Private Assurances

By Kim Hutchins

Copyright © 1994 Mars Hill Review 1 Founded in 1994 · Premier Issue: pgs 147-151.

Lord, give us a vision to discern, in every time and every place, the presence among us of Him who is head over all things.

There's a fifteen mile stretch of interstate highway running along the south side of Denver, connecting the eastern and western parts of the city. Late one afternoon as I was driving west toward home, I couldn't help but notice the bright orange sun dipping behind the already shadowed mountains. Sights like this are common in Colorado. Many overwhelmed souls have witnessed these things and been persuaded that God exists. But for me, at this moment, the presence of the Lord was crowded out by a deadness that seemed to hover, like a cloud, in the cab of my Ford Explorer. It was as if majesty and tragedy had waged war to occupy the same space of time. And this time, tragedy won.

This had been a particularly rough day for me in a particularly eventful year. I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. I was also square in the middle of an existential funk that was pushing me perilously close to paralysis. I'm surprised I even noticed the sunset.

I couldn't feel what I felt. And in no way could I put words to the emotions that must have been trapped beneath my deadened soul, struggling to emerge like a man beneath a frozen lake. All I knew, at this moment, was that God was not my co-pilot. And frankly, I couldn't give a rip. He seldom shows up when I need him most. So as I lumbered down the interstate, asleep at the wheel and cursing God with my deadness, I turned on the radio. It's an instinctive ritual that's been with me since adolescence.

I remember, as a fifteen year old, the surprised expressions on the faces of those who visited my bedroom. The second-story room was filled with all the trappings one might expect in the habitat of a teenaged boy, right down to the Peter Max poster and the necessary black light. But what caught the eye was the Altar. Neatly positioned between the twin beds, it rose from the nightstand with curious architectural splendor. As it narrowed its way upward toward a peak, it stopped two feet short of the ceiling, as if exhausted in its attempt to reach Heaven. With intended irony, I had arranged the components of my stereo system in a way to resemble a sacramental shrine. And most nights, behind closed doors, it was at the foot of this shrine that I'd lay face down and listen to music. For hours on end, I would escape into the interior of songs, exegeting every word and stanza, my soul rising and descending in visceral symmetry to the various compositions of notes. Participation in this ritual was one of the few things that had a chance to bring comfort to my confused and chaotic childhood. I now know that it was here that I reached upward with my soul to touch God. And many nights, through the music and lyrics of contemporary secular songs, He met me.

About ten miles from the exit to my home, the cloud of deadness began to dissipate. I had not noticed the lyrics but there was something hauntingly familiar in the song on the radio...its rhythm, its cadence. Kind of like the chugging sound of a locomotive laboring toward its predestined terminal, the billowing steam protesting the imprisonment created by two rails. I began to listen intently.

The song painted a portrait of a man, driving in the heat and desolation of a desert, making his way to an oasis. And there lived his lover, one who had seduced him with a kiss of fire yet remained out of reach, leaving him burning in love and wondering what he must do to be comforted. As he approached the oasis, he lamented that he's not quite sure he wants to continue in this crazy situation. But the sounds from the radio testified that he's within reach of the oasis. And the sweet memory of his lover lifted him as he continued on a road that he knew he could never exit.

What was so alluring about the song was that it provided the sensual equivalent of what I must have been feeling underneath my deadness. The rhythm, the cadence and the words penetrated the icy layer of my soul and articulated precisely what I intuitively knew but could not express. God lured me down the same road, left me longing for more and prohibited me from exiting the relationship.

At that moment, in some mysterious way, that which I experienced inside and that which was in the song became one. And as if welded to one another, both my soul and the song let out a cry. The tears welled in my eyes as I remembered all those lonely nights on my bedroom floor when God faithfully reminded me of his presence.

That day, Robert Plant, former lead singer of Led Zeppelin, became my Psalmist. And for the last few months, I've been trying to understand this mysterious way in which God continues to reach me. Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher, dramatist and critic, provides a framework for understanding.

Marcel believed that inside our souls there is a hollow place that will be totally filled only in Heaven and only by God. This hollowness hurts, so in our discomfort, we seek relief. Whoever or whatever provides comfort becomes our god. We develop our faith and hope accordingly.

Marcel knew the tragic character of human existence.{1} He refused to believe in an idealism that claims that eternal comfort is available apart from faith in God. But he struggled to understand how faith and hope are developed. Marcel disagreed with is not an irrational leap nor does an individual stand alone in his faith. He came to believe that we are all travelers on a road to Heaven, but we're stuck in this temporal Hell known as the fallen world. We're beaten and bruised by sin as we make our way home and oftentimes, we are tempted to give up. Nevertheless, God is faithful to give us foretastes of eternal realities as we persevere. And those who are aware of the foretastes will be comforted. Foretastes are private assurances from God, testifying that He has not abandoned us to this painful world. Marcel calls them "memories of the future." They provide the foundation for authentic hope.

