Monday, March 2, 2009

Waiting to Exhale*

Somewhere in his writings, though I cannot now remember where, C. S. Lewis, as only Lewis could, depicted the gravity of certain moments in our lives with a startling image. He said that there are moments which come to every life that carry such consequence, such definitiveness, moments so heavy with meaning, that the angels “hang over the balcony of heaven watching us to see which way we will go – holding their breath, waiting to exhale, to see what we will do.”

Lewis goes on to say that the situation for us is exacerbated by the fact that at the time, we don’t always know the momentous significance of those moments. From our perspective limited as it is by our place, by the modality of our existence, namely, time and space, all moments look pretty much the same. If we knew in advance that some moment of our lives, some decision we face, could “carry or crush the hopes of heaven,” we’d, no doubt, steel ourselves for the task, draw ourselves up to face the challenge of the crisis, the kairos as the Greeks say. If we only knew how large this little decision would loom once magnified by the exponential factor of the future, surely we would pay more attention to it.

“If I had known then what I know now,” we say. My, the stories that begin like that! A casual word, a tossed off action, an ill-considered decision which at the time seemed ordinary, inconsequential, even trivial. And then, “If I had known then what I know now.”

But we didn’t know. And we don’t know. And so we stumble from one moment to the next as though life were just “one stupid thing after another,” not knowing how high the stakes really are. That angels are leaning over heaven’s balcony, gasping in silent vigil to see what we will do: “Will he?” “Won’t he?”

It’s an apt image for John’s description of the church of his day. When John wrote near the end of the first century of the Christian era, the church, especially in the Roman province of Asia Minor, was suffering intense persecution at the hands of the champions of the imperial cult. You see, Christianity was gestated in the womb of Judaism, and for much of its early life virtually indistinguishable from Judaism, at least to outsiders. Rome maintained its hold on its far-flung and diverse empire by means of two ingenious strategies: it discouraged the spread of new religions (which fostered nationalism among conquered peoples), and it encouraged loyalty and patriotism by means of the worship of Rome as the “mother country” personified in the cult of the divine emperor. There were lucrative rewards for the provincial cities of the empire which fostered the imperial cult – new roads, new buildings, new businesses. Pork barrel religion it was! And so every major city in the empire had its temple dedicated to Roma where the emperor was worshiped as divine.

Oh, it wasn’t, shall we say, serious religion, as though these people believed that the emperor really was God. Oh no. It was more like patriotism, like putting your hand over your heart and saying “I pledge allegiance to the emperor, of the Republic of Rome.” Or singing the Roman version of the “Stars Spangled Banner.” It was innocuous. Nobody really believed Caesar was god, for heaven’s sake. But for the Jew who grew up with the words “Thou shalt have no gods before me” ringing in his ears, even this was too much. And so Jews were granted an exemption from emperor worship, and so long as Christians were indistinguishable from Jews, so too were they.

But in the 60’s things changed. Nero singled Christians out for persecution. And in the 90’s when John wrote, it has become “open season” on Christians.

In his famous “Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia” John gives us a sociological study of the impact of the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor. And perhaps nowhere is that impact more prominent than at Pergamum. The former capital of the province, Pergamum was perched atop an impressive acropolis overlooking a spectacular valley in which a vast population, including many Christians, lived. Temples dedicated to Zeus and Athena adorned the base of the summit of the acropolis. There was a theater there dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and entertainment. There was an Asclepion there where the sick sought treatment. There was an amphitheater down below in the valley where the circus performed, where blood sports were witnessed, and where the Christian, Antipas, no doubt died. But sitting on the summit of the acropolis of Pergumum as a peon of Pergamum’s patriotism was the Temple of the Emperor Trajan – “the seat where Satan sits,” John calls it. And down below, in Christian homes all over Pergamum, the argument started: “But it’s only an empty gesture, and it’ll keep us out of the arena! Why can’t you just light a little candle for Caesar? Burn a little incense? Say a little prayer? It’s not as though we really believe he’s God. It could save the kids!” And John, writing to Christians facing this desperate dilemma, warns: “hold fast your faith that Jesus alone is Lord. And though, like Antipas, it cost you your lives, it will gain you your souls.”

And to drive the point home of how desperate a decision they face, John backs the camera up and gives them an “angels’ eye view” of things. In a remarkable use of dualistic imagery, he pictures each of the Seven Churches as having a heavenly counterpart in the form of a seven-branched candelabra, a Menorah really, each with a “guardian angel” adding the oil, trimming the wick, tending the flame, keeping the church aglow. And on earth, while Christians gather in little corners and weigh their options, in heaven the churches’ angels lean over the balcony watching their church for which the Menorah stands, and holding their breath to see what they will do. And while from earth’s perspective the little compromises seem trivial and inconsequential (What’s the harm? It’s just one little candle. We’ll have our fingers crossed behind our backs.”), from heaven’s heights, the stakes couldn’t be higher: “I will come and move your lamp stand out of its place!” Somehow, somewhere, Lewis says, the angels are watching, holding their breath, waiting to exhale, to see what we will do.

