DEAREST FRESHNESS DEEP DOWN

St. George's church on a foggy, Eastertide morning
St. George’s church and churchyard, morning, 10 April 2015

Even though it was early, and will be even earlier next year, Easter Day was at least bright and sunny this year.  It was almost a reprieve from the endless winter that was 2015 and, well, this current cold front which has come through this week and which is still hanging on, in the form of cold and fog, as I sit and write this morning.  Early Easter’s aren’t particularly welcome for kids and families — bundling up in thermal fleece for an egg hunt is never fun, and everyone wants a nice family picture outside.  Nor are early Easter’s lovely for altar guilds and flower guilds.  Just last night, in fact, the head of our altar guild told me that next year we’ll have to forego some of the prettier, flowering plants we normally get since it’ll be a late-March celebration. Bummer.

And yet there’s also something about an early Easter that, I think, tells the Christian story more profoundly than a Sunday in later April when everything is blooming and in full color.  Just this morning, driving back to the rectory from an early morning call, I noticed it, you know, in the way that fog kind of sets everything in highlight or contrast.

Outside, even now, there are these shoots of green, shots of color, somewhat daring, somewhat risky.  Patches of green grass set against, pretty much, a brown-ish field.  Daffodils and jonquils, of course, are the heartier (gardeners would say) or riskier (I might add) perennials, shooting out before it’s safe, before it’s warm, before it’s right and ready.  But all around it’s still brown and gray, cold and chilly.  Warmth is coming, for sure, even later today.  Spring is already here and, we trust, having been given a pretty good Easter-day foretaste, it won’t disappoint.  But, still, it’s gray, brown, chilly.

Gerard Manley Hopkins journal
A page from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ journal, 30 June 1864

I was recalling one of my favorites, the great Catholic, indeed Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to whom I turned upon returning to the office because he says these things so much better than I could or anyone has, for that matter.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he begins the poem of the same phrase.  “Charged,” he says; charged! For this reason, then, because the world is literally charged with God’s grandeur “…nature is never spent,” Hopkins affirms; “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  But that freshness, that dearest freshness is underneath, not immediately or always perceptible.  Not to the naked eye nor, for that matter, to the trained eye.  Not only is it “down” there, it’s “deep down.”  Deep down, for we still live in a world that is, at times, shrouded as in a cloud, a fog, a kind of darkness.  Easter isn’t a declaration so much as it is a revelation.  It isn’t an awareness so much as it is an invitation.

Easter is its own kind of beginning, but it’s also its own kind of end.  It’s the central truth of Christianity, resurrection, and yet that’s the most remarkable thing about it – and one, I’m afraid, which too many Christians, themselves, overlook and get patently wrong: that the foundational tenet of our life in God has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with what we know or believe or feel or can see, readily and straightaway with our eyes, no matter how trained or gifted or skilled we may be in searching.  Our life in God, made new in Christ, has everything to do with what we hope in, what we place our faith in, what we cannot see but still trust, nevertheless.  Just like we trust that warmer days and more colorful landscapes are coming, even though we cannot see them and even though it feels, on mornings such as this, that this year’s eternal winter isn’t going away.Fog and daffodils, 2

What Easter brings to an end is a religion based on creedal comfort and doctrinal assurance.  Easter ends dogmatic certainty.  Easter ends the reign of belief statements, memorizing things in order to get right with God, doing certain things to ensure your place in heaven.  Easter ends all of that.  Because we’re talking, now, about the beginning of faith.  And one cannot enter into faith, a real and living faith in God through Christ, until one has put to end the desire to know, to believe, to understand.  As we’ll meet this Sunday in Thomas – unfortunately, throughout history, called ‘the Doubter’ —  one of the biggest things standing in the way of true, living faith in God through Christ is a fruitless obsession with belief.  What Thomas learned, leading him to echo the greatest affirmation of faith in all of scripture, is what we must also learn, day after day after day: that faith and doubt are not at all set against each other, but what is at tension with faith, ironically, is a constant obsession with belief, for faith’s opposite is nothing more than certainty.  I’ll say it again: the opposite of faith is certainty.

For only when you perceive without seeing, when you hope without knowing, when you trust without proof is faith begun, much like on a chilly April morning, even just a few days after we’ve proclaimed the truest thing, and yet the hardest thing, we know to say: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

GOD’S GRANDEUR

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;         5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;         10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

BECAUSE WE HOPE TO TURN AGAIN – Ash Wednesday, 2014

If you could go back in time, say, to your teens or your twenties and, knowing everything you do today, live within your person at that time, and experience what you experienced, would you do it?  At first, your answer might be, “Of course!” You might be reminiscing about those halcyon high school days or those late nights and good friends in college.  But do you also remember the awkwardness and confusion?  The sense of wanting to move on in life but also the really dumb decisions you made?

You might still do it.  You might not.  Whatever your answer, this should be a hard question.

