Living in the tragic gap
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Other texts: Palmer, Parker. Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (Jossey-Bass, October 2011).
Living in the Tragic Gap
Jesus is leaving. And the disciples are in the midst of this incredible transition. They have witnessed the death of their beloved friend and teacher, experienced the death of all their hopes and dreams, really. Only to be astounded by his appearances to them in the breaking of bread, and then as they are gathered together in prayer.
At the end of Luke’s telling, Jesus appears on the third day after his crucifixion, and then leads them out “as far as Bethany,” blesses them and is “carried up into heaven.” In Acts, Luke backtracks a little and says that Jesus was with them for 40 days “appearing to them” and “speaking about the kingdom of God.” And during those 40 days, Jesus gives some explicit instructions: “wait,” “stay here,” “don’t leave,” he says.
Wait. Stay. Be patient. It’s not what most of us are good at. Most of us are uncomfortable living with uncertainty, we dislike embracing the unknown, we can’t stand the not-quite, the not-yet, the “soon.”
We want to know what to expect. And we want to know now. “Is it now?” Is this it? “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responds with a little reprimand and an promise. “It’s not for you to know, BUT you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes.” The expectation of Pentecost, which we celebrate next week.
Stay here. Wait for the Holy Spirit. Remain in the unknown. Remain in the world.
A friend of mine says: “It might be true that when God closes one door, God also opens another, but it’s hell in the hallway.”
We live in the hallway. We live in the constant tension of the “already,” and the “not yet.” Between Easter and Pentecost. Between the Ascension and the fullness of time when all things will be restored in Christ…
We live in that place Parker Palmer defines as “the tragic gap.” That hellish and hopeful hallway between “the way things are, and the way we know they might be.”
“On one side of that gap,” he writes,“we see the hard realities of the world, realities that can crush our spirits and defeat our hopes.
“On the other side of that gap, we see real-world possibilities, life as we know it could be because we have seen it that way.
“We see a world at war, but we have known moments of peace.
“We see racial and religious enmity (and misogyny), but we have known moments of unity.
‘We see suffering caused by unjust scarcities, but we have known moments of material and spiritual sharing in which abundance was generated.”
These “possibilities,” Parker says, “are not wishful dreams or fantasies: they are alternative realities that we have witnessed in our own lives.”
In the past week we have seen (yet again) the hard realities of the world unleash violence and damage and grief in ways that are always unimaginable, and yet far too frequent.
And we have also seen communities rallying in support, and prayer, and calls for action.
The deadly rampage in Isla Vista, outside of Santa Barbara—which took place on streets I have walked—exploded onto my newsfeed and resounded with: voices needing to speak their truth…Voices seeking to assign blame…Voices grieving, and lamenting, and raging…
I’ve heard voices of women—friends and strangers— speaking truthfully and painfully about living daily with fear; dealing perpetually with threats of violence; and the everyday sexism that, yes, all women endure.
I’ve heard the voices of grieving fathers calling for action…I’ve heard the voices of the cynical and powerful claiming nothing can be done.
And these are just the latest voices echoing in the tragic gap between the world “as it is” and the world as it could be…the world of God’s dream.
It’s hard living in this shadowland. Between dream and reality. I want to believe that all these voices mean more than just a momentary pause in business as usual. But I hear voices that also say: “being hopeful is the only way I can get up in the morning, but I’m also exhausted with trying to change things.”
“Our constant temptation,” Palmer writes, “is to allow the tension between reality and possibility to pull us one way or the other.” Luring us into either “corrosive cynicism” or “irrelevant idealism.”
“Having seen “how the world works,” he says,“we arm ourselves and prepare for war rather than work for peace, thus becoming part of the problem.”
Or we are seduced into living “in the fantasy world of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…’, floating so far above the fray that we lose our grip on what is, becoming part of the problem in yet another way.
“Both cynicism and idealism,” he says, “take us out of the action by pulling us out of the tragic gap.”
And we must stay in the action. Stay. Wait. Be Patient. Be in the world.
Today, Jesus prays: “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.” Jesus is no longer in the world, but we are.
There is an awful lot of cynicism out there saying “its just the way it is…“the way it’s always been…” There’s a fair bit of idealism (or maybe just ideology) saying, “it would be so much better if everyone just did things our way.” Both of those pull us out of the action. Keep us from engaging in, and with the world. Perhaps the most diabolical form of cynicism is the kind that says, “It’s too hard.” “There’s nothing I can do that will make a difference.”
Jesus is no longer in the world, but we are. We shape the world by our actions in it. By all of our actions. By what we say and do, and by what we let pass what goes unsaid…
Bishop Steven Charleston frequently reminds people: “The destruction we see around us is not an accident. But then, neither is the fact that you and I have been placed here to do something about it.”
We have to stay in the action. In the gap. Living. Praying. Listening for the Holy Spirit. And faithfully aligning ourselves with it.
Parker Palmer in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy suggests listening for the Spirit and faithfully engaging the world by answering these questions: “are we faithful to the community on which we depend, to doing what we can in response to its pressing needs?
“Are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth from us?
“Are we faithful to the eternal conversation of the human race, to speaking and listening in a way that takes us closer to truth?
“Are we faithful to the call of courage that summons us to witness to the common good, even against great odds?
“When faithfulness is our standard,” he says, “we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being.
“Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives. We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light. We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace, and justice for everyone. Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys. It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.”
In this shadowland. In this tragic gap. Let our pray be: Come Holy Spirit. Empower us to be your faithful, hopeful people in this world and in the world to come. Amen.