Shuck and Jive

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain -- A Sermon

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 30, 2012

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
--George Matheson

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
--Psalm 139-7-12

George Matheson was a Scottish theologian and preacher whose career spanned the latter half of the 19th century. He died in 1906. He was a liberal thinker who attempted to integrate faith with modern science. In 1885 he wrote a book entitled, Can the Old Faith Live with the New? or, The Problem of Evolution and Revelation. In it he argued that accepting evolution would not undermine the faith.

That was 1885.

He wrote a hymn, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go. A line from that hymn is the title of today’s sermon.

This is what Matheson said about the hymn:
"The hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a day spring from on high.

There has been much speculation regarding the “severe mental suffering” that he was feeling. One story suggests that his suffering was due to a lost love. He wrote this hymn on the occasion of his sister’s marriage. At one point in his life he was going to be married. During that period of engagement he learned that he was losing his eyesight. There was nothing the doctors could do. His fiancĂ© broke off the engagement saying she couldn’t live her life with a blind man.

He went blind while studying for the ministry. His sister took care of him during the years. Now on the eve of his sister’s wedding, who knows, perhaps feeling the sadness of his own loss during a celebratory time, he wrote this hymn.

Others speculate that it was the anguish of perhaps losing his faith in the light of modernism and science, particularly the theories of Darwin, that inspired the hymn. We don’t know. All we have is speculation and projection of our own mental suffering onto him. Matheson himself said something happened that “was known only to myself.”

It is a beautiful hymn. I never really paid much attention to it. Rarely have I selected it for worship until about a year or so ago. After Zach’s death, these past three months, it has been close to me. This is the third verse:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

This is the heart of the via negativa,
that spiritual path of letting go and letting be.
It is a path.
It is a path of trust that loss and the accompanying pain
is not the absence of the Sacred but a path to the Sacred.

Thus rather than bury the pain,
or hide it,
or deny it,
or be ashamed of it,

this path is an invitation to embrace it,
to name it,
to write a song about it,
or a poem,
to talk about it,
to walk with it.

The hope is that in so doing,
we can move through it and beyond it
and in the experience be touched by the Holy.

This is the path of Krishna:
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.”

This is the path of Jesus:
“After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, “If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it.”
 And from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Both Krishna and Jesus are offering invitations to trust. Neither is glorifying pain or suffering. They are not calling us to throw pity parties. They are inviting us to acknowledge what is real and offering the hope that staying with it and going through it will be the path of wholeness or wholeheartedness.

That trust requires heart. The word for courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means heart. This pain, this darkness, this rain, feels endless. It feels as though there is no possible good to come of it. It feels wrong, inappropriate, unjust, sacrilegious, even to hope or trust that there is a rainbow to trace.
I don’t want a freaking rainbow, I want my son back. I want my husband back. I want my mother back. I want my life back the way it was.

The open heart also known as courage is the willingness to live with that inner conflict, name it and not judge it. It is what Matthew Fox calls it, “cosmic anguish.” It isn’t tidy. It isn’t pretty. It is real.

But what if we weren’t able to feel the cosmic anguish? What if we quickly hid it away? Remember the song by the Beatles, “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.”
We don’t want to see that. Put it away.

We are a culture that demands that everyone be upbeat.

My first radio job was in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was a little AM station that played country music. We played records on the turntable. I read the news, the agricultural reports, and the town gossip. After I was there a few months, the station was bought by a Mormon family. They were nice folks. In fact, they were very upbeat. They changed the call letters and we had to identify ourselves as “Country Sunshine.” We disc jockeys had to play two upbeat songs for every slow song. That isn’t easy to do with country music. You have to really search for those upbeat ones. Not only that, but we were required to turn up the speed on the turntables to make the songs sound even more upbeat.

No rain allowed at 1240 AM Country Sunshine.

I get it. No one wants downer people. No one wants to listen to bummer man.
Hey, you’ve got to hide your grief away.

We know that.
We know that we need to put on the game face,
clean up and do our duty.
Fake it until you make it.

We need to know that there is a price for that. If we don’t recognize the cosmic anguish and if we are not attentive to what is behind the game face, we may not resolve our grief. For the sake of surviving this culture, we may stay on this side of our pain and never pass through it. It can forever haunt us. The via negativa is the spiritual path that invites to make time and to take time for those feelings that we may have buried or hidden. We give them their due so that we can let them go.

I am grateful today to and for George Matheson, that on June 6, 1882, he took off the game face that he needed to put on for his sister’s wedding, and for five minutes allowed his hollowed heart to hear the music of Spirit and put these words to pen and paper.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust
       life’s glory dead,
And from the ground
       there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.


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