2 November 2008
A Paradox is two notions that are in contradiction and yet are true: truth strung out in tension pointing beyond the simple either/or to the both/and. Our faith is full of paradox. The readings for today are filled with paradox.
Saint John the Divine, in the Revelation, writes of the numberless throng who stands around the throne, praising God forever. These are those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb. The paradox of life through death: robes washed blood yet are white.
Matthew records our lord’s sermon on the mountainside filled with logical contradiction. Blessed are the poor in spirit, who mourn, are meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart who are persecuted peacemakers for they shall receive the kingdom of heaven and the earth, be filled, receive mercy, seeing God and called his children. Rejoice when you are persecuted. Is this paradox enough? And yet it is so.
John reminds us in his first Epistle, “That we are children of God and that we are not yet what we shall be. What we shall be is beyond our comprehension, yet we are confident that when Jesus is revealed we will be like him. Our lives will be made whole – human beings filled with divine content. We shall all be saints on that day.
Yet some display hints of what we shall all be in this present life. How is this so?
What makes the Saints different from the rest of us? Is there a recessive gene for Sainthood? They are not different in kind for they are ordinary human beings beset by the limitations and sin common to our race. They are different in their availability to God.
One of my favorite Anglican saints is Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky a Polish Jew who became the Anglican Bishop of Shanghai. In his later years he was stuck by paralysis. He translated the Bible into Mandarin Chinese, typing 2000 pages of text with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand. He said he would have never had the patience for the task otherwise. Bitterness would have been natural in those circumstances; rather he chose to be freed by his limitation to do the thing he was uniquely equipped to do. What was natural was filled with divine content so that we see in the crippled bishop the supernatural work of the Spirit displayed.
We have freedom from: freedom to get away from the oppressive circumstances.
We have freedom to: freedom to follow life’s purpose with all the commitment
we can muster, while at the same time, allowing life’s creative forces to move
through me without my control, without “making it happen.”
Many years ago I drove on the Bluegrass Parkway in Kentucky in the deep
Winter more on a sheet of ice than asphalt. Foolishly I drove a bit too fast and
suddenly the car skided and began revolving 360 degrees on the deserted
roadway. Somehow I had the presence of mind to not slam on the brake and
not frantically over-steer. I took my hands off the steering wheel and the car
righted itself. There I sat in the middle of the frozen countryside not in the
ditch not because of my effort but because of what I had allowed to happen!
This is a metaphor for the spiritual life. It is not just what you do, but what you
allow to happen that matters. It is a delicate and continual balance between
doing and surrendering.
We are called to COMMIT. For years a statement by —- W. N. Murray, Who led the Scottish Himalayan Expedition, has fascinated me. He said:
UNTIL ONE IS COMMITTED THERE IS HESITANCY
THE CHANCE TO DRAW BACK, ALWAYS INEFFECTIVENESS
CONCERNING ALL ACTS OF INITIATIVE (AND CREATION)
THERE IS ONE ELEMENTARY TRUTH, THE IGNORANCE OF WHICH
KILLS COUNTLESS IDEAS AND SPLENDID PLANS:
THE MOMENT ONE DEFINITELY COMMITS ONESELF,
THEN PROVIDENCE MOVES TOO.
ALL SORTS OF THINGS OCCUR TO HELP ONE THAT WOULD OTHERWISE
NEVER HAVE OCCURRED. A WHOLE STREAM OF EVENTS ISSUES FROM THE DECISION,
RAISING IN ONE’S FAVOR ALL MANNER OF UNFORESEEN INCIDENTS AND
MEETINGS AND MATERIAL ASSISTANCE,
WHICH NO MAN COULD HAVE DREAMED WOULD HAVE COME HIS WAY.
Providence does move in mysterious ways.
Some years ago the Forward Day by Day told the story of a little boy, who was asked, “who are the saints?” Remembering the stained glass in the nave, he said, “O, they are the people the light shines through.” That is a wonderfully charming way of speaking of the saints. My experience of becoming a saint is less romantic. I do think that if the light indeed shines through the saints it shines through the holes that life punches in all of us. And life does indeed turn us every way but loose!
In his book Callings, [p. 182] Greg Lavoy, says that one way to holiness is by being punched full of holes by life. Wounding is an age-old training for teachers and healers. In order to discover what is trying to be born in you from your wound, what gift or call might be pressing for delivery, however, you need to stop reciting the small story about it – the particulars, the details – and tell the larger story. “Tell the tale anew,” he says, “this time with the wounding as the middle of the story.”
We come to baptize – into the death of Jesus. We come to baptize into death? Why because death is not the end but the middle. For those who are in Christ Jesus the wound is in the middle of the story. Resurrection and glory is the end of the story.
There is a story of a man who was convicted of stealing sheep. It was in the days of cruel penalties, and it was decided that as a punishment he should have the letters, S.T. signifying “sheep thief,” branded on his forehead. You might suppose that the rest of his life would have been a dismal failure; but he decided to take advantage of life’s second chance. He became a Christian. He allied himself with the Church. He gave himself to works of mercy. He became one of the most useful members of his community. As the years went by, men thought of him in a different way. More years went by, and he was an old man. One day a stranger came to town and seeing the old man with letters S.T. branded on his forehead, he asked a citizen what they stood for. The man said, “I do not know for sure. It happened many years ago, and I have forgotten the details. But I think, those letters are an abbreviation for Saint.”
The saints are the people the light shines through – through the holes, the scars and the brands. God redeems it all through Grace. As Frederick Beuchner says the worst thing that will ever happen to you is not the last thing that will ever happen to you. So be of good courage.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Be-attitudes: those things that for the love of God are embraced.