He told me, “I have built a life that is perfectly balanced. I’m like a trained seal. I’m standing on a rubber ball, with a tray on my flipper, stacked with porcelain plates and cups. If I make a move in any direction, it’ll all come tumbling down.”
* * *
My family moved to Wisconsin when I was in the second grade, and I had a hard time adjusting. I was shy, and missing my old life, and so I wasn’t making friends. There was a boy in my class—whom we’ll call ‘Sean’—and he was also having a hard time. His parents had just divorced. He was the baby of the family, with two older siblings, and he was taking it very hard. The school thought it would be a good idea to bring us together, and so they called our parents and playdates were arranged, and we became good friends. Best friends.
When we were in the fourth grade, something awful happened. Sean’s older brother had succumbed to his own demons, and had committed suicide. Sean wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral, but they didn’t want him to be alone that day, so I was brought to his house to spend that hour with him, while our parents were down the street in the church. I came with a present, wrapped in bright blue paper. You see, it had been the eve of Sean’s birthday the day his brother died (which—as an adult, helped me to see just how sick he’d been. He wasn’t thinking about things like birthdays). We didn’t actually have the money for the present, we were just poor farmers, but my mother is a saint, so she’d bought him this big Batman-themed racetrack. I remember us sitting on his living room floor, dressed in black, watching the cars go around and around and around.
Sean and I grew apart in middle and high school, as young friends often do. We had different interests, but I think I reminded him a little of that awful day. We were always friendly, but stopped being friends by the time we graduated, so I was surprised when I, then a sophomore in college, received an invitation to his birthday party, back in our hometown, with the old gang. I decided to go.
We sat up late, after everyone else had gone to bed, drinking beer and idly playing cards. He was a truck driver now, and making good money. He asked me about my life, and I told him that I’d found a church that I loved, and was feeling grounded for the first time in a long time. He didn’t say anything, so I asked that insufferable question that churchgoers like to ask: “Are you going to church?” His family had never been big churchgoers, and he just shook his head. I asked, “Why not?” And he told me. He had achieved a delicate balance in his life, and if he took one step to the left or right, it could all come tumbling down. And God, God was an unknown factor. Too risky.
We played in silence for a while, until I asked, “Why did you invite me here?” He shrugged. I asked, cautiously, “Is it still hard to celebrate your birthday?” And his careful balance slipped. He just came tumbling down, and the night ended with us, sitting on his living room floor, me cross-legged and him in my lap, just sobbing with a hurt that had not lessened over the years, as I hugged him, physically just trying to hold him together.
It’s interesting that in today’s Gospel, the one person who cries out against Jesus is the person who needs him the most. “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” He asks. “Don’t you know we have built lives that are delicately balanced? Don’t you know how easily it could all fall apart?”
We say today, why doesn’t God speak to us anymore? The reading from Deuteronomy reminds us: we asked him to stop. We said to Moses that God’s voice is so strong it reveals our weakness, that God’s voice is so bright it blinds our eyes, and that God’s voice is so loud that it deafens our ears. If God speaks to us again, it will surely kill us. You speak to him, Moses, and please, please tell him to stop. We have these delicately balanced lives, and a word from God can send us tumbling down.
I think in today’s world, we’re all a little possessed. At least, in the world of flash and appearance and the mask of social media, we’re all at least a little self-possessed. We forget, maybe, that Jesus is not a capstone for our lives, for show. We can’t build these perfectly balanced lives, and then invite Jesus in to crown them. Jesus is too weighty for that—and if we try to invite Jesus into a life that is solely of our own construction, it will topple under that weight. Jesus is not a capstone, but a cornerstone. If Jesus is to have anything to do with us, it cannot be at a safe distance. He must be the cornerstone, the bedrock, our grounding, our only balance.
I can’t say that Sean went to church and found Jesus one day, and his life is better now. I don’t know that, and I don’t know that it really works like that. But that night, he later told me, he realized he’d been living a life that was intentionally blind. Intentionally deaf. He didn’t need to be up there, on that rubber ball. He needed to climb down, and get help.
If the virus has taught us anything, it’s taught us what happens to our delicately balanced lives. One thing we can do during this season of uncertainty, is to climb down, uncover our eyes, unstop our ears, reveal our weakness, and, despite our fears, say, “God, speak to me.”
Speak to me.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog