Contradictions – Embracing both the beauty and tragedy of our world
Jesus speaks this bit about people having eyes but not seeing, and having ears but not hearing. At first glance, he seems to just be talking about why people have a hard time understanding his parables, but I’m convinced that there’s more to it than that. I’m convinced that most of us want to avoid either the painful realities of living in a fallen world, or the spectacular joy of the beauty God’s created, or both. We’re living in a grey middle, feeling neither much joy nor pain. This is wrong.
The rhythm of our recent 40 day trek in the Alps was a sort of up and down that became both literal and metaphorical. Literally, we’d hike up out of river valleys. The high country above tree line often had everything that’s life giving to me: stunning 360 degree views, challenging hiking and bouldering, peaks that speak of strength and beauty and, metaphorically, eternality. I usually didn’t want to go back down.
On the metaphorical end, the elevation lifted our spirits as much as our bodies. It was up there, utterly disconnected from the news, that the reality of God’s love, power, and beauty were, as Romans 1 says, “clearly seen.” Moments up there helped me become more “rooted and grounded” in God’s love, and this had profound affects, as I would find little addictions and destructive attractions that had slowly and subtly taken root down in the midst of daily living simply falling away. Up there, I can’t imagine fear, or greed, or lust.
Then we’d go down to the river valleys, where we’d have either TV, or internet, or both, in our rooms. I remember early in the trip turning the TV on and watching a bit of news in German, seeing some sort of riot scene with smoke, a rock throwing standoff with the military, and the presence of some sort of tank. Crimea? Ukraine? Syria? Nope: Ferguson, Missouri.
It started there, but didn’t stop. All summer. Beheadings. Political posturing in DC. Israel and Hamas. Human trafficking. Environmental destruction, and our ongoing refusal to even find consensus that humans might be to blame, a constant eroding of civil rights, corruption in halls of government power, which fuels corruption in industry, and the rise of Isis, with its unconscionable acts of violence.
The juxtaposition is nearly unbearable, and so, many choose not to bear it all choosing one of two routes:
Embrace the beauty and deny the suffering. We can turn off all the media, and shrink our world, so that our concerns don’t extend beyond our personal boundaries of making a living, finding a little intimacy, hanging out with a few friends, and seeking out beauty to enjoy. It’s an appealing path at a level, but reminds me of the last scene before intermission in the musical Cabaret where people are singing and dancing on stage, living in utter denial of what’s going on outside their walls. Just when they appear to be having the time of their lives, a giant swastika flag unfurls, covering the entire back wall of the stage, while the sound of goose stepping soldiers and the voice of a mad man increases in volume, inevitably drowning out the good times.
Hiding doesn’t make evil go away. What’s more, whether we like it or not, we have been given much (time, health, clean water, access to news about the world’s woes, a savings account) are the one’s of whom much is required. In other words, stepping into the muck and mire of injustice, poverty, human trafficking, war, and escalating violence, isn’t an option, it’s a mandate.
The fact that evil’s a deluge, an ocean, an avalanche, simply means that each of us, and our churches, must find our own particular ways to respond. None of us can do everything, but all of us must do something, and those who want to live in isolation will miss the mark, because sitting in our nice houses watching TV while the world goes up in flames is hardly the life to which we’re called.
The other option though, comes from those who only embrace the suffering and deny the beauty. They’re fixated on the NY Times and rail against Republicans being pawns in the hands of corporations; or they’re watching Fox News and railing against Obama because he’s slow to pull the trigger. They have causes. They have plans. They’re mobilizing, protesting, and angry.
In their anger though, they don’t look very much like Jesus, and most people don’t want to be like those protesters who go down in flames with their fists raised in the air, because the reality is that there’s more to life than just human suffering—there’s a universe of beauty too.
Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both showed us a way forward:
1. Open your eyes to oceans of suffering around you and take steps to address it. Stand in solidarity with some who are suffering. Raise your voice for the cause of the day. If you remain silent regarding the issue that’s rising up and becoming a fire in your soul, for fear of the relational cost, or political cost, or business cost, you become part of the problem. Your silence makes you complicit.
2. Recognize that you can’t address everything. You won’t be trying to get more organic foods to market, and address 21st century slavery issues, and address environmental destruction, and work on peace initiatives in the middle east, and fix the isolation of senior citizens, and the mental health crisis, and the reality that kids are living with a nature deficit because they no longer play outside in parks, and go to Africa to help contain the Ebola virus.
Don’t trow up your hands then, and say it’s hopeless. For God’s sake, and the sake of your own calling—take your step. Do something.
3. Enjoy the gifts God has given you and rejoice in them. Give thanks for them, and worship. More than once I’ve enjoyed tears of joy because of the beauty of particular space time moments when I find myself in a place of perfect peace and shalom on our trip. Healthy, enjoying my wife’s companionship, the recipient of a rare of gift of time to restore, and all of it in the midst of mountains I love, whose beauty never ever ceases to diminish. These places seem to ravish me, over and over again. All I can do is give thanks to God, recognizing that the gifts are but a foretaste of the world God wants all humanity to enjoy.
4. Stay rooted and grounded in Christ. The balance between
One of the things I love about the promise of union with Christ, though, is that with Christ’s spirit as a source of conviction and an animating force, there’ll be balance. Bonhoeffer and Sophie were able to marvel out the clouds and the sunrise, even as they stood fast against the tyranny of oppression.
Here’s Sophie Scholl on the day of her execution:
”How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause,” Sophie said. ”Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go,” she continued, ”but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
I pray I’ll live with that same enjoyment of beauty, creation, and fellowship, while being bold to stand in solidarity with the injustices of our world. May God empower each of us to go there.