"More like a Man"
Jeremiah 17 and 1Corinthians 15
The Rev. Fred G. Garry
William Wordsworth went for a walk. As often happens with poets walking about ancient ruins of Cistercian abbeys, the walk turned into a poem, titled, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour. July 13, 1798. Not a very catchy title, but certainly a descriptive one.
Essentially the poem describes a grassy knoll by a stream where the remnant of a medieval church could be seen. This was his second time to the spot, hence the word, revisiting. Wordsworth suggests he had come to rest many times here in his mind since his first visit, yet upon actually returning something had changed. The physical landscape was the same, certainly the six hundred year old ruins hadn’t changed much; it had really only been a few years since he had been there. Yet for him, something was completely different: he was different.
He describes the difference this way, and it is as might anticipated, quite lovely. "And so I dare to hope, though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills; when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, wherever nature led: more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved." This last line is the key: more like a man flying from something he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.
The words of Wordsworth fall so easily on the ear that it is easy to miss the struggle. Although his claim is seemingly so simple (I have changed; I am no longer the man I was a few years ago), believing this is not so simple. We find the same challenge in the passage we just read. Paul is so confident so sure (and we will be changed) that there is little room for the reader to appreciate the struggle. For sometimes in the conclusion the argument has been lost; sometimes in the confidence we lose sight of the many days of doubt.
Essentially, the poem at Tintern Abbey says he had changed; he was one man before and a different man on revisiting. Subtract the dawns gleaming and the joys aching of Wordsworth’s verse and we are left with a simple claim. I am a different man. I’ve changed. Alright. Don’t we all? Much like Paul’s claim about the resurrection, it would be easy to hear this and look to the next poem in the collection, the next chapter in Corinthians. People change; Jesus was resurrected. Okay. That sounds about right to me.
It would be easy to dismiss both as rather basic and without need of comment. Jesus was resurrected and so are the dead. This is what we believe; rejecting this is essentially rejecting hope itself. Beneath the delicious images of Wordsworth is something very basic; so it is with the heavy-handedness of Paul, this is what we believe- move on. Sometimes though within the most basic claims it’s hard to see the struggles, it’s hard to see how much they mean. What if the verse of Wordsworth and verses of Paul were not only pointing to a simple conclusion, but the fruit of a hard question? The question: is there real change in life, the kind where we move from dread to love, the kind where we are set free from sin and death? And perhaps more importantly, if such change is to occur, can it happen to me and will I still be me?
Unfortunately for us, all we see are their conclusions: yes to all of the above. What we don’t have is how they came to this; how they struggled with it. For this, to see the deliberations, the wondering, we would have to look elsewhere. Today we actually have a novelist whose stories are long reflections upon this very question, can we really change? Richard Russo in his stories takes you into the life of men in dire need of resurrection. My favorite is his character William Sullivan, Sully to his friends. Russo describes Sully as "Nobody’s Fool". He peppers his life with the usual disappointments of a failed marriage, a failed career, a failing body, and the life you live in a small dying town in Upstate New York.
We walk about this town with Sully and listen to his demons: a father who was abusive, a mother whose death was more of a relief from grief, a brother who was the one meant to live, meant to be more yet died in his youth. In other words, Sully had the voices that nag and drag you down. As you walk and wrestle with these demons though, you also find that Sully was a friend and a kind of social glue for the town. He meant what he said and although he would certainly gouge you if he could, he would go to bat for you, run the till at the local diner if your senile mother took off, he would listen to you and tell you the truth. Even if it hurt.
Into this kind of slow dance of small joys and deep regret comes a moment. After many years of no contact Sully finds his son and a grandson living in the town. His son is struggling with some of the choices and challenges he did thirty years ago and for just a moment the past and the future commingle and what has always been left undone may finally be put to rest. But can it? Can we truly overcome, truly get beyond the demons and doubts? Is it too late? Has too much transpired for there to be redemption? Can a man like this, a man who drinks and gambles too much, made too many mistakes, missed the brass ring too often, disappointed too many people, can he be resurrected? Can he change?
