For a while there, I was an avid reader of the Harry Potter series. It was interesting, complex, adventuresome, AND it gave me a natural ‘in’ with my then young nephews. I can’t remember which book it was when I finally had to put it down. What I do remember is being filled with such angst at what I thought was blatant child abuse in some of the story lines that I just had to stop. My nephew, Andrew, who is now 20 years old, urged me to just skip over that part and to push ahead. I just couldn’t do it and so in my memory young Harry is still serving his teacher’s sentence. He is sitting in a classroom painfully writing his name on his hand over and over and over again.
Now I know there are those of you out there who would vehemently disagree with me and I would be most happy to hear from you. But the fact is that for me it became simply too much to witness these children trying to survive by the force of their own wits and power. I know the world is, or at least can be, much like this too much of the time — where evil seems to ‘win’ far more often than it loses. And I know that far too many children are forced to get through childhood without the vigilant protection of grown-ups who are meant to be those who help and not hurt. And yes, such heroes as Harry Potter and his friends who are forced to survive by the force of their own wits and strength and power stand as wonderful role models for those who are forced to battle in this life now. Even so, I couldn’t continue. At one point, I just stepped out of the dance — simply refusing to rejoice or to mourn — to borrow the images of the brief parable Jesus offers us today — at the fates of these engaging characters.
I’m not exactly certain why people also choose to do this in their lives of faith, although I could offer some guesses. Either way, we who are deeply engaged in this particular ‘dance’ do know that fewer and fewer of those around us in the world are in it with us. We grieve this, I know. We are surprised by it — by the cynicism, the anger, or the utter lack of interest held by so many. I know that when I am in conversation with many couples before their wedding day, it is the exception rather than the rule that they consider their faith to be an important support in their life together. More often than not, even among those who were raised in the faith, by the time they reach young adulthood it appears that faith is a non-player. They don’t seem to even hear the music anymore — or at least they don’t hear it in a way that calls to them.
A few weeks ago I overheard a conversation that was probably more honest than what most of my couples are willing to offer when we are working towards their weddings. I had ventured next door to our public library and was poking round in the religious section, looking for a book. There I was in the stacks on the second floor, browsing through what was available on the book of Genesis when, the voice of a young man on the other side of the stacks caught my attention. He said, “You know, I don’t believe in God. It’s my right not to.” And his companion — a young woman — replied, “Oh, but I do. I’d be too afraid of going to hell, so I believe.”
Ouch. Ouch to both of them. I ached to overhear this brief exchange and can’t decide what made me more sad — the young man who has abandoned his faith altogether or the young woman who claims her belief only as a safeguard against some sort of fiery afterlife. For both are missing the great gifts this life of faith can offer to us now. Both are trying hard, it seems to me, to live this life now pretty much on their own. And yet, at the same time, both appeared to be deeply engaged in conversations about things that matter. God is surely not done with them yet and it may be that one day they will hear the music again as meant for them.
Of course, the danger of how I tend to hear the words that Jesus offers now is that I hear it as meant for others — I forget that ‘this generation’ which is too much marked by cynicism, despair, anger, and hurt that has forgotten the sound of the music that is calling us to dance — is also many days descriptive of me. Indeed, I am among those who have been called to encourage others to live their lives in ways that are rich and full and good and somehow, as I think of the two whose conversation I overheard a few weeks ago — perhaps it is so, that I have been less than a good model for that full engagement in all of God’s gifts. Perhaps, I too, don’t always ‘hear the music’ in a way that others can tell.
To be honest, I struggled hard with Jesus’ words this week — not so much the individual ideas and messages but I had a hard time figuring out how it all hangs together. For we hear Jesus’ words of frustration — emulated in his parable about the children in the marketplaces calling out to one another. We hear his anger at ‘this generation’ and its response to both the witness of John the Baptist and to Jesus. We hear all this and then Jesus seems to move into an entirely different mode altogether as he speaks his very tender words about coming to him in our weariness and putting his yoke upon us. I’ve wondered what they all have to do with each other and this is where I’ve come down:
This much I know. It is wearing to live and work in a time and place where the music we are dancing to seems to not even be heard by much of the world. Yes, I along with you, do become weary and I am yearning simply to rest in One who offers all that I need. Only I wonder now. Do you suppose that the ‘rest’ Jesus offers now can be experienced especially as I seek to take Jesus’ yoke upon me? And do you suppose that to take Jesus’ yoke upon me is to simply engage those I encounter in the world who don’t seem to hear the music in the very way that Jesus did? For even with the anger he expresses now, until his last breath and beyond, Jesus was present to all those he encountered: his disciples and the Pharisees, the widowed and the hungry, the sick and the dying, the hopeful and the hurting, the wise and the innocent, old and young. Through it all, his message was clear. Jesus was always inviting others to fully live the lives God had given them. To hear the music and dance. And not only did he preach it. He lived it.
Oh yes, perhaps what Jesus urges us to now is to allow ourselves to dance when we hear the music and to grieve when our hearts are broken and through it all to know that a place of rest and peace and hope is always ours to return to. And perhaps if I only lived my life fully engaged in the world, that alone would be powerful witness to those who can’t seem to hear the music any more.
You know, I really did like the Harry Potter books. I found the characters engaging, the story lines fascinating, and the lessons offered well worth learning. It finally became too much for me to read about their battles with evil for I couldn’t discern a larger force holding them in their world. (Somehow, I find this more disturbing when the main characters are children. I certainly read plenty of other fiction where this would also not be the case.) I wouldn’t mind learning that perhaps I was missing something. Either way, this much I believe: you and I are called to live our lives in such a way that it is obvious that in both our dancing and in our mourning, we know and trust that God is present. There is something larger and more powerful than the forces we find ourselves battling now. And I wonder. Do you suppose that as I learn to do that more fully, even my weariness will cease? As I seek to do as Jesus did?
- How do the words of Jesus hang together for you in this chapter of Matthew? How do you make sense of them all of a piece?
- What does it mean to you to take Jesus’ yoke upon you? How do you seek to do so?
- How do you think we are called to respond to ‘this generation’ now?