Going to Extremes


Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

Austin, TX

May  17, 1992


LUKE 7:31-35.  "What description, then, can I find for the men of this generation?  What are they like?  They are like children shouting to one another while they sit in the market place:

'We played the pipes for you,

and you wouldn't dance;

we sang dirges,

and you wouldn't cry.'

"For John the Baptist comes, not eating bread, not drinking wine, and you say, 'He is possessed.'  The Son of Man comes, eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'  Yet Wisdom has been proved right by all her children.

The past four months, when I have been absent from this class,  have given me time for introspection.

Oh I have been busy -- quite busy in fact -- during the daytime hours.  I have had to take on some administrative duties at the University again as you know.  And I have been chairman of some committees.   But my evenings have been largely free -- and the house has been quiet for the most part -- and I have been going to bed late and waking up early.  I have had ample time to reflect on the basic defects of my character.

Incidentally, I have had a good deal of help from other people in doing this.

The conservative student newspaper at the University this week had an article about me called "Wayne's World," in which it took me to task for the multiculturalism proposals put forth by a committee I headed.  Well, the proposals were defeated 2 to 1 by vote of the faculty.  I really didn't need any more help on this.  But the paper gave me some anyway.

I found the criticism strangely ironic in that it criticizes me for my liberal views, when, in fact, I have struggled all my life against a profound conservatism that pervades my every thought and action.

Also, I have had a great deal of help in running the journalism department from   vice presidents and deans, from faculty members, from students and from their parents.  Parents from as far away as New York City have written me with helpful suggestions on how I can improve the quality of the decisions I have made.  I have tried to be grateful.

Along the same lines, my brother and sisters have been more than generous this spring in pointing out various character flaws that I seem to have developed over the years.  I appreciate the effort that everyone is making, and, late at night or early in the morning, I have thought about these things quite a bit.

I have decided that these years of my life really ought to be better years.  I should make an effort to change, to improve myself.  To put it simply, I want to be a Christian in my heart.  And today, I want to share with you one conclusion I have reached about what that means.

Last Sunday we had grandson Zachary Paul baptized over at Hyde Park Methodist Church.  That's the home church of JoAnn, Ben's wife, the mother of Zachary.

As I may have mentioned to you, Zachary is a terrific baby, a happy and calm fellow most of the time.

He slept during most of the baptism.

He stayed asleep when the minister picked him up.  He slept through baptism in the name of the Father and the Son, but he woke up for the Holy Spirit.  I thought it was a good sign.

He didn't cry or anything.  He just opened his eyes and looked around until he saw his mother, and then he smiled.

Zachary is a friendly baby.  He's only four months old, but he has discovered that if he talks to people -- of course he doesn't really talk, but he pretends to talk -- they will come over and pay attention to him. 

At parties, his parents put him over in a corner of the room or under a table to keep him out of the way.  He starts talking.  And before you know it, he has attracted sometome to come over to keep him company.  He's got a good thing going.  He gets what he wants without crying.

As a matter of fact, he doesn't like crying.

If you're talking to him and you pretend that you're crying, he'll start crying.

I think that is interesting.  That's a good sign too.     It shows he has emotions and that he can express them.  It shows that he is connected with other people.  I wish him well with that.  As numerous people have pointed out, I have problems along those lines.

After the baptism, I was embarrassed by my emotions during the sermon.

It was Mother's Day, and the minister introduced the sermon by having the congregation sing a sentimental wedding song about love.  Then he preached from the same text they read at Bev's funeral -- the one from Revelations about how God will wipe away all tears.  He told the story of his father-in-law who is dying of cancer.

Well, God didn't wipe away my tears during that sermon.

All at once -- without warning --I was awash with emotion.

Was it because it was Mother's Day?  Was it the music?  Did it have to do with our seventh grandchild being baptized and Bev not being there to see it?  Did it have to do with remembering the funeral?

I don't know.  But sitting right there on the front row I went through a package of Kleenex in 15 minutes.  When the service finally ended, I didn't say hello to the minister or anything.  I just headed for the car and unloaded my soggy Kleenex all over the front seat.

By the time I got home, I had recovered somewhat.

A few minutes later, the family arrived for the baptism party.   We had a good time.  The grandchildren banged open a pinata in the front yard and stuffed themselves with Tootsie Rolls.  About 3 in the afternoon, everyone left for home, and I was left with some time for reflection.  I wondered, "When am I going to get over these attacks of grief?  Why do I seem to be going to extremes these days?"

Growing up in Iowa, one learned not to go to extremes, you see.

John Wayne grew up in Iowa, and if you ever saw John Wayne in a movie, you know what I mean.  Most Iowans are pretty much like John Wayne.  They don't go to extremes.

They don't express their emotions.  It's bad form.  A little sniffle from the mother at the wedding is okay, but that's it. Then it's on to the ham sandwiches and and strawberry Jell-o punch.

