Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

The Kingdom of Anxiety

Paul K Hooker/ Baccalaureate Sermon

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

14 May 2020

John 14:1-7

The Kingdom of Anxiety

            Every New Year’s Eve I revisit a poem, entitled “Year’s End,” by Richard Wilbur, one of my favorite American poets. Wilbur reflects on the last fading hours of the year, as late December snow covers the landscape of his Connecticut home. He meditates on things overwhelmed and frozen by change, his mind wandering from image to image, across time and space. A New Year’s Eve party visible through illumined windows fast covering with frost in the deepening night. A freezing lake, trapping leaves from overhanging branches that, once fallen, are “held in ice like dancers in a spell.” Ferns and mammoths fossilized millions of years ago in the very stones on which they fell in death. Victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii, eternally engulfed in pyroclastic ash. Here is the final stanza: 

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.   

We fray into the future, rarely wrought

Save in the tapestries of afterthought.

More time, more time. Barrages of applause   

Come muffled from a buried radio.

The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.[1]

            We fray into the future. That’s it, isn’t it? We weren’t ready for this. We weren’t ready for the virus. We weren’t ready to be locked away in homes and connected only in the ether. We weren’t ready for the year—indeed, for a seminary career—to end so abruptly, with words unsaid and things undone. We fray into a future “rarely wrought/Save in tapestries of afterthought.” More time, we plead, more time. But here we are in the midst of it, at the “sudden end of time,” and while the world goes on its perhaps-not-so-merry way, we sit in this moment frozen in our anxiety, like leaves upright in forming ice, or fossils in stone, or bodies entombed in volcanic ash. 

            In John’s story this morning, Jesus’ disciples aren’t ready either. They must have thought some change was afoot, but they have no inkling of the apocalyptic volcano about to erupt and entomb the world they love. More time, more time. But there he is, in the midst of them, talking about going on ahead of them to the Father’s house to prepare their rooms, leaving them to catch up the best they can. There will be a place for them, he promises, and all they have to do is believe. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is believe. But on he goes, heaping symbol upon figure of speech, while the sudden end of time looms and the future frays before them. Until finally, Thomas—bless his anxious, literalistic heart—at last asks the question that always lingers on the lips of the left-behind: We don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?

            “I am the Way,” Jesus says, with a poet’s eye for metaphor, “and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We argue even now about whether one must believe in Jesus to follow this way to the Father. Let me confess my heresy: I don’t care. I don’t care who is saved and who isn’t, or if anyone is or isn’t. In such moments as these we are living, nothing could matter less. What I care about is the metaphor. Something about Jesus embodies a Way, something incarnates Truth, something enfleshes Life itself. As we stand fraying into an uncertain future, hopes unraveling and dreams growing ever more distant, I suggest that this metaphor is all we have: He is Way and Truth, and Life.  

            The mid 20th c poet W. H. Auden understood this metaphor. Auden’s long poem, For the Time Being, is subtitled “A Christmas Oratorio,” but I find myself straying into it at odd moments during the year—moments like this. Auden’s title speaks the existential truth: we are trying to figure out how to live “for the time being.” We live for the time being, between the promise of Christ’s heavenly kingdom and its as-yet-unfulfilled reality. We live for the time being, hoping for extraordinary blessing while trying to cope with ordinary cussedness. We live for the time being, while the anxieties of the present fray at the edges of confidence and hope, and the future unravels in the direction of despair. Auden wrote in such a moment. For the Time Being was published in 1944, as the world bled and died in the paroxysms of the Second World War. The poem’s characters are figures from the ancient gospel nativity scenes, but they are also very modern people dealing with very modern anxieties. Joseph waits in a bar for Mary, his date who never shows, and struggles to come to terms with how little he matters in his own story. Wise men follow the star to Bethlehem not as a pilgrimage of self-devotion but as a process of self-discovery. A liberal humanist Herod worries that all his enlightened good works will be forgotten because “reason will be replaced with Revelation.” Auden’s Narrator speaks for us all when he observes that “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” Despite the Christ’s entry into the world, nothing in the world has really changed. “Here we all are/Back in the moderate Aristotelian city/ of darning and the Eight-Fifteen.” Auden knows what we know: somewhere the light of the Kingdom may have dawned, but it’s still dark where we are. We may have seen the power and pattern of the future, but for the time being we are frozen in the moment. To know the shape of, the hope of, the taste of the future, and not be able to reach it, to dwell in it, even to draw near it—that is the definition of anxiety. We fray into the future.

