Another Week Ends

“Make the World Go Away / Just Get It Off My Shoulder”

David Zahl / 1.8.21

“Make the world go away / Just get it off my shoulder.” Elvis sang those lines in 1970 and the refrain has been ringing in my head the last few days.

This is a week, after all, usually spent generating excitement about the new year. Brainstorming, organizing, “casting vision,” setting balls in motion, girding loins, possibly pretending we’re not still wiped from December. It’s hard enough in a “normal” year, but the whiplash this time around just feels insurmountable.

Because the world won’t go away. Whether it’s lunatics in the capitol, or a fatal car accident, or a new strain of COVID, or the soul-sucking rodeo of rancor and self-justification known as (social) media, these things intrude.

It’s gotten to the point where I envy those who react with anger, which at least seems energizing. For me the knee-jerk has always been sadness accompanied by the desire to retreat — into nostalgia or art or the minutiae of life with small children. I suppose I’d be tempted to reconsider the Benedict Option if that allowed a person to retreat from fellow Christians too. My fantasy is more the McFly Option.

2021 marks fifteen years of Mockingbird and, like most things in life, the primary challenge to the organization is different from what I’d anticipated. I thought the issue would be flagging passion, or flagging funds, or flagging opportunities, or flagging readership. But the chief challenge, as far as I can see, is flagging love. (That’s where prayers are geared at present if you’d care to join.)

By that I don’t mean love for God or even love for neighbor(s) as such. What I mean is, how do you keep engaging with the “world” without coming to hate it? Or without collapsing into cynicism entirely? Because the world breaks your heart. Life breaks your heart. The Church breaks your heart.

That’s putting it lightly. The closer you pay attention, the more you invest of yourself, the more painful it gets. Loss is paramount, this side of the veil #arentyougladyoutunedin.

Please understand: I’m not talking about specific cultural trends. I’m talking about all of it, the whole “empire of dirt,” the sum ugliness of what we contend with, day in and day out, right or left, male or female, Jew or Greek.

It may be, for example, that the world is no less merciless (or hostile to grace) than it’s ever been, and growing up is simply the process of realizing the extent. “These trenches we’re in are so deep,” said George Saunders the other day, and I concur.

Some want to burn it all down. I’d like to run away to an island where I could listen to Rod Stewart in peace.

I know in my head that even Robinson Crusoe had to contend with himself. As Adam Sandler warned us, the pictures we take in Sicily will still have us in them. In my heart, though, I can’t help but feel that everything would be easier, fitter, happier in some remote Alaskan village like the one Jesse Pinkman ends up in at the close of El Camino.

So what’s the solution? Is there a solution? How does a person keep “showing up” year after year — which I’m pretty sure is all we’re called to do as Christians (or humans) — when experience suggests that you’re showing up to get beat up? To get creamed by sin, the flesh, the devil, AKA the forces of vindictiveness and panic and everything else that drives clicks.

The partial answer is you don’t. To the extent that it’s possible, you lean on God to be God and make it happen if it’s going to happen. Surrender is the name of the game. God’ll have to blow some fresh wind if the ship is to sail. A new season of Ted Lasso wouldn’t hurt either.

In the meantime, maybe you brush up on a few things that aren’t grim about the future. Or lessons learned from the pandemic thus far. Or maybe you revisit the watchword you clung to when developing the new Mbird site, which is generosity.

Along those lines, you remind yourself that social media should be reserved almost exclusively for humor. Saunders again:

There’s something wonderful about the spontaneity of social media, but I think at this point it’s becoming 100% toxic for people to be firing off the top of their brains. One of the things this book says is that the deeper parts of our brain are actually more empathic. If you revise something 20 times, for a mysterious reason, it becomes more social, empathic and compassionate. With Chekhov, you feel he’s always saying: “Well, what else?”, “Is there anything else I should know?”, or “Maybe I’m wrong.” And all of that seems to be designed to foster love, or at least some kind of relation to the other that’s got possibility. So I’m not a fan of social media. I’m not on it. And I won’t be, because I think it’s killing us, actually. I really do.

