Saturday, August 18, 2012

Drowning Our Sorrows

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5.15-17)

Harder to Breathe

A neighbor called the other day, wondering if she could drop by. She was stressed out and needed to talk. After she sat down and I asked what was bothering her, her tears took her by surprise. “It’s not anything specific,” she told me. “I’m just so…“ she said, searching for emotions she couldn’t find. It was my third conversation of its kind this week, including a long one with myself earlier that morning. I’d picked up the paper, glanced at the sorrows splayed across its front page and set it aside. I turned on the TV. It was tuned to a “Project Runway” rerun and contestants were snapping at one another over hemlines. My email was chock-full of political fundraisers spewing hatred for their opponents. On the Web, people were at each other’s throats.

I considered a long walk along the lake, with my iPod shuffling through a “Nature Hymns” playlist I keep handy for times when the human world seems to have jumped its tracks. But that wasn’t going to work; rehearsals for Chicago’s upcoming Air and Water Show were underway. As fighter jets roared past our windows, I couldn’t escape realizing that this weekend thousands would flock to the lakefront for “family fun,” while the very same “show” would send Syrian and Afghani families scrambling for cover. For some reason, my mind strayed to Erin Brockovich, Gasland, and other films about people trapped in environments where a few sips of tap water served up a toxic cocktail. It felt as if something inside me—everything that longed to walk uprightly, optimistically—was folding in two. I was frightened and when I’m afraid, I cry. As I told our neighbor what I’d been through not long before she called, she nodded.  “That’s it,” she said. “This meanness in the air is making it harder and harder to breathe. You can’t say anything without somebody jumping down your throat.”

Evil Days

Sunday’s New Testament reading, Ephesians 5.15-20, speaks powerfully to those of us finding it harder and harder to breathe. If you’ve followed the weekly excerpts from the epistle, you know the writer is addressing a predominately Gentile congregation striving to overcome uncertainties about its role and function in the expanding Christian world. Paul (or a disciple writing in his name) first wants his readers to know that God is alive and present in their community. Of special concern is fragmentation within the local body, as it appears that Jewish converts are distancing themselves from their Gentile sisters and brothers, and Paul summons them to quell the divisiveness so that they may be united in Christ. “Grow up,” he writes (Ephesians 4.15)—not merely in the sense of acting maturely, but also in terms of nurturing godliness to withstand the vicissitudes of differing beliefs and opinions. Last weekend, we heard a set of guidelines to eradicate behaviors that undermine unity, culminating in one of Scripture’s finest admonishments for Christian living: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (5.1-2)

In this weekend’s text we read: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (v15-17) The days are evil. Now, as then, the writer urges us to be savvy about sociopolitical dynamics that make it harder to breathe. Power lust, greed, and excesses attendant to them have created a climate of hostility, violence, and hatred that can all too easily creep into the believer’s life. If we don’t take care—if we are not wise—evils that gain acceptance as social norms can choke the life-affirming traits of discipleship. Gradually we absorb a mentality that reflects a world without Christ, one that thrives on vitriol and selfishness and idolatry of status and wealth. We are no longer making the most of the time, steadfastly bearing the fruit of God’s kingdom on earth. We are participating in a culture hell-bent on smothering itself in impenetrable darkness. We are right, I believe, to weep because we live in evil days. But when we allow their toxicity to cloud our minds, we risk failure to make the most of the abundant life Christ imparts to us.

Time to Sing

It’s not easy to live in a society where rampantly apparent evils are either ignored or invisible to the majority—including many who boast of Christian faith but refuse to bow to its demands. For faithful and faithless alike, escape becomes the immediate impulse. We’re seeing this at every turn: in impoverished cities where street drugs offer retreat, in plush suburbs where mood-altering pharmaceuticals create a false blur of inner peace and happiness, in overcrowded bars and restaurants where alcohol flows freely with the seductive promise of good times. And beyond chemicals we ingest to get away from it all, we look to other forms of drunkenness and excess to put distance between our troubles and us. We overspend on mindless distractions, engage in meaningless pleasures, and invest needless overtime on careers and projects. We are a culture on the run, too wounded and self-absorbed to realize that our neglect of righteousness only fuels our discontent and descent into ruin.

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery,” Paul writes, “but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Creator at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v18-20) Frankly, I don’t foresee things getting better any time soon. The corrosive issues and enormous problems we refuse to discuss in a mature, meaningful fashion won’t disappear in the hateful haze surrounding them. Yet Ephesians is adamant in telling us how to respond when we feel suffocated by evil. More than ever, we must be filled with the Spirit. It’s time to sing, drowning our sorrows with thanksgiving to God for all that Christ has given us: new life—resurrected life—that triumphs over evil and wins the day. Even when warplanes roar overhead and anger rears up at every corner, we must find the strength to reach for psalms and hymns and spiritual songs that revive the very breath of God present within us. It sounds foolish, but it is wise. “Understand what the will of the Lord is.”

When we feel suffocated by the evils around us, it’s time to sing.

Postscript: “This Is My Song”

I would be hard-pressed not to leave you with a hymn. This happens to be my all-time favorite—a song that consistently brings new life to me when I find it hard to breathe.