Days Without Drama
We Americans love the dramatic and the spectacular. The two biggest movies of a recent summer are now available on videocassette so that we can buy them to view over and over and over again at home. They are movies that are special effects movies. One of them is called Independence Day, and it is about the invasion of planet earth by extraterrestrial; the other is called Twister and is about tornadoes. It is amazing what the wizards in Hollywood can do to create a tornado for a movie or to create giant spaceships that come down and hover over the White House. If you've seen the movie, you saw the White House explode before your very eyes. We love special effects. Generally, the most popular movies are ones that are full of the spectacular and the unusual and, sometimes, the farfetched.
Sometimes I think of the Christmas season as being the church's special effects season. This is the season for the unusual: Angels visiting unmarried women in lower Galilee and announcing the birth of the Messiah. That's not something that happens regularly! A host of angelic choirs in the skies announcing to the shepherds that the Messiah is born—if you think about it, that scene would make a great special effects scene for Hollywood. Or wise men following a star, for heaven's sakes, and finding a particular village in Palestine and a particular stable in the village. The Christmas Story is full of the unusual and the spectacular. We like it. Perhaps that is part of the reason why Christmas is such a popular holiday, even among those who make no pretense of practicing Christianity any other time.
We are a people who love the dramatic, love the extraordinary, love the spectacular. But the trouble is we don't live our lives in the spectacular. We live our lives in the ordinary. We live our lives in the everyday. We live our lives in the humdrum routine of life. And that humdrum routine of life is not just a matter of going to work Monday morning and eating the same food and going to sleep at night and starting the whole cycle over again. It is much more than that. There is a sort of humdrum of the spirit, a humdrum of the soul that all of us experience from time to time. Even though we love Christmas, and we love all the drama and all the glory of it, we don't live most of our lives in Christmas. We live most of our lives in the ordinary waiting of Advent. And so it is. If we are going to find a healthy spirituality, a healthy faith, a healthy soul, we need to have a faith, a spirituality, that works in the everyday, that works in the humdrum. We need faith that works when things are not dramatic and extraordinary and spectacular.
Our Old Testament lesson, I think, is helpful in this regard. The old prophet Isaiah is working in a time that is not all that different from our time. The Old Testament lesson is really a prayer. In this prayer Isaiah prays to God and he says, "Oh that you would rend open the heavens and come down and shake the mountains." We know how he feels. Wouldn't we like to have a drum roll? Wouldn't we like to have something beyond belief that solidifies our belief. We can understand old Isaiah's longings. He wanted this drama, not just for himself but for his contemporaries. At Christmas season, we can look back on the Christmas stories and all the unusual, mighty tales that are a part of them and wonder why those kinds of things don't happen to us. Why don't those kinds of things happen in our time? So it was that Isaiah, in his time, could look back on the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai and all those spectacular things. Isaiah wondered, "Where is it now? Where is God now? I don't see any seas parting, or any God descending on the mountain, or any angels visiting, or any stars guiding." It's the ordinariness. So old Isaiah understood us, and he understood our time. He understood the spiritual challenges that we face.
I want to say to you this morning that this humdrum-ness of spirituality has a number of dangers built into it for our souls. One of the dangers of a humdrum life, a humdrum spirituality—and understand that is pretty much the only life we have, the ordinary, the everyday—is that we would seek over and over and over again for spiritual ecstasies. Now spiritual ecstasies are wonderful when they happen. When they happen spontaneously, they are wonderful things. But don't you know people who are always on the search for the next miracle? They can't seem to sustain their faith unless they have their daily or weekly dose of miracles. Also, we see it and we struggle with it in worship. How do we make worship work for people? We want to touch hearts as well as heads. We want to move the emotions as well as the mind. All of that is rightfully a part of worship. But there is in our time a ratcheting up of the tricks of the trade of worship; that is, some people think that ordinary worship is boring, that it doesn't reach people's lives and so they will introduce something special—some sort of new music or some sort of new feature of one kind or another. Don't you know people who are always on the search for a kind of spiritual adrenaline rush? And if they don't clap their hands or wave their arms in the air, or something like that, they think they haven't worshipped. There seems to be, for some, a necessity to get a boost, a fix, some sort of spiritual adrenaline. That's all very good, but, you see, today's thrill is tomorrow's humdrum. And if we have to provide a thrill of the week in worship, where does it end? How high do you have to ratchet the things up? How many emotionally manipulative things do you have to do so that there's always something dramatic? Now, there is a danger in it. There is a danger in those who think that their spiritual life is humdrum and they have to always search for the next miracle, the next spiritual adrenaline shot because, in the end, life is ordinary. Most of life is everyday. Most of life is not dramatic. Most of life is not full of an adrenaline rush, and it is in the everyday that we must find our faith.
