Dr Irene Alexander wrote as Dean of Social Sciences at Christian Heritage College, where she taught subjects which focus on personal transformation. She has interests in spiritual direction, integration of faith and counselling practice as well as contemporary spirituality. This article was presented at the Contemporary Issues in Ministry Conference, 2003, at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane.
A central theme of the Word is the recurring pattern of life – death – life. “Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, ..emptied himself, ..and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And the cross, and what it represents, has become the symbol of our faith, faith in a God who dies to give life. The spirituality of our faith is thus a spirituality of descent – knowing this descending God who seeks to serve, not to be served. And with this spirituality we become men and women who can reach out to those around us who are broken, and we can befriend our own places of woundedness.
One of the great themes of the Bible is the recurring pattern of life – death – life. In the first chapters God creates life in the garden where stands the tree of life. But we, foolish beings, chose death, and separation from life. The rest of the Bible tells of the finding of our way back to Life, and eventually a new heaven and a new earth.
The story of the Exodus is of life once held, lost in slavery, and then journeying through death, through the wilderness, to life again in the promised land. The promised land is a place flowing with milk and honey, but through turning away from relationship with God, the only true life, the Israelites find themselves in death again – in exile, until God brings them through to life again, redeeming them.
The very theme of the Christian life is death to the old, symbolised by baptism and new life in Christ. Baptism is an identification with the life-death-life theme of God’s own life, death and life. What does it mean that God himself chose this theme, this process to win us to himself? And that he wove it into the seasons of the year, reminding us over and over that death comes, but through death, the rising to new life?
God on a cross
I remember being struck, when reading C. S. Lewis’s biography, that one of the things that brought him to salvation, rather late in life, was his pondering on the idea of a God who dies. Apparently a colleague remarked one day, casually, and with only passing interest “Rum thing that, God on a cross”. The idea confronted C. S. Lewis and he mused over it eventually being totally challenged by this God who died.
Sometimes as Christians we get so used to the idea of the Cross that we lose the shock of it – God, the life-giver, the almighty, the Creator – giving away his life, his might, his being. Yet this is the central theme of the Bible and of the gospels and of the life of the Christ. “Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6-8).
The crucified God is the centrepiece of our faith. And those of us who grew up with an empty cross as our focus knew it was only empty because life is born out of death, because God himself had died so that we too may live. And the cross, and what it represents has become the symbol of our faith, faith in a God who dies to give life.
A descending God
Cosby (1998) explains that the God of Philippians 2, and of the gospels is a ‘descending God’. Whereas the focus of much of the western world is ascent to success and status and power, the way of the Christ is through taking the form of a servant, humbling himself even to death. Says Cosby, “In the Gospel it is quite obvious that Jesus chose the descending way. He chose it not once but over and over again. At each critical moment he deliberately sought the way downward” (p. 28).
Again, “..it becomes plain to us that God has willed to show his love for the world by descending more and more deeply into human frailty…God is the descending God. The movement is down, down, down, until it finds the sickest, the most afflicted, the most helpless, the most alienated, the most cut off. The truest symbols that we have of Jesus are the lamb – the lamb led to the slaughter, a sheep before its shearers being dumb. Total poverty: a dumb sheep, the Lamb of God, and the Servant Christ kneeling with a towel and a basin, washing feet on the eve of his crucifixion. The weeping Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey” (p. 29).
And wonder of wonders it is not the Lion of Judah who is worthy to open the scroll which ushers in the end of time, but rather the Lamb. The apostle John tells in Revelation 5:4 “I wept because no-one was found who was worthy to open the scroll…Then one of the elders said to me ‘Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of Judah… is able to open the scroll.. Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if he had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne.’”
Through being the Lamb, Jesus conquered death. It was through his dying that he defeated the powers and authorities, “triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). And Cosby (1998) notes that it was his death that turned our hearts to him also. “What was it that captured our hearts? It was that figure dying on a cross… If the Lamb of God… the form of the Servant Christ giving his life away for others – for me – if those deep expressions of reality captured my spirit, literally broke my hard heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh, ended my captivity and delivered my spirit, why do I think that the expression of authority or power or success or efficiency is going to break anybody’s heart?” (p. 30).
A self-emptying God
The God who Cosby (1998) calls the descending God, Maggie Ross (1988) in Pillars of Flame explores as the self-emptying God – this is the meaning of kenosis: “The heart of Christianity is the self-emptying, kenotic humility of God expressed in Jesus the Christ… At the heart of God’s humility is this: God willingly is wounded” (p. xvi). “…a kenotic living God who is unceasingly self-outpouring, compassionate, and engaged with the creation…. God’s inviolable vulnerability, God’s unswerving commitment to suffer with and within the creation, to go to the heart of pain, to generate new life, hope, and joy out of the cry of dereliction, out of the pain to utter self-denudation, utter self-emptying, utter engaging love” (p. 72). Indeed this is the character of the prodigal’s father – the willingness to give, to suffer the pain of loss and wounding, to hold back in patient waiting, to respond in self-forgetting joy and forgiveness.