It’s a haunting image, isn’t it. Decisions made, courses taken which, at the time, seem minor and inconsequential – even trivial – can carry or crush the hopes of heaven. Little innocent compromises that seem harmless enough at the time, but which, multiplied by a factor of the future, grow up to become our undoing.

This was the message of the movie Flatliners which appeared some years ago. The story was about a group of medical students who conspired to conduct a scientific study of the greatest of all mysteries – the mystery of life after death. They use a defibrillator on each other to “flatline” their EKG’s, sending each other into cardiac arrest. Then, after several minutes excursion “on the other side,” they again use the defibrillator to bring each other back, in this way hoping to gain first hand insight into what lies on the other side. Unfortunately, however, their pasts followed them back, hounding them with past indiscretions and failures and memories that can not only haunt, but harm.

The rest of the story revolves around each character’s attempt to make peace with their past. It’s a marvelous story of sin and repentance and accountability and forgiveness. And in one moving scene, the character played by Keiffer Sutherland tries to explain to the character played by Julia Roberts that his ghosts are not so easily exorcised. It seems that when he was a little boy, a fairly innocent child’s prank went terribly wrong. Sutherland and a group of little boys continually bullied a meek, mild mannered neighbor boy, chasing him around the neighborhood and eventually up a tree. One thing led to another, and before anyone realized what was happening, the boys started throwing rocks up into the tree at the little boy. He slipped and fell, breaking his neck. And now his ghost had returned to exact revenge on Sutherland.

Julia Roberts, trying to reassure Sutherland, pleads with him just to let it go. She says: “But you were just a boy. You didn’t know what you were doing. You’re a different person now. Besides, it was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now.”

And Sutherland says: “You don’t get it, do you. Everything matters. Everything we do matters!”

The stakes are higher than you think.

Years ago, when I was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, I went to the Save-A-Center one night to pick up a few things for Cheryl – some coffee and breakfast cereal, stuff like that. I don’t know why, but it seems that they always wait until there are eleven people standing in every check out line to send the checkers out on their evening breaks. And so there we all were, standing in the check out line that wound its way down the aisle, round the frozen foods, past the breakfast cereals, to the paper towels. At the front of the line was this woman with two little boys, looked like twin boys, about four or five years old. She looked tired. Watching those boys in the check out line, I got tired. They were into everything. “You boys leave that candy alone!” “Did you hear me?” “You better leave that gum alone!” I felt sorry for her. She just had a few items to check through – a package of hot dogs, a few cans of something (I think it was green beans), a loaf of bread, and two cucumbers. When she got ready to pay, the checker said: “That’s $6.50 please.” The lady looked into her purse and took out two food stamp coupons, one in a five dollar denomination and the other a one dollar denomination. “I’ve only got six dollars.” she said. It was awkward. The checker was obviously embarrassed for her – we all were – and finally she said: “Uh…Ma’am, what do you want to do?” The boys were still picking at the candy and chewing gum and taking all the magazines off the shelf. This lady was so embarrassed and now she was panicked, desperate to do anything to get out of there. I was standing right behind her in line, watching all this, trying to keep out of those little boys line of fire, jingling a pocket full of change nervously. I started to reach into my pocket and take out 50 cents for the cucumbers and offer to pay for them myself: “Ma'am, would you let me buy those cucumbers for you?” I almost had the words out too, when I started thinking: “You know, what if she’s. . . ? I mean, she doesn’t know me. What if she thinks I’m patronizing her? ‘Yeah right. The busy businessman condescends to help the poor woman. Thanks, but no thanks. I can do just fine all by myself, thank you very much.’ I mean, I didn’t want to be offensive. Besides, she’s a woman; I’m a man. What if she thinks I’m hitting on her! Yeah, that would look great in the Raleigh News & Observer: “First Baptist Pastor Soliciting in Supermarket!” Besides, it wasn’t any of my business. You can’t just lose control like that, can you?” Finally, the woman said to the checker: “Put the cucumbers back. I thought: “Oh no, lady. Don’t do that.” It was only a minute or two, but it seemed like an hour! I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. My God, I didn’t say anything! I felt real bad. I felt real bad about it, And you know something? I had this…this feeling that somewhere, Someone was watching.

And little acts of faithfulness which, at the time, grow more out of integrity than intention, can end up making all the difference in the world for someone, and because they make all the difference in the world for someone, they make all the difference in the world.