There are other dangers in this everydayness of life, of spirituality. One of these additional dangers is that we slide into a kind of cynicism. If God doesn't rend open the heavens and make the mountains quake and do things that enliven us and thrill us, then we get cynical. H.L. Menken has defined a cynic this way: "A cynic is a person that smells flowers and looks for a coffin." That's a cynic. But here in Columbia we have a particular danger of cynicism because we are an academic community. And academia, by its very nature, rewards cynicism. Academia rewards people who stay one step removed from really living life so that they can, in a detached way, observe it. Academia says, "Doubt everything and challenge everything." There is virtue in that. Indeed, there is a place in healthy spirituality for doubt and uncertainty. But a cynicism that doesn't allow one to give one's life totally to something else, a kind of cynicism that never allows for a measure of commitment, a cynicism that doesn't make possible the giving of the heart, a cynicism that keeps a distance, an objectivity, is somewhat artificial. That sort of cynicism is a danger. It's a danger we slide into because religious life doesn't always give us bells and whistles and excitement. And if we're not careful we'll grow cynical.
There are other dangers of everyday religious life. Too often we can reduce everyday religious life to a kind of obligation or ritual. You know, you come on Sunday morning and you do your obligation. You go through the motions, you do the ritual, and, then you go about life. And the everydayness captures us totally.
Well, in these, and lots of other ways, there are hazards. There are hazards in a spirituality that is everyday, a spirituality that is ordinary, a spirituality that is commonplace. And yet that's our life. Most of our life is lived not in Christmas but in the rest of the year. Most of our lives are lived not when the seas are parting, not when God is descending on Mount Sinai, not when the angels are singing, but in the everyday, the ordinary. So what keeps us going in the ordinary? What makes an everyday spirituality healthy and sustaining?
Well, in part at least, I think the answer to that question is still found in the old prophet, Isaiah. For at the end of that prayer that Isaiah prayed, a prayer that asks for drama, Isaiah said in the end, "Yes, we want drama but he said, "help us to remember that you are the potter and we are the clay." It's a simple metaphor.
If you have ever seen a potter work clay in his or her hands, you know how ordinary and yet how lovely that process is. Isaiah invites us to remember that the clay doesn't have any right to say to the potter, "I don't want to be an everyday dish. Please make me a communion vessel." The clay doesn't have a right to say to the potter, "What you're doing with me is not what I was meant to be." The clay is in the hands of the potter. And the way in which life works out is, at least in some ways, a result of the hand of the potter. And as everyday and as ordinary as it may be, if we find our spirituality is as familiar as an old slipper, as routine as a familiar prayer, yet if we understand and have the stance of trust, that trust that, however this is working itself out, that the potter holds us in his hands. The potter shapes us as we were meant to be shaped. In the quietness of life where it isn't dramatic, where it isn't spectacular, to truly believe that even the everyday, even the ordinary, even the routine can be shaped by the hands of God and to trust in those hands, that is the spirituality of the everyday. A spirituality we need as we wait for Christmas. Amen.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck, Senior Pastor Missouri United Methodist Church
1H. L. Mencken in the Curmudgeon's Calendar
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