by Ken Sehested
Circle of Mercy Congregation, Sunday, 12 October 2003
Texts: Job 23:1-17; Ps. 22:1-15; Heb. 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
This summer I learned from a mutual friend that William Sloan Coffin is dying. His doctor has given him a year.
Some of you know of Bill’s legacy: a CIA operative who got saved, began a ministerial career as the Chaplain at Yale University and from that post undertook a nationally-recognized leadership role in the movement to end the war in Vietnam; then, for many years, the beloved pastor as Riverside Church in New York City.
To say he is a personal friend is to exaggerate a bit. We’ve only been together a handful of times. But his life has intersected mine, particularly with encouraging handwritten notes, at a number of important turning points in my journey.
I pondered for weeks about writing him. But what do you say?
“Gee, Bill, I hear you’re dying”?
I did finally compose some words to acknowledge that I know what he knows. That it grieves not only me but a host of others. And I sent him a copy of an article I recently wrote for a Quaker journal—an article for which I drew important ideas from Nancy and from Stan Dotson. “Carpe Noctem/Sieze the Night: Spiritual disciplines for living in dark times.”
Bill wrote back. First he thanked me for the article. Then he said with characteristic humor: “My spirits are fine; I am going to die but I’m not going to seed!”
Then he wrote: “Your letter arrived just before I performed a wedding and, magpie that I am, I ended my homily with your phrase ‘live large, laugh often and love well.’
It’s a phrase I sometimes use as a benediction in correspondence.
It does appear—does it not?–that life is going to seed. And the admonition to live large, laugh often and love well often sounds hollow in the face of lethal and bloody reality, more sentiment than substance, like the weak lips that whistle make-believe assurance while traipsing through one graveyard after another.
Just look around this Circle. There’s plenty of evidence right here. In recent memory several of our parents and our children, or friends and neighbors, have teetered on the edge of health and wholeness or been lost altogether. Several labor in maddeningly vengeful institutions, or have lost jobs and careers altogether. Several live with the fright of financial insecurity. Several struggle with vocational clarity. Many of us have loved ones caught in addictive spirals of one form or another. All of us, I dare say, have known the anguish of broken relationships with people we loved dearly.
We’ve been burned by religious communities, hounded by a homophobic culture, beleaguered by dominant political values, and belittled by economic forces whose drive to “make a killing” results in the escalation of war abroad and the undermining of basic democratic values here at home.
A simple recitation of public malfeasance is numbing. The current Administration’s policies have resulted in the largest job-constriction rate since the Depression, along with a leap within three years from record federal budget surpluses to record deficits. We now have the greatest income gap, between rich and poor, among all industrialized nations. Nearly a fifth of our children are living in poverty. Public librarians are having to fend off the reach of the Justice Department. Our prison population has quadrupled in the past two decades. More than 43 million men, women and children live without health insurance. Many of our historic environmental and civil rights accords are under assault.
Globally, the Bush Administration has withdrawn from a host of international treaties designed to abet environmental degradation, slow the development of advanced weaponry, and establish the rule of international law. By action of Congress in September 2002 we have in place a “National Security Strategy” which grants the Administration virtually unlimited war-making powers. The level of public disingenuousness is such that Orwell himself would blush, as in U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s recent statement during a press conference in Iraq: "I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq." And then there’s the chilling, hardly-noticed recent comment by an unnamed assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, commenting on the reports of low U.S. troop morale in Iraq: "This is the future for the world we're in at the moment. We'll get better as we do it more often."
If you’re not depressed, if you’re not complaining bitterly, you’re not paying attention. If you’re not experiencing the stress and strain of these traumas, we’d like to know what you’re smoking!
The texts read earlier, from Job and from the Psalmist, bring these complaints to speech. These sorts of texts aren’t frequently read in church. They don’t accentuate the positive.
These texts—along with Mark’s story which Nancy told earlier—speak of the despair we confront when our efforts—sometimes heroic efforts—to live according to life’s rules do not exempt us from trauma. We’re doing our best to live faithfully, honestly, righteously. We’re peddling as hard as we can. But the bottom keeps falling out from under us. We bargain in good faith, attempting to be masters of our destiny, responsible parents, loyal colleagues, faithful friends, good citizens. And instead of bread we’ve given a stone.
Who wouldn’t bitterly complain? Who, indeed, can deliver us from this body of death?
Like you, I, too, am sometimes speechless. But I’ve found a voice in a very modern text, a novel, by David James Duncan, entitled The Brothers K. It’s the story of a Vietnam-era family. I’d like to read a long excerpt.
One hot summer afternoon some of the kids are playing in the water sprinkler in the front lawn. From time to time they would disconnect the water garden hose, stretch it straight out across the lawn, then give one end of it a violent snap, causing a horse-shoe shaped “hump” to fly from their hands down the length of the hose.
