“The Whole Creation Groans . . .”

I last posted on this page in 2012. In August of 2013 Deb and I lost our twenty-year-old son, Zachary Colin Gallaway, in a motorcycle accident. Since that time, to be honest, I have hardly had the heart to make art, or to write songs, much less to comment on the process. Now after almost four years, Deb and I find that we are able once again to consider trying to express in some way what has until recently seemed just too tender to touch.

The images above are of Zach. The first, a painting I made of him and his dog, Abbie, in 2007. Then there is a photo from 2010 of Zach with Deb at Devil’s Courthouse along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Next is a portrait that Zach made of himself as part of his art studies at University just a few months before his death. And finally, a photo of Zach with our whole family at Christmas in 2011.

Deb and I have only been able to bear Zach’s loss, it has seemed, by following closely the wisdom of the Christian scriptures as reflected in the title (above). That phrase is drawn from the apostle Paul’s description in the epistle to the Romans of how the whole world groans, and we also groan, as we await the goal of the new creation, the redemption of all things including our bodies (Romans 8:18-39). In the early days of our loss, some well-meaning friends tried to counsel us that, in view of the promises of faith, we really didn’t have to grieve. But then we listened to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where he says “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” And in Romans 8, as above, where he shows so clearly that we also hope, but not as those who have no grief. And we remembered Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb, where it says so simply, “He wept.” Thanks be to God for these sign posts that have helped us on our way.

And then we were troubled, after watching the recent film “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams as a fictional mom (Professor Louise Banks). The film begins with Prof. Banks, Louise, struggling to come to terms with the loss of her twenty-year-old daughter to cancer. We felt that we could understand the portrayal of this mother’s bewilderment, and her painful dreams of loss and death. As the story develops, however, and Professor Banks (a linguist) is drawn into the main plot–a crisis with extraterrestrial beings where she must find a way to translate their purpose–she discovers from them that time is cyclical, as the ancient Stoics believed; and this enables her also to accept with Stoic equanimity the loss of her daughter. At a crucial moment of insight, she realizes not only that she can “do it all again,” but that she will be glad to do so. Indeed, in the fictive timeframe of the movie, and in contrast to the much longer and larger arc of history conceived by the Stoics, Professor Banks meets the man who will be her daughter’s father while she is starting her new job with the alien project, and while she is still grieving her daughter’s loss.

By the end of the film, I was analyzing the philosophical constructs of the Stoic world view in contrast to the Christian point of view. Deb, on the other hand, was just mad. She was angry, she said, because the film’s resolution “just wasn’t true.” Granting that the plot of the film and it’s time frame is not true, even to the Stoic conception, much less to the way most of us experience time most of the time, we have wondered what else needs to be said about the different ways involved (in our life and in the film) of seeing the significance of suffering in the world. We conclude this post with two reflections:

1. Unless we are prepared to ignore the huge differences of world view and the related attitudes to suffering (with a kind of post-modern acceptance of radical subjectivity) we must conclude that the Stoic and the Christian world views cannot both be true to reality. If we accept post-modern subjectivity, on the other hand, we may also find ourselves unable to question another man’s claim that he is Napoléon, or Hitler, or a poached egg. One of these world views could be true. Or both could be false. But both cannot be true.

2. The Stoic approach tries to handle suffering by minimizing it, side-stepping it, or explaining it away. (If things really do repeat, then nothing is ever really lost.) The Christian point of view, by contrast, does not regard suffering as the ultimate goal of reality, but it does regard our temporal losses as real in the linear flow of history. Deb and I will not be again with Zach and Abbie in this world. We will not stand again at Devil’s Courthouse with a nineteen-year-old Zach as he reaches out his arms to embrace the beauty and wonder of that place and time. He will not again draw his self-portrait at twenty years old. And our family will never again pose all together in the sunroom for Christmas. Yet our Christian hope remains, that all of these real losses are yet not the final goal of creation. Nor do they cancel the many good and cheerful moments that we share along the way. Nor will they, in Paul’s phrase, be able to “separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:39). One day the whole creation will be released from it’s current groaning. Loss is real. But hope is real as well.




The Goal of Lent

It is the season of Lent. But why all the long faces? Doesn’t the story of the Christian Scriptures begin with good news (creation) and end with even better news (new creation and a wedding feast)? “Yes, but,” as someone will no doubt remind me, “the story also entails the fall of our race, and the disordering of all of our affections, so that we love (and fear and desire) what is not fitting. That’s why we practice disciplines like fasting, almost like the ancient Stoics, so we can seek a more virtuous life.” All of this is true, I believe, and the Stoics deserve our admiration and study. (“All truth is God’s,” as Justin the Martyr and Thomas Aquinas said.) But are the foundational stories of Stoics and Christians really the same? Stoics view the world as a place of hard law and fate where history offers nothing beyond a cyclical stage upon which to practice heroic courage and self-discipline. On such a stage, the disciplines may be an end in themselves. But in the Christian story, the goal of the disciplines looks beyond such athletic achievements to the creation of a new community, tempered by self-sacrificing love. In that world, as the ancient monastics knew, the disciplines are not an end in themselves. Indeed they must be set aside if they interfere with caring for the needs of our neighbor. It may also be well to consider, as we think about our own goals for Lent, that heroes are sometimes a real handful for others to live with.

The art work in this post is titled “Mahonia Morning,” and is in a private collection. More information about this painting and others can be found in the galleries of my art work at Fine Art America.