            For the Time Being closes with these famous lines:

He is the Way.

Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.[2]

            Every time I read this poem, I am struck by the difference between the way I hear Jesus’ metaphor and the way Auden hears it. We hear that Jesus is the “Way” and think he means “the way out.” We hear that he is “Truth” and think he means to give us a club to quash all the falsehoods of our time. We hear that he is the “Life” and think he means “eternal life” or at least “life somewhere other than here.”

            But Auden is not offering us escape from this anxious world; he is forcing us back into it. Auden knows that, in the kingdom of anxiety with all its chaos, there is a fixed point, and the point is Christ. Christ stands ever and always rooted in that kingdom of anxiety, where people are fraying into an uncertain future and pleading for more time, more time. Auden offers no cheap cure for our anxieties. He knows that the resurrection of Christ may change everything theologically, but practically it changes nothing at all. Easter has come and gone, and yet here we are, still in lockdown, the economy still reeling, and all our saviors, medical and political, fighting each other for pride of place at the presidential podium. And yet, Auden says, there he is, in the midst of it: Christ the Way. Christ the Truth. Christ the Life.

            Christ is the Way that wends through strange lands, realms unlike anything you have been prepared to expect. Forty-one years ago, on an occasion not unlike this, the novelist Frederick Buechner spoke at my seminary graduation, and he quoted Tolkein’s poem from The Hobbit: “The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began….” Buechner was suggesting that we intrepid seminary almost-graduates were embarking on a great journey, not unlike the hobbit’s, full of challenge and also of joy. He was right, but in ways neither he nor we could imagine.  Seminary had prepared me to serve a Church that probably didn’t exist by the time I was handed my diploma and certainly doesn’t exist now. I have served a Church wherein dwell not the playful lap dogs of settled dogma but rare, sharp-toothed theological beasts that, though they have taught me much, have also taken more than a few bites out of my backside. I have had “unique” adventures—I use the adjective with tongue planted firmly in cheek—and they have made of me. for better and for worse, someone I could not have imagined becoming. And now I stand here, as if in a parallel universe, to say that all these things will happen to you, too. The Church is transmogrifying before your eyes, and to walk in its Way is not to stroll down a smooth-paved road but to blaze a trail through dense undergrowth. And yet, there he is, in the midst of it, like an overgrown but still discernable path through dark and unfamiliar woods, a road that goes ever on and on. He is the Way, a way as rare and unique as it is dark and fearsome. He beckons you to follow in his Way.

            Christ is the Truth that can only be sought with eyes wide open, willing to abandon notions you thought were true because you wanted them to be. Some truths—maybe even all truths worth knowing—carry you into anxious places, take you far away from comfort and farther still from security. Some truths you will cling to even as others call them lies, hoaxes, fake news. Some truths replace reason with revelation, even when reason was perfectly understandable and revelation makes absolutely no sense. Some truths force a choice between one hope and another, a lesser good and a greater, love or justice, knowledge or mystery. It is not an easy thing to seek the Truth. And yet, there he is, in the midst of it, in the center of a great city full of anxious hearts and worried minds, all seeking truth and all terrified of finding it. He is the Truth, even though knowing it neither resolves anxieties nor eases worry. He summons you into the mystery of his Truth.

            Christ is the Life, and if you would live this life you must live it in the flesh, with all the weakness and limitation and insecurity that pulses through your veins and bores into the marrow of your bones. Flesh is prone to the worst the world can do: viruses that attack like a mugger in the bushes, cancers that proffer death in the organs meant to give life, hungers that growl in the gut and yearnings that howl in the heart. But flesh is also capable of the best the world has to offer: joy that breaks forth in song, love that enraptures you at the very thought of the beloved, beauty that fills your eyes with tears of gratitude for the simple gift of being alive. And there he is, in the midst of it, like a bridegroom at a wedding feast, dancing with the pleasure that only flesh can know and angels are forced to envy, filled with love that commits to face both weal and woe with grace and equanimity, steady in suffering and expansive in hope. He is Life, brimful and overflowing with equal measures grief and glory. He welcomes you to the lusciousness of his Life. 

