Reflection August 11, 2019

We Are Not “Fixable”-by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

     In the wake of our recent horrific mass shootings, there will again be a tsunami of words about how we can “fix” the problems that plague us. But we cannot “fix” what is broken within the human heart. We, humans, are incredibly fragile and easily shattered. As a species, we’re “Humpty Dumpty” after his fall from the wall!

     As Morris West put it succinctly in A View from the Ridge: The Testimony of a Twentieth-Century Christian: “What do I believe about man? That he is a malicious animal and sometimes a mad one. That he is improvable but never, never perfectible. That brutality will debase him, and only love and respect and forgiveness can ennoble him.

     “Sometimes it has seemed to me that the sanctions for being human are so horrendous that it is madness to relate them to any kind of divine plan ... We are conceived without consent, wrenched whimpering into an alien universe with our death sentence already written on the palms of our helpless hands: a cancer will eat our guts, a fanatic with a sword will cut off our heads (or an angry young white supremacist male will destroy us with an assault weapon - Pastor Thomas’ addition), or a drunken fool will mow us down with an automobile. Sentence once passed, there may be deferment, but there will be no mitigation, no commutation, no amnesty.

     “If I have understood nothing else in the gospel narratives, I have grasped always the tragedy of Christ’s deathwatch on the Mount of Olives and his cry of utter heartbreak just before the end: My God, my God, what have you abandoned me?

     “This is what pushes us toward despair: the sheer indifference of the universe, the lunatic aspect of a cosmos with no known beginning, no intelligible end, and no apparent meaning to its brutal dynamics. I believe that it is this despair which breeds the cruelties we practice upon one another. (Bolded by Pastor Thomas)

     “We live at the heart of a dark mystery - a tooth-and-claw creation made, we say, by a loving God. Saved, we say, by a crucified redeemer.” Hard words to ponder!

     In a recent sermon, I preached that there are three things that promise us more than they can possibly deliver. These three things are: 1) Life, 2) Love, and 3) Religion.

     Life cannot give us what we want from it. Our desires are too strong and overwhelming. We wrongly assume that we enter life on a level-playing field. Nothing could be further from the truth! Only those born to privilege spout such nonsense.

     The terrible plagues of poverty and economic injustice have withered our common humanity. The notion that we can all “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” is a terrible delusion. We have to play the cards we’re dealt but the deck is stacked against way too many. Life is not fair: never has been - never will be!

     Yes, life is a gift even though it comes with a web of stings attached. But life promises more than it can deliver! “Be all you can be” may work as an army recruiting slogan but it’s a decidedly dangerous life-principle. You nor anyone else can possibly “Be all you can be!” What utter nonsense!

     The second thing that promises more than it can deliver is Love. Love is often touted as the panacea for all our ills. I myself am a big fan of love. I’ve written about it for many decades. Yet love - like life - promises more than it can deliver.

     I ask my students at Moraine Community College if they have “been in love.” Many raise their hands in affirmation. But then I ask “What does love feel like?” I ask them to describe love. They falter in explaining love. We all falter in explaining love. Love is another of those mysteries; easily-invoked, difficultly-described.

     Love, as we may know, is more an act of the will than a fleeting feeling in the heart. We use love and its corollary, sex, to sell most everything, even religion. We idolize love and its persistent promise to “fix” us, to heal the loneliness woven into our human frame. But love can’t “fix” us!

     Love is a grace to those who have experienced its fiery fullness. But its promise is almost too difficult to bear. We blithely sing “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love” and then quickly forget how all people are our sisters and brothers. We are not “fixable.”

     There is something dark and evil lurking in all our hearts that compels us to hate whoever is deemed “the other.” Love is easy to say, easy to sing, hard to do!

     What is it that transforms many of us into crabby, disgruntled geezers as we age? Why is love so often lost to us as we wrinkle and sag?

     Why do so many of us have to have the spotlight shining on us long after we should get off the damn stage? This is true of not only our politicians but our pastors as well! 

