Life at the Center Means Life on the Edge

Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” is a great read. It will be the main source guide for a Cursillo weekend I’ll be attending at the end of April and, as such, I’ve been reading it through about once a month in preparation.(No one’s told me, by the way, if attendance is a matter of confidentiality, so I hope I’m not violating anything by telling this!)

The book is a diarist reading of Nouwen’s love affair with the Rembrandt painting of the same title and describes his ten year meditative pilgrimage of placing himself into the famous story-line of Luke 15. In beautiful summary he explores the ongoing process of becoming centered in his relationship with God.  The centering process includes Nouwen’s resulting awareness of underlying motivations that conspire to destabilize his walk of faith. Like no other writer, Nouwen peels back the gritty, hard struggle of spiritual growth and this little read is powerfully illuminating.

This book has also been helpful in my understanding of my Lenten sermon series on the book of Revelation.  The first image the Apostle John creates in chapter one of Revelation is a portrait of the Son of Man standing in the midst of seven candlesticks that represent seven churches of John’s bishopric. With Jesus’ immanent placement in the center, John addresses each of the churches with encouragement, correction and provocative nudging,  The message is always essentially the same; centering in life means moving out of your comfort zone.

Revelation chapter 2 contains four separate letters to churches within Asia Minor. Last week we reviewed the word to Ephesus and the encouragement to return to their first love in matters of faith. This Sunday, Smyrna discovers that the comfort zone is not always a matter of personal choice.  The church there will undergo tremendous pressure in the form of persecution and John goes so far as to say that trial will end in death for some.

On a personal level the subtle drift away from a love affair with God is like death by a thousand paper cuts. We notice them at first but much of what we are doing in place of loving God feels like normal life. It is not entirely satisfying but most of us resolve to return to genuine love when the distraction is past us. Many of us just wake up one day and like the prodigal son ask, “how did I get so far away?”

The Christians at Smyrna, however, were thrown into an immediate confronting clash between good and evil. A pressure that Darrell Johnson calls the “line where light clashes with darkness, the reign of justice clashes with death.”  It is a place where pride opposes a change of heart and mind. The result of that confrontation will mean that some will die for their faith.

In 1994 a distraught Sheriff’s officer walked into our church/ youth organization offices with his service revolver drawn.  It was unclear at the moment who his target was going to be.  In the end he chose to take his own life.  The tragic witnessing of that event will haunt me forever. During those moments the officer was tortured by the influences of evil that bedeviled him and he alternated between punishing me, “a man of God” and himself. There is little satisfaction to the fact that he chose to end his own life rather than mine.

Life on the edge will mean that evil will be present for a little while and it’s presence will be powerful. Some of us will be asked to live in the center of God’s will by stepping out to oppose that presence.

Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot

Here's my favorite Ash Wednesday poem.
Written at the time of his conversion to Christianity:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

“I Was Born This Way.”

With the demise of both the local jazz and SF’s classical music stations, I’ve been adrift on my car stereo dial. I settled in to the area’s top 40 station and had forgotten what the music rotation on a station like that is. While in college I had done a stint on a top 40 rock station in Sacramento. The format on stations like these calls for the top 10 songs to get airplay every 60 minutes, the top 20 every 120 minutes.

That means I’ve been introduced to Lady Gaga’s new song, “I Was Born This Way.” Not only introduced but it’s been drilled into me over the past two weeks. Though, to me, there’s nothing remarkable about the song, I still find myself tapping my fingers to the song while driving. It’s an ingenious repetition of techno/disco beat that can’t help but mesmerize a person beyond the point of discretion.

The inevitable analysis followed.  Why is the mind captivated by something you know you don’t care for? Or more directly, how easy it is to pick up cultural impressions without overtly subscribing to them! It’s one thing to tolerate Lady Gaga and yet another to be swept up into the rat race. I don’t know about you, but I find myself buying in on all sorts of levels to things I don’t really subscribe to. An insidious hijacking of personal identity.

Maybe that’s why we instinctively surround ourselves with people that see life mostly the way we do. It helps us assuage the hard task of thinking for ourselves, finding ourselves. But of course, that’s a trap as well as they reinforce other subtle influences on us including corporate fears, enemies and ambitions.

The closing Psalm of our Epiphany season, Psalm 99 reminds us of the privilege we have to privately commune with God and to subsequently hear from Him.  As our Creator, He is really the only one who has our best interests at heart.  When we really listen, he tells us how and why we were born. How and where we should go. Who and what makes our lives unique. The exercise can be transformative.