that sometimes defy meaning
or at least
complicate our perspectives on life.
Like war, for example. It seems that we are always at war these days,
declared or undeclared, just or not-so-much,
and as we mark this Memorial Day weekend
with picnics and fireworks
and remembrances of how wars have shaped us and how
wars have taken loved ones away from us,
I often find myself longing for the day
when we will have a federal holiday remembering and celebrating
But we’re human. And we fight.
Sometimes we fight for good reasons
and sometimes that just what we say
but it’s complex, regardless. None of our fighting is black-and-white.
So we live with the mystery and complexity of war
and the evasive, unknown, unrealized hope for peace.
We also live with the mystery of meaning:
the wonder of what it all means,
of what we are meant to do with our span of days,
and why we are giving a span of days at all.
Religion fills in the blank of life’s meaning for many of us
but religion can go too far in its effort to define life’s meaning
and it becomes the method by which we
erase all mystery and
answer every unknown
(even an unknown like when the world will end).
And of course, religion has its own complexities and ironies,
because we’re human
and we use tools of power against one another
including who’s god is bigger and better and more right,
including who’s way of living is more divinely-ordained,
including who’s meaning of life
should define all of life & every person’s life.
So religion is complex as it impacts our lives
and religion is a puzzling contradiction
as it strives to know and to teach what is Unknowable and Undefinable.
And — in one way or another — many of the complexities and mysteries
of this life relate ultimately to the mystery that plagues us most of all:
the mystery, the puzzle that is death.
Despite the certainty of death
we still feel a tremendous uncertainty about it:
why this life at this time, why that one…
why the lives of children…
why the lives of those with less access to health care, to water…
Uncertainties like how do we live when we know that death will come
(which circles back to the complexities of religion and war),
and is death ever good?
Because we are human, it is certain that we will all experience death
but the uncertainty of death leads us often to live our lives
as though we can defy death; we race against time to cram it all in
until that final mystery comes.
We live with mysteries: with unknowns & complexities & contradictions
that evade our understanding and complicate our perspective.
Invisibilities that we cannot get our minds around
that we cannot grasp with our hands
that we cannot ever quite put a finger on.
In Acts 17:22-28a, Paul finds that the people of Athens
have put a face on their Mysteries and Invisibilities by creating an altar
that reads: “to an unknown god.”
Which I sort of like.
I realize that the Athenians were trying to cover their bases —
trying to name and build an altar to and worship every god
in order to avoid
insulting or overlooking one god in the whole pantheon of gods.
But I like that they created a space for what they didn’t know.
In effect, they were saying:
“We know the sun.
We know the winds.
We know death.
We know the pursuit of knowledge.
We know the seas.
We know the seasons.
…And we know that there is so much more that we don’t know.
So here is a space to remember
(And that’s not a bad religious tenet, to create space for the Unknown.)
In John 14:15-27, we have the continuation of a speech from Jesus
(via the long-winded pen of John): one of those passages in scripture
that is used within religion to say “Here is truth!”
it’s full of complexities and questions and puzzles.
Here Jesus says, “Life is going to get rough but I don’t want you to worry;
know that we are intimately connected — like a vine and its branches —
and I am always with you” … but as he is trying to impart
Jesus also says things like:
“The Advocate is coming — keep your eyes open for it —
but, by the way, most of the world can’t/won’t see the Advocate
so good luck being the few who recognize the Advocate’s arrival!”
And twice Jesus says:
“I’m going away now…but I’ll still be here”
and “I’m leaving…but I’ll be coming”
which is meant to be comforting, I think, but at the very least
it also reminds us that Jesus has a tendency to speak in puzzles,
and puzzles don’t give much definition to life’s mysteries
even if they point us in the right direction.
How do you feel about puzzles directing your life and faith?
How much would you prefer to un-puzzle and un-mystify and understand
the things that don’t make sense in life
the things that leave us guessing in faith?
Considering all that we don’t know,
examining all of the details and questions that are on
your own life’s plate:
if you could pick, would you invite the Jesus of John 14
to come and reflect on life with you
in parables and puzzles? or would you prefer
the certain answers of Paul
who looks at an altar of unknowns and invisibles
and offers a clear definition of the One
in whom we live & move & have our being?
Though Jesus and Paul are saying the same thing
— “God is in all and through all” —
in this case, I prefer how Paul says it more concisely!
