Sanity, …. Within Reason
Given the popularity of “The Onion,” the satirical newspaper that makes up some very funny stories (and some very rude ones too), a bunch of rowdy young Christians started publishing an online spoof newspaper with some hilarious fictional stories. One headline I read went like this:
“Mountain Climber Recovering in ICU After Deciding to Let Go and Let God.”
I suppose timing is everything, and if you are climbing a mountain it may not be the best time to practice the discipline of letting go of control and just trusting God. The fact is, however, that this is a good discipline for most of the time.
And the alternative is just plain nuts: clinging to everything desperately in the hope that we can control every little thing in life to prevent change.
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” I used to think that passage from Matthew’s Gospel was intended to make us feel sort of sorry for Jesus. I was wrong. It is intended, I now think, to show us his spiritual health and sanity. He did not cling to or grasp at life. He knew that all things slip away. It’s just the nature of things.
How often have we witnessed the plight of someone desperately struggling to maintain control, grasping white-knuckled and holding tightly to that which already is passing away, or flailing about as though drowning, clinging to anvils while their friends keep tossing out life-preservers in vain?
A large measure of sanity consists in coming to terms with reality. As simple as that sounds, it requires considerable practice and discipline, and more than a little imagination. If there’s anything we know about Jesus, he was sane. And maybe one of the most important things he has to teach us is how to be sane too.
A few days ago, as Debbie and I were driving through the Atchafalaya Basin, on our way to Texas, Debbie took the opportunity to read me the “prologue” of Delia Owens’ very popular book, “Where the Crawdads Sing.” It was an appropriate place for this reading.
Owens writes: “Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life…. A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not sin.”
The natural world – and a swamp, as Pat Conroy once said, is just nature in heat – operates on the principle that change is the name of the game because “That’s Life.” Everything that comes into existence also passes away. Whether it’s a wild flower or a thousand year old tree, whether it’s a fruit fly or a tortoise: everything that lives, dies, and then rots, and new life emerges.
Jesus refers often to this simple natural reality. Until fairly recently, however, change was not viewed positively in the Christian religion, an historical factoid that may signify that sometimes even our faith can get a little crazy. Indeed, for much of its history, the church officially refused to believe that God could change.
“Why?” the sane might ask.
Because change (or “mutability” to use the theological word) is the realm of creatures, the realm of things that come to life, live, die, and then rot. Among the things that ancient orthodox and heretics tended to believe in common was the idea that God cannot be mutable because it was unthinkable, impious, beyond the realm of metaphysical possibility that God could rot.
You can see why an “incarnate God” might trouble these waters if taken far enough. And during the fourth century the battles raged over the changeability of ultimate reality. In some places, the battle still rages on.
I’ll leave the theological rabbit trails to another day. Today, I just want to note one thing. Although change has not always been welcomed in the Christian religion, if we don’t welcome it in our own lives, we’ll go crazy.
At a purely emotional level, it is easy to see why change does not always come easy for us. Change means loss as well as gain, and the longer we live the more we are likely to lose. But there’s no way to insulate ourselves from the losses without losing touch with the reality of this wonderful world.
We can choose to greet the inevitable changes for what they are, simply a part of life. We can choose to give thanks for all the life we know and have known, for all the living we have loved, for all the loved ones we have cherished, whatever losses may come, knowing that the path of spiritual health and sanity runs right through reality. As George Harrison used to sing, sunrise doesn’t last all morning, but cloudbursts seldom last all day either.
Among the many revolutionary lessons Christmas teaches, this has been one of the hardest for the church to learn.