Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Suffering God

I never knew Nancy Eiesland while I was at Emory. However, when she died last month, I started learning about her theology and was truly compelled by what she had to say-- it's been with me for the past several weeks, and I suspect will influence my understanding of and relationship to God for many years to come. Nancy Eiesland's work revolved largely around what she called a "theology of the disabled." Namely, she explored the ways that God relates to those with disabilities (something close to her heart as she herself was disabled), much in the same way that others have explored how God relates to the poor, the oppressed, women, or African Americans. She pioneered a new branch of liberation theology-- one in which God has a special relationship with the disabled.

I've been thinking a lot about Nancy Eiesland's work these past couple of days-- the Easter Triduum, when we ponder the death and resurrection of Jesus. I've been thinking about what it means to worship a God that came to earth to be wounded-- a God whose autonomy was taken away, and became powerless. These last couple of weeks I have ceratinly experienced a loss of some power and autonomy through my pregnancy. I know that there are others in my family that are in the midst of this same experience due to failing health, aging, or anxiety. I imagine that such a loss of autonomy and power must be central to the experience of living with a disability. One is probably humbled on a daily basis by the need to accept help or ask for it because of very real physical limitations.

So what does it mean to worship a God that lives with such limitations, that is not just a resurrected God, as we remember tomorrow morning, but a suffering God? One insight in Nancy Eiesland's work is that when Jesus appears to the disciples after his death and resurrection, the way that they identify him is through touching his wounds. The mark of his earthly limitation is not only present (nor is it only a scar or a scab or something), but it has become the central aspect of his identity. Jesus, and God therefore, embody suffering-- something that even the resurrection does not erase.

I love Easter and, as I have mentioned here before, often struggle with lent-- I either avoid it or try to "work through it," just as I suppose I try to work through suffering in my own life. But I think that the idea of a suffering God-- a God that finds holiness and peace and presence even amidst woundedness-- has started to transform the way that I think about the reality of life. Nancy Eiesland often said that she believed that in heaven she would be disabled, just as she was here on earth. In fact, she believed that God Herself was disabled. So on this Holy Saturday, in the hours before we proclaim "He is Risen," I am trying to be present with the suffering in my own life, my own family, and truly embrace it is part of the sacred reality.

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