How many unknowns
how many invisibilities, complexities, worries,
struggles for meaning and understanding,
or the strain of finding perspective,
how much are these things troubling your spirit these days?
Negative capability is a phrase first penned by the English poet John Keats, who wrote: “Negative capability [is] the quality when a [person] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (from an 1817 letter by John Keats, quoted on pg 38)
That is, negative capability is the ability to observe and to live without panic in the midst of negatives or voids or unknowns. It’s the faith to be in the mysteries, and the faith to be with The Holy Mystery. Negative capability is the ability to love & live & strive passionately … without knowing it all, without adding answers or craving facts to make sense of things that we can’t make sense of.
Negative capability is the skill for seeking after and following the Most Holy God who — more often than we may admit to one another — is invisible and unknowable and un-pin-down-able.
This is not a theoretical invention or philosophical exercise. This is the basic quality of faith at its strongest: the peace and presence of mind to say “I don’t know” without bitterness or fear. And there are plenty of occasions for saying “I don’t know” these days:
of why we would flood acres of land in order to save acres of land,
or who’s land and who’s livelihood gets priority in that choice.
We don’t know if wars will end.
I, personally, don’t know if the act of remembering those who have died
in past wars
will help us end our ongoing wars.
We don’t know how life can be so full, so fully lived,
and then be completely gone.
We don’t know — I wonder — these days if Earth herself is reacting
to our damage of the environment,
but people’s lives are being devastated by the
tornadoes and floods and wildfires
of Earth’s wrath.
I don’t know how or if the sound of a child’s laughter can hear the world
but I know that it heals my world.
We don’t know some days about God…
…because we want life to make sense to God
when it doesn’t make sense to us;
…because in the spirit of the Age of Reason
it seems like Someone should understand
the mysteries &contradictions
and that’s the struggle for fact, against faith:
that we want God to know
even when we don’t know.
Some days, how much we don’t know
feels like too much to bear.
Some days, we want “faith” to mean that we have answers.
Some days, we want our belief in the God
in whom we live & move & have our being
to mean that we can always see and always understand
the God in whom we live & move & have our being.
In the course of preaching “I Spy” sermons during May, I’ve been saying:
“Look and see God there. And there, and there, and there!”
But we don’t always see God there and there and there.
Sometimes we miss it — sometimes it’s our oversight —
but sometimes God isn’t readily visible
and sometimes we panic, worried that God’s not there at all.
Which brings us back around to the need in our faith for
that quality of having faith in the Invisible
(maybe even in the Absence);
the ability to live & love
right alongside the “I don’t knows”;
the wisdom to hear truth when Jesus says
“Peace I leave with you…even though you may not see me”
“Peace I give to you…even when you feel abandoned.”
Faith in the Invisible.
Praying to the God who eludes us
even as the same elusive God is so close to us
that we describe God as being within us.
Living and loving always within
the life and love of the Holy One
in whom we live and move and have our being
…even when our beings meet death, and our lives cease to move.
The discernment to know that the breadth & depth & height of
what is unknown
is so far beyond us
that we don’t even know all that we don’t know.
And yet we still believe that we are located in God,
even when God feels like part of what is Unknown and Invisible.
Not just the quality of having faith in the Invisible
but the grace of having hope in the Invisible:
that is, knowing that we fall short of fully grasping God
knowing that we fall short of fully grasping Love —
and realizing that our shortsightedness and our struggles over
“I don’t know”
all represent our human inability to imagine
the breadth & depth & height of the God above all gods —
we cannot imagine the breadth & depth & height & possibilities
of God and of Love and of Grace and of Peace
there are possibilities that we haven’t imagined!
So instead of responding to the Unknown and the Invisible
instead we realize
that within everything that we don’t know
there is room for hope
there is room — so much room! — for God
for the Unknown
for the Invisible,
and then the Mystery becomes an endlessly bubbling spring
for new hope and new grace in our lives.
We often respond to the void of knowledge,
we react to the invisibles and the “I don’t knows”
but somewhere between Jesus’ puzzles and Paul’s unknown altars
there is the possibility that our lack of understanding
is a reason to hope,
an opportunity for the grace of negative capability —
that faith skill of living boldly & loving unceasingly
within the mysteries and the doubts and the invisibles,
within The Mystery that is holy and that holds us
through every day and every doubt
the One who gives us being
the One who gives us peace
the Invisible One who gives us hope
My sermon from 5/29/2011, preached at Grace United Church of Christ.