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May 9, 2010 | 8:00 a.m.

The Future of Futility

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 67
John 5:1–9
Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5

The degree to which the world ignores things precious in the eyes of God is in the degree of its difference from him. For if we had persuaded ourselves to extend to one another reverence, we would have had another history and other prospects than those that now present themselves.

Marilynne Robinson


When I came home from World War II Europe in 1946 after nearly two years in combat, I had already decided to be a minister. Initially I was not aware of responding to a call by God. The call I had responded to was the call of silence—the silence of corpses in railroad boxcars, stacked in piles like so much cord wood, or lying sprawled on the ground, and the silence of the hollowed eyes of the survivors of disease, starvation, or extermination in the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, whose liberation I had participated in. Later on I concluded that the silence to which I had responded was for me the call of God.

Soon I was reading every book of sermons I could lay my hands on, on the naïve assumption that the only thing ministers did was study the Bible and preach. One day in a used-book store I came across such a volume. Used-book stores apparently are the graveyards where books of sermons eventually rest in peace, at least until some starry-eyed, young, aspiring minister comes to browse. In one of the sermons in the book, reference was made to what French soldiers in an earlier war, World War I, had construed as their philosophical way of facing possible death. It reads:

You may be mobilized or you may not be mobilized. If you are not mobilized nothing matters; if you are mobilized one of two things happens. Either you are sent up to the front or you are not sent up to the front. If you are not sent up to the front nothing matters; if you are sent up to the front one of two things happens. You are sent into the firing line or you are not sent into the firing line. If you are not sent into the firing line nothing matters; if you are sent into the firing line one of two things happens; you are hit or you are not hit. If you are not hit nothing matters; if you are hit one of two things happens; you are dangerously wounded or you are not dangerously wounded. If you are not dangerously wounded nothing matters. If you are dangerously wounded one of two things happens; you die or you do not die. If you do not die nothing matters. If you die nothing matters.

Perhaps it comes with the territory, but as I grow older, I find that I have to push back from the insistent temptation to become cynical about life, about the world, about political promise-making, and about the exalted claims that purveyors of the “prosperity gospel” make—that if we would just jump through certain ideational hoops, repeat certain religious mantras and shibboleths, and, of course, give at least a tenth of our income to a particular religious point of view, organization, or church, we would eventually here on earth end up healthy, wealthy, and wise. Granted there are alternatives to be considered and embraced. But most of these require rigorous thinking to override the lure of magical thinking, and disciplined practices that won’t settle for quick fixes.

When you look at what is going on in the world and in our nation, the data observed can make you wonder, “What’s the use? Why bother?” What good does all our preaching and posturing do? What difference does all our plotting and planning make? We say that this product or that plan, this idea or that approach, this strategy or that tactical procedure, when brought to bear on the intractable problems we are dealing with and that beset us, will change the world—the whole world, mind you. Of course, we recognize this hyperbolic rhetoric about the potency of our efforts for what it is. But repeated over and over again we soon get to believing our own hype. That, coupled with our need to be in total and ultimate control and our need to settle for nothing less than perfection, provides the perfect setup for the perfect storm of frustration, outrage, despair, and futility. When our hype proves to be just that and our efforts appear to be in vain, when the world doesn’t change all that much, we wonder what went wrong, scramble to fix it, and say it will never happen again. Then when it does, we throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use?”

History has a way of reminding us that we have been there before and the chances are we will be again. So what’s the point in all our protesting, all our efforts at reform, all our attempts to overcome? Ted Kennedy said, “The dream shall never die.” But neither do the problems. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Love never ends.” But neither does suffering. Our efforts to solve the problems and end the suffering end in results that are at best temporary, transient, and partial. Violence doesn’t end; it proliferates. War doesn’t end; it just changes venue. Crime and corruption don’t end; they continue. Poverty doesn’t end; it abates for a time. Oil spills don’t end; they just spew out more hubris. One disease is conquered, or so we think, and another steps up to take its place. A despot is deposed and a worse one fills the void. Greed is kicked out the front door and avarice slithers in the back one. And the infrastructure remains in the pot that it long ago had gone to.

Add to all this the disruptive and destructive forces of Mother Nature (that’s the mother we don’t fold into our remembrance and honor on Mother’s Day now, do we?), add Mother Nature at her fiercest to the equation, and the result is lives crushed or swept away, transportation brought to a standstill, whole ecological systems destroyed, and property in shambles. And we can’t do anything about it but clean up the mess and start over. Is it any wonder then that we end up drowning in a sea of futility, crying, “What’s the use?” and concluding that maybe the nihilism reflected in the words of those World War I French soldiers got it right? It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.

One gets worn out after a while when you see your efforts go to no avail. Or if they do accomplish something, it’s only for a while and then you have to start all over again, because it’s not working. Gershwin summed it up in his memorable words:

            I get weary and sick of tryin’,
Tired of living and feared of dyin’.

So why not just circle the wagons finally, hunker down, and settle into the friendly confines of one’s own self-interest and let the rest of the world go by because, after all, nothing really matters?

Or might it be that my sinking into despair or languishing in the dungeon of futility is my way of getting myself off the hook of responsibility to do whatever I can to address the issues and concerns that face me and that intimidate and dishearten me? To do what I can, not because it will always work but because it is right; not because it will get this or that done but because it in some way is in keeping with God’s word and will and is reflective of God’s love and care. Pragmatism has its proper place in the economy of our lives, but when it is not linked to a transcendent vision and an ethical imperative it can eventually lead to our throwing in the towel.

