Faith, Holiness, and Judgment Part 1: A Deeper Magic

I spent my afternoon packed under warm blankets in my cold basement crying my way through the last episode of Downton Abbey. I had watched scattered episodes when it originally aired on PBS but had old moth holes in my conception of the storyline during particularly intense weeks of school. One of the joys of graduating, I suppose, will be the capacity to keep up with weekly shows like this.

I spent the last month watching the series online and found the ever-familiar tears forming in my eyes as the story came to a close. I often find myself caught by deep reflection after reading the last page of a book or watching the last few moments of a good film. Though it sounds silly to say, these characters have journeyed with me over the past month of my life, and like any friendship, I find it hard to say goodbye.

Endings are hard for me because there’s this unavoidable sense that this ending reflects my ending—that happily ever after means they lived with purpose despite their impending death. Maybe I’m just being melodramatic. But I feel that these stories reflect my story. And I wonder if at the end of my days, I’ll have any more understanding of what it was all for.

Downton Abbey ends with all the characters we’ve loved and cherished celebrating the new year, singing, “Auld Lang Syne.” They’re facing an end of an era—but not a future without hope. Mr. Carson says, “It’ll be a different life.” And Mrs. Hughes responds, “But we can make a go of it, Charlie, and I definitely mean to try.” That’s all any of us can say, really.

As the screen frames these beautiful faces, we get a sense of where life might take them. And we wonder who they’ll be in a year or five years or ten years. I wonder who I’ll be.

The last moments of a story are always the hardest, especially if we know it’s coming. I always have trepidation about starting the last episode of a show because I know it’ll be over. I think somehow if I don’t know the ending, maybe it’ll just keep going. I hate it because the endings of stories tend to frame our lives: that eventually our stories, too, will come to an end.

thomas barrow

Earlier this week I sat on my back patio eating overripe strawberries in the cool evening breeze. The hint of summer was beginning to taint the cool spring air: the foliage in my yard on fire with green buds and sprouting leaves.

Most of my projects were done for school with just one final waiting for me this week. I wasn’t worried. The slight reprieve and relief at the prospect of graduating had given my days a rare directionless beauty. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I picked up some half-read books that schoolwork forced me to set aside during the harsh winter months. I’ve been reading Dr. Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt. I feel as though I have read it vicariously through his blog—though the exposition in his book is growing a new sense of wonder in me. I read a few chapters, the other evening, to the tune of bird calls and rustled leaves.

He doesn’t beat around the bush. He says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important aspect of our inner longing is a need to experience God’s perfect, unconditional love. A central aspect of what this means is that we long to know, in an experiential way, that we have unlimited or unsurpassable worth to God and that we are absolutely secure in this love and worth.”1

I believe each of us, in our own way, has come to terms with this longing. Boyd confesses that “Scientists have offered several different explanations for this puzzling phenomenon—puzzling, because it’s hard to understand how natural processes alone could have evolved beings that hunger for something nature itself doesn’t provide.”2 And so Boyd, like C. S. Lewis and writers before him, uses the German word Sehnsucht, which he says is an “unusual word that is hard to translate, for it expresses a deep longing or craving for something that you can’t quite identify and that always feels just out of reach.”3

At the risk of sounding new agey, these are the moments of deeper meaning that define my life. That’s why I’m writing a novel about silence—the rare spaces between the busyness of existing that give us some inner clarity. I think this is the haunting feeling some of us get at the end of stories because somehow endings are the ultimate levelers. In response to why humanity tells stories, the beautiful writer Anne Lamott says this:

“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life—wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you? I ask.”4

I love Downton Abbey because in their own ways, the characters find purpose in a changing world. They push the space around them and say resolutely, “I’m here. I exist. This is who I am.”

One of my favorite characters is Thomas Barrow. He’s one of the only gay characters in the show and plays a key role in the entire series.

(To my evangelical audience, don’t let his gayness dissuade you from watching the show. There’s only one homosexual kiss in the entire series and it’s not quite smoldering, unfortunately. Stop me here before I go on a rant about how non-marital heterosexuality on the screen is far more acceptable in American churches than homosexuality.)

I love his character because he’s full of redemption. He’s ostracized by his community, which is mostly his own doing, and his fate worried me throughout the story. But at the end, worlds align and he finds his place to belong, to call home. He finds a family. He finds love. And though there’s no guarantee his life will be easy, I get the sense that it’s hopeful. Like the rest of us, he’s just looking for purpose.

lamp post

For Boyd, and for me, this sense of belonging can only be filled by our faith. It’s okay if you’re not religious. I’m not either. But I believe the purpose of humanity to be profounder and older than anything else. “There is a magic deeper still,” Aslan says in The Chronicles of Narnia, that’s “a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned.”5 This purpose, I submit, is love. John the disciple opens his seminal work—his account of the life of Jesus—this way. In the opening passages, he presents us with a friendship out of which the universe itself exploded: the community of a Triune God.6 When Jesus teaches his followers to pray, he begins, “Our father”7 (emphasis added). In this moment, he invites humanity into the relationship of God himself. In John 17, Jesus prays that anyone who believes in him would be “one even as we are one.”8 Of this passage, Boyd says that Jesus “prays that he would be in us in the same way the Father is in him (v. 23). God apparently wants the loving unity of his own triune being to be replicated in the way we relate to one another as well as in the way he relates to us and dwells within us!”9

This is the kind of purpose and value in humanity to which the biblical narrative points—that we’re loved in the same way that God communes with himself, and that we might love each other likewise.10 This is the core sanctuary from which all my identity should flow. As much as I internalize and realize the extent that I am loved and have insurmountable value is my capacity to live life to its fullest. I think this is humanity’s deepest longing: to be loved and accepted and safe.

The problem is that I tend to search elsewhere to fulfil this desire, as if the grass is greener over the fence. It seems just out of reach, like I’m being haunted from another world or a reality that’s out of sync with our own. I catch glimpses of this beauty from time to time. But instead of sitting still and facing this reality, I usually run around and bang on my pots and pans to fill the profound silence, which asks, “Who am I?”

Am I the only one who feels this way?

Part Two: A Heritage


End Notes:

[1] Gregory Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013),  57.
[2] Ibid., 56-57.
[3] Ibid., 56.
[4] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Random House, 1995), 15.
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), chapter 15.
[6] Boyd, 96.
[7] Matthew 6:9.
[8] John 17:22
[9] Boyd, 59.
[10] 1 John 3:16.

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