Monday, August 19, 2013

Embracing the Passing Show*

It hit me with the force of revelation. It was my junior year of college. I had just broken up with my girlfriend—actually, truth be told, she had just broken up with me—and I was talking with my father on the telephone. He said: God never promised that life would be a bowl of cherries.

Really? Wow. God never promised that life would be a bowl of cherries. That obvious fact had somehow escaped me. The scales fell from my eyes. I would never again see my life the same way.

If not life will be a bowl of cherries, what does God promise? It strikes me now as an odd concept. On a human level, promises sound great but are not always kept. We are skeptical about their delivery on the other end.

And yet the notion of God’s promise occurs often in the letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in the scriptures. The word promise and its derivatives occur at least ten times in chapters ten and eleven in Hebrews.

The reading today catalogues various exemplars of faith, some who had obtained the promises and some who did not, living, as last week’s reading said, in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Here's how Hebrews describes that second category of unnamed saints: Others were tortured… some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.

We need not look far for modern exemplars. Martin Luther King Jr. comes readily to mind.

But our ancestor in faith, Abraham, is the most important example of how believing isn’t necessarily seeing. Abraham journeyed from a present clarity to a future of profound ignorance, one commentator wrote. He journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange.  Abraham died, as Hebrews says, without having received the promise.”[1]

Apparently, God’s promise, whatever it is, is often delayed, or not realized at all, or maybe not even kept. In the meantime, all we know is that life isn’t a bowl of cherries. And not being a bowl of cherries, our default response is to feel anxious about it.

Earlier this summer, there was an article in the New York Times by the author and journalist Daniel Smith entitled Nothing to Do But Embrace the Dread. Smith has recently written a book entitled Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, on which the Times article is based. In it he documents his experiences with a kind of anxiety that results in panic attacks, bouts of insomnia and thoughts of what he calls "existential ruin."[2]

It’s estimated that 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders of some kind and, whether disabling or not, all of us experience anxiety. So I found his article compelling, even enlightening, having something of the same effect as my father’s bit of wisdom from thirty-five years ago.

We all want to get rid of anxiety, Smith says, like we’d want to be rid of emphysema or eczema. And if you suffer from anxiety, he writes, you will wish for a mind that does not spin every slightest situation into catastrophe—a mind that approaches everyday life with poise, reason and equanimity.

But there are two glitches with wanting to be rid of anxiety, he says. The first is that it is an emotion universally felt and necessary for survival, not to mention for a full experience of human life. Toss aside the bath water of anxiety, he writes, and you will also be tossing aside excitement, motivation, vigilance, ambition, exuberance and inspiration...

The second glitch, he says, is more complex, having to do with the nature of anxiety itself. For all its attendant discomforts and daily horrors [anxiety] has at its heart a vital truth, even a transcendent wisdom. This of the essential uncertainty and perilousness of human life. Its fragility and evanescence.

Anxiety emphasizes these aspects of existence with an almost evangelical fervor... “Anything can happen at any time,” anxiety says, “There is no sure thing. Everything you hold dear is at risk, everything is vulnerable. It can all slip through your fingers.”...And of course, Smith says, this is right.

The solution, he says, is to embrace the dread. Fighting it only makes it worse, the harder you fight, the further you fall....The value and necessity of anxiety mean that it will persist until the last breath. It is impossible to extinguish, no matter the level at which it affects might just be able to find relief, and even redemption, in this very impossibility.

For what is the message that everything is fluid but its own solid fact? What is the relentlessness of uncertainty but something about which you can always be certain? And what other choice do you have? The wisdom is already ringing in your ears. You might as well listen. It won’t get you out, but it will without doubt get you through.

Life isn’t a bowl of cherries, my father said. So what the hell, you might as well embrace it. Or, as the poet Mary Oliver has written:

to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[3]

Which is to say, embrace the passing show, with all its attendant anxiety, grief, and exquisite moments of joy. Love it all, as if your life depends on it.

And maybe—finally—this is God’s promise: at the heart of the passing show, of everything that is mortal, is love, transfiguring it from within, and from which we can never be separated.

And letting go into that, you’ll find a measure of peace. Maybe even enough to get you through. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church; Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost; August 18, 2013; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

[1] Clendenin, Daniel B. “The Journey with Jesus-Notes to Myself” August 18, 2013
[2] Smith, Daniel “Nothing to Do but Embrace the Dread” New York Times, July 14, 2013
[3] Oliver, Mary From “In Blackwater Woods” New and Selccted Poems Vol. 1

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