            He is the Way, the Truth, the Life: that’s all we have, my friends, as we stand here fraying into the future. It is also all we need. For he is standing here, too, in the midst of us, transubstantiating the hard bread and bitter gall of the Kingdom of Anxiety into the broken loaf and poured wine of the Kingdom of God. You will meet him here, at this banquet table, the wedding feast of these two Kingdoms. This table, which speaks to us of both suffering and hope, death and resurrection. This table, whose fare is more meager than that the emptiest cupboard can prepare, and yet more sumptuous than all the feasts of all the kings of all the anxious kingdoms of all time. This table, to which you have come, around which you have stood, behind and beside and before which you have and do and will serve your whole life long. This table, that gathers up past and future and transfigures them as the time being. This is where you will meet him—where you will always meet him—who is Way and Truth and Life, in all the anxious moments of all your todays and all your tomorrows. 

The Invitation

You will meet him at the table,

the One who, emptied of Himself, becomes

the Empty space within the heart of Silence,

where Beauty gathers all the world’s deep darkness

even now and fills it with the Light. 

You will meet him at the table

who calls to you in midnights of the soul

and bids you follow through divided seas

and cross the holy deserts of the heart;

even now you feel the ancient Fire.

You will meet him at the table,

who reaches out to heal the shattered ones, 

the dimming shards, the broken, disillusioned,

world-weary, hope long ago abandoned;

even now you see his wounded hands.

You will meet him at the table,

whom you know by many names, inscribed

across the intersticèd universe

or whispered in the smallest breath of love;

even now your lips dare frame their sound.

You will meet him at the table

whom Love now fractures open on the altar,

whom Judgment now decants upon the earth;

his brokenness is rendered up in Beauty

even now, as you take bread and cup.

You will meet him at the table.

He is the host, and holds this space for you,

you who only lately join the feast

and yet are welcomed into realms of Light.

Even now. See, all things are ready.[3]


[1] Richard Wilbur, “Year’s End”, in New and Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1988, p. 302.

[2] W. H Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 65.

[3] Paul Hooker, “The Invitation” from The Hole in the Heart of God, publication pending, 2020.

Passing Things

A generation goes, a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 
Ecclesiastes 1:4
 
The sun rises against its will
would choose the comfortable quilt of darkness
over ineluctable morning.
The earth turns.
 
Obvious things, mentioned for
the obviousness of things, the tiresome rote
of days. Yet beneath, something different.
Something new.
 
Swelling, pulsing, throbbing like
unsatisfied longing, hangover from a
future held politely to the lips 
but not drunk.
 
Something is passing away—
disease, an order, a way of life, a dream—
We will all survive this, we are told.
Some, not all. 
 
José Ameal survived
the Spanish Flu. Nineteen eighteen. He was four.
From his bed he peeked through drawn curtains
looked outside
 
to watch the souls passing by—
“so many dead”— on the streets of Luarca
in north Spain. Did he wonder if his
turn would come?
 
He lived to be imprisoned
by Franco, bury his wife in ’fifty-one,
marry another and live fifty
more good years.
 
Something is passing away.
We peek through drawn curtains at the procession
of souls. We wonder if today our
turn will come.
 
Tomorrow the sun will rise
reluctant, as though choosing its darkling quilt
over inevitable morning.
The earth turns.

Love in the Time of Corona

with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Raise the yellow flag that marks disease.
This lonely ship will not soon come to rest
in port of comforting communion, or cease
 
to sail. We berth on isolation’s breast
and pray for peace, though at a frightening cost
we’d have been wiser not to pay. The rest
 
you know. Too many years like waves have tossed
us to and fro to break now with the lie:
“’Tis only ‘til we’re finally across
 
this yawning chasm, this darkening divide
that makes us a society of strangers,
closeted ‘til viruses subside….” 
 
