Living with Polarity


A sermon preached on November 15th, 2009 based upon Psalm 42.

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

3My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’

4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

7Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. 8By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. 9I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’ 10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’ 11

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Reality comes to us perpetually revolving between various sets of poles — a rhythm that swings back and forth. There is an unavoidable “polarity” to our lives, like unto the polarity of north and south.

Despite the fact that I have begun my sermon this morning with what might well be an overly intellectual tone, you do in fact know what I’m talking about, and I will demonstrate this as follows:  I will name a word, and I will ask you to give me back the word that is the polar opposite. This should be pretty easy.

Sickness. (Health.) Wining. (Losing.) Success. (Failure.) Love. (Hate.) Life. (Death.) Valley. (Mountain.) Darkness. (Light.) Hope. (Despair.) Good. (Evil.) Work. (Rest.) Engergized. (Fatigue.) Sad. (Happy.) Rrich. (Poor.) Light. (Darkness.) Empty. (Full.) Control. (Chaos.) Sin. (Grace.)

We instinctively know the meaning of one side of the polarity in reference to the other; the words can not help but go together. In all of those pairs of opposites that I gave you, we also tend to think of one as positive and the other as negative.

If we were to take an iron magnetized rod, with a “positive” end and a “negative” end, we could saw it in halves in an attempt to get a half that was nothing but positive. But you know what would happen: once more both pieces would possess both a positive and a negative end. The polarity can’t be removed.

In that great mythic story of the Garden of Eden, one way to understand what happens there is to see the man and woman as falling prey to the notion that it is within their power to do away with polarity; that they can create a better reality than the one God gave us. But it can’t be done, and their attempt to do so just makes things worse.

In various ways, human beings continue to re-enact the story of Adam and Eve. Totalitarian movements are driven by a desire to create a utopian society where evil is eradicated, and end up creating truly sinister societies.

Oftentimes people go into marriage imagining that here is the place where they will find pure love, only to discover that the polarity of love and hate is at work within the relationship. This, in turn leads some to conclude prematurely that they have married the “wrong” person, rather than to realize that all marriages encompass both what we call “love” and “hate,” and to set about learning how to live together in such a way that the love rules the relationship more often than the hate. Wedding vows acknowledge polarity. The foundation of marriage is not in romantic feelings that come and go; it is found in a commitment that endures “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

Religion is another place that people try to flee from polarity, becoming a part of a sect that exclusively possesses all truth and goodness. Cutting themselves off from the world, they imagine that they are leaving behind the negative pole to live only with the positive pole. Sooner or later, however they discover that the positive and negative, the light and the darkness, continues within their community as well, and that the negative has been wreaking havoc in ways that hadn’t been acknowledged. The polarity of sin and grace runs right through our hearts.

It is, of course, our God-given duty to strive to make a better world, to do what we can to strengthen the positive and hold in check the negative – to reduce hunger, disease, warfare, and all the other things that diminish life. But our success will always be at best relative and not absolute.

Perhaps the reason for this has to do with the fact that without what we call the “negative” pole, the “positive” pole can’t truly exist. There is a necessity to the two poles. If you have never known anything of poverty and going without, how do you appreciate abundance and prosperity? If you have never been sick, how do you appreciate the blessing of health? If you have never known conflict, how will you appreciate peace? And if you didn’t have the capacity for grief, how would you ever love?

With my son Bobby’s soccer involvement, I spend a fair amount of time in the world of sports, which revolves around the polarity of winning and losing. Neither of the two has any meaning except that the other has been experienced. The Parsippany High School football team went 0 and 10 this season, getting crushed in every game. It’s got to be tough on these boys to never taste winning. I think, however, that it would every bit as destructive to a kid to grow up playing sports and never taste defeat. Experiencing defeat is painful, but instructive.

In our spiritual lives, we can harbor this illusion that here, finally, we should be able to leave behind polarity. We figure that if we are living out our faith the way we should then we will experience a state of grace in which doubt, fear and the perception of God’s absence never afflict us. But this also is an illusion.

The Gospels portray Jesus himself living in the midst of polarities. At one point he’s alone in the wilderness in temptation; at another he’s at the wedding of Cana in Galilee surrounded by friends and family enjoying good food and wine. At times he is wonderfully tender; at others he is intensely angry. At the end, you see him suffering the feeling of being abandoned by God, crying out from the cross words from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Psalms embrace the polarity of life. Psalm 42, especially. The psalmist cries out to God, “Why have you forgotten me?” His soul is cast down – disquieted within him. He has descended into the depths.

Well, if polarity is with us to stay, does that mean that our spiritual lives will always be something of a roller coaster ride? Yes and no. The psalm shows us something about getting perspective. In a time of deep darkness, the psalmist remembers a time when it wasn’t that way; when the praise of God came easily and God’s presence was undeniable. He reminds himself to “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

When we can accept the down side of polarity, and surrender into the experience the present moment presents like the psalmist does in this psalm, we discover that what we are experiencing in the present moment isn’t everything. We have a perspective that allows us to be fully with the present, but not overwhelmed by it.

Typically, young people lack the perspective to realize that what consumes them in the present moment isn’t necessarily all it seems cracked up to be. The passion of a first crush isn’t necessarily the love of a lifetime. The sadness of a broken love will indeed pass. The anger that drives one to say “I hate you” to someone they are deeply connected to eclipses other more positive feelings underneath. They lack the perspective to see this.

Hopefully, with age the wisdom comes that recognizes even though I can’t at a given present feel God’s presence, it doesn’t mean that God’s love has in fact left me. “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

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