Will the Center Hold?

Will the Center Hold? 

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote these lines in 1919, just after the end of “The Great War,” but they have a disturbingly contemporary ring to them.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.  (“The Second Coming”)

Born in the idealistic patriotism of the post-WWII generation, I was raised with the naive assumption  that there was a political center that tended to hold things together in this country.  My parents were rock-ribbed Republicans while my cousins grew up as Democrats.  My father and my uncles would have vigorous debates (okay, they were arguments) over just about everything.

Across the years, my loyalties shifted so that I was just about as disappointed when Nixon beat McGovern as I was when Kennedy beat Nixon.  Sometimes the pendulum would swing toward the Democrats and sometimes it would swing toward the Republicans, but over time the pendulum would swing back and forth across a center that was committed to doing what was best for the country.  I thought that the broad “middle class” of the electorate would ultimately balance out the extremists on either side.

I’m not sure I believe that anymore.  Perhaps my personal “ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Within in the world, the nation and our denomination, it seems that all too often “the best lack all conviction” and all too often, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

A Center That Will Hold

So, where will a center be found?  Maybe this is what the Psalmist had in mind when he wrote, “Many people say, ‘We can’t find goodness anywhere.'”  (Psalm 4:6)  It’s a disturbingly cynical thought.  But then he remembers the goodness of God and declares, “But you have filled my heart with more joy than when their wheat and wine are everywhere!”  He finds his ultimate trust in the faithfulness of God and says, “I will lie down and fall asleep in peace because you alone, Lord, let me live in safety.”  (Psalm 4:7-8)

Now, there is a center that will hold.

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.  I had already written and posted this message when I came across this sad confirmation of my observation in “The Washington Post”:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/americas-new-tribal-cycle-of-hatred/2015/04/17/67794040-e50a-11e4-905f-cc896d379a32_story.html?hpid=z5.

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God’s Joke

Easter Laughter 

I’ll confess that most of what I know about Dante’s “Divine Comedy” came from Dan Brown’s novel, “Inferno,” which may not be the most accurate source of information. But I knew enough to know that most of our cultural assumptions about hell are more directly influenced by Dante than by the gospel.  This week I learned (not from Dan Brown) that when Dante ascends from hell and purgatory toward heaven, he hears a sound he described as “riso del universo,” — “the laughter of the universe.”

I also didn’t know about a tradition of celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter as “Bright Sunday.” Some folks call “Holy Humor Sunday.” I learned that from Magrey deVega, a more reliable source than Dan Brown.

The custom was rooted in early church theologians (Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) who said that God played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead.  In 15th Century, this Sunday was celebrated as “Risus Paschalis” (“Easter laugh”). Churchgoers and pastors played practical jokes on each other, told jokes, sang and danced.

Unfortunately, “Risus Paschalis” was banned by Pope Clement X in the 17th century.  Perhaps people were having too much fun.  The Pope was a party pooper.

The Laughter of God

it reminded me of Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Lazarus Laughed.”  O’Neill imagines a dinner party in Lazarus’ home after Jesus raised him from the dead. (John 11:1-44)  A dinner guest who saw the event reports:

“Jesus smiled sadly but with tenderness, as one who from a distance of years of sorrow remembers happiness.  Then Lazarus knelt and kissed Jesus’ feet and both of them smiled and Jesus blessed him and called him “My Brother” and went away; and Lazarus looking after Him, began to laugh softly like a man in love with God!  Such a laugh I never heard! It made my ears drunk!  And though I was half-dead with fright I found myself laughing, too!”

When Lazarus is asked to describe what he experienced, he says:

“I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my heart…And my heart reborn to love of life cried ‘Yes!’ and I laughed in the laughter of God!”

The text for all this might be Psalm 2.  The psalmist says that when God sees the arrogance of nations, kings and people, “God sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.” 