And then? Shall we then brave the dangers
that drift malevolent, like random microbes
or evil humors, insults, sudden angers,
 
in the daily current? ‘Twill not be so.
This boat’s no recent shelter. Here’s the tragedy:
we booked our passage on it long ago.
 
Social distance is the commended remedy
for illnesses that take their mortal toll.
But social distance is also the malady
that keeps the body well but kills the soul.

Forty Years

Today is the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament (or “Ministry of the Word” as we called it then in the old PCUS). Rather than pride, I am mainly surprised I am still here.

I’ve been thinking lately about the church, aware that the church I serve is not the church I intended to serve, nor would have chosen to serve if I could have predicted the future. That’s just as well. That church belonged to the past. The jury is still out on the question of whether I belong in the future.

I have been inventorying my theological commitments of late, and fewer of them than I thought “bring me joy.” More than a few notions that used to be central confessional commitments now seem, at best, adiaphora, or at worst, irrelevant. I don’t care much who is saved or who isn’t, or if anybody is or isn’t. I don’t know (and don’t particularly care) whether Christ was two natures in one person, and certainly don’t understand the mechanics of such metaphysics. I don’t know whether God’s eye is on the sparrow, but I have the creeping sense he isn’t watching me. I don’t doubt the reality of God, but I also don’t trust that God is in any meaningful way “personal” (let alone that “Jesus is my personal savior”). Curiously, I am daily more convinced that John Leith was right when he taught us about the persistence of sin in the life of the redeemed. Or at least about the persistence of sin part.

I enjoy the struggle to answer disputed questions, more for the dispute than for the answers.

Poetry has given me language that could never be spoken on the floor of a presbytery in an ordination examination, though perhaps it should have been. It has made me want to say the unsayable. It continually surprises me to discover through it what I trust and what I don’t. It has also deepened in me the yearning to come to font and table, to approach the ineffable by way of the tactile reality of water, bread, and wine. It is the rock in the darkness, the first and final thing I “believe.”

I find myself preferring silence to the noise of public prayers (including my own), singing to speaking, and solitude to the company of assemblies. Reading Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens of a morning on the back porch, teacup on the table beside me, seems to me an act of worship. Working the Times crossword puzzle is a spiritual discipline.

I no longer care if I contradict myself.

Like Pilate, I wonder what is “Truth,” or if it should ever be capitalized.

That said, I am not quite yet ready for the glue factory. There are more questions to ask, more classes to teach, more sermons to preach (although I can’t imagine why anyone would want to listen), and more poems to write. There are students who still need something I have to offer (I think), and I still have energy to offer it. I am still enthralled by the possibilities of wonder and mystery.

And I am still here.

Food Groups

Tea and chocolate
make me wonder
if the world
is as safe a place
as it appears to be. 
 
Steak and eggs
prompt me to fear
that the circle
though it turns
is not unbroken. 
 
Wine and cheese
make me think
more highly
of myself
than I ought to think.
 
Whiskey and water
help me trust
that the day’s trouble
is sufficient
for the day.
 
Toast and coffee
persuade me that
the fires of nightmares
are extinguished 
by controlled burns.

The Theologians Awaken After the Storm

                        I

He awoke to the discovery
of holes in the roof above his bed.
Rain was dripping slowly, rhythmically
in great droplets on his head. 
 
All his life, through flush and thin
he had trusted in this shelter
against the storm. It had been
security and comfort. He felt it
 
like a blanket, wrapped around him.
Yet now there was no room for doubt:
the weeping gods had found him
and would force him out
 
of bed. Insistent tear!
He thought of turning on his side
but that would only fill his ear
with heaven's outrageous tide.
 
Get up and find the pitch and patch the hole
that threatens peace;
it might just be good for the soul
to soil the hands in grease…
 
…On the other hand, a moment to reflect
is always wise. 
Less work means less one must correct
or others criticize. 
 
Soon enough the rain will end
and then what use will be the patching tar?
Do the holes not finally portend 
a clear though narrowed focus on the stars?
 
Best to bide the time and see
what clouds the wind will blow away or keep.
Decided it was wise to let it be.
Pulled up the blanket and went back to sleep.
 
