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February 26, 2012 | 8:00 a.m.

The Life God Gives Us—Alternative to Futility

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 25:1–10
Mark 1:9–15

To everyone there opens
A way, and ways, and a way,
And the high soul treads the high way,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And in between on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.

 Adapted from John Oxenham

There is an attitude abroad in the land these days that someone has summed up by the snippy phrase “So what?” So what’s the problem? So what’s the point? So what’s it have to do with me? So what do I care? So what’s the use? So what does it matter? The phrase often has an air of disdain about it, a contemptuous cynicism that sneers at the purported relevance of the subject at hand, because it doesn’t matter. In fact, nothing matters.

According to some observers this “so what?” attitude is particularly seen with reference to religion. Last month an article in USA Today (3 January 2012) carried the headline “God, Religion, Atheism ‘So What?’ That’s What Many Say.” It reports that an increasing number of people are experiencing “spiritual apathy.” They shrug off God, religion, and give little or no thought to any search for meaning and purpose in life. Whereas earlier many turned their backs on organized religion yet claimed to be spiritual, now a growing number of people are disavowing any claim to spirituality.

A 2011 Baylor University religion survey showed that nearly half of the respondents stated they spent no time seeking eternal wisdom,” while nearly 20 percent thought it useless to search for meaning in life. Others reflected a totally secular position, claiming no connection with God or a higher power or any religious identity, asserting that religion of any sort was not important in their lives. Lacking spiritual curiosity, the “so what?” crowd rejects scripture as an irrelevant artifact, and instead of following Jesus, they are followers of 5,000 unseen “friends” on Facebook or Twitter. So Whats appear to some to be a growing secular subset in our society and are more concerned with “the tangible, the real stuff like mortgages or their favorite football team or the everyday world,” according to Barry Kosmin, director Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism. For many then, God is off the radar, it seems, like a foreign country you know exists but never think about. Doesn’t matter.

The sense of futility that is evident in the “so what?” attitude that nothing, including God, matters may, in fact, be the mirrored reflection of the feeling that we don’t matter. The uprisings, riots, and protest demonstrations so prevalent in many places in the world may be the way people resist the ultimate consequence of such futility. If nothing matters, if I don’t matter, why bother living? It won’t matter if I decide not to.

Futility is often the byproduct of disillusionment and its attendant feeling of disappointment, which may be a euphemism for anger. After all, we have been betrayed and have betrayed ourselves, or so it seems when our illusions are shattered by the hard facts of reality. Yet, some illusions can be helpful, at least for a while. When I went into combat in France during World War II, I entertained the illusion that I would not be killed. Wounded perhaps, but not killed. The illusion helped to buffer my fear and kept me from becoming paralyzed by panic.

At one time or another we all have illusions about God, the world, ourselves, others, and life. And we don’t part with them easily. They are our illusions, after all, and they are precious to us. As the poet W. H. Auden once put it:

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

Difficult though it may be to let our illusions die, the discipline of disillusionment is a necessary one if we are to grow into a more mature and realistic awareness of ourselves and of life. One of my struggles has to do with my effort sometimes to relate to things as I want them to be rather than to the way they are. Only when I am willing to accept the “isness” of the way things are and move beyond my irritation and anger because I can’t get my way am I in a better position possibly to help transform them into what I might prefer them to be. And even when such transformation is not possible, I am still in a better position to relate to and cope with the way things are.

No more is all this true than with reference to how we view life and the expectations we have of it and bring to it. It is here that I find the words and message of Mark 1:9–15, today’s scripture lesson, a helpful guide, for in this brief and concise—typical of Mark’s writing, by the way, of the trajectory of the life of Jesus—are insights about how life can be lived. Granted it can be summed up even more briefly than does Mark. Jesus got baptized. He got tempted. He got to work. But there is more to it than that.

Jesus didn’t have to get baptized so as to be symbolically cleansed or to get God’s approval, signified by the word “Beloved.” He chose to so as to more thoroughly identify with humanity and to show that God is with us in this thing called life, into its watery depths, and later on a cross, up to the nail prints in his hands and a crown of thorns on his brow. Jesus was “Beloved” from the beginning, not because he got baptized. “In the beginning was the Word,” wrote John. And that word was and is “Beloved.”

There is much talk these days about when life begins, along with related issues of contraception, abortion, Planned Parenthood, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. Depending upon your understanding of medical science, the Bible, and your theological beliefs and political persuasion, among other things, you may have reached a conclusion about when existence begins. But I should like to suggest that life begins with a name.

