Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Gives Me Hope? - Charlie Clark '11

May 12, 2011.  Rollins Chapel.
Scripture:  Jonah, Chapter 2.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

This is Eliot’s call to repentance in “Little Gidding,” a poem that has been on my mind as I have prepared this reflection. I think it peculiarly appropriate for this gathering, in our little-used chapel, where we have come in the past few weeks to give our accounts of the hope that is in us. The question, “What gives you hope?” is not one that I encounter often. While my generation seems to me at any rate to be deeply ironic in our contemplation of the world, as a group, we have a remarkably resilient belief in progress, and not only in progress but in the basic goodness of ourselves and the world around us, in “the family of things” as others have framed it. I confess I am not persuaded by this vision. I take no comfort in, I find no hope in the assurance:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Can it really be that all is already well? What a difficult position that would put us in with respect to hope.
If the world and we in it are self-healing, self-sustaining, then what more can we ask? Has God given us all already, and is the world still as it is? I, at any rate, can make much more sense of

Cursed is the ground because of you;
In pain shall you eat of it all the days of your life;
Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For you are dust
And to dust you shall return.

I am glad that I do not have to be good. No one is good except God alone. But I am as certain of my need to repent as I am certain of the world’s brokenness. I am certain of my powerlessness against sin as against the broken promise of a fallen world. And I am not confident in time’s power to improve my situation or my soul. “Little Gidding” again:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
     To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
     First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
     But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
     As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
     At human folly, and the laceration
     Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
     Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
     Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
     Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

I cannot ignore the world’s darkness, our alienation, our remarkable distaste for the facts of death and suffering. Things are as they are, and they are not well. But this leaves so much room for hope, for hope in grace through repentance in faith, hope in salvation through our redemption, hope in our justification through Christ’s atonement. So Julian of Norwich writes in her thirteenth revelation of divine love,

“In my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. This stirring was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Eliot adds,

By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

So then, all is not well that all shall be well. This is the same story of sin, repentance, and salvation that we see throughout the Scriptures. But I especially love the version in the Book of Jonah. Almost nowhere else in Scripture is God more compassionate, patient, and gracious than in Jonah.

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish… But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.

For his sin of disobedience, Jonah is thrown into the sea. The passage that was read earlier is Jonah’s account of his repentance and salvation.
Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight;

By what? By his own sin.

Yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.”

The place of God’s presence. Jonah repents; he turns back to the presence of God which he was fleeing. And God delivers him.

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD… And he called out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them… When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

So, repentance begets repentance, and God delivers the Ninevites as well. This is the story that I find hope in, in the acknowledgement that we and our world are desperately in need of deliverance, and that God is ready and willing to forgive and restore. So let us consider how we are fleeing from the presence from God, as individuals, as a College, as a Nation, as a World, and let us turn back. That’s my hope. I’ll close with a final passage from “Little Gidding.”
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
     Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
     To be redeemed from fire by fire.

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