January 2, 2022
Invincible SummerHoward Thurman
Let the bells be silenced
Let the gifts be stillborn
Let cheer be muted
Let music be soundless
Violence stalks the land
That’s a quote from one of the Inward/Outward readings this week, and that’s about how I feel, a lot of the time.
We are in the midst of winter. It’s a new calendar year, but the Earth has not renewed herself yet. For us in the northern hemisphere, in the United States, the days are short, the light feeble. And what a strange winter it’s been – tornados, floods, brushfires. It’s enough to make a person despair of anything ever getting better. But we also know about seasons. There’s never yet been a winter without a spring. Somehow Mother Earth does bloom again, and we, her creatures, are released from the grip of frost and foreboding.
My own mood is very wintry, on this January 2nd. I have much to be grateful for each day, and I have led a privileged and grace-filled life. But what turns my spirit cold inside is what I see happening to our country. There is every chance that I, that every one of us, is going to lose some of the most precious privileges – we like to call them “rights” — that we have always enjoyed. I’m not an especially patriotic person. I think the U.S. has done some things very well, others very poorly. But I truly never thought that our long, slow path toward equality at the ballot box – just to take one instance – would be reversed, with the express intent of allowing one political party to gain power illegitimately. To be honest, I thought I would die before anything truly drastic happened to the U.S. — which is the sort of comfort a white male can take, surveying his own enviable position.
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. The bell is tolling, a lot sooner than I expected.
I learned a new word last week. I really like learning new words, and it doesn’t happen often enough. Let me try this one out on you – have you ever heard the word “irenic”? Not “ironic,” “irenic” — I R E N I C. It means “aiming at or favoring peace.” It also has a specifically Christian meaning: “irenics” or “irenicism” is the Christian attempt to unify our various sects and denominations by reasoning together. Katie, having graduated with honors in English, already knew this word, but not me.
I discovered “irenic” in a Washington Post op-ed piece by columnist Michael Gerson. He wrote, “So many otherwise irenic people seem captured by the politics of the clenched fist.” He goes on to offer his own version of Christian hope as the antidote to such warlike responses.
Now Gerson, whom I take to be a Christian based on this piece, doesn’t dispute that 2022 is looking dismal and ominous. He writes, “Everything seems crying out in chaotic chorus: Things are not getting better.” Our Scripture from Jeremiah this morning finds the prophet promising better times to come, but this promise is preceded, through most of Jeremiah, by some blunt talk: He hears God say to him, “Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!”
Gerson goes on to talk about the theological virtue of hope, and I will do the same in this sermon. As it happens, I don’t see hope the way Gerson does, but I thank him nonetheless for reminding his readers that the atrocities of oppression, warfare, and murder have been around for a very long time, and we are not the first society to seek a spiritual response. Indeed, it’s probably good to remember that the people who first listened to Jesus, and believed his Good News, were also living under oppression and in poverty; for them, the bad news was as pervasive as today’s headlines.
Am I one of those “irenic people” that Gerson refers to? I guess I am. I hate conflict and will go to often unhealthy lengths to avoid it – though this doesn’t really resolve anything. I fear and abhor violence, and God has blessed my life with uninterrupted peace. I have not been in a physical fight since I was 15, and that one lasted about 30 seconds. Moreover, I have a deep and I hope unshakeable faith that there really is a universal language of love, tolerance, and reason that we can employ to resolve our differences peacefully. I suppose that must be what “irenics” as a branch of theology is all about, and I am happy to be “irenic” in that sense.
You must read Gerson’s piece and make your own judgment, but for me he places too much emphasis on hope as a passive, inner state, something we must cultivate in our hearts and, as he puts it, “live in expectation of God’s unfolding purposes, until all his mercies stand revealed.” Well, yes, but aren’t we supposed to be doing something as well? Don’t we followers of Jesus have to play a role in unfolding God’s purposes? Can’t that be done even in the unappetizing atmosphere of politics, and despite the clear signs that – for the moment at least – we are facing some near-hopeless disadvantages?
By the grace of God, we don’t lack for role models here. Desmond Tutu, may he rest in peace, was such a figure. So was Doctor King. So was Mohandas Gandhi. So was Dorothy Day. Each of those individuals, in their bravery and strength, refused to wait resignedly for the storm clouds to pass.
