Maria White never enjoyed good health and she died at the tragically young age of thirty-two, but not before she had established herself as a poet of note and married James Russell Lowell, who, with her help, finally outshone her as “a name”. She had a poet’s heart and like all the truly fine poets she saw things the rest of us only grope after in part blindness. Speaking as a Christian I recognize that human loves share in the flaws that are part of our fallen humanity but speaking as a Christian who has known more than his share of ignorance down the years I haven’t seen clearly enough the beauty and riches God has placed in these human loves. Too, I’ve underestimated their power even while I admitted that they have immense power. I haven’t seen the beauty and richness of life because like so many others before me—people who’ve taught and shaped me—I’ve spoken almost exclusively of sin and forgiveness, of God’s redeeming activity without connecting it with his eternal purpose to bless and give life and I’ve said more about leaving this life than truly living it.
Again, like millions before me down the centuries I’ve narrowed the meaning of the life and death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus as to how they relate to and deal with sin. I can hardly make up for my failure by now saying nothing about sin and reconciliation for that would be tragic as well as a distortion of the meaning of Jesus Christ. He deals with our sin, thank God!
But he deals with our sin to gain God’s ultimate and eternal purpose, namely, to bless the human family with fullness of life; a fullness of life that is holy and honorable in righteousness but a life that includes human loves cleansed of all of whatever that mars them. Redemption confirms God’s creation intention rather than reduces or dismisses it. Redemption and blessing aren’t two distinct stories running parallel—they’re two faces of one coin, two themes in one drama.
I mentioned Maria White Lowell at the beginning because in one of her poems she stresses the depth and appeal of human love. In her powerful and infectious way here’s what she says in one of her four sonnets about her love for her husband, James Russell She makes the point that if Death came and took her to heaven that even there, in the midst of all the glory and with heaven’s shining ones by her side she would tire of the endless blue if she couldn’t look down on the earth and see the one she loved. No one should accuse her of heresy; they should simply pay attention to her way of expressing the beauty, glory and wonder of the love of one human for another. Here’s how she says it (quoted in H. E. Scudder’s biography of her husband).
If Death uplift me, even thus should I,
Companioned by the silver spirits high
And stationed on the sunset’s crimson towers,
Bending over earth’s broad stretch of bowers,
To where my love beneath their shades might lie;
For I should weary of the endless blue,
If that one soul, so beautiful and true,
Were hidden by earth’s vapors from my sight.
But what she in soft brilliance implies about the depths to which human loves can go pales before what we hear from Moses in Exodus 32:32. God has threatened to obliterate apostate Israel and Moses, while freely acknowledging their great wickedness, begs Him to forgive them, “but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” What do you make of such devotion?
Then we have Paul in Romans 9:3 saying, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” The scholars tell of various linguistic possibilities and niceties but J.G.D. Dunn was right when he said the only reason we search for linguistic options is because of the breathtaking thing Paul clearly said. N.T Wright refuses to hide his astonishment at Paul’s statement.
It would be foolish to think Paul thought his being anathematized could save others and there’s certainly no need to think he was actually saying to God what Moses did say to God. (There is more in Paul’s statement than there is in Moses’—but that’s another discussion.) What is clearly beyond dispute is this: Paul so loved his people that being cut off from Jesus, wouldn’t be too great a price for him to pay on their behalf. He knew what Moses felt toward them and he knew even better what Jesus felt about them and he here expresses his own heart toward them. Make what we want of it, Paul’s love for his people and his agony over their loss leads to this outpouring of passion.
In Exodus 32:33 there is something of a gentle rebuke—so I judge—in what God says to Moses but there is no reason for us to believe that God is not pleased with the depth of Moses’ feeling for Israel. Paul, often accused of being a renegade Jew, makes it clear that that isn’t true but in saying what he says he is revealing the wonder of the love humans can have for one another that they can feel to such depths and express such ongoing thoughts.
By the time some of us are done trying to get around the plain meaning of his statement we have Paul saying nothing worth saying. “If it were permissible for me to ask such a thing and if I thought it might avail something (though I know it wouldn’t) I could see myself praying such a prayer.”
That isn’t at all like anything Paul said. James Dunn is right, “In cases like this it is always wise to ask not simply, ‘What did the author intend to say?’ But also, ‘What could the author have expected his readers to understand by his language?’” It’s clear to me that Paul is saying something like, “I’d be willing to be damned for their sake, to save them; that’s how deeply I feel for them.”
I’m not the only one who feels that there is a handful of people for whom I now in life feel so deeply about that if they didn’t make it to the better world and life that is ahead that it wouldn’t be a better world for me.
I know we’re not to read the deep feelings of Maria White Lowell, Moses and Paul and “measure the speech of their hearts with the rules of logic.” Humans are capable of feeling so deeply that they can contemplate losing all if their beloved gains. This is a gift of God and it’s like God.
(Oh, Holy One, in our best moments we feel such feelings and they tell us of the things you are doing within us. Knowing and sensing that pleases us very much and we want to know it better and sense it more deeply and we ask that you continue to so shape us that the genuine willingness to pay any price that comes with it will rise within us. This prayer in the Savior, the Lord Jesus.)