A polite sob at the funeral is all right for the widow or the widower,  but one is quite enough thank you.  Then it's time to put Uncle Joe or Auntie Em  in the grave and get on with plowing the north forty.

Anything else is unChristian -- it shows you don't trust the Lord.

I don't think my father ever told me that he loved me.  He may have said it when I was little.  I don't remember.  But he never did when I was grown up.

Why not? 

It would have been going to extremes.  It would have been unmanly somehow.  John Wayne would never have done it, right?

My mother didn't express her love in words very often either.  She expressed her love for her children with food -- with peanut butter cookies and glasses of cold milk, with bowls of hot soup when were sick.   She expressed her love with the work of her hands.  Her love showed forth in clean sheets, and neatly pressed shirts, and loose buttons that miraculously got sewed on overnight.

But words were hard for her.

Words tended to reveal feelings.  Words meant going to extremes.  It just wasn't done.

People in my community just didn't come out and say, "I love you."

I imagine that people exist in my home town who get born, grow up, fall in love, get married, have children, grow old and die and never hear anyone tell them, "I love you." Do you believe that?  It may well be true.

People hide their emotions.  They stuff them way back inside someplace. 

On the surface they lead calm lives.  Inside, however, it can be a different story. All those emotions, those unexpressed emotions, are still there.

And sometimes they break through.

Along about February up North,  some Norwegian farmer -- with a calm expression on his face -- goes out to the barn and gets an ax and comes back in and slays his entire family.

When asked why he did it, he tells the reporters --  " Oh, they kept going on about wanting an inside bathroom."

No emotions.  Nothing revealed.  Nothing shared.  A real John Wayne.

Where do you suppose this comes from -- this desire to avoid the extremes -- this notion that somehow emotions are bad and the best life is a life without any? 

I think it came from the Greeks -- the stoic philosophers who believed that, as Britannica says,  "through reason, man can come to regard the universe (both physical and moral) as governed by fate and, despite appearances, as fundamentally rational; that, in the regulation of his life, he can thus emulate the grandeur of the calm and order of the universe by learning to accept events with a stern and tranquil mind." 

A stern and tranquil mind.  That's Iowa.  That's the world I grew up in.  Emotions such as love, hate, fear, grief and passion were evidence of an unhealthy mental state.   Virtuous people were above such things.  Virtuous people acted in an ethical, rational manner and certainly never gave way to such troubling and distracting feelings.  To the stoics, Britannica says,  "acceptance of everything with equanimity was grounded in the doctrine that all happens for the best, since the world that exists is the best of all worlds possible."

The stoic philosophical system was founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C.   It was influential throughout the Greco-Roman world up to at least 200 A.D.  It was near the peak of its influence at the time that Jesus lived, and its doctrines were picked up and included in later writings of the early church fathers and thus found expression in Christianity. It still exists today -- in Iowa and elsewhere.

However, with respect to Jesus himself, the philosophy had little standing.  In truth, he often seemed to be arguing against it as a rule for life.

LUKE 7:31-35.  "What description, then, can I find for the men of this generation?  What are they like?  They are like children shouting to one another while they sit in the market place:

'We played the pipes for you,

and you wouldn't dance;

we sang dirges,

and you wouldn't cry.'

"For John the Baptist comes, not eating bread, not drinking wine, and you say, 'He is possessed.'  The Son of Man comes, eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'  Yet Wisdom has been proved right by all her children.

In this text, Jesus speaks out against a popular philosophy of his time -- a philosophy that, in his opinion, was undermining Judaism. He says that when God speaks through the prophets, nobody listens.  God calls people to dance and they w\on't dance.  God calls them to mourn and they won't mourn.  John the Baptist comes calling people to repentance.  He neither eats nor drinks as other men do.  He lives in the desert like a hermit.  People won't listen to him.  They call him an extremist.  In contrast, the Son of Man comes eating and drinking.  He comes appealing to the poor, to sinners, to tax-collectors.  He is a prophet of joy.  He is a prophet of God's forgiveness.  He is a prophet of life.  But the people won't listen to him either.  He is, in their minds, an extremist.

The people of that time had been heavily influenced by stoicism, by counsels of moderation and acceptance of custom.  But Jesus would have none of it.

Over and over again, he says, life is more than following custom.  Life is meant to be lived.  This world is not the best of all possible worlds.  The Kingdom of Heaven is the best of all possible worlds.  It is within our reach.  It is "among us."  All we have to do is reach out and take it.  We must work and pray to bring it into being.  Jesus urges that we pray to God, "Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

To Jesus, the proper prayer to God is not a calm and lofty exhortation.  The proper prayer to God, according to Jesus, is "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner."

Often in his actions and his teachings, Jesus advocates letting our emotions out.