     Why do those of us who are old not applaud our young and let them have their time in the spotlight, their turn on the stage? Those of us who are elders should mentor our young not hog the limelight! We don’t love our young enough to surrender our places on the stage. We don’t love our young enough to outlaw assault weapons. We don’t love our young enough to really listen to them.

     Love cannot cure all that is wrong with our world. We claim to worship a God of Love, yet many of us prefer the War-God of the Apocalypse! The Book of Revelation is NOT a prophecy about what awaits humanity! We need to get over our infantile infatuation with the God of Wrath!

     The Book of Revelation is an outdated, poetic but dangerous allegory about the hoped-for destruction of the hated Romans! Anyone who gets trapped in “end times” and divine-gore needs serious therapy and theological healing!

     The misguided Love of Armageddon is a terrible cancer afflicting Christianity. We have much to fear from such Christians. I’ve encountered too many who seethe with apocalyptic fire and brimstone!

     God protect us from those who wish for a scorched, destroyed earth along with a fiery pit for those who offend us by their skin color, their religion, their politics, their very existence!      

     And so we come to the third thing that promises more than it can deliver: religion. This may seem a strange statement from someone who has spent his long life working in the fields of faith. Yet there you have it! I’ve come to know deep in my soul how religion is often used to fuel hatred rather than fueling faith. 

     Over the many years of my ministerial service, I’ve seen many of the ways that we distort and corrupt our faith. I’ve even written two books about what I’ve come to believe.

     For doing such, I was silenced by the Vatican, ordered not to write without special permission nor could my books be reprinted. (Even though they are long out of print, they’re still available on Amazon or from libraries!) And let me not even whisper about the unsustainable practice of mandatory priestly celibacy in my former denomination!

     Again some wise thoughts from West: “The act of faith is not a leap from darkness into light. It is an affirmation that light exists beyond darkness, that the chaos and the cruelties of existence do, in the end, make sense, and that the primal act of creation, with all that issued from it, was an act of love.

     “The strongest compulsion to belief is not reason but need. We cannot endure to live in a mad universe. We are compelled, for our own sanity, to make sense of it. Sooner or later we are forced either to blasphemy or to the pilgrim search for the source of light - the shrine where creative love resides.”

     As most know, I’m weary with arguments about who has it RIGHT when it comes to religion. No one has it RIGHT! We all have it wrong! The only thing we can say is that we hope to get at least some small piece of religion right. We ALL struggle to understand the vast, dark, deep mystery of the Divine.

     I again turn to West: “Doomed man still struggles to preserve the illusion of immortality, cherishing it as Israel once cherished the ark of the covenant. Man, vilified by abject poverty, deformed by monstrous suffering, still manages to maintain a dignity like a violated temple in a vast and barren desert. Man, debased by tyranny, still dreams of justice - dispenses it, too, in faltering and uncertain fashion.

     “Man, sentenced to death, still plants apple trees whose fruits he will never eat, raises giant cities for others to live in, stretches upward to a cold moon and secret planets in hostile space.

     “In order to survive against the threat of madness in a mad world, to resist the impulse to psychotic fugue from situations too complex to cope with, one has to find a standpoint from which one cannot retreat, from which one may hope to progress to a deeper understanding and a more contented acceptance of one’s existence and the universe that one so briefly inhabits.

     “To arrive at the standpoint involves an act of acceptance, an act or faith or nonfaith - it makes no matter. Without this act, sanity is impossible. There is only the howling confusion of the wasteland.

     “I know that wasteland. I have heard the black winds that wail across it. I have seen its bleak and barren crags reflected in the eyes of men and women and hurt children. I have learned never to judge any of them, never to close my heart to them or withhold the hand of friendship. I have learned to be grateful for the small candle that lights my own faltering steps and to hope when it gutters out, I may wake to final illumination.” (Bolding by Pastor Thomas - this may serve as a very decent life and faith guideline!)

     I end with the same quote with which West ends his book: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor

Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643