Sermon preached May 25, 2014
One of my favorite movies turns twenty next year. Mr. Holland’s Opus is a movie about a music teacher, and we follow him through his career. In one memorable scene, Mr. Holland attends the funeral of a former student killed in Vietnam, and we hear the voice of the gym teacher reading a familiar poem.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
The poem, written by a Canadian soldier in World War I, goes on from there. It is a familiar poem, perhaps especially this weekend, when we as a nation recall all those who fought and died and are buried in various Flanders fields.
War. Loss. Death. “Life is difficult,” so Scott Peck tells us at the beginning of The Road Less Traveled, a book now well over thirty years old. But Peck goes on to say, “once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.” (15)
With all due respect, I disagree with the last part of Peck’s statement. Simply understanding that life is difficult does not seem to dispense with its difficulties. Even Peck, himself, hedges. What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke in us frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or fear or anxiety or anguish or despair. These are uncomfortable feelings…. And since life poses and endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy. (16) Simply understanding does not make the pain and difficulty all disappear.
When I was a younger man, I expected the world to be in better shape than it is now. This week I was at the Damiano Center with some of the youth going to New York in June. I asked about how the center began. It started in 1982 when there was a deep economic crisis in Duluth, and across the country. It began as a temporary effort to provide food for folks until the economy got better. Thirty some years later it is still going, busy as ever.
A former president, in a State of the Union speech said the following: The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country…. Clean air, clean water, open spaces – these should once again be the birthright of every American. The date was January 22, 1970, the president was Richard Nixon. A great question of the seventies is now a great question of the teens, but now there seems a great partisan divide over environmental issues, especially climate change.
Heroin, a scourge of an earlier drug abuse age, something that seemed entirely frightening to me as a teen, heroin is making a comeback, enslaving people, taking lives.
In Nigeria, over 300 girls have been kidnapped in the name of a fundamentalist brand of Islam by an organization called Boko Haram for seeking an education. Boko Haram itself means something like “Western education is forbidden.”
I thought the world would be doing better by now. Life is difficult.
But we need not only look out at the world to experience the difficulty of life. As Scott Peck wrote in his book, we know life is difficult from our own experience. There are inner difficulties we experience.
Over thirty years ago, psychologist Carl Rogers noted: to a degree probably unknown before, modern man experiences his loneliness, his cut-off-ness,his isolation both from his own deeper being and from others (A Way of Being, 166-167). There has always been a degree of loneliness and isolation in human existence, but something about modern society makes our experience of this even more acute. Life is difficult.
Poet William Stafford, in a notebook penned this: You had your wound – now the healing starts. The wounding is clean, but the healing hurts. (Sound of the Ax, 67) Healing, as necessary and needed as it is, can also be painful.
One of the reasons I love the Psalms is that they do not turn away from the difficulty of life. They are honest. They take the challenges, pains, hurts, disappointments, difficulties of life seriously. Life is such that our feet can slip, and sometimes they do. Sometimes we get trapped, sometimes because of our own choices. Life can feel like a burden laid upon our backs. Sometimes in life it feels like people ride over our heads, that we have to go through fire and water.
I love the Psalms because they are honest. Now the Psalms wonder about the place of God in all the difficulties of life, and here the writer suggests that God lets it all happen. I would argue with the Psalmist there, but that is another sermon, another discussion. The bottom line in the Psalm is that life presents us with difficulties, hurts, challenges, pains.
While the Psalms often offer unflinching looks at life’s difficulties, struggles, pains and sorrows, they also offer something else. They offer an invitation to see more, to see God, and to trust God through it all.
Through it all, God has kept us among the living. Through it all, God has brought us out to a spacious place. Life sometimes gives us reason to cry aloud, yet God listens. God hears the cries of our hearts, when the cries are cries of pain, when the cries are shouts of joy. Through it all, God never removes God’s steadfast love from us.
In the Psalms we see life is difficult and we see that life is beautiful. That’s important. An honest faith needs to look at all of life, all of the world. If we ignore life’s difficulties, we paint a skewed picture of the world and we find that we cannot speak to many people of our faith. If we ignore life’s beauty and joy, we miss the on-going activity of the Spirit in the world and we have a no less skewed view of the world.
Life is difficult and life is beautiful.
The writer Annie Dillard speaks so eloquently of this. Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery…. There seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous…. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (from Pilgrim At Tinker Creek in The Annie Dillard Reader, 286-287)
The writer John Updike is equally eloquent. In his “Forward” to his collection of early short stories, Updike writes: But when has happiness ever been the subject of fiction? The pursuit of it is just that – a pursuit. Death and its adjutants tax each transaction. What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted. Discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear – these are the worthy, inevitable subjects (xiv, The Early Stories). Yet Updike says he finds in his stories “no lack of joy… no lack of affection and goodwill.” “Art hopes to sidestep mortality with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connection” (xiv). Updike said he wrote to “give the mundane its beautiful due” (xv).
Life is difficult. Life is beautiful. The question before us is a question of where to place our trust. Do we trust that the grace, goodness and beauty have deeper roots, have a power that finally will not be extinguished by the struggles, hurts, pains, cruelties of the world? Do we trust that God’s steadfast love, which is grace, beauty, goodness, remains and seeks always to lead us out to a spacious place, even if we cannot simply stay there forever? The pain won’t simply go away. The struggles and difficulties do not magically disappear. Healing can still be painful. Do we trust that through it all, God is with us? Do we trust that through it all, God continues to incarnate love, joy, beauty, grace and goodness? Do we trust deeply enough to stake our lives on it, to live differently, to live for love, joy, beauty, grace and goodness?
Walter Wink was a New Testament scholar – a pastor, theologian, political activist and writer. Wink died of dementia in 2012. His last book was published earlier this year – it is a memoir of sorts entitled Just Jesus.
My perfectionism did not arise from any form of indoctrination from fundamentalism. It came straight out of my desperate desire to win my parents’ – and God’s love (28-29)… There still remains a wound at the core of my existence. Why did I have to struggle so hard to overcome its consequences? I know this: without that wound, I would have become a shallow caricature of a person (30)… I understand that God worked for my healing… How did God use my wound to heal me? (30)… But I still struggle to become a human being. (32)
Wink writes movingly and convincingly about the joys and struggles of life and faith, of coming to spacious places. Speaking of his parents: Over time, I realized that… my refusal to love and forgive them had robbed all of us of much deserved happiness (32). And what sustains Walter Wink in all of this? The Human Being keeps us going (34) – the Human Being, the son of the man, God incarnate in Jesus the Christ.
Life is difficult. Life is beautiful. Healing hurts. Beauty and grace are performed whether we will or sense them. Through it all, God is with us, listening to the cries of our hearts. Through it all, God seeks to incarnate joy, beauty, grace goodness, love. Through it all, God never removes God’s steadfast love from us. Through it all, trust that love. Amen.