Archive | April, 2020

The Void and God

18 Apr

Blog #83–the Void and the Present God

Locked down in my apartment, the image of the Void has come mind more than once. Especially on Holy Saturday, which is a space and time of emptiness, between Friday’s crucifixion and Sunday’s resurrection—a Void of its own.

The Void, or call it the Abyss, is a space of emptiness and terror, a space that threatens to destroy us, but also the place where we encounter the deepest reality of life. Job’s  experience of the whirlwind, Jesus’s time in the tomb, Martin Luther’s

tower experience, in which, full of despair, he confronted his own unworthiness—these are all instances of the Abyss. 

In the same vein, Rudolf Otto spoke of the Mysterium tremendum—our experience of the Holy, which shakes us to our very foundations. That same experiences is revelatory: God spoke in the whirlwind, resurrection came from the tomb, the word of overwhelming grace came to Luther when he was at his lowest point of despair.

My Lutheran tradition makes much of God as hidden, absent, and God as revealed. Deus absconditus and deus revelatus. But these are the two ways in which God is present to us. God is present in absence, God is in the Void.

We do pretty well in describing the Void—emptiness, despair, meaninglessness, terror. The challenge is to discover God’s presence in the Void, without dispersing the despair, meaninglessness, and terror through sentimentality, false optimism, or habits of piety. When we go to the cross on Friday, we know that it is not just a man, but God who is crucified, and we know we will wake up on Sunday singing “alleluia.” It is difficult, emotionally and intellectually, to take seriously the Void of Saturday. We know that Saturday will soon become Easter Sunday.

Actually, Luther did not know grace would come to him; Job did not know The God of the whirlwind would be his redeemer; the women and the disciples who were bereft on that Sunday did not know a resurrection was in the works. In deep seriousness, they experienced the Void, the tremendum that shook them to their roots.

I believe we are today experiencing the Void, the Abyss, and we are pressed to discover how God is present to us in our present circumstances.

What is revealed to us Americans in this avoid? The Coronavirus has brought into view just how fragile our society is; it has thrown light on evils that we tried to hide from view; and it discloses a genuine community that we may have given up on in our politicized public life.

It has been said that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. The United States does not fare well by this criterion. Both the health crisis of COVID-19 and the economic crisis reveal how badly we treat the most vulnerable. People of color are dying in numbers that vastly surpass their percentage in the general population. This is due in large part to the inferior medical care they have received prior to the pandemic.

Economically, it is the lower wage earners who bear the brunt: the first to lose their jobs (think of restaurant workers) or who cannot shelter in place,  because they are essential workers (grocery workers, gas station attendants, home health workers). Many of these workers must work in two or three jobs in order to live. It is clear how many individuals, families, and small businesses live paycheck to paycheck. 

These are characteristics of an age in which the wrath of God has descended on us. The Bible provides massive testimony to God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable. Our treatment of these groups surely calls for divine wrath. I think of Psalm 107:

“But if the people fail to prosper and suffer oppression and pain, God will scorn their leaders and let them wander in chaos. But God will lift up the poor. . . .”

The Void will not last forever, and God turns wrath to mercy and promise. The experience of the Void May be an unexpected gift to make our lives and our world different.

Pope Francis said it very simply, “Let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were.”

What is your vision of life after this Void? I’ll include them in my next installment.

(c) Phil Hefner 27 April 2020


2 Apr

Windows. I finally got around to the Sunday New York Times’ special section of photographs of empty streets in cities around the world. Amazing, aesthetically rich, and disturbing —all at the same time. 

The double-fold photo from São Paulo captured special attention: a nighttime scene of the windows of a high-rise apartment building, some dark, some lit up. In each lighted window was the silhouette of a person who was banging a kettle to protest the Brazilian president’s refusal to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

Coincidentally, a friend who lives in a retirement community in Virginia sent me these thoughts about looking out windows:

“You see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms, but don’t say to yourself, ‘My goodness, it looks like the end of the world.’ What you’re seeing is love in action. What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other, for our grandparents, for our immuno-compromised brothers and sisters, for people we will never meet. When you’re looking out the window, look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love.”

When I looked out my window today, what I saw was extraordinary—in the foreground, the sun was shining brilliantly off the neighboring buildings, but three blocks north and beyond fog obscured everything. Two hours later, we were in the fog, too.

In each of these vignettes windows take on symbolic meaning. in São Paulo, each window is a stage in which action takes place—in this case, protest action. Taken all together, the windows reveal a community of protestors.

In the second story, the view is emptiness, interpreted as a sign of the love to others shown in “social distancing,” 

My own window experience involved both sunlight and obscuring fog. In our current situation, there are bright spots—health care and other workers giving every last ounce of energy to serving the community, as well as the thousands of people who recover from the disease. 

But the fog was there. When I was a student in Germany in 1954, I lived in the village of Kilchberg, a few miles outside Tūbingen, where the university was located. I bicycled back and forth on the road that ran alongside the Neckar river. Sometimes, of an evening, fog would envelope me; I still recall riding in the fog—an excitement, a sense being alone in a world I cannot see. 

A German poem describes a man riding horseback in dense fog, who comes upon a village. He can see nothing in the fog, but when he hears a fountain, he knows he is in the town center; the splashing sounds enable him to find his way.

We are also journeying in fog—the tenuousness of our predictions, the uncertainty of what will happen in our own lives on any given day, and  a residual fear (the predicted 100,000 deaths to occur between April 1 and June 1 means that on the average 1,600 people will die every day). What lies in the distance, in the future, is shrouded in the fog.

Each of us, too, may hear a fountain splashing—flowing water symbolizes life. For some, religious faith is that fountain. For others, a deep sense of values, or family ties, or confidence in science and the practice of medicine. 

We may feel alone on this journey, but we are a community. The technology of phones, Face-time, and Zoom makes that community real, as well as the essential workers who put food on grocery store shelves or shop for us or care for us if we must go to the hospital. 

Two more vignettes that reveal this community: My doctor wanted a draw of my blood, but since we are under lockdown, I cannot go to the hospital for that lab work. At 6 o’clock this morning. I was awakened by a lab technician who had come to me to draw the blood. Another sign of our times: Neva ordered groceries online. The shopper who was filling the order texted her, “We’re out of green onions; do you want a substitute?” She texted back, “No, that’s okay, but I forgot to order hummus.” A text came back, “No problem, it’s in your cart now!”

I hear the welcome sound of a fountain—I’ll find my way. I hope you hear it, too.


(c) Phil Hefner    2 April 2020