He rails against the money changers in the temple.

He weeps when he hears the news of Lazarus's death.

He stops to admire the lilies of the field, and he urges us to do the same.

He says the man who does nothing but work to store up wealth for the future is a fool because he will be called by God before he ever starts to live.

He thinks children are wise -- because they express their thoughts and feelings freely.  They know the secrets of heaven.

In the beatitudes he says that those who mourn are happy.  It doesn't seem to make sense, particularly not to a person influenced by stoic philosophy.    But mourning -- the open expression of grief -- does make sense when you consider the alternative.  Those who cannot mourn, those who cannot express grief openly  -- they are indeed far from being blessed.  They are simply not living life.  They cannot hear the tune that God's pipes are playing.

Also in the beatitudes Jesus says those who "hunger and thirst" for righteousness are the happy ones.  Hunger and thirst.  To the stoic this doesn't make sense.  No one should hunger and thirst for anything.  This is going to extremes.  But Jesus says these people -- the ones with real emotions, real desires, are the blessed ones.

As I drive along the highway in my little red car, I often jot down  random thoughts on a note pad.  I've found that you never know when a random thought might come in handy.

Recently, my daughter Grace was in town, and we went antiquing.  She found my notes  in the glove compartment and started reading them.

She found one note that she thought was really funny.

I had written, "The difference between life and death has been greatly exaggerated."

It wasn't funny to me.  It was a typical Iowa thought.

In Iowa, you see, the difference between life and death is not all that great.

The slogan of my hometown was "Thirty thousand friendly people."

Well, Burlington never had 30,000 people in it.  And some of the 20,000 or so people who did live there weren't all that friendly.  So when we used to drive by Aspen Grove Cemetery, my dad would say, "That's must be where the 30,000 friendly people are."

The truth is -- in everyone's home town, lots of people who are really alive act as if they are dead. 

The truth is -- in everyone's home town some people who are dead are more alive than some of the living.

Jesus knew this.  And he called his followers to life.  Christianity, we say,  celebrates the triumph of life over death.  This is the good news of Christianity.  This is the Easter message.  This is the gospel.

But how do we become more alive?  How do we find the abundant life that Jesus promised?  How do we achieve eternal life?  How do we know the way?

Jesus said that he was the way.

And over and over again in his teachings, he tried to open the doors of knowledge for us.

Jesus told us that the pipes are playing.  God himself has invited us to be joyful and dance.  We have been invited to a party -- it's God's party -- and it is called life.  What is your answer to the invitation?

Jesus told us that the pipes are playing.  God himself has called us to mourn.   What will be your answer?  Will you give God your tears?

Jesus told us that the pipes are playing.  God himself has called us to love one another.  What will be your answer?  Will you say out loud to someone, "I love you."

One conclusion I have reached over these last four months is simply this:

the Judeo-Christian tradition is at fundamental odds with stoicism.   Our religion is not a religion of acceptance.  It is not a religion of moderation.  It is not a religion of gray and lifeless rules.

It is, at its heart, a burning bush.

On the mountain, Moses didn't turn aside to see an ember glowing in the ashes.  He turned aside to see a fire -- a real fire -- a roaring flame that never burned itself out.

In the palace, David didn't withdraw in placid contemplation.  He played the harp for the Lord.  He sang psalms for the Lord.  He danced before the Lord.  He threw himself on the ground in his grief.  If any man ever went to extremes, it was David.  And we are told that the Lord loved him. 

The 23d psalm tells us that our faith offers us what? -- a tiny sliver of bread?  -- no, not at all.  Our faith offers us a banquet in the presence of our enemies.  A banquet.

The central symbol of our religion is not a sign of moderation.  It is a sign of the ultimate commitment.  It is the cross.

Stoicism never really died out.  It is still alive and it is still in conflict with Christianity in our time.

In many ways, the community I grew up in was as much a stoic community as it was a Christian community.  To us, communion was a tiny sip of wine and a crumb of bread.  That was reasonable.  That was proper.  To Jesus and the disciples, I suspect, the Last Supper was a whopper with fries.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who invites his friends to a feast and they refuse to come.  The man tells his servants to go out into the street and invite the passers by to attend.  Invite someone to the feast who wants to come, he says.

To avoid grief, to avoid disappointment, the stoic philosophers advised us to live only part of our lives -- the measured part, the rational part, the intellectual part, the considered part.  Jesus found this to be insufficient -- an inadequate response to God's magnificent gift.  He advocated instead that we give our whole lives to God and that we share our whole lives with one another in love.

That's going to extremes, isn't it?  Yet I wonder sometimes  -- is that not the way?

As you can see, I'm struggling with some deep thoughts here.  But I think I have arrived at one truth about what it means to be a Christian in my heart.  In these years of my life, when I hear the piping of the Lord, I intend to dance.