Beatrice asked, “If a hose could reach from here clear to Spokane, do you think there could be a man strong enough to jerk it hard enough to make the Hump travel all the way?
"'. . . I don’t know about Spokane,” Freddy replied. “I mean, I don’t know how far a hump of energy could travel down a hose, because if some muscleman or machine or something jerked it really hard, I guess the hose might just break.'
“'I never thought of that,' said Bet.
"I didn’t either,' Peter thought.
"'But I do think,”'Freddy continued, 'there might be all sorts of humps of all sorts of energy that go traveling all sorts of directions people can’t see. For instance when a person gets mad at somebody. . . . Like when you get really mad and maybe slap somebody or jerk their arm or something, like Mama does to us sometimes, I think an invisible hump of energy might go flying all the way up their arm and right into their skeleton or insides or whatever—a hump of mean, witchy energy—and I think it might fly round and round in there like a witch on a broomstick flies round the sky, and go right on hurting invisible parts of the person you don’t even know you’re hurting, because you can’t see all the ways their insides are connected to the mean thing you did to their outside. And from then on, maybe that hump of mean energy sits inside the hurt person like a coiled-up hose or a rattlesnake, just waiting in there. And someday, when that person touches somebody else, maybe even way in the future, that rattlesnake energy might come humping up out of them by accident and hurt that next person too, even though they didn’t mean to, and even though the person didn’t deserve it.' She paused for a moment. Then, with feeling, concluded, 'I think it happens. I really think it does.'
“'I think it does, too,' Peter said. . . . 'I think what you said can happen, does happen. But every witch who ever lived was once just a person like you or me, that’s what I think anyway, till somewhere, sometime, they got hit by a big, mean hump of nasty energy themselves, and it shot inside them just like Freddy said, and crashed and smashed around, wrecking things in there, so that a witch was created. The thing is, though, I don’t think that first big jolt is ever the poor witch’s fault.'
"Bet thought about this, and finally nodded cautiously. Freddy said nothing. The sprinkler hissed like a Halloween cat. 'Another thing,' Peter said, “is that everybody gets jolted. You, me, before we die we’ll all get nailed, lots of times. But that doesn’t mean we’ll all get turned into witches. You can’t avoid getting zapped, but you can avoid passing the mean energy on. That’s the interesting thing about witches, the challenge of them—learning not to hit back, or hit somebody else, when they zap you. You can just bury the zap, for instance, like the gods buried the Titans in the center of the earth. Or you can be like a river when a forest fire hits it—phshhhhhhhhhh! Just drown it, drown all the heat and let it wash away. . . .'
“'And the great thing,' he said, 'the reason you can lay a river in the path of any sort of wildfire is that there’s not just rivers inside us, there’s a world in there. . . . I’ve felt how there’s a world, and rivers, and high mountains, whole ranges of mountains, in there. And there are lakes in those mountains—beautiful, pure, deep blue lakes. Thousands of them. Enough to wash away all the dirt and trouble and witchiness on earth.'
“'But to believe in them! To believe enough to remember them. That’s where we blow it! Mountain lakes? In me? Naw! Jesus we believe in, long as He stays out of sight. But the things He said, things like The kingdom of heaven is within you, we believe only by dreaming up a heaven as stupid and boring as our churches. Something truly heavenly, something with mountains higher than St. Helens or Hood and lakes purer and deeper than any on earth—we never look for such things inside us. So when the humps of witchiness come at us, we’ve got nowhere to go, and just get hurt, or get mad, or pass them on and hurt somebody else. But if you want to stop the witchiness, if you want to put out the fires, you can do it. You can do it if you just remember to crawl, right while you’re burning, to drag yourself if that’s what it takes, clear up into those mountains inside you, and on down into those cool, pure lakes.'” [Bantam Books, 1992, pp. 209-211]
Sisters and brothers, this is the Gospel secret: That bold confession can only emerge amid bitter complaint.
The breakthrough from bitter complaint to bold confession is not the product of moral heroism. The breakthrough is not accomplished by brilliant analysis, nor by indefatigable energy.
The secret is this: The power to vanquish dragons is given only to those who know that relinquishment is the means of true possession; only to those who know that silence gives birth to authentic speak; only to those who recognize life emerging from the ash heap.
The Gospel secret is this: Hope is only provided to people with their backs against the wall, to those at the end of their rope, to the outnumbered, the outgunned, to those about-to-be-overwhelmed. Bold confession is not an escape clause to life’s apparent death knell. Rather, it is an invitation to grasp that which is available only to those with empty hands.
It is to the mournful that rejoicing is promised; it is to those facing trial that the Spirit’s presence is promised; it is to the meek that the earth is promised. And it is only from the dark and dangerous shadow of night that guiding light is granted.
Bitter is the moment, and weeping endures for this night. But the morning promises joy. This is our confession. And we’re betting our very lives on it.
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