The spirituality of descent is the practice of a spirituality which knows this descending God. Rather than the all-powerful Zeus-god of the Greeks, prodigal children know the God who gives, the God who waits, the God who experiences the shame and brokenness of his own. This descending God seeks to serve, not to be served, not just in the life-time of Jesus but in the millennia following, in the present world, where it is so easy to choose ascent, success, status, positions of power in our churches and ‘Christian’ institutions.
Jesus deliberately broke the purity codes of his culture in order to include the outcasts (Sims 1997). Time after time, at meals, in the homes of Pharisees, in public places, he knowingly touched the untouchables – the bleeding woman, the leper, the Samaritan woman. “Suppose the only God that exists is the descending God. Suppose the only way we can know God is to go down, to go to the bottom…If God is going down and we are going up, it is obvious that we are going in different directions. And we will not know him. We will be evading God and missing the whole purpose of our existence” (Cosby 1998, p. 31).
The descending God then, is one who serves, one who lets go of position and status and power, in order to touch the lives of those around him. “We have seen what Jesus was like. If we wish now to treat him as our God, we would have to conclude that our God does not want to be served by us, he wants to serve” (Nolan cited in Sims 1997 p. 16).
It is significant to note what John says about Jesus at the beginning of the story of the Servant Christ who washed his disciples’ feet: “Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God… girded himself with a towel” (John 13:3). Jesus was a servant who also knew his identity – he was not serving as one who did not know his boundaries, or one trying to earn approval. He knew who he was, but knowingly chose to serve.
In his book The Leadership Paradox Denny Gunderson (1997) notes that Jesus said very little about leadership. Rather his lifestyle demonstrated servanthood – “I came not to be served but to serve”. This book explores a number of stories of Jesus’ life to help us discover what servanthood meant in the reality of daily relationships. Gunderson notes that the Greek word Jesus chose for servant was ‘diakonos’ which literally mean ‘through the dust’. He tells the story of a servant who leads a caravan to safety through a dust storm even though it meant sacrificing his own life. Our word deacon comes from this Greek word and is translated servant, deacon, or minister. Gunderson then explores other gospel stories showing a God who walked through the dust of earth to his death in order that we might find what it is to live as servants, loving our God and loving each other. This is what Gordon Cosby means by the spirituality of descent, that we learn to live as deacons, servants, who are not afraid of walking in the dust, and in the dark places of people’s lives – and of our own.
Henri Nouwen (1989) tells the story of confronting his own dark places and learning to care for others in theirs in his powerful book on Christian leadership In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who became a lecturer at Harvard and Yale. He was an extremely popular speaker and writer. As he entered his fifties though, he realised that he was “living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.
In the midst of this I kept praying, “Lord, show me where you want me to go and I will follow you… In the person of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people, God said, “Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you.”… So I moved from Harvard to L’Arche, from the best and brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words, and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society… the small, hidden life with people whose broken minds and bodies demand a strict daily routine in which words are the least requirement does not immediately appear as the solution to burnout. And yet, my new life at L’Arche is offering me new words to use in speaking about Christian leadership. (pp. 11-12).
Nouwen focuses on servanthood and the specific barriers which might prevent us from being true servant leaders – the need to be relevant, the need to be spectacular and the need to control, to be powerful.
In another of his books, Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen (1996) helps us identify other blockages to serving others. He describes us – the prodigal – discovering the utterly endless, ever responsive love of a Father – who would pick up his robe and run to meet us as we are – foot-sore and ragged, dirty and wounded – and take us in his arms in delighted self-giving welcome.
And as I discover that totally accepting love, which takes me to himself – and holds my pain and my shame, my sin and my brokenness, and simply holds all in his love, so I dare little by little to see myself as I am, to lower my defences enough to see my own brokenness. And part of my seeing is a recognition that I, too, am the elder brother. In me is judgement and resentment, envy and exclusion. In me is reaction that causes me to exclude myself from the celebration of grace – the grace of a Father who embraces the sinner, who goes towards the outcast and the shameful ones, who indeed runs to bid them welcome. And slowly, slowly I too acknowledge in myself the judgements and criticism, the self-righteousness and legalism which hold me aloof from my brothers and sisters, which indeed hold me aloof from the broken and sinful places of my own being. And I seek to learn what it is to embrace my own fallenness, and that of my brothers and sisters. And too, to let them see me as I am and to hold me in grace.
A difficult lesson this one – to know it is my own self-judgement that causes me to hold others at arm’s length lest they see me too well. And so I hold myself back from receiving their embrace, and the grace of the Father mediated through them. I prefer my image of my own self-righteousness and hold myself in isolation in order to retain it. But slowly as I receive the love of the Father I can allow my defensiveness to thaw little by little and allow others to see the imperfect being that I am. It is only as I learn to hold the paradox of my own mix of light and darkness, that I can learn to celebrate with another their own pattern of shadow and light. And the willingness to walk in humility, says Nouwen (1989), will lead to “a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favour of love” (p. 63).