They did not see hope as only an inner attitude, though it is that. As I understand someone like Archbishop Tutu – though it’s very hard for me to understand such a person – he lived his life with fervent faith in the goodness of God and the eventual triumph of God’s will for us, while at the same time he believed that therefore, precisely because he could proclaim this faith and hope, he had an obligation to do his part, over and over, even knowing what the obstacles and personal dangers were. Tutu, and King, and Gandhi, and Day, were not “optimists” of the “everything will turn out fine” variety. They knew quite well, I think, that many things, even most things, don’t turn out fine at all. So how did they persevere? How can we persevere? How can I? How can I face what feels to me like the almost certain knowledge that, one year from today, I will be lamenting, not praising?
Our reading from Ephesians refers to that “grand ultimate destiny” sense of hope that Gerson also talks about. Paul calls it “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [God], things in heaven and things on earth.” But there’s more. “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” he says. This inheritance is the Holy Spirit, which will bring “redemption as God’s own people.” Now I firmly believe that this inheritance has got to make a difference. It has to be more than words. Otherwise Christianity is just a set of ideas – maybe good ideas, but still just ideas. Whereas the Holy Spirit activates us, it inspires us, it propels us into a life that can “redeem God’s own people.” That does not sound to me like trusting God and waiting for the bad times to pass over.
So we do what we can, maybe we do more than we thought we could, not on our power, but trusting the prompting of the Spirit, of the Higher Power. But is this enough to keep despair from our door? No, it is not. I will change the pronoun and speak for myself: I figure I’m going to spend a lot of this year embroiled in the struggle for political and social justice. I don’t do nearly enough, but even so, if that is all I do this year, I will be truly miserable. I would be ignoring another precious gift that is part of the inheritance of the Holy Spirit, and that I need with all my heart if I am to survive as a child of God.
Here’s what I mean.
We are in the midst of winter, and the philosopher Albert Camus had something to say about that. In 1954, he wrote an essay called “Return to Tipasa” in which he describes going back to his hometown in Algeria, after World War Two had destroyed much of what he remembered and loved there. And he makes it clear that more than a town was scarred by that war – Camus himself has lost his youth and his optimism, he has seen far more than he wants to of the world’s injustice and cruelty, and he himself has become hardened, a fighter. Now he’s back where he started, trying to start again. He writes:
“Disoriented, walking through the wet, solitary countryside, I tried at least to recapture that strength, hitherto always at hand, that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted that I cannot change it.”
And as he walks and reflects and remembers, something does start to happen for him. This is what he says:
“[V]iolence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it. In the clamor in which we live, love is impossible and justice does not suffice. . . But in order to keep justice from shriveling up like a beautiful orange fruit containing nothing but a bitter, dry pulp, I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy . . . Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing. In the midst of winter I discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”
What is this “invincible summer,” this freshness, this “cool wellspring of joy”? What did Albert Camus see in that “young sky” that allowed him to say, “In the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky has never left me”? I think it’s the Holy Spirit, alive and well in everything that surrounds us, no matter how grim. And our theology reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not just a sign or a manifestation of God – it is God. God inhabits us, and the animals and plants and the very rocks. God infuses the art that we make, as we imitate his creation. And God is love, which can never die.
Would Camus have agreed? Some say he was on the road to accepting Christianity before his untimely death in a car accident; we’ll never know. But his descriptions in this marvelous essay, and the hope he inspires, sound very very familiar to me as a Christian. And they speak clearly to my own fears. How much more discord and division can I take, before I too find nothing but “a bitter dry pulp” inside myself? Will my heart dry up with hatred, will fighting for justice exhaust the love that gave birth to my longing for justice? Camus knew this was a real possibility, and I think most of us do too. There are two terrible visions of hell on earth: In one, we attend to our comforts, deaf, dumb, and blind to the needs of others; in the other, we work and work, and work and work, but forget why we are doing it, and end up defeated and, yes, bitter.
I do not have a prescription to give you that will let you avoid this. I can only remind you that we are followers of Jesus, who is the Christ, and that this commits us to certain beliefs and actions that stand directly opposed to the shriveling and death of the spirit. We believe, or I do, in a great big cosmic YES! We are called to be irenic people, aiming at and favoring peace. We believe, or I do, in an invincible summer. The challenge, now more than ever, is to find a way to bask in that sunlight inside ourselves, every day, no matter the weather outside. And for this we need the grace of God – and perhaps some good music that reminds us of who we really are. May we all receive it. Amen.