In Russo’s novel we see the same conclusion as Paul and Wordsworth, yes. That is what our faith is all about. In the novel though the answer doesn’t come so fast. We get to sit for five hundred pages and wonder. Will it happen? Will Sully choose to be redeemed? For redemption is always our choice. We can follow in the ways of God or we can go a different way. It is our choice. With Russo we see the irony of Paul’s confidence. Paul says, we will be changed. No doubts, no hesitation. With Sully though we get to see the slow, glacial like movement, resistance, hesitation and fear which is so often how we live life. Like Wordsworth said, more like a man flying from something he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.
Commenting on the Old Testament, medieval rabbis writing what would become the Mishnah often wrestled with this. Will God save, will God remember, will God restore? Yes. These are not the real questions they argued with deep wisdom. The real question of Eden and Exodus, of David and Solomon, is not whether or not God would save, but when would the people choose salvation, when would their hearts be open and longing for the love of God? For salvation is never imposed, but ever juxtaposed with the freedom love must bear.
A few years ago a pastor told me of a moment in ministry when he saw this unfold. A handsome young couple came into his office seeking counseling. It turns out that their life had gone through the ups and downs and grounding of two young kids, a single income, and not a lot of prospects for unlimited success. In this moment the husband started having coffee with an old high school sweetheart. He didn’t act on the offers he received, but he was thinking about it.
When the couple came to the pastor’s office there was talk of where there marriage was at, why she needed a job, why having coffee with another woman was not acceptable; why coffee is just coffee. Listening to them for a brief time the pastor grew impatient and he stopped the conversation. For, he said, I could see there was nothing wrong with the marriage; it wasn’t their relationship that needed fixing; it was a choice that needed to be made. He leaned forward and waved his hands for them to stop talking and he said to the husband, "Bob you’ve got a decision to make pal." Bob’s eyes rose. "Yah?" "Yah. You need to decide whether or not you want to have a good marriage and a life with your wife or whether or not you want to be an adulterer; you need to decide whether or not you want be good man or not."
The pastor went on to say that the man’s wife began to weep and the husband who was obviously embarrassed by the remark, remained silent. A few weeks went by with no word from the couple. The wife had been a regular attendee but he had not. For nearly a month he saw neither one. And then, they both showed up for worship one Sunday and then the next. Soon they both kept coming. The pastor said, "we never spoke of the issue again, but it was clear by his eyes that he had made a decision, he had chosen to be a good man. One of the crowning moments of my ministry he said, will always be the Sunday Bob was baptized. The two of us were up there crying like babies. For we both knew what it meant.
What if resurrection is a choice to have faith? Not a choice to believe that Jesus was resurrected. Paul rightly says hang it all if you don’t believe that. But what if resurrection is a choice about trusting God that we can be more like a man who seeks what he loves, than flees what he dreads? What if resurrection is trusting God that we can become the man, the woman we hope to be? Not success, not riches: goodness. What if resurrection is as simple as the choice: you need to choose if you are going to be a good man or not? Perhaps resurrection begins with a prayer, make me a good man, a good woman; make me a good father, a good mother; make me a good friend.
Sometimes the simple things are the most difficult to see. For Wordsworth it was realizing he was still a poet rambling around idyllic landscapes, but the man, the heart, the spirit had been reborn unto love. For Sully it was that the fears of the past were not worth missing the joy of watching a grandson grow and a son struggle with life. For Bob it was seeing in his wife, in his children the greatest in life and hungering for the goodness to be found. In each there was a change; which means, in each God waited, and waited, and waited. For grace is never imposed; resurrection is always choice: I want to live by faith.
We all have our demons and dreads; we have all walked lonesome valleys where we wondered what would happen, or what went wrong. We have all seen the brass ring go by; we have all made choices: some good, some bad. What if the real choice is as simple as resurrection? I want to be what God intended in creation. Remake me; change me. And what if the great mystery of God’s love is not that Jesus was resurrected, but that he waits for us to choose resurrection for our heart? He waits and waits. Amen.