Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Land of Either/Or

Who shall separate us from the love Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8.35-37)

Cosmic Mash-Up

A great friend moans on Facebook that he’s got an Olivia Newton-John song stuck in his head he can’t pry loose. Everyone jumps to mention other smarmy tunes that glom onto us like gum to a shoe. I flag “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and think no more of it. Then, this morning, I wake up to find Ms. Newton-John has set up shop in my head. She’s chirping before I hear myself think, a song from Xanadu, no less, one of the worst movies ever made. All she gives me is the hook: “You have to believe we are magic, and nothing can stand in our way.” It loops over and over on the far side of my ears, where I can’t get to it. I try to suppress it during a meeting, but whenever the conversation lulls, there it is: You have to believe... I can’t take it. The instant I get on the subway, I crank my iPod’s “Living in the Past” playlist of Sixties and Seventies hits. I desperately need The Who or The Kinks or The Stones to rescue me. So what shuffles up? The Little River Band’s “Help Is On Its Way”: “Hang on. Help is on its way. I’ll be there as fast I can. Hang on, a tiny voice did say, from somewhere deep inside the inner man.”

Perhaps I’m watching too much “Glee”. Without conscious intent, I’ve concocted a motivational mash-up (not a bad one, either): Hang on. You have to believe. Help is on its way. Nothing can stand in our way. I’ll be there as fast as I can… Is Someone speaking? Not being one who stores much credence in extra-scriptural phenomena, like weeping Madonnas or (wink to Gleeks) Christ’s apparition on a slice of toast, I park the question to see if more back up turns up. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” follows. See? Just a coincidence, I sigh—until “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me” gives me a jolt. I ease off to let the music play. Another sigh when Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” comes on. Then she sings, “Are you gonna let me go there by myself? That’s such a lonely thing to do.” All of a sudden, I’m in the Land of Either/Or: Believe or Beelzebub; Hang On or Help Me; “I’ll be there” or, “Are you gonna let me go there by myself?” I realize I’m in the cosmic mash-up we sort through constantly. Everything we do and say, every response and expectation is shaped either by faith or fear, persistence or panic. Either we trust God for our best or we tremble to imagine our worst. We either hang on, knowing He’s on His way, or we go it alone. We dwell in the Land of Either/Or.

The Principality, Not the Path

I won’t be convinced deciding to follow Christ is tough or complicated. No one can possibly exceed the lengths He’s taken to offer us love and life. Accepting His gift is so clearly the best decision it’s hard work to rationalize rejecting it. The ease in recognizing it’s the right—the only—choice can be misleading, though. When challenges that accompany following Jesus surface, many believers lose their way. They quit without pause, saying, “I signed up to be loved and gain eternal life, not to love haters, welcome strangers, give to receive, break habits, fix attitudes, embrace the impossible, and trust the invisible. How is any of that easy?” We can’t dispute them. None of it seems easy. But the difficulty is caused by the principality, not the path. As we follow Jesus through the Land of Either/Or, each step confronts us with dangers and perplexities that demand responses completely unnatural to the atmosphere surrounding us.

We have to believe we are magic—not in the Harry Potter sense, of course, but in knowing we’re indomitable and impervious to forces that govern Either/Or. That’s why we never tire of hearing Paul’s description of our unique powers in Romans 8.35-37: “Who shall separate us from the love Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Just look at all those “or’s!” Every one of them is a fear-fueled, panic-ridden, completely realistic possibility. Yet when we believe, when we opt for the “either’s”—the choices that test our faith and persistence—nothing can stand in our way. We are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us, Paul insists, removing any question of where our powers lie. Our fortitude, confidence, and hope—our genius—is in the love Christ proved, and the life He promises.

We Are Magic

Paul cites Psalm 44.22 to stress how our meek appearance belies our mighty power: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” The dangers we encounter on the road come from crossing hostile territory and passing derisive personalities. Earlier in the psalm, the poet complains, “You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us.” (v13-14) Why is that? Seen from the roadside, we look like sheep headed for ruin, as though we’re so oblivious to the world’s ways we’ll look up to find our Shepherd’s left us in the slaughter pen. “Never!” Paul says. “Nothing will ever separate us from His love!”

Thus, in a very real sense, we are magic, because magic tricks the eye. How we’re seen and what’s said of us is not who we are. We look like sheep on the outside. Inside, we’re more than conquerors. What appears to be mindless compliance is revealed as ingenious obedience. The terrors meant to defeat us are inexplicably transformed into tests that define us. When we should cry, “Help me!” we rejoice, “Help is on its way!” We must always remember everything we see and hear in Either/Or is backwards. Apparent weakness is true strength. Foolishness that’s mocked merits respect for its wisdom. Insults translate into praise, and logical thinking is ridiculed by unnatural faith. Knowing this, we have to believe we are magic. Nothing can stand in our way.

For all practical purposes, the world sees us as oblivious sheep. But our appearance is deceiving. We’re not sheep. Christ’s love makes us more than conquerors.

Postscript: Hang On

Saddling you with Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” would be a cruelty beyond forgiveness. Instead, here’s a 1978 video of The Little River Band’s “Help Is On Its Way.” I find the bridge particularly powerful:

Don't you forget who'll take care of you

It don't matter what you do

Form a duet - let him sing melody

You'll provide the harmony.



Philomena Ewing said...

A special post that blends humour with such strength of faith !! The musical choice is spot on too.
Thank you Tim.

Tim said...

Thank you, Phil. You and I share the "musical" thing--those moments when songs seem to come from nowhere and remind us of something essential. This was one of those times for me!

Blessings--and have a terrific weekend!