My pastor, who leaves no stone unturned when telling a story, muscled over a virtual boulder this week. His text was the story of Elijah, who had in a few hours descended from a very public spectacle of invincibility to a profound and private collapse. His point, also made by David in Psalm 103, was that “God knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust.”
Over the past couple of days I have talked to several friends who heard the sermon and was surprised to learn that, like me, they feel very much like dust. And, like Elijah, we sometimes even feel that it would be better to return to the dust than to continue our present, clumsy existence. We seem to be caught between two irreconcilable realities, held in suspension like dust in the wind.
On the one hand, we are pierced by the occasional excruciating beauty of life and love, feel it as a place to which we do not quite belong but must somehow return, or die trying. Perhaps, in our youth (if we are lucky enough to preserve it for so long as that), we have hope that it is within reach — if we try hard enough or have some luck.
On the other hand, and especially for those unfortunate enough to get what they thought they wanted, it often turns out that the beauty which seemed to inhabit the thing desired was, instead, only a gleam upon the surface which vanishes in the changing light.
Life is hard. As a wise friend of mine once said, “Life is fundamentally tragic”. Its beauty awakens but does not satisfy hunger. In the words of George MacDonald…
Alas! how easily things go wrong!
A sigh too deep or a kiss too long,
And then comes a mist and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again.
This may be too dark a telling of our story. Most of us have inoculated ourselves against hopes which are too high, learned to take the good with the bad, perhaps even learned to prefer satisfactions more modest but more reliably within our control.
We all have seen the gleam disappear, from the once-exciting job that now asks too much or too little of us, from the living angel who turned out to be very human after all, from a series of shiny objects which we hoped would transform us but, mostly, just give us more work to do and pay for. The gleam disappears, but what do we do with the hunger that it awakened?
The prudent thing is to kill it. Laugh it off. Settle for less. Or, if the ache is too deep, to medicate myself with food or drink or even find some new shiny thing to pursue. Anything to cover the disappointment, to bridge the gap between what I have and what I long for.
In his sermon, Jason talked about the tenderness of God toward Elijah’s weakness. God offered no rebuke and uttered no command, he just gave his broken prophet time to sleep and provided a couple of simple meals. But maybe I’ve changed the subject; Elijah was not suffering from disappointment, or was he?
He had called down fire from heaven. He had personally demolished an army of enemies. He had outrun horses. He had done great things but he did not feel great. He felt weak and miserable. The power and beauty were real, but they were not his. He had touched them and found that, even so, he was still dust. This being true, all hope was lost. In this clumsy life he would always be dust and, in that knowledge, he despaired and longed only to return to the dust.
It is such a chasm that strikes me; the deep divide between the moonscape of my soul and the Eden of my longing. It is embarrassing to admit that it exists, and I am thankful that my pastor dragged it out from under that rock for us to see in ourselves.
Over the years I have come to believe that my friend Tim was right, that our life here is fundamentally tragic. But this is eventually beginning to feel like good news. There is beauty here, but also drudgery and disappointment and, in the end, the certainty of death and decay. If I were made for this, I suppose that I would be content. But I am not content; the longing for something better seems truer than any antidote I have found to quiet that longing. The sense of tragedy is a clue.
Which leads to this: Part of the solution to our painful disappointment with this life must be to agree that we really ought to feel disappointed. The problem is not with our perception; this feels like a cruel world that has lost its way because it is. We feel lost, as if this is not our home, because it is not. Our longing for a place more beautiful and enduring than this is a message, a postcard tucked into the corner of our heart by the creator of that place. For today, it gives perspective and hope. Soon, it will be an invitation to come home.
A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.
Readings for Meditation and Reflection
Link to last week’s service (Jason’s sermon, “Battling Depression” from 5/19 begins at 39:54, preceded by music from Impact’s incredible band):