In some ways, that’s what we’re doing today.  We’re not just lamenting our own sins and wretchedness.  In fact, we make a great mistake if we think that Ash Wednesday is just about our sins and sinfulness.  In part, many of us are already over on the other side; many of us know for what we are preparing and for whom and why.  The season Ash Wednesday inaugurates, Lent, is an intentional, forty-day preparation for the only joy that can worthily be called by that name – resurrection, new life, Easter.  We are already Easter people, already there, already set free.  And we know it.

So why go back?  Why on Ash Wednesday, do we deal with our sins and our brokenness, that which we have failed to do and that which we have left undone?

We go back because this world needs us to.  Well, not so much us, but this world needs whose we are.  Having been gathered as this unique and counter-cultural society called “the church,” having died to our old lives and brought into a new life in Christ, we are no longer who we once were, although that self hasn’t gone away; we live no longer only to ourselves but, now, we live to God.  Now, we are his body in this world, the very Body of Christ.  The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, said it best: “Christ has no body but yours: no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

That’s precisely how and why we can go back.  We know we are already redeemed, already loved, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as we do so profoundly in the service of Holy Baptism.  Knowing that, we can go back.  Those sins and that wretchedness you confess today is what you have done or have failed to do, and it’s who you are apart from Christ.  But that is not who you are, at the deepest level of your being.  That’s not who you are in Christ.  You know, and know at your core, what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil.  4:13)

The reason so many don’t go backward, don’t revisit their past and deal with their shortcomings is because they’re afraid they’ll get stuck there.  I don’t think it’s inconsequential that T. S. Eliot began his collection of poems, “Ash Wednesday,” with the following stanzas:

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn …

Because I do not hope to know again

The infirm glory of the positive hour

Because I do not think

Because I know that I shall not know

The one veritable transitory power

Because I cannot drink

There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Many are afraid to go deep because, like Eliot wrote, they “do not hope to turn again.” But not us.  This, then, is the mystery of Ash Wednesday.  This is not a day in which we dance around our sins, naming them lightly or in a quick rush while we’re off to our next step on our day.  We don’t brush over our past unfaithfulness or what or whom we’ve ignored, quickly adding pardon and hope and a promise of something better.  No, this is a day when we dig and dig deeply into our own struggles and suffering and pain.

We do this because we know we won’t get stuck there.  We do this because we know we are not stuck there.  We do this because, yes, because we are already Easter people.

In fact, doing it the other way around is confusing and, frankly, a bit dangerous theologically, spiritually.  When we turn this day, as many have, into a day to be present at train stations or commuter bus stops or wherever the marketplace is – dispensing Ashes-to-Go – the tendency is to cut short this soul searching, to add a note of blessing and renewal to these ashes, these signs of unmistakable death.  Just look at what the Book of Common Prayer has already done; specifically, the (optional) prayer over the ashes on page 265:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

This is liturgical theologian, Howard Galley’s, very 20th century revision of a much earlier, medieval prayer from the Sarum rite.  The original prayer is much heavier, much darker, much more concentrated on our sins and, for my taste, much more honest.  You can see the similarities and the very real differences between the two prayers in the original, here:

God, you desire not the death but the repentance of sinners: Look kindly upon the fragility of our human condition, and of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, that we, whom you have admonished are but ashes and know that for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust, consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.

Galley’s revision speaks of “our mortality and penitence,” but leaves out the reminder that these ashes are “token[s] of our humility and for the obtaining of pardon.”  Galley’s prayer skips over Sarum’s most cutting line, “for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust,” and entirely replaces the result of the prayer: today, the result is grace (“…that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”); in the original, it is hope (“…consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.”)

We make this turn, this Ash Wednesday turn inward to deal straightforwardly with our sins and sinfulness, not because we know the why and wherefore of grace – that’s the greatest mystery of all; in fact, if we think too long about grace we’ll realize we don’t deserve it.  No, we make this turn because we are a people of hope.  We have walked through the fallen-ness of our lives and, we suspect, we will from time to time still fall short of the glory of God, but we also know we are already redeemed, already set free, already capable of so much transformative power – not because of our sins but in spite of them, and only because God in Christ loved us first.  That’s why we can go back, not because we want to nor because there is good back there, but because we can, in Him.

REMEMBER HOW HE TOLD YOU

As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club.  They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear.  Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome.  Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.

LEO TOLSTOY 1828 – 1910

Intentional thought suppression was once tested in a Harvard psychology lab.  Participants were told they were going to sit for five minutes and describe, in words, what’s on their mind; speak their stream of consciousness. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told they could think about a white bear. The others were told they could not think of a white bear.  They would press a button if or when they thought of a white bear.  Additionally, their stream of consciousness utterances were recorded and the number of times they said “white bear” were counted. Participants who were told to not think about bears actually mentioned it less than the others, but all of them pressed the button at about equal rates.  If the goal is to stop thinking about something, it’s hardly effective.

