[W]e have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4.7-12 NRSV)
I've not been able to get this passage out of my head since our Assistant Priest Judy mentioned it in her powerful sermon yesterday morning. Later in the same letter Paul says (12.7b-10) that he will gladly boast of his weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in him.
I feel somewhat the same as Paul. Although I have never been one to make my private life public, and this blog was never intended as any sort of reality show, I cannot escape the feeling that I am supposed somehow to share what God is doing in all of this. Like my illustrious predecessor, I am daily finding treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places, and I can't quite keep quiet about it, and it's necessary to include just a little personal detail so as to make what I say comprehensible. My present situation, still unresolved, still neither married not single, is one that is a daily hurt. Jan had to return from the USA earlier this year, and circumstances beyond the control of either of us keep us living here in the same house. It's a situation that, although I did nothing to bring it about, I cannot help but be ashamed of. It stands in the way of all I try to do.
And yet... As a Franciscan, I am predisposed in some deep way to a longing for poverty. (Francis himself, after all, fell in love with "Lady Poverty", a bride he once described as "a wife of surpassing fairness.") There is economic poverty, of course, but for me the crucial thing is the poverty of action, the poverty of self-determination. In this, which really is for me a most painful thing, I am discovering not only a capacity in myself for surrender to God that I never knew I had, but God's goodness, his mercy and his grace. I am getting to know Christ in ways that I never could have done left to myself, that I never could have dreamed of discovering however closely I had attempted, of my own strength, to follow him.
And that's the point. We are called to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus, but we don't usually - well, I didn't - realise just what this means. Jesus' way of the Cross was a way of surrender. From the garden in Gethsemane to the tomb where he was laid, Jesus surrendered himself first of all to his Father, then to his enemies, and finally to his friends. We can only follow him by our own act of surrender - more properly, like Jesus himself, by successive acts of surrender.
For me, it has turned out as Leonard Cohen described, "Love is not a victory march / It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah." Yet God is good. Only through the most radical surrender can we find out how good. Only by letting go of all we possess can we really follow our Saviour who gave up everything for us. Only in being emptied can we be filled. Only in loss can we finally be found.
There is such hope in this, such utter and unquenchable hope. On the far side of the worst than can happen, Christ waits for us, his pierced hand stretched out to draw us into perfect joy.
I assume death will be like this. Certainly it seems to have been so for those who have been able to tell us something of the way of their own passing. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, "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 in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8.38-39)
The odd thing is that it is only in these strange conditions of radical poverty that we can actually know these things as true. These are the "treasures of darkness" themselves. We seem to find, like the man who sold everything to buy the pearl of great price, that it is more than worth it. The love of Christ is greater, and stranger, and he himself is closer, than we had ever suspected. All we need is the faith of the Psalmist who wrote, in Psalm 119, "It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes... Let your steadfast love become my comfort according to your promise to your servant. Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight."