Monday, September 04, 2017

Of Guitar Strings & Tugs-O-War

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, have you ever been in a tug-o-war before? You know… two groups of people pulling on a rope with all their might in opposite directions? It can be quite fun. Fun to watch. And fun even to play. Fun, in other words, for the people involved. But have you ever wondered what it might be like for the rope? What it must feel like to be subjected to such great violence? To undergo such terrible tension? It seems quite unfair, doesn’t it? I imagine that it’s not unlike what sometimes happens, in a drama series, to a newly married man (for some reason, it’s usually only the man), whose wife and mother, unfortunately, do not get along. The poor guy is like that rope in a tug-o-war. He experiences tension. Wife pulling him in one direction. Mother pulling him in the other. What to do? How to survive? Seems really unfair. It’s enough to make anyone wonder how and why he got himself into such a fix in the first place.

And yet, my dear friends, tension isn’t always bad. Isn’t it true that many beautiful things come to us precisely as a result of tension? Consider a guitar, for example. How does it produce such melodious sounds, if not through tension? Strings of varying thickness, pulled in opposite directions, to varying degrees of tension, allow a musician to extract from them music so beautiful that it can soothe the struggling soul. Much as it may feel uncomfortable, and much as I might wish to avoid it, tension can actually be quite productive. The question, of course, is how to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty. This, my dear friends, is the question that I believe our readings help us to ponder today. How to endure tension so that it leads to beauty?

In both the first reading and the gospel, we find people in tense situations. In the first reading, God has given the prophet Jeremiah a message to proclaim. A word that is very difficult for the people to accept. God wants them to submit to their enemies. To suffer defeat. And to be taken into exile. As might be expected, not only do the people reject the message, they also persecute the messenger. They try to silence Jeremiah. Which is why, the prophet complains. The word of the Lord, he says, has meant for me insult, derision, all day long… Should he continue to speak and suffer the painful consequences? Or remain silent in order to save himself? Like the rope in a tug-o-war, Jeremiah experiences tension. He is pulled in opposite directions. He is suspended between speech and silence. Between the proclamation of God’s word and his own desire for self-preservation.

Which is not unlike Peter’s experience in the gospel. Immediately after having been praised by Jesus, in last week’s reading, for correctly identifying the Lord as the Messiah, Peter now finds himself equated with the Devil. All because he tries to discourage Jesus from submitting to his enemies. From undergoing suffering and death. Like Jeremiah, Peter experiences tension. He is suspended between looking at things in God’s way and in his own human fashion. Peter is torn between the call to follow the Lord to his Passion, and Peter’s own desire for self-preservation.

My dear friends, in our Mass readings today, both Jeremiah, the prophet, and Peter, the Lord’s chief apostle, are made to undergo tension. At first glance, it seems quite unfair, doesn’t it? And yet, could it be that God has good reason for allowing this to happen? Could it be that God is inviting them to a closer relationship. Teaching them to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty? Isn’t this what Jesus himself does? He goes to Jerusalem, he submits to his Passion and Death, in such a way that God eventually raises him to Life. And isn’t this what Jesus is inviting his disciples to do as well? If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me…  Follow me in enduring tension. So that you may follow me into the beauty of my Death and Resurrection. By which I will save the whole world…

All of which is, of course, much easier said than done. We know this. The Cross of Christ is far easier to preach than it is to practice. Easy for me to stand here and tell you that tension can be productive. That it can even lead to beauty. But what do I do when I myself experience it? What do I do when one friend tells me to do one thing, and another tells me the exact opposite? What do I do, when my boss in the office gives me one instruction, and my other boss or bosses at home give me another? What to do, when the world tells me how important it is to make money, and Jesus tells me that human beings do not live on bread alone? How to follow the Lord’s instruction? How to lose my life in order to find it? How to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty?

Thankfully, the second reading offers us valuable guidance. Some important steps that we can take. The first step is to think. To think of God’s mercy. Precisely at a time when I may be more inclined to indulge in self-pity. To focus only on my own pain. And perhaps even to blame others for it. The reading invites me to think instead of God’s mercy. God’s love for me. God’s many gifts and blessings showered upon me. Especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ the Son.

And when I do this, when I meditate more deeply on God’s mercy, it’s likely that I will begin to experience what the prophet Jeremiah experiences in the first reading. Perhaps God’s word will start to feel less like a terrible burden, and more like a life-giving flame. Or, as we sang in the response to the psalm, a burning thirst. For you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God. Perhaps the thoughts of God’s incredible mercy for me will ignite in my heart a fire, will awaken in my body a thirst, that motivates me to do whatever God wants me to do. Giving me strength to take the second step: To worship God with my whole body. With my whole life. To model my behaviour no longer on the world, but instead on Christ. So that I am gradually led to discover and to fulfil God’s will for me even when it is difficult. So that I might allow God to do with me as God does with Christ. To extract from the tense situations of my life beautiful sounds that can soothe, if only in some small way, the sufferings souls around me.

My dear friends, guitar-strings produce music only when they undergo the right tension. What must we do to better allow our merciful God to eventually transform the tensions of our daily lives into lovely instruments of beauty and salvation, for us and for our world, today?

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