Lent is a good time to get into forgiveness for ourselves and others. Most of us need some space and encouragement to work with what needs to be forgiven in us and in others, so it’s good to have a season to be serious about it. The point is not to feel guilty and self-loathing—the point is to be met by God in our suffering, and to meet Jesus in his suffering.
Last week we looked at our uncertainty at Broad & Washington; this week it’s our abandonment. I think of Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football. Time after time, Charlie Brown falls for the promise that Lucy is gonna be there holding the football, and time after time she snatches it away before he can kick it. With abandonment there’s an expectation or a hope of connection that isn’t met. We thought someone was gonna be there for us—we wanted them to be, maybe we even needed them to be, and then they weren’t. It’s a loss and we feel the loss on some level. Abandonment might be worse than aloneness because there’s a previous sense of connection before the withdrawal. It’s that feeling of being left or given up on.
Most of us probably have little moments like this every day. They are almost imperceptible, because we are accustomed to abandonment—it’s a normal part of the human experience and we all probably go back and forth between over-acceptance of it (like it hurts so good), to desperately reaching for connection. We learned in our earliest experiences about what we could expect from other people. If you were raised by an addict, you know about regular abandonment; you were left to sort through your needs alone. But for all of us, really—if our parents were human we have some kind of attachment issues passed down to us. We all have trouble trusting and being intimate. It’s part of the human experience. People are ambivalent about connecting because we don’t want to be abandoned, mostly; we’re wired for connection, and we’re afraid of losing it if we have it and it’s good. As a new mother I remember feeling doomed by the strength of my love and attachment to my babies because it made me terrified of losing them. We’re like that. So many people bounce back and forth through life between that individualistic and solitary acceptance of abandonment to desperate and fearful grabs to get our needs met. Tinder and other social media apps may make this bouncing even easier. The bouncing can leave people significantly unattached, even in marriages, rarely experiencing intimacy, perhaps getting needs met through addiction (which is a kind of self-abandonment, isn’t it?) Fear of being abandoned can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sia came out with a song (used in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) that imitates that bouncing—that ambivalence about being attached, the tension between wanting connection and losing it. She says, “And another one bites the dust/ Oh why can I not conquer love?/ And I might have thought that we were one/ Yeah, let’s be clear, I’ll trust no one…Well, I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart/ But your blade—it might be too sharp/ I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard/ Yeah, I may snap and I move fast/ But you won’t see me fall apart/ ‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart.” In the video, two characters are animalisticly crawling toward and away from each other in a cage, until one gets out. Most psychologists would agree that we’re not really wired to be unaffected by our attachments or unattached. We do get hurt. If we attach and then we’re abandoned, or given up on, we are affected, even if our reaction is to shut down. It might be helpful to go to the edge of this reality in Lent. We do get abandoned by other people. We get our hopes up in relationships, and we get let down. It’s painful that no human being can love us perfectly, or fully meet our longing for connection.
Legendary mountain climber Joe Simpson gets real about the longing for connection in his documentary Touching the Void. In 1985 he and his good friend, Simon, did something that had never been done and climbed the western face of Suila Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They climbed Alpine style—the purest form of mountaineering where instead of setting up a route with ropes ahead of time, you pack all your supplies on your back and ice-pick your way up the mountain and back down, just attached to each other. It takes a lot of trust; and usually if one partner goes down, they are both gone. These guys made it to the summit, but on their way back down they ran into a storm, Joe broke his leg, (which is like a death sentence on a mountain face) and they ran out of gas to melt snow for drinking water. Even in these conditions, Simon was able to incrementally lower Joe down a big chunk of the mountain, and then, unknowingly, right over a cliff. Joe is left hanging in the dark in the storm, unable to even tell Simon what’s going on. After waiting for their signal for some time, and feeling the snow give way under him, Simon makes the excruciating decision to cut the rope and try to save his own life. Joe falls 150 feet into a crevass and amazingly finds himself alive at the bottom. There’s no way out, so he lowers himself even deeper, and finds an opening. He manages to eventually climb up out of the ice pit hauling a gruesomely broken leg, and spends the next three days without food and with almost no water, crawling and hopping five miles across a treacherous glacier back to their base camp. The terrain is scattered with giant rocks, crevasses, and moraines. He said later that the sense of abandonment and loneliness was always with him, and that he didn’t keep crawling because he thought he would survive. He kept crawling because he wanted to be with somebody when he died. Amazingly, he collapsed just a few yards from Simon’s tent, in the dark, just a few hours from Simon’s planned departure. When Simon found him, Joe said it was the feeling of being held that he remembers most. Here’s an ultra-tough survivor admitting that the thing he wanted most near death was to be with someone, and be held.