When It’s No Laughing Matter 

The sad truth is that the suffering in our world and in our own lives is no laughing matter, if by laughter you mean the cheap, cynical, silly and often hurtful stuff our culture calls humor. But if we believe the deeper truth of Easter, we can hear, even in the dark places of suffering and death, the sound of laughter which will ultimately reverberate throughout the entire universe.  And we, with Lazarus, can laugh the laughter of God because Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Grace and peace,

Jim

Really Risen!

Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!

My friend, Peter Storey, preached a sunrise service on the beach in South Africa this morning.  He told me his theme would be, “The grave can’t keep Him in and the world can’t keep Him out.”

Believe that?  You bet!  Explain it?  You’ve got to be kidding!

One of the reasons I believe in a “liberal arts” education is that there are some things that are too real, too deep, and too powerful to be known or experienced only through our current obsession with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. One of those realities is the resurrection.  So, for Easter, instead of explanations, I offer a painting and a poem.

The Painting 

Caravaggio (1571-1610) captured the incredulity of the disciples when the Risen Christ invited Thomas to “put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out you hand and put it in my side.”  (John 20:27-28)  There is a ruthless realism about the way Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the ugly scar on his side.  The artist draws us into the reality of the story in ways than no scientific explanation ever could.

It’s also no small thing that the Risen Christ still bears the scars of his suffering.  The scars are, in fact, the way the disciples knew it was Jesus.  (Luke 24:36-40)

The Poem 

The poet is John Updike.  His “Seven Stanzas for Easter,” forces us to accept the “monstrous” reality of resurrection.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

May we, with the artist and the poet, experience again the earth-shaking, life-transforming, monstrously-miraculous good news that the grave can’t keep Him in and the world can’t keep him out! He is risen, indeed!

Grace and peace,

Jim

Meeting Jesus in Dark Places

Into the Darkness 

It’s nearly noon on Good Friday, the time when Luke records that “darkness came over the whole land…while the sun’s light failed.” (Luke 23:44-45)  

There’s no escaping it.  The only way to experience what happened at the cross is to enter into the darkness; darkness like the darkness before creation which James Weldon Johnson described in his poem, “The Creation”, as “blacker than a hundred midnights/Down in a cypress swamp.”

Mother Teresa was no stranger to that darkness.  She wrote, “When I walk through the slums or enter the dark holes–there Our Lord is always really present.”  Her friend and commentator said that “the ‘dark holes’ had become the privileged meeting place with Him.”  (“Mother Teresa: Come By My Light,” p. 168)

Henri Nouwen experienced the presence of Christ in the dark places, too.  In “Genius Born of Anguish,” Nouwen’s biographers write:

He came to understand near the end of his life that the woundedness of others, as well as his own woundedness, were not simply existential realities to be recorded, analyzed, probed and exorcized, but a summons to intense and authentic living.  He came to appreciate that his wounds were not so much ‘gaping abysses’ but ‘gateways to new life.”  (p. 42)

Most of us most of the time don’t want to go there.  Who really wants to be in a dark hole? We prefer the spiritual pretense of always living in the light rather than entering into the darkness in our own lives and in the lives of others.  We’d like to pretend that every day is Easter without Good Friday.

But it won’t work.  It didn’t work that way for Mother Theresa or Henri Nouwen.  It didn’t work that way for Jesus.  It won’t work that way for us.

Through Darkness to Hope 

But we do not enter the darkness alone.  We go into the darkness with Jesus.  And we do not face the darkness without hope.

Samuel Wesley, like his son Charles, was a hymn-writer.  One of the few relics that were left in the Epworth parsonage after the fire in 1709 was the text of a hymn for Good Friday.  I’m deeply moved by the honesty with which he faces the darkness of Good Friday and the way he points toward the hope of  the resurrection.

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

’Tis done! The precious ransom’s paid,
Receive My soul, He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

The hour of darkness comes for every one of us.  It’s the dark hole in which we know the presence of the suffering, dying Jesus.  But we face the darkness in the assurance that Easter will come.

Grace and peace,

Jim