Ruth did for me. Dr. Ruth Whitford was my major English professor in my undergraduate studies at Palm Beach Atlantic College in Florida. A graduate of Columbia, she had done post-doctoral in Renaissance literature with C. S. Lewis at Cambridge. It was she who first introduced me to the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and G. K. Chesterton and George MacDonald saying to me: “As an English major who is preparing for ministry, here are some people who bring faith and literature together effectively, and you need to be aware of them and their contributions. Her classes were celebrations of the great ideas expressed in the greatest literary works of the ages. She would sit in a circle with her majors and talk to us for an hour, completely without notes, about the lives and works of the greatest literary minds, Chaucer and Malory, Shakespeare and Donne, MoliĆ©re and Voltaire, Turgenev and Tolstoy, Kafka and de Balzac. One by one she invited them in, and they took their seats in our circle and told us their stories.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with her one day in her office, dusty little room more congenial to books than people. I had not done well in her class that semester because I was too busy out “doing the Lord’s work,” conducting youth revivals and such instead of concentrating on my studies. She had returned an exam in class, and when she gave me my exam, a “C,” she looked at me and said, “Wayne, you don’t know how this grieves me; this is not indicative of your best work, is it.” I took the exam, looked at her and, I’m embarrassed now to tell it, said, “Well prof, I don’t have time to work for grades; I’m too busy doing the Lord’s work.” What a smart alec! She should have “done the Lord’s work” and backhanded me right on the spot. But that’s not what she did. Instead, she asked me to come by her office after class where we might “chat,” I think was how she put it.

And after the initial awkwardness, she said: “You know, Wayne, there’s more than one way to love the Lord. We’re commanded to love the Lord not just with our hearts, but with our minds too! What we do in classroom no less than sanctuary is an expression of our love of God.”
She went on: “When Jesus was asked one day to sum it all up, he quoted Israel’s creed, the Shema, and said: ‘You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind.’ But look it up. The Shema doesn’t say that we’re to love God with our minds. That’s not in there. Jesus added that. Must have thought it was pretty important, huh?”
Then she added: “Now Wayne, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against heartfelt religion. There’s nothing wrong with emotion in faith. But Wayne, head and heart need not be enemies. You see, I’m a Christian for two reasons: because it feels right and makes sense. I wouldn’t be a Christian if it felt right and didn’t make sense, and I wouldn’t be a Christian if it made sense but didn’t feel right. I’m a Christian because it feels right and makes sense. Wayne, if you’re going to be what God truly wants you to be, you must allow your head and heart to become friends.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that she cared that much! And I was ashamed that I had hurt and disappointed someone who believed in me that much.

I left that office that day determined that, as God was and is my Witness, I would never disappoint that woman again!

And now the roles are reversed; I have to deal with students like me. Don’t tell me that God doesn’t have a sense of humor! Now, I’m the professor and I know just how much courage that took to risk “getting involved” with a student like that. I mean, let’s face it – I was an immature, ignorant, arrogant little jerk, and she would have been justified just writing me off. And there was a moment there when I thought she might. You could see the wheels turning as she deliberated her response: “Why am I doing this? He’s not worth it. I’ve encountered arrogance before, and I’ve encountered ignorance before, but this is arrogant ignorance! Why am I beating my head against the wall over this arrogant little know-it-all? I could be teaching students who really want to learn! I could be writing a book! I could be having a root canal, for heaven’s sake! Anything but this! Cut your losses, Ruth. Let him go. Turn him loose. Fail the little know-it-all! He’s not worth it!” And somewhere, the angels held their breath! And she looked at me, swallowed hard, and said: “Wayne, may I see you in my office?”

Years later, I went back to see her, thank her for taking the time and trouble to care about a student who didn’t deserve it. I sat with her in that same cramped little office and told her how her words had haunted me, driven me to demand from myself the best of which I was capable. She was polite. She heard me out. And when I was finished telling her my story, she looked at me a little embarrassed and said: “Well, you have me at a disadvantage. You see, I teach a lot a students. Now who are you?” Didn’t even remember me! It wasn't that she saw anything in me worth saving; she was just being a teacher, doing what she does, being present to the moment because the moment presented itself to her.

Can you beat that! She didn’t remember. But I do. I do.

I wish I knew. I wish I could tell you what matters and what doesn’t, when it “counts” and when you can “blow it off.” All I know is that maybe for someone everything matters.

And so, my brothers and sisters, John and I have a gospel word for you: “Be faithful in the place where God has set you; stand firm; hold fast, even if you live in the shadow of the “seat where Satan sits.” And in a world where everything matters, who knows, maybe, just maybe, somehow, someway, somewhere, some angels leaning over the balcony, holding their breath – waiting to exhale – will watch you, and breathe a little easier.

*A sermon on the Book of Revelation. Charts optional.
P/S to hear the "Rest of the Story," see my blog "May I Drop a Footnote?"

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