A God “disenthroned”
As we reflect on the prodigal’s father, who stoops to embrace the sinner, we know that Jesus is indeed God’s self-disclosure – “the cosmos is ruled by a self-giving Love who chooses to endure crucifixion rather than decree any abridgment of human freedom” (Sims 1997 p. 17). “We cannot have it both ways. We cannot have a God who is an iron-handed ruler in remote control of the cosmos and, at the same time, a historic incarnation of that God who consistently defines himself as a servant… [We must] choose between a God enthroned in the power of imperial privilege and a God “disenthroned” in the more exquisite power of servanthood” (p. 17).
And the paradox is that once we have glimpsed this servant-King, who tells us that his flesh must be our real food, that we must learn to feed on his brokenness and self-giving, that even though we may be tempted to draw back, we are so drawn to him that we say, as Peter did “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6: 68). And even then we may, as Peter did, be prepared to give our lives to fight for him, but not know how to give our selves in the surrender and powerlessness of the Lamb. But this is the way to life.
“Just as crucifixion and resurrection form the centrepiece of the life and work of Jesus, so too the cross and its promise of life reborn are central to his invitation to live” (Sims 1997, p. 48). The crucifixion is not just a plan God thought up to ‘fix things up’ after humans rebelled. “The Crucified God is simply the eruption into history of the cosmic redemptive love that is built into the structure of the universe from its start. The book of Revelation speaks of Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, KJV)” (Sims 1997 p. 58). Relationship with the God who dies is relationship with Life.
The God who dies
One of our difficulties in talk about dying is that it touches on our own very natural fear of death and the process of dying. Nouwen (1998), in noticing his own fears suggests a key reason for this: “You are still afraid to die. Maybe that fear is connected with some deep unspoken worry that God will not accept you as his.” For death has to do with separation and the death God speaks of in the Garden – when you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall die – is the death of separation from God. One of the purposes of life is to lose our fear of death. It is only in deepening our revelation of God’s love for us that our fear of death is lessened. John speaks of our growing understanding of God’s love (in 1 John 4: 18) “perfect love casts out fear”. If I truly know I am loved I am no longer afraid.
But what of the fear of the other death? The death that is part of this process of our living through the seasons of life? The death represented in the Wisdom literature by the wilderness, exile, the dark night of the soul? We draw back from these dyings too, afraid that questionings, doubt, old answers that no longer fit, will be death to us. The mystics assure us that these too are the way to life. “She came up out of the wilderness leaning on her beloved” (Song of Solomon 8:5). And Rilke (1996) in his direct, even raw, poetry notices how our own need, our own darkness, can lead to God:
“Then suddenly you’re left all alone
With your body that can’t love you,
And your will that can’t save you.
But now, like a whispering in dark streets
Rumors of God run through your dark blood” (p. 76).
It is in these dark places, these places of liminality, that transformation takes place. But so often we shrink from this as if it were death. If we understand the process of life-death-life we dare to respond to pain and death as possible resurrection – as Eucharist. “The pain of transformation is morbid [ie death-dealing] only if we choose it to be, only if we do not want to look beyond and through it. If only we allow, the pain itself is transformed and becomes Eucharist; and Eucharist deepens us until we burn with Love in God’s very heart. If we spend all our time trying to block out pain with illusion or to twist it to inflate our egos, we will stagnate; we will cause in ourselves the destructive pain of disintegration” (Ross 1988, p. 133).
The mystics understood this process and assure us that it is in the darkness that we find the Beloved. In The Dark Night St John of the Cross names the darkness, the absence of God’s felt presence, as the very place that we will be united with the Beloved, and indeed transformed:
Oh guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.
This then is true relationship with God – a faith that God is present, that even though the floods may come, and the fire, God is present. And this relationship enables us to journey with others in their wilderness and their darkness – having faith that God too, is for them, and with them. “Faith is not assent to doctrines or surrounding ourselves with props and propositions. It is trust that God – as Christ shows us – has been there before us, goes within us, waits to find us beyond the edges of utter dark. And, found by God, we become aware that God is closer to our being than we are” (Ross 1988, p. 135). This then, is the God who has lived through life, death and life, has shown us the way through, and now is present with each of us as we walk the same journey.
Cosby, N. G. (1999). By grace transformed: Christianity for a new millennium. New York: Crossroad.
Gunderson, D. (1997). The leadership paradox. Seattle: YWAM publishing.
Kavanaugh, K. (trans). (1979). The collected works of St John of the Cross. Washington: Institute of Carmelite Studies.
Nouwen, H. J. M. (1989). In the name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian leadership. New York: Crossroad.
Nouwen, H. J. M. (1996). The return of the prodigal son: A story of home-coming. London: Continuum.
Nouwen, H. J. M. (1998). The inner voice of love: A journey through anguish to freedom. New York: Doubleday.
Rilke, R. M. (1996). Rilke’s book of hours: Love poems to God. Barrows, A. and J. Macy, J. (Trans). New York: Riverhead.
Ross, M. (1988). Pillars of flame: Power, priesthood and spiritual maturity. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Sims, B. J. (1997). Servanthood: Leadership for the third millennium. Boston: Cowley.
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