Alot of my friends have gone through seasons where they feel that God has abandoned them. I’m pretty sure God hasn’t, but I think it’s easy to project our attachment issues onto God, and think that God isn’t there because we haven’t experienced his presence in a way that is meaningful or we suffered through hard things and God didn’t save us from them. It’s good to talk about it during Lent.
On the cross, Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22: My God, my God why have you forsaken me? In his culture, you only needed to say the first line of a Psalm to know what the person was talking about; everybody knew the Psalms. (It’s comparable to saying that jawn here in Philly; your friend will probably know what you mean.) Jesus was identifying with the abandonment that we might feel in times of need, and especially in sin, because here he is bearing the weight of the sins of the whole world. Maybe Jesus really felt some separation from God (himself)—like he was being torn apart, because, in fact, he was. But I think that mainly he is quoting the Psalm to tell us the whole story. God has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one, he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. And beyond all this suffering, the poor will eat and be satisfied, everyone will turn to the Lord, the rich will feast and worship, those who have been laid low in the dust will kneel before God—those who cannot even keep themselves alive—they will proclaim the righteousness of Jesus to a people yet unborn, for he has done it! It’s a Psalm of triumph, and Jesus was calling that hope and victory to reality in the midst of suffering and death.
The Psalmist also predicted that although Jesus would die, he would not be “abandoned to the realm of the dead.” According to HBO and the box office, our generation seems obsessed with the realm of the dead at the moment. What happens to people after they die? Nobody really knows how it all works out, but we have this testimony about what happened to Jesus! It was impossible for death to keep it’s hold on him. The scripture alludes to some birth language, implying that death can no more hold the Redeemer than a pregnant woman could permanently keep a child in her body. It’s impossible. The baby must be released. One of my favorite mystics, Julian of Norwich compares the water that was released from Jesus’ dead side as amniotic fluid. In a sense, we are birthed out of his impermanent death. The invitation in attaching to Jesus is that you will follow in his footsteps to life that doesn’t end.
In my 20’s I got into this reality—I attached to Jesus in a realization that he would not abandon me even when I was prone to abandoning myself. I realized that my other attachments—my relationships, my own goodness, my education, my job, my country—were prone to abandonment too. My elastic heart was getting smaller from repeated breaking, and I needed the expansive and outstretched arms of God. I needed the One who was going through death to be my life.
Lent is a good time to go the edge of our abandonment, again, and decide if we want fall into the arms of God. It’s a good time to decide if we want to just relate to Jesus as a good prophet, or a legend, or a guilty pleasure, or if he is actually the Living God, Creator, and Lord. For some of us, it might be more like we were already falling and we were graciously caught by the arms of God beyond our ability to decide. Either way, in going toward that edge we have an opportunity to get more free to be our own, and to be God’s own, to belong to Jesus more than we belong to anyone or anything else. It’s a spiritual differentiation process that frees us. When Joe Simpson crawled across the glacier abandoned by his friend he was free to realize how much he wanted that connection, even though his life ambitions had been more toward adventure and accomplishment. The longing for life and companionship has a source. Like the Psalmist said “They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” It’s not that God has abandoned us, or just that he’s just grieved that we’ve abandoned ourselves or one another….it’s that he loves us, and wants us to take us by the hand and bring us into eternal living. We may find, too, that we’re able to attach to others with less fear, and more love, held safe in the steadfast love of Christ.