A few weeks ago, I referred to the Amazon production of Rings of Power – a contemporary interpretation drawing from Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts which his son Christopher later published after his father’s death in Unfinished Tales. Rings of Power is beautifully filmed – full of dramatic special effects that depict both elysian and hellish depictions of fictional reality.
I was and continue to be struck by these words of Elrond, one of the High Elves, quoting a memory of his father.
The way of the faithful is committing to pay the price event if the cost cannot be known – trusting that in the end it will be worth it. Though the cost is dear, we have little choice but to keep serving.
Two weeks ago, I used these words in the context of my second sermon in this year’s annual renewal campaign Time, Talent and not just Treasure.
Elrond’s remembrance of his father’s wisdom triggered another cinematic memory – this time from the delightful movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in which the hapless hotel manager Sonny Kapoor, played by the very talented British Indian actor Dev Patel exclaims:
Everything will be alright in the end... if it's not alright then it's not yet the end.
These quotations are watchwords for our current deeply troubled times.
Watchwords are spiritual reference points that act like points on the dial of a compass. Paying close attention to our spiritual watchwords shows us the way forward when the familiar signposts of stability and continuity on which we once relied are no longer visible or even more alarmingly, remain visible but now misdirect through disinformation to point us in opposite directions from the ones we need to be setting out on.
Back to the future is another example of a watchword phrase, but this time one we should be wary of. Back to the future is really a statement about the prospect of our future being a repetition of the worst in our past. It’s another way of saying that society seems incapable of learning from past collective experience. Part of the explanation for this is that we have become a society characterized by amnesia. Our memory span is so short we’ve forgotten the most important lessons not only from our distant but more worryingly, even from our recent past. I’ve quoted Freud’s comment many times the gist of which is what we cannot remember we are destined to repeat.
One of the sad lessons from our collective past resurfaces in the way autocratic and anti-democratic tendencies – always latent in our collective unconscious – return to the surface. We see this so clearly when we survey the international scene whether it be Putin’s Russia, Xi Jing Ping’s China, Iran’s Ayatollahs; the infantile omnipotence of autocrats dictating the course of nations through a steady ahistorical diatribe of perceived grievances. We in America know first-hand the autocratic and antidemocratic impulses resurfacing from our own history.
As we approach the midterms an article in the Atlantic Daily summed our situation up in a short article titled More than the Price of Gas in which Tom Nichols a staff editor noted how our voting dictated by hot button single issues of the moment not only corrodes our democracy but in the long run lead to nowhere new. He wrote:
Voters concerned about democracy should remind their fellow citizens that a GOP majority will not fix the economy or face down the Russians. Instead, state-level Republicans will issue partisan challenges to our constitutional process while cowardly national Republicans nod their approval. By 2025, Republicans at the state and national level might be able to simply ignore any election result they happen not to like.
In the First Reading on Pentecost 21 we hear the words of the minor prophet Habakkuk writing during a period of national emergency either at the time or shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. It’s helpful to situate the office of prophet as the antidote in Ancient Israel to the authoritarian centralizing of power in the King. Israel had a constitution called the Covenant, and it was the prophet’s role to remind those in power of its constraints on autocracy. Br. Garret Galvin O.F.M writing about this reading notes that:
Part of a prophet’s job was to reflect on the world as it is rather than predicting the future, as is so often misattributed to prophets. Verse 1:4 demonstrates Habakkuk facing up to the challenges of his time. The one who lives by faith must encounter many others who choose to live by a different standard. The necessity of living by faith does not always produce a comfortable life.
Habakkuk understood that the cure for the deep-seated corruption of power required a dramatic restoration of Covenant values. What worried him was he also understood that any restoration must first be preceded by collapse. Using the analogy from computers and smart devices Habakkuk understood Judah’s need for a reset to factory settings. Yet, he laments the cure being worse that the disease.
How long shall I cry for help, you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence’, and you will not save?
In the following verse he chronicles his nation’s woes in a voice that sounds to us remarkably contemporaneous:
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
In response he simply commits himself to take a principled stand – not running away or shirking his responsibilities.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart.
God finally answers Habakkuk by reminding him:
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry wait for it; it will surely come [when] the righteous live by their faith.
Taking up our responsibilities we must stand on the metaphorical ramparts of democracy reminded that the way of the faithful is through service no matter the cost because we can do none other. Yet, there is a cost. Br Garret Galvin O.F.M reminds us that the one who lives by faith – confronting those who choose to live by a different standard – will not always produce a comfortable life.
I believe that the troubles of our present time are signs of a divine reset – reboot to return us to our original factory settings as creatures made in the image of an all-loving creator. Our having failed to live by faith in the goodness of God in creation, is the cause of all our current challenges:
- the collapse of economic globalism with all the knock-on consequences of breakdowns in the supply-chains feeding our rampant consumerism,
- spiraling prices and inflation,
- the resurfacing of old grievances leading societies back into the cul-de-sacs of history from which no meaningful solutions emerged last time we found ourselves here.
Finally, God is saying to us enough is enough! Failure of systemic reform is now inevitably leading us towards the uncomfortable experience of a massive world-wide recalibration. As Habakkuk recognized in catastrophe – what I’m preferring to call recalibration is the necessary precondition for reset.
If we find the cost of paying the price in the defense of democracy’s freedoms – simply consider the alternative – of folding in the face of tyranny’s insatiable violence – whether facing down a Putin, or a Trump, and their legions of orcs.
Together we must stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people who are forging a new future for themselves as they bear the brunt of the antidemocratic onslaught of Putin’s tyranny. Americans’ must raise our heads to look beyond the immediate grimness of gas prices at the pump, the effects of inflation on the supermarket shelves. Europeans’ must raise their heads to look beyond the grimness of this winter’s massive energy crisis. We in the West – by which I mean the global network of free democracies with the rule of law as the basis for governance must not let the immediate discomforts of the present time misdirect us from the longer-term direction of travel. We must keep faith that
We hold fast – the cost may be high – the reset has begun – but it will be worth it in the end!