the burn

I feel it today. That which I felt 10 and more years ago when I was first here. Felt it my first day of college, but that was sort of expected. Felt it through and through, until the last day. Not only was that not expected it was, and is, offensive. The burn. That inner indescribable agony of being.

Joel 2

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand-a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.

Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste?nothing escapes them. They have the appearance of horses; they gallop along like cavalry. With a noise like that of chariots they leap over the mountaintops, like a crackling fire consuming stubble, like a mighty army drawn up for battle.

At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course. They do not jostle each other; each marches straight ahead.They plunge through defenses without breaking ranks.

They rush upon the city; they run along the wall. They climb into the houses; like thieves they enter through the windows. Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? Rend Your Heart “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing?grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ ”

Then the LORD will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people. The LORD will reply to them: “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations. “I will drive the northern army far from you, pushing it into a parched and barren land, with its front columns going into the eastern sea and those in the rear into the western sea. And its stench will go up; its smell will rise.” Surely he has done great things.

Be not afraid, O land; be glad and rejoice. Surely the LORD has done great things. Be not afraid, O wild animals, for the open pastures are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches. Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.

The threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten?the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm?my great army that I sent among you.

You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance,as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls.

The images of terror and burning and judgment and destruction in this passage. That’s the burn. And it’s been interpreted as a tale of the end times. Maybe it is that, too. But it’s not that only. The burn is the state of being in which Hell burns now, in us, with us, through us, in all sorts of ways. It encroaches upon us, whispering to us profound emptiness and despair, directing us towards loss, and abandonment, and disregard. Sapping our being. Ending us. De-creation.

Hells reaches up with many arms, trying to grab a hold of our soul. Often succeeding. What we call Hell, that end times threat, is but the totality of what seeks us all in time.

Loneliness. Guilt. Pride. Anger. The deadly sins. The deadly curses. Ending our being. Lying and deceiving. So potent is the encroaching hell that we seek to sate it’s pressure, abandoning perseverance for a palpable release, even as we know in the moment and after the inadequacy of our attempts. It becomes the constant cloud. That thing which takes us as early as possible then tries to use us, in our despair we become messengers of despair, tempted then tempting.

This is the burn. And I feel it today. I felt it before. When I was first here. And it conquered me. Thrashed me. Scorched my soul, leaving nothing but parched ground that would bear little to no peace. It ended me, in a way.

Back here in the same places, having spent the last days with pleasant company I am now sitting with no expectation, no plans but to return home. My experience before in microcosm, the immediate and identifiable emotions like a long ago aroma that triggers subtle memories of shadows thought gone.

Luther felt that burn. For him the burn was guilt. Guilt over sins real and magnified. And he shaped a church based on that flavor of the burn. Churches respond to the burn of guilt, guilt over sins real and magnified, telling people who feel the burn of guilt to confess their sins, take hold of the sacrifice on the cross, embrace the life of the church which offers a community of the now forgiven.

The Gospel became the Gospel of forgiveness. Good news a substitute for release of eternal and temporal guilt. The church offered an eternal answer to this particular burn. And forgot the others.

When John the Baptist was in prison he asked if Jesus was really the answer. Jesus sent back this reply, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

This is the sign of the Messiah, the one who brings healing, and salvation, and freedom. Not only from guilt. From whatever burns.

The church has limited the gospel to one thing, abandoning those who burn from other causes.

“According to Cyril,” Jurgen Moltmann writes, “hell is the land of death where there is no life; the realm of darkness where there is no light; an abyss out of which the groans of the damned rise up without there being anyone to listen and pity them; a pit out of which they miserably cry ‘woe’, but find no one willing to be moved by their plight; a place they all implore but no one hears their plea; where they are all forsaken and have no comforter.”

I read that today and noted it sounded familiar. It was the flavor of my time in college and what my present burn is hinting at. It is the taste of hope dashed. The plea ignored. The desperate yearning for ever present companionship frustrated in a palpable isolation. Not that this moment is the same as then. There are much more pleasant voices out there now. Yet I feel the burn in this moment, in this moment in which my chosen yearnings offer utterly no ability for me to manage or force.

I feel the small, temporary bun of this moment and hell reminds me of its much grander fury.

I feel the burn and don’t now know all that I thought I knew. I feel the burn and the fear rises up, making my enforced wait a persistent impatience so that each moment becomes an eternity, and not one that tastes of heaven.

Isaiah 9:2 – “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Isaiah 35

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear;your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing;everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

This is the Gospel, the good news, and it is not about relief from existential angst but a holistic response to horrifying agonies of all kinds.

And so the people of God who gather in communities called the church need to be a holistic people, answering and giving and guiding towards the heavenly moment, the atom in which God’s whole presence resides in the present and through eternity.

For if the lonely, the imprisoned, the blind, the hungry, the homeless, the guilty, the frustrated, the broken, the battered, the judged, and all those who suffer from the searing burn of present Hell have no good news to answer the burn then the church is no church at all, but is instead only a sliver offering an anemic gospel.

We reach the guilty and save them into heaven. That’s only a small part, and in our era maybe very small. It is time we reach into all the areas of burning and give them, give us, give me, hope for eternal freedom.

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