by Pastor Doug Kings
Last Wednesday a short and cryptic Facebook post from my son got my attention. “Well this doesn’t look good. Hope my [virtual] students are doing okay during all of this.” Something was up apparently, so I switched to an online news source to find out. He was right: it didn’t look good. Hundreds or even thousands of people were swarming the Capital building attempting to halt the official tally of the electoral votes for president.
I only scanned the stories and images briefly. I literally felt sick to my stomach. Since one of my plans while in Santa Fe was to visit a few of my favorite art galleries, I decided this was the time to do it. I needed to balance what was happening with a positive experience of humanity.
Even in this, however, I couldn’t separate from the upheaval. Without thinking about it, my route to the first gallery took me past the state capital (Santa Fe really is a small town). There I encountered dozens of people waving flags and banners, some with obscenities, yelling and swarming the intersection, while the first police cars were arriving.
I got past the commotion with only a short delay and then went a different way to go on to galleries in another neighborhood. On this short ride, however, I was stopped as more police cars zoomed by and then watched as a helicopter passed overhead. It was a surreal afternoon.
Yet my gallery visits accomplished their purpose. I wasn’t trying to escape the political sacrilege occurring in Washington. Rather I was trying to keep from being overwhelmed by it, taken hostage by it, by holding it within a larger perspective. This is a strategy many of us follow intuitively. It provides a salve for the wounds the world often inflicts upon us. It reconnects us with what is true and real.
Years ago I heard people say that they didn’t “watch the news” because it was all bad. Which, to an extent, is true. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been a longtime rule in journalism. Since there is plenty of suffering in the world, and we are now immersed in a constant media presence, it is easy for us to be mesmerized and paralyzed by an unending stream of tragedy and inhumanity.
This is a powerful but distorted view of reality which tries to pull us into a deep and dark hole. The antidote, however, is remarkably simple: real life. At the conclusion of his spiritual classic, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes that our misunderstanding of what it real is the source of much of our confusion and despair.
What is serious to us is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate, the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation….
This “play” is simply the dynamic reality of life and the universe, which Merton goes on to call “the cosmic dance.”
We do not have to go very far to catch echoes … of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when … we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all the values, the “newness,” the emptiness and purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.
The ordinariness of such events can hide their truth from us. This is why art and music and literature are so valuable and so important: they draw our attention to the ordinary and help us realize how extraordinary they truly are. Then with eyes and ears and hearts opened, we return to our “mundane” world and discover that indeed there is a “cosmic dance” going on all around us. God has been playing in our midst but we “did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)
Tragedy and evil are real, but their meaning is distorted and exaggerated if not seen within the larger context of “the cosmic dance,” of God’s presence within and around us. We miss out then, as Merton says, of the experience of life and the world as God’s wondrous gift to us.
The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, … the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
Compassion requires we take suffering and injustice seriously. Yet our ability to do so presumes our groundedness in life and our cherishing its beauty and joy. We can give of ourselves only if we have first set ourselves free to live our God-given lives to the fullest. As Merton concludes:
Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.
So when despair threatens to overwhelm, put on your dancing shoes and perhaps do something as simple as read a good book, watch a playground full of children, or listen to the frogs. For God is in them, and in us, celebrating them all.
Blessings in your life and ministry.