We all have two names, the one we go by and the one we live by. The one we go by is the one on our birth certificate, the one intoned at our baptism. The one we live by is the one we have acquired from others and/or have ascribed to ourselves. Unfortunately this one is often pejorative and demeaning in nature, representing a perceived part of who we are or a distortion of who we are or both. This is often the name that gets imprinted on our psyches in a way that makes it easier for us to live our lives so as to conform to that identity, sometimes with disastrous consequences, until we retrieve, and begin to live by, the name bestowed upon us earlier by the words, “You are a child of God and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” For me the good news is that in the sight of God and from the beginning I am “Beloved” and remain so by God’s forgiving grace, in spite of my flaws and failings, my sins and mistakes, and all the dirt and filth and ugliness that I have picked up along the way of my life’s journey. As the hymn writer put it years ago in the carol we sing at Christmas,

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

If you are living by a name that is cursing you, know now that you can begin to live the life of a new name, Beloved. Life begins with a name.

But being beloved, being in God’s good graces or anyone else’s for that matter, does not ensure that we are exempt from life’s dislodging and sometimes tragic experiences. Struggle and conflict are among the givens of the human condition, the training ground on which character is tested and formed. So God packed Jesus off to the wilderness with the assistance of the Holy Spirit tugging him along. He was to engage in a spiritual arm-wrestling encounter with the forces of evil personified by Satan to make sure his integrity as the Beloved was intact, for it was not a world of tranquility and peace that God sent Jesus into, but one of struggle and conflict with the powers of evil, a world in which wild beasts as well as angels roamed the same territory.

From Matthew’s Gospel record we learn that Satan, through a series of preposterous claims and heady enticements, sought to seduce Jesus into compromising his integrity by exploiting power for the sake of self-aggrandizement and personal gain. Satan flunked in his efforts and Jesus passed the test. It was not a once-for-all, been-there-done-that event. The one thing the devil never does is to leave us. It was so with Jesus. His real temptation occurred not in the wilderness but in a garden, Gethsemane, where once again in what may have been a state of panic, sweating what seemed like great drops of blood, he prayed to be spared the suffering of the cross. An understandable prayer to be sure, but one that, in a sense, sought to seduce God into getting him off the hook. Prayer can be and sometimes is an exercise in seduction in order to avoid the agony of the struggle and the pain of the suffering. It is an altogether human thing to want to do. But sometimes the struggle and the suffering, the agony and the pain, become the fertile soil in which faith takes hold and flourishes. As a woman who was dying told me years ago when I asked her if she was in pain, “Yes, I’m in pain,” she said, “but pain is my hope, for when I am in pain I know my God is most near and I know I’m still alive.” And she was no masochist.

Jesus relied upon the truth of God’s word to sustain his integrity in times of temptation and in his hour of trial. So must we. As Martin Luther reminds us in his great hymn,

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.

Jesus now was ready to begin his public ministry. So he got to work proclaiming the good news of God’s love and nearness, calling for people to repent, literally to change their minds about some things, to recognize that God’s love includes God’s wrath and that we need to take it seriously. On that score we may need to heed the words of a great theologian of an earlier era, H. Richard Niebuhr, who warned against falling prey to the worship of “a God without wrath who brings humans without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” In addition, we do ourselves a service by resisting the temptation to see the sin only in the foes of righteousness and not also in those who resist them. And he did all this not only by the words that he said but by the deeds that he did, the life that he lived, and the death that he died. And he did so not to make a celebrity splash on the red carpets of the world, but to make a difference in the lives of the forgotten ones of the world, the least of these, as he once called them. As noted author Marilynne Robinson wrote recently in an article about the significance of the Bible, “In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition. The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected” (The New York Times Book Review, 25 December 2011).

On this first Sunday of Lent, as we begin to retrace the steps of Jesus that led him finally to the cross and later to an open tomb, we do well to realize that Lent has less to do with what we give up for Lent than it has to do with what we stand up for in the world and live for in life.

The alternative to futility is to live the life that we have been given by following, as best we can, the trajectory of the life of Christ, which begins with the blessing of a name and continues with the never-ending work of witnessing and declaring the good news of God’s love by serving those in need in the world. Life may not always be what it is cracked up to be. But it need not be useless.

So what? That’s what! Amen.