Also interesting was a follow-up test with those who, in the first test, were told to not think about bears.  In a second test, they were told they could now think of white bears.  Those folks – first told to not think about something, then told they could think about that thing – were off the charts in mentioning white bears and pushing the button, much more so than either group in the first study.  Suppressing a thought actually leads, in time, to its subsequent over-indulgence.  Someone trying to quit drinking only thinks about alcohol; someone trying to lose weight lets himself have just a nibble of a chocolate bunny’s ear and winds up devouring the whole thing.

We humans are tricky animals, crafty, and pretty good at self-deceit.  I’ve always thought the Apostle Paul was describing me when he said to the Romans, “I don’t understand my own actions.”(Rom. 7)  “I do not do what I want,” Paul wrote, “but I do the very thing I hate.”  What do to about it?  God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote in another letter, so you and I should “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15)

This is true.  When life besets us and gets us down, when the anxiety is too much to bear and the worries are real, when pain is acute or life’s direction gone missing, the story of our faith is that the victory’s already won.  For us, then, we hold on, we stand firm.

This is true, but it’s the type of truth Christians know a lot better as mystery than fact.  For the fact is that the games of life and the culture of death not only exist outside but also tear us apart, within – desires are inflated, wills are set in competition, and I continue to do the things I do not want to do and which I know aren’t good.  Christians celebrate resurrection, new life, but the context of this gift is death.

We labor but sometimes, contrary to Paul, it feels like we do so in vain.  I can only imagine that’s what it felt to those women who headed out early on this first day of the week, carrying heavy sacks of ointment and spices.  They were doing what they knew to do, laboring through life.  Like them, we are also good at finding tricks to get through the day: when life gets overturned, we make lemonade, some say, or bury ourselves in work or master a craft.  Mind over matter.  A study performed at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, in fact, suggested we’ve got some capacity to exercise mind over matter.  From an article in The Week: Twenty particpants were arranged into two groups and told to search for an item.  One-half of them were allowed to repeat, out loud, the name of the thing they were looking for.  The other half could not say the name of the thing.  On average, the group speaking the name of the thing found it quicker than the group which was silent.  Similar studies of children show that those who talk themselves through the process of tying their shoes do so faster than those who don’t.  We have the capacity, some capacity, to exercise mind over matter, to accomplish tasks, to labor well, to get through the day.

But that’s not what resurrection looks like.  Just laboring is not new life.  Breaking the culture of death and attaining new life is the goal, but it’s truly hard.  Phase two of the University of Wisconsin study is where it gets more interesting.  Again, from The Week:   “Researchers carried out a ‘virtual shopping task’ for common grocery store items, like Jell-O or Coke. Just as in the first phase, some of the participants were asked to repeat the item’s name to themselves while looking. But this time the results were ‘more complex.’ …Talkers were able to find familiar objects like Coke much quicker. But for less familiar objects, such as the slightly more ambiguous Speed Stick deodorant, the mutterers actually took much longer.  Why? ‘Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful,’” one researcher said, “’If you don’t know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or can actually slow you down.’”

If you don’t know what an object looks like, or if the events of life have so worn down the truth you once received, or if you’ve already made yourself believe there is no hope, just simply saying it has no effect on you.  In fact, it might even distract you, slow you down, get in your way.  Truly, I wonder how some of the words we regularly toss around in the church actually sound to people, to you.  What does resurrection mean?  What does new and unending life imply?  What does redemption say, to you, today?  Are you hearing something or, just as likely and for no apparent fault of your own, do these words not only sound empty, vacant, vacuous but are they a distraction, obscuring your path to wholeness?

The way the Easter story is told, then, is precisely for you, you who are tricky animals, you human beings.  The gospels do not describe the resurrection.  They tell only of its faint aftermath, the evidence of the action of God: a stone unrolled, a tomb empty, a promise kept.  Resurrection is a matter of faith, and faith is born in a place within the lives of perfectly ordinary women and men, people who can and do, from time to time, delude and trick ourselves.   Like those women we forget and lose sight, we alter memories and, as science has shown, we are actually a whole lot better at driving ourselves further from the truth than we are at doing what people say when you lose something: just stop thinking about it and you’ll find it.

That’s not what the angel said in the garden.  He said “Remember.”  “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man will rise again.”  And they remembered what he said and that he said it because they remembered how.  They remembered, at that moment, not in their quickly deceiving minds but in their well-hewn hearts.  For resurrection cannot be thought or learned.  Redemption isn’t something some are better at because they pray harder or attend more regularly.  It’s a gift and is retrieved in remembering, in coming back together and returning to life.  In that moment, in that garden, those women remembered how Jesus embraced them and blessed them, how he took bread and broke it, how he welcomed sinners and loved the outcast, how gently he touched them, in a place deeper than words or meanings or thinking.

That place is the harbor of faith, and it is there in you.  It’s been there all along.

……….

Excerpted from an Easter sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church, 2013.  Full text is available here.