After thirty-eight years, that man by the pool in John’s narrative may well have come to the end of his hope. He wanted to be healed, but he complained that he had no one to help him be healed. Possibly, but hardly likely for that long a time. Yet it is often the case that need coupled with frustration leads to futility. It’s all what you get used to or perhaps what you get addicted to. Only when desperation is linked with desire will a person seek and accept help.

Jesus sensed that this man may have been caught in the trap of futility. So he cut to the core of the man’s condition. Do you want to be healed, or have you given up? Do you really want to be changed, or has the futility you are feeling taken away your will to change, your attitude at least? Or is it that your sense of futility has become the excuse you hide behind to justify that part of you that has gotten too used to yourself as you are?

Sometimes it is hard to leave what novelist Alice Walker once called “the temple of my familiar.” But even when futility has laid hope low, a spark of hope may yet remain. Jesus sensed that in this man too. His command to the man to rise, take up his pallet, and walk provided the man with a vision of possibility. It served to suggest to him that he might have a future different from his past. It is just such a vision that can become the alternative to futility if one acts in concert with it.

The writer of the book of Revelation knew this. His readers in the young churches scattered here and there around Asia Minor were under the heel of oppression and persecution by Nero and Domitian, two of the most ruthless and brutal despots in history. In addition, they were subject to the enticements of affluence and to the temptation to sell out to the pagan gods of Rome. John himself was in prison on the Roman prison island of Patmos. He knew that things were out of control and that the church needed a vision that put the chaos into the larger perspective of God’s controlling purposes.

The trouble with prisons is that there is not that much difference essentially between the ones imposed upon us by others and the ones we impose upon ourselves. In either case, we are in bondage. John knew that if he were to succumb to futility and self-pity, he could easily become imprisoned in the dungeon of egocentrism and self-absorption and that would sound the death knell on any hope that might make a difference. So to avoid that more deadening imprisonment and out of love and care for his sisters and brothers in Christ who had their own problems, he reached out in the form of this letter to the churches, a letter we know as the book of Revelation.

It is the revelation of a vision, a vision not so much designed to predict the future as to point to a purpose and a goal to which to commit oneself and in which one could participate both in imagination and in action, irrespective of one’s condition in life at the moment. For what we envision, what we aspire to and hope for, what we anticipate, and strive toward, informs and helps shape who we are and how we live now as much, if not more than, the stuff from our past.

With language extravagant and vivid, John uses a broad canvas on which to paint a word picture of a vision of eschatological judgment upon and redemption of the whole creation. Images gory and grotesque depict the death and destruction of sin and evil. Images beatific and sublime tell of a holy city, a new Jerusalem, a new order of existence, an idyllic dwelling place in which all that is toxic and impure has been removed and in which God’s presence is fully felt and experienced, hierarchical distinctions no longer exist, and people are priests to one another in a culture of mutuality and care for one another, all to the praise and glory of God.

Some people are put off by the gory and grotesque images, causing some skeptics to see nothing but pessimism in the book. Others respond to the beatific and sublime imagery by engaging in a kind of Architectural Digest fantasy focused largely upon the geography and interior design and décor of heaven. Still others see the vision of hope depicted as a false hope, a lie, “the mendacity of hope,” as one writer recently put it. Each of these points of view is a product of literalism. They miss the point John was conveying that the future of futility was doomed. It had no future in the face of a vision of hope. It may never go away completely, it may never die, but it will no longer dominate. Therefore, keep the faith. God is in control and God’s purposes are being worked out in human history. So hold on. Endure. Don’t give up to futility and don’t give in to despair. For you are a participant in that which is greater than your particular struggle, but your particular struggle is part of a larger struggle against the principalities and powers that threaten to undo us. Most of all, know that you are not ultimately alone in the world and that you are and always will be loved with an everlasting love that is greater than sin and evil and even death itself. This was John’s point, made through the use of poetic imagery and picturesque language designed to provoke awe and reverence and inspire hope in his readers to enable them to heed the call to be faithful in the Lord.

French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, in his classical treatise on hope in his book Homo Viator, defines hope as a radical openness to the future that refuses to calculate the limits of the possible. To hope is to trust in the final triumph of the love of God.

Dorothy Haight, who died recently at the age of ninety-eight, knew this. Proclaimed by President Barak Obama “the godmother of the civil rights movement,” she worked tirelessly behind the scenes for civil rights and the rights of women, having a lasting influence on Martin Luther King Jr. John Lewis, longtime congressman from Georgia; former President Bill Clinton; and countless others. Refused admission to Barnard College in 1929 because of the color of her skin, she carried that hurt for seventy-five years, not as the source of complaint but as the source of her motivation to pursue the vision, even as Martin Luther King Jr. would pursue the dream, and to push down barriers for those who would come after her.

Why? Because they matter. Because she mattered. Because the vision, the dream, matter. Because God and God’s truth and justice and peace and unconditional love for all matter. Because life matters. Because you and I matter.

Because of all these things, the verdict of those French soldiers decades ago was wrong. Futility has no future in the face of the vision. It may try to insinuate itself into my being, but it will not dominate me or hold me in bondage. I am freed to live—to live into hope.

Amen.