I had coffee with my friend Matt today. He is a vibrant young man who has been a great supporter and friend of mine for many years. I have also had the privilege of being a close friend of his family for more than a decade now.
A few years ago, Matt faced some excruciating health crises. One morning a few days before he was to go into surgery, I was praying like mad for Matt and sent him a text that included these words, quoting a popular worship song:
He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
the weight of his wind and mercy
When all of a sudden I am unaware
of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful you are
And how great your affections are for me
I have thought often about these words, especially the line about how "I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory". What are "these afflictions" in my life (or yours), and how do they get "eclipsed by glory"? And how could this glory of God "eclipse" them to the extent that I am "unaware" of them?
I don't know about you, but when I am in affliction I tend to get absorbed by, consumed by, totally overwhelmed by, my own suffering, whatever form it takes.
I had a long conversation with my niece the other day about loneliness. Being an introvert from a family of introverts, you wouldn't think loneliness would be an issue for her, or for me. I spent almost a week one year ago in the Boundary Waters on a solo trip, and I didn't see another human from mid-day Monday through mid-day Friday. I reveled in the solitude. I loved it, lapped it up. Never missed human company and never regretted my choice to go out into the backcountry alone. In fact, I was sad on Friday to come to the landing on Round Lake and have to talk to people. One of the ideas I've toyed with during my current time of transition is, why not take a month and head into the BWCA solo? Spend a couple thousand dollars on a good canoe and provisions, and just head out? Some small part of me yearns for that kind of solitude. At the moment, though, my guess is it wouldn't be a wise choice.
But I digress.
My niece and I talked at length about loneliness. She's got a new baby, and her husband works long hours. She's often alone with the little one in their apartment, and the lack of human companionship can be crushing. Absolutely crushing. I have a ready cadre of friends and family that I try to stay in contact with, but at times the loneliness of my days (especially rainy days when I'm not driving truck and boredom rears its ugly head) is still crushing. For many people, the worst kind of isolation, the worst loneliness, is what they experience in a crowd.
How is this affliction eclipsed by glory? Maybe the more important line in the song is "I am unaware" -- in other words, it's not that the affliction goes away, but that the glory of Jesus eclipses the affliction. Ever seen an eclipse? I've watched a few, both lunar and solar, and they're pretty amazing. Either the moon moves between the earth and the sun (solar eclipse) or the earth moves between the moon and the sun (lunar eclipse). The image in the song means that the glory moves between your view and the affliction. So the glory of Jesus somehow moves between you and your affliction.
So what does it look like for the glory of Jesus to move between me and my loneliness, for example? What does it look like for his presence, his glory, to eclipse my affliction?
First option is that somehow, in my devotional time, in my prayer, or in some other encounter, Jesus becomes so present to me, I experience his glory in such a tangible way, that it cuts me off from a preoccupation with my own struggles. You can read about such experiences in the writings of John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila, or others who have focused deeply on the life of prayer. They had these kinds of experiences, and such a present, tangible sense of Jesus' presence is certainly available to believers today at times. The story goes that when Thomas Aquinas, who wrote thousands of pages of teaching that still guide the Roman Catholic Church today, who basically reinterpreted Christian theology so it could take account of the newly rediscovered writings of Aristotle -- when Thomas was near the end of his life, he slipped into a vision and upon coming back, is reported to have said, "I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw."
But most Christians never experience that kind of direct revelation of the glory of God, at least not in an enduring way, though we may be stricken by God's glory for a moment watching a sunset or experiencing worship in a powerful way or watching a baby being born or something like that. But it's fleeting at best. And in my experience, those moments are difficult to hang onto. It is interesting that as soon as the Transfiguration was over, Jesus called Peter, James and John to come down the mountain with him, back among people. It's like he didn't want them to focus on remaining on that mountaintop.
The second option, and a much more common one, is that the glory of Jesus comes to you and me hidden, embodied, incarnate in the life of another person who bears the image of God to us. In other words, God sends you a human being to be his image, the representation of his glory, to stand between you and your afflictions, to eclipse them. This is why the fellowship of other believers is so critically important. If you have eyes to see, it can be an incredible thing to see the presence of God in someone who loves you well, who stands even for a moment between you and your hurt, your lack, your pain. In my sense of isolation today, I had no less than eight people step between me and that loneliness, eclipsing it for a few minutes or for a few hours, letting a deep, Jesus-centered connection with them make me unaware for a time of my afflictions. Most were people with whom I interacted in the flesh; a precious few were loved ones whose faces and memories I could bring to mind in the moment, cherishing their presence in a life-giving way. And if we are paying attention, these loving, lovely people who embody God's glory to us not only give us a few minutes' respite. If we are attentive they can help us to reinterpret our afflictions, to see them in a new way.
At the end of the day, I can still be overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and isolation. But -- and this is what I choose right now -- I can also focus on the glory, on the embodied glory of God in each of those individuals who carried God's image into my life and eclipsed my afflictions for a time. It can be a beautiful thing to be unaware of our afflictions, to have them eclipsed by the glory -- present and tangible -- of Jesus.