Its a simple fact really. A stunning fact. A fact that should shake us to the bones: We will all die someday. And yet we live most of our lives furiously pushing forward as if tomorrow has no right not to come. This week some of us were shaken out of the stupor. Something may have happened to wake you up, to make you stop, to let the cold reality sink in. Death is inevitable. This happened to me and some of my friends by the death of a young man. I personally never met him but the pain of a young and untimely death spreads like a cold fog through the hearts of friends and loved ones to all around. It weighs down on us. It says to us in an arresting voice, “Pull over. Stop and think.”
We’ve all perhaps heard of Mary Shelley’s dark tale of the genius scientist Victor Frankenstein, who’s curiosity and intellect drive him to create a living monster (yes, yes Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster). Anyways, as the story goes, the beast haunts Victor everywhere he goes, wreaking havoc on his entire life and eventually leading to his very sad death. Frankenstein has now been told and retold for nearly 200 years, and for good reason. It is a magnificent and horrifying exploration of human nature, the limits of science and our relationship to nature. No matter how you slice it, it is rich with meaning and significance. And yet as I read it last year there was one thread in particular that jumped out at me.
There is nothing that is more powerful or fulfilling to the human heart than to be gripped by love. Nothing else fills us with the satisfaction and meaning that we get when we are tied in our heart to others and feel the irresistible drive to seek their joy and wellbeing. We can do a great many things in life. In the end however, if we are simply left alone with our pile of toys and trophies, we find that they really mean nothing on their own. Unless we have someone with whom we can share the joy, unless we have those who give us reason to be better and stronger people, the sense of fulfillment dissolves helplessly in our hands.
Some of the most powerful drivers of human history and civilizations are rooted in the deepest longings and needs of the heart. Just think of the stuff that fills the news today. Equal rights. Justice. Freedom. Dignity. Beneath the clutter of the headlines that fill the newsfeed, these are the core drivers of all that surrounds us. We are humans are built with certain longings and affections that cannot be rationalized away. Its just how we are.
“For He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him.”¹
Our greatest good is all that we really ever care about. Its the only reason we do anything. Its the fundamental reason in everything we do – we believe it will bring us good. Its the main reason we get up for work early in the morning when we would rather sleep. Its the main reason we take out the garbage. It’s the main reason we bend over backwards for difficult people and situations in life – because we believe that, at the end of the day, doing it will bring us more good than not doing it.
Today is a day of worship for many. Today is a day of political and societal chaos for many. What is the connection between the two statements? The painting from El Greco can help us answer this question. The painting hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It is called the Vision of Saint John. In it, we see the oppressed souls of those who have been waiting on the justice of God to shine through. The painting captures a mixed moment of agony, longing and satisfaction, as those who are in it look up to receive their white robes as rewards for their faithfulness to the truth in a faithless world.
The interesting thing is that the painting was “restored” in 1880 by its owner who cut off the top 175 cm of the painting which depicted the glorious revelation of the victorious Christ. What is left is that the individuals look up from their chaos to a blank heaven. This is, in many ways a picture of the dazed culture in which we live.
As I look back on this year, I am starting to feel it. My feet tingle as the angry rumble of the mighty engine begins to rise. Up until now it was just getting started. Now it roars once in a while, threatening to set me into the speed of higher gears. I sense the wind more vividly gliding by.
“You’re kidding right? Your only 26! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you!”
Ya. Thats what you thought too. And then that same fiery beast sent you marriage and kids and a mortgage and off you went, the wind just screaming past your (y)ears, you hanging on for dear life.
And now you’re 50.
Looking back, trying to take things slower, trying to make it more meaningful.
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” (Haldir of Lothlórien)¹
Today we come to an occasion of remembrance and celebration that has shaken the world for at least two millennia. For 2000 thousand years this glimmering light of wonder and joy comes to us in the dark and dreary hour of winter. Indeed the world is full of peril and indeed there are many dark places. Sometimes it seems that these dark places reach their ugly tentacles out far enough to knick or wound us in our daily striving. And yet this celebration endures. Christmas persists, even in the lives of those who want nothing to do with the Christ.
Our wise elf-friend notes above that though the darkness spreads to all the land, everywhere we look, we see the hope filled evidence of love that is mingled with the grief. A love that does not let go. A love that perseveres. Though there is darkness, yet there is persistent and undeniable hope. And for those who are able to see the light of this hope, there is given this ability to navigate the darkness with purpose and meaning.
When you really take a moment and look at WHY you live the way you live, you realize that its not always what you think it was. You may find yourself surprised and questioning yourself a little more. As James K. A. Smith notes in his book You Are What You Love – “you are what you love, you are defined by the things you pursue on a daily basis – but the surprising thing is that you may not love what you think.” Hence the title of the previous article – An Honest Look. Smith goes on to quote a writer named Geof Dyer in these challenging words, “Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did they’d run a mile, would take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learned to sit quite tolerably all these years.”
One of the great needs of our generation is that we simply learn to honestly look at why we live the way we do. This cuts past the philosophies and complex theories and starts you on the ground. You say that you are a christian – but why don’t you look to Jesus in your daily habits and challenges? You say you are an atheist, but why do you have such a problem with God and religion? You say you are a relativist, but why do you spend so much time trying to prove others wrong? Often times the greatest task is to merely step out of the autopilot of our daily routines and ask ourselves who we really are and why? Only as we learn to deal with our own internal hypocrisies and inconsistencies, do we then learn to listen carefully and critically to that which others around us say. But it all starts with a basic first step.
Smith, James K. A. (2016-03-22). You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Kindle Locations 496-498). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.