What he’s observing is that patience, almost by default, cultivates generosity and cuts through self-righteousness — and the internet de-incentivizes patience at every turn. Alan Jacobs has been saying this for ages now, and he’s 100% right.

Ultimately, though, the sharpest arrow in the quiver, and the only reliable resource we’ve got, is scripture. Which has a funny way of showing up just when you need it to. To wit, this Sunday I was tasked with preaching on Acts 19:1-7, a passage that was relatively fresh to me.

The context is that Paul has arrived in Ephesus and run into some disciples of John the Baptist. This is 30-plus years on from that man’s ministry in a land far, far away. But here they are, sitting around in modern-day Turkey, waiting for their hope to be realized in the form of the messiah that John told them about.

Way back when, they’d gone out to the desert and repented of their sins, i.e. made a public show of their resolve to be better, and they’d been assured that God was in the business of second chances. Then they moved away before the next chapter could unfold.

No doubt they felt abandoned. I mean, we’ve been waiting for nine months for the pandemic to end and you can almost hear the “deconstruction” in the air. Their wait was going on three decades — akin to that room in Beetlejuice. You know the one.

I believe it was Adel Bestavros who defined faith as “patience with God.” If that’s true then the patience of these disciples in Ephesus strikes me as a particularly saintly strain, since all they had to go on was their own repentance. And as we know from our secular approximation of it, New Year’s Resolutions, human repentance is flimsy at best.

This is not to say that their repentance, or ours, shouldn’t be lauded. I’m all for New Year’s Resolutions these days, as long as they can be held lightly. At their best they are expressions of humility and hope (as opposed to optimism).

Anything that resembles repentance should probably be encouraged, the world being what it is. Indeed, if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that there is SO much to repent for. So much to change our minds about and vow to improve. Who said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless”? I think it was Eliot. We will never run out of things to repent for.

Of course, if the past year has taught us anything else, it’s that repentance on its own is not enough. Repentance on its own may even be a euphemism for nihilism.

Back to Ephesus. Along comes the apostle Paul and asks John’s followers if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. They look at him quizzically, but before you know it they’re being baptized in Jesus’s name.

To be baptized in Jesus’s name represents an essential shift. Instead of yoking their hope to the efficacy of their repentance — or resolve to do more and be better in 2021 — these disciples are brought into the baptism of Jesus himself. Their hope now rests on the Holy Spirit, which has an agency of its own.

In some mysterious way, the starting point for their lives going forward would be the same starting point that Jesus was given, namely, the pronouncement from on high that “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this unequivocal blessing inaugurated rather than eulogized Jesus’s ministry. He did not spend those next three years chasing after Assurance or Approval — or forcing the world to give it to him at gunpoint. It was already his. I can only assume this is part of what freed him to love others, independent of their response. Even those who hated him.

That same pronouncement still applies at the beginning of 2021. It transcends whatever (surprising) success or (inevitable) failure we may meet this year. It cannot be shaken or undermined by headlines, thank God. Whatever consolation we were finding there was illusory anyway.

The Holy Spirit is the arbiter of peace, full stop. The Spirit locates love where there is none to be found, inspires sympathy for the unsympathetic, and conveys hope to the hopeless. It brings life to the dead. A way forward. Nothing else will do the trick, nor should we expect it to.

Come to find out, this new reality in which we operate — however tenuously or tentatively (Lord help our unbelief!) — doesn’t make the world go away. Instead, like Jesus, it throws us back into the world. But not in order to wrest from it some sense of security or hope or kingdom come. No, we are thrown back into the world to love it as it is, rather than as we would have it be.

Which is to say, without optimism but full of faith, pens sharpened and memes at the ready.

Happy new year and let the blogging commence!

p.s. The Mockingcast will return the third week of January.