Monday, March 12, 2018

Lent 4: Disappointment

Readings: Exodus 6:2-13; Romans 5:1-11

“There's an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine -- "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.” 

Margaret AtwoodNegotiating with the Dead

I begin with the quote from Margaret Atwood because I want you to trace the emotion that underlies it.  It is a theological emotion, a spiritual fear, it is disappointment, and in its context, one recognises it as a recurrent, persistent, and despairing force.  Give up on ever meeting an author because you like his work.   Art and reality don’t connect.

I read Paul gratefully but with a question.  Paul always drives home the point that we are saved or justified by faith, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by living courageously amidst the troubles of this life.  Yet I find that I instinctively come with a question: is faith and stoicism enough?  Is this all there is?   Paul seems to anticipate the question: he reaches back far beyond faith and beyond discipline, he reaches back to the root fact of the universe – that God is love.  Notice how the text works:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The sequence Paul follows is a kind of layering that is progressively removed: suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; character produces hope; and hope does not disappoint us because the Holy Spirit gives us the love of God.  It is John who reminds us that fear is removed by love.

And yet, and yet … our minds keep running on the usual and familiar circuits.  We question.  We rationalise.  Why do we cling to hope and faith – is this just a grand illusion?  Is Richard Dawkins right?  We are, after all, familiar with disappointment in its various forms.  Surely it is part of life.   There are courses on how to manage it; there are drugs and medications to take the edge off it.   Are we aware of the love of God in our hearts?  If we answer frankly, well think carefully … is there a desire for that love; a trace of compassion or empathy; are there moments of generosity and grace?  What is it in us that make us willing to risk disappointment?   Are we prepared to acknowledge the possibility of God active within us, unbidden, subtle, mysterious and ever surprising?

These are questions we need to hold onto … and as we do I have in the back of my mind one of the poems by that great Dean of St Pauls, John Donne.  His faith and hope, risking disappointment, if you like, kept company with his questions.   At the end, he clings to Christ.

A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, 
         Which was my sin, though it were done before? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, 
         And do run still, though still I do deplore? 
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
                        For I have more. 

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won 
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun 
         A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score? 
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
                        For I have more. 

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun 
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; 
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son 
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore; 
                And, having done that, thou hast done; 
                        I fear no more. 

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