Like a man in bed, tossing and turning with a fever trying to get comfortable, we spend all our lives, consciously and unconsciously, seeking these assurances.{2} Marcel believed that man goes about his search using two processes. The first he calls primary reflection (thinking). The other is secondary reflection.

Primary reflection considers discomfort a problem to be solved. Man steps back, separates himself from his situation and abstracts all concrete data that is not relevant to solving the problem. He develops formulas and techniques, applies them to the problem and his discomfort leaves. The original curiosity that God may have been prompting through the use of discomfort, is alleviated. Man then places his faith and hope in formulaic methods in an effort to manage his pain. If the discomfort returns, then surely he must have chosen the wrong formula or applied it incorrectly or incompletely. So, he reasons, back to the drawing board until he gets it right. Or else pretend that comfort has arrived. Anything is preferable to facing the tragic character of human existence and the truth that there's only one way to get out of here alive.

If one chooses formulaic methods to apprehend God, he ends up intellectually and morally confused. {3} The numerous trips back to the drawing board will result in more formulaic failures, leading to total exhaustion. Tragically, this exhaustion leads to existential despair, then paralysis. And paralysis makes one oblivious to bright orange sunsets. He's unavailable to experience the real presence of God. The mysterious and "inexhaustible riches of God's kaleidoscopic world are shrunk into a small manageable box that requires all things to conform to black and white logic".{4} He becomes a robot, without true hope. And without hope, he is vulnerable to the allure of immediate relief and false comfort...offered by false gods.

Private assurances certainly can be obtained through rational attempts. God gave us brains for thinking, for exegeting scripture, for composing and publishing journals that help us understand our human condition. But He also gave us spirits that long for experiences pregnant with His presence. Moments that, when entered and comprehended, provide us a transcendent source of assurance in this transient life.{5} Perhaps you've experienced these moments in church or while reading scripture. But what are we to say of our experiences with good secular literature, film or other artistic expressions? Or what about the music and lyrics of Robert Plant?

If primary reflection considers our discomfort a problem to be solved, secondary reflection considers our condition a mystery to be revealed. Secondary reflection requires that we humbly remain available and open to relationship with others (people, God, art, etc.) that are incapable of being abstracted down to manageable formulas. As one participates in the mystery of such a relationship, he seeks the revelation of the total presence of the other. According to Marcel, it is in the midst of the experience of being present in a relationship (whether it be with my wife, God or a Robert Plant song) that God mysteriously reminds us that we have not been abandoned to this fallen world. "Within" the experience, God yields a kind of knowledge and truth which, though unverifiable (with formulas), nevertheless illuminates our lives.{6} And for me, that explains the sense of comfort I felt when God resurrected me from my deadness and reminded me, through themes of hope and redemption embodied in a secular song, to hang in there. I'm not yet home.

One thing that's becoming glaringly obvious to me is that, on a practical level, there is really very little difference in the way Michelle and I spend our weekends and how our unsaved neighbors choose to do so. We all liked the ending of Schindler's List, most of us couldn't put down A Soldier Of The Great War. And we'd pay double price to see another U2 concert. But what separates us from our neighbors is the ritual of Sunday morning, when Michelle and I go to church and they stay home. I'm becoming more and more aware of the sadness I feel as we return home and pull into the driveway. As they watch us from their freshly mown lawns, I can feel the ever so slightest of distance being wedged between us. Somewhere, somehow they've been persuaded that church or the people that go there cannot relate to them in meaningful ways. Perhaps they've experienced first-hand the rigid demands of a church that makes no allowance for the things they so passionately enjoy: movies, art, music, literature, poetry. Or maybe they've felt duped by churches who encouraged their participation in a Super Bowl party, but then gave them the four spiritual laws sermon at half-time. Perhaps they've heeded the advice of Garrison Keillor, who warns us to avoid any church if the pastor's hairdo is styled to look like the top of a Q-Tip. Maybe they're aware that some of their churchgoing neighbors are regular in Sunday attendance, but instead of engaging them, the churchgoers retreat into what Cal Thomas calls a "subterranean subculture" where there is no association with others who think, dress or act differently. This is not the message Paul delivered on Mars Hill.

So, perhaps what encourages me as I read Gabriel Marcel and listen to Robert Plant is a hope that someday, somewhere the wedge that separates Michelle and me from our neighbors will be removed. I believe that Paul genuinely enjoyed reading the poetry of Epemenides, that unsaved Cretan who provided the cultural bridge for Paul to relate to his audience on Mars Hill. Just like I enjoy listening to secular artists who know first-hand what life's really like in this hellish existence. I learn much from them. And perhaps they will learn something from us, trusted neighbors who'll be free enough to enjoy what they enjoy, hang out with them or tell them, even without words, about the love of Jesus.

{1}Paul Edwards, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1967), s.v. "Gabriel Marcel," by Samuel M. Keen. Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was the most prolific writer in the French language who ever lived. Like most existential thinkers, he refused to allow himself or his thinking to be reduced to a system or formula. I am grateful for Sam Keen's brilliant capsulization of Marcel's philosophical method.

2 - 3 Ibid.

4 - 6 Ibid.