July 8, 2014

Leaving a Hall of Mirrors


Text: Romans 7:23: “...I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Back where i come from these first weeks of July meant the coming of a particularly anticipated season of the year—the season of state fairs. Just as the first vegetables were coming in from gardens and farms, just as the first preserves were being put up or the fabulous summer desserts were being carefully put together, this moment of glory would come into the calendar just before the hard work of the harvest season to give everyone a chance to see how their neighbor’s crops were doing that year.

State fairs, at least when I was growing up, were about three parts agricultural education to six parts pure spectacle. There would be competitions for produce and livestock, craft barns, and my favorite spectacle of all—tractor pulls. If you have to ask, trust me, you wouldn’t understand.

My father used to say that there were more ways to be tricked out of your money per square inch at the state fair than in any other place in Michigan, and that might well have been true. Because—after all—away from all the exhibit halls and competition judges there was always a midway, the place where the hucksters would get you to throw three balls for a dollar or try your luck with the giant squirt gun or take a ride on the tilt-a-whirl or the slingshot.

Along the midway there were always curiosities for the faint-of-heart who didn’t take to amusement park rides—or, depending on your perspective, the smarter ones.  And one of these was always a Hall of Mirrors, basically a windowless maze where some of the walls were constructed of clear glass, and others were made of floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

If you’ve never tried to walk through such a place, you really cannot imagine how completely disorienting it is. Of course you expect to be a little confused at first, but most of us go into such a place thinking we’re going to figure out the secret, break the code, solve the puzzle.

But in a really good hall of mirrors, at just the moment when you think you’ve figured out how to navigate a path through the maze, smack—you run into something else. It’s fun, for awhile. And then it isn’t so fun anymore. You want to figure it out, and most of all you just want to get out of there. When you’re older, you have a kind of confidence that somehow that will be the end of the story. But the first time I ever went into the hall of mirrors I was only about ten or eleven, and I’ll never forget another classmate of mine just sitting on the floor crying at her fear and frustration.

The hall of mirrors is a perfect image for the struggle in our lives between our best intentions and the reality of our difficult, tangled, tortured wills. The single, simple statement of our condition is that God has made us with not just one, but two basic natures—one that is drawn toward God, and seeks relationship with God; and one that is focused on our own gratification, our own fulfillment, our own glory.

It’s worth pointing out right here that when we speak of Jesus as being fully human and fully divine, at least in a sense what we are saying is that Jesus is a kind of apotheosis of what we were meant to be all along; humans created with both free will and a capacity for the holy, a God-ward sensibility deep within our hearts.

But that is a sermon for another day. Right now we are still stuck in the hall of mirrors, that perplexing place Paul describes so wonderfully in these familiar lines from his letter to the church in Rome. His language almost perfectly captures the experience of that poor child crying with frustration sitting on the floor of the maze, entirely failed by her instincts or even by what she thought she had learned about the path through the puzzle.

That child’s confusion and alarm at her predicament is what Paul describes in his own soul. “I don’t do the good I want to do, but what I do is the evil I don’t want to do. And if I do what I don’t want, then it isn’t me doing it, it’s this other part of me, this other aspect of myself, that is taking up space within my very being—that’s what’s responsible for all this.” And then these words of complete exasperation: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Who will rescue me from the part of me that keeps leading me away from the person I want to be?

All of us end up living in that hall of mirrors. Some of us become seduced by the reflections around us, thinking they are the reality when actually they are just projections of ourselves—and we never really make it through the puzzle to find our way back to the God who is calling us on, drawing us through. The tricks and the false paths come from putting our faith in the reflections of our own hopes and the chimeras of our own imaginings that seem to appear before us.

At the state fair you generally had other people to observe in front of you, and it became a lot easier to figure out what the real path out was by keeping your eyes on them, instead of on the endless images of yourself. Some of them would bump into walls, but others would suddenly seem to disappear around a corner—and that always was a clue to where the open path was ahead of you.

That gathering of people in the hall of mirrors is, for me, part of the function, and the gift, of the church; it means each one of us doesn’t have to transit this confusion and chaos alone, because we have people ahead of us to learn from and behind us who are depending on us because they are following us.

But for all of us, progress out of the hall of mirrors ultimately depends on knowing the difference between truth and apparition, between reality and projection, between the part of ourselves God is calling onward and the part that answers more readily to our own devices and desires. The grace God sends our way is the path God gives us, like little bread crumbs on the floor of the maze, to lead us past our imaginings and apparitions to the place of clearer vision and certain truth. Amen.