our greatest gifts have shadows that get in our way, that can drive people crazy.
Aron says as he cut off his arm his very life divided, into before and after. Those six days in his grave gave him eyes to see what mattered most – the people he loved, and that he no longer needed to prove his worth through stubborn independence and risk taking.
But this epiphany didn’t make everything easy all at once. Even after he climbed out of the crevice and hiked eight miles toward his vehicle, even after a helicopter rescue and healing and a prosthesis, he faced the biggest challenge yet – to figure out what his life was for. After nearly losing it, the gift of his life is now real to him and he’s been trying to give back ever since.
The movie 127 Hours ends after his rescue. Because that’s the tidy story. We know our lives are more complicated. We have epiphanies but they don’t turn our lives into night and day. More like yin and yang, with light and shadow always in relationship.
Aron’s story has Christian themes all over it – even though he doesn’t name it that way I can’t help but see the connections. Aron doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit, but felt the sacred presence of his loved ones while he waited five days in a tomb and, accompanied by love, chose life through sacrifice on the sixth day. And cutting off his hand – does it remind you of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:29? If your eye or your hand cause you to sin, what are you supposed to do?
Jesus says to pluck out our offensive eye or cut off our loathsome hand. As a kid hearing that gruesome scripture I never imagined it would be applied in a slot canyon in Utah. For the rest of us who aren’t faced with losing our lives or losing a hand, what do we make of this provocative teaching from Jesus?
We read in Romans that all things work together for good. We also read so many healing stories in which Jesus brought new function to parts of people’s bodies that they had bemoaned and condemned. Jesus says to forgive countless times; why not forgive our offensive eye or loathsome hand?
What do you do with parts of yourself you don’t like? The angry parts that worry you, the hurt parts that embarrass you, the ailing parts that scare you?
Do you delve into them, write in your journal, talk with a therapist? Do you try to ignore them, deny them, even pluck them out like a distracting eye, or cut them off like a sinning hand?
Most of us have used all of these coping strategies and everything in between, depending on how much energy we have, how much support we have.
Reading the healing stories of the gospels, we might think if “our faith makes us well” there should be no more wheelchairs or bifocals or service dogs or schizophrenia medication. That’s what many Christians believe, perhaps that’s what you believe!
But I think it’s dogmatic. There’s only one way to win, only one way to be healed and anything else is a failure. I believe that healing is more complex and compassionate. I believe that Jesus teaches us about this kind of healing.
Jesus isn’t distracted by disfigurement or disease, contamination or condemnation. He sees people in their fullness and wholeness. He does not see the bleeding – he sees the woman bold enough to touch a strange man’s garment. He does not see the blindness – he sees the man who will not be silenced by the crowd. Jesus does not see the sin – he sees a woman who teaches the Pharisees. He does not see the leprosy – he sees a man worthy of affection, not quarantine.
While we might think of these healing stories as essential to Jesus’ ministry, Jesus doesn’t seek out any of these people. He does not walk through Galilee looking for illness to battle, he’s looking at people. People who are suffering and asking for change. He’s not looking for their illness, but he’s not afraid to see it. He’s not afraid to touch their eyes and limbs and even their leprosy. Jesuit priest Edmundo Rodriguez writes,
“Jesus can love the whole person into wellness, precisely because he loves the whole person in brokenness.”
Can you embrace yourself and one another like this?
Can you love yourself and one another as whole, even while broken? Even if our cancer keeps spreading, even if our depression doesn’t lift, even if we fall off the wagon, even when we make monumental mistakes? Even if, after cutting off an arm to save our life we still can’t figure out what to use this gift of life for?
As we seek to welcome even the people and parts of ourselves that bring suffering, look at this provocative line from another of Paul’s letters,
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
What if the stranger is also within us? What might be the angel blessing in the strange (and even frustrating or terrifying) parts of ourselves? May you feel loving welcome for your whole and broken self.
You are not alone. The Holy Spirit is our advocate, our comforter, not just sighing with us but GROANING with when we can’t find the words to pray. We are strangers no more.