 
 
                        II

She woke in wonder.
Thunder, lightning, 
steady rain, a cataclysm in the night,
tore holes in the roof, peeled it back
like opening the doll house of her childhood
to rearrange the helpless little lives.
Gods make such cruel use of wind. 
 
Spent the night in a closet
safe enough, she prayed.
But in the vortex safety is an illusion; 
rather, trust in luck. And she was lucky.
The wind blows where it will, she remembered,
though having heard the sound approach, 
she thought she knew both whence and where.
 
Luck is a relative thing:
it offers and it snatches away
breath in exchange for breathing’s reasons,
heartbeat for habits of the heart.
Not much left of furnishings, assumptions;
find the clock in the neighbor’s yard,
the notebook come to rest just down the block.
 
Nothing left to do
but change her state of mind.
No time to mourn what wind has torn away.
She breathes, and gathers up the remnants
of her thoughts. Other storms
are forming on the far horizon.
She finds a pen, sits down, begins to write.

How Wide the World

The world stands out on either side/No wider than the heart is wide. 
—“Renascense” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
 
How wide the world?
“No wider than the heart is wide.”
 
Enough to gather in the storm
that tears not merely roof from hearth 
but soul from soul as well?
 
Enough to bind the wounded orb
bleeding from every pore
weeping in every chirp and howl?
 
Enough to reach between nailed palms
opened  out in love’s embrace,
‘til they circle ‘round the realm of pain.
 
How wide the heart?
As wide as all the world is wide. 

In the Morning Mist

John 21:1-19

In the morning mist, along the seashore
boats return from evening’s labors vain;
 “Cast your nets in waters yet uncharted;
trust in me with faith now unconstrained.”
Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.
Those he loves will his commandments keep.
 
Asks the one who breaks the bread at fireside,
“Simon, do you love me more than these?”
Asks the one now broken on the table:
Will you take your cross and follow me?
Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.
Love is your commission from his hands.
 
Learn his way, this watcher from the shoreline,
while the paschal fire still sheds its glow.
Other hands will soon lay hold upon you,
take you where you do not wish to go.
Do you love? Do you love?
Pray that love through all your pulses move.

Jesus’ Dream

Mark 11:12-24
Tuesday night.

He listened while they yammered about the fig tree,
the money changers and the animal sellers.
It was apocalyptic talk, they said: 
a fig tree cannot bear fruit out of season,
a temple cannot operate without 
tradition, and surely mountains do not fly 
into the sea.  He closed his eyes and yawned.
 
They argued on. He fell asleep and dreamed
a little dream. No heaven-rending vision;
just ordinary faces in the crowd: 
a child whose upstretched arms begged to be held,
a woman merely asking to be healed
a leper yearning only to be whole.
They did not ask so much. He saw each one
 
while dreaming of an ordinary world, 
the slow, patient turning of day to night,
the whisper of a breeze to lift the heat,
the juicy, sweetmeat taste of figs in season.
He listened to their ordinary prayers 
as though there was an altar in his heart
and he the priest. He smiled, and mountains flew.

The Wasp

Mark 11:12-14
Monday
 
On a normal day a fig tree is just a fig tree.
Middle Eastern Ficus carica
grows wild where winters aren’t so bone-deep cold 
and summers linger long and hot and dry.
Blastophaga psenes—the female fig wasp—
bearing pollen from a distant tree, 
crawls inside the seed pod, tearing off
her pollen-laden wings, the mortal price 
of fertility. She lays her eggs
and dies. The eggs birth larvae, male and female,
who dance time’s ancient dance there in the dark,
after which he dies, and she emerges
to pollinate another tree. Spring comes.
Without the sting there can be no sweetness.
 
This was, however, not a normal day.
That is, it was normal in every way—
the sun was climbing high above the hills,
the ancient sign of nascent summer nearing, 
the dream of wasp and pollen, seed and fig—
a normal day it was…until he came by. 
En route to other errands, he was hungry
but there were no figs. It was said 
he cursed the tree. But tell me: was he not
a wasp to pierce the seed pod’s tomb-like darkness, 
and spread his wings and die and leave behind
an altogether different sort of pollen 
that yields a sweeter sort of fig? Spring comes.
Without the sting there can be no sweetness.