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Foolishness to the Clowns

In St. Mary’s Chapel at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, near the back on the epistle side, is a window commemorating the late Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury and sometime professor at Nashotah. In his hand, in between the image of him and his wife, is an open book with the words of Irenaeus: “The Glory of God is the Living Man.” During most of my three years at the House, I sat near the faculty stalls on the Gospel-side choir, facing that window. Twice daily, I looked at the window, made bright and alive by the dim Wisconsin sun, and it seems that the image is now tattooed on my retinas.

I now look out an altogether different window, the old leaden glass of my downtown parish office. Just above my monitor juts the modest skyline of Wausau and below is the relative hustle of the city’s 3rd Street. The message from this window is the same as the one at the House: “The Glory of God is the Living Man, and the Life of Man is the Vision of God.”

I’m approached on the street or in the local diner with some regularity by people needing to bear out their grief or their struggles or to ask for prayers for illness. I listen and I pray for them, of course, but in the end I recommend that they find a church. It doesn’t have to be mine, but I tell them that the burdens we all carry are too much for each of us to bear alone. I tell them to share the weight, shift the weight, bring the weight to the community of Jesus Christ and let him, and us, help them bear it. Usually the reply is, “Well, this will pass,” or “I just don’t believe in organized religion,” or “I’m not a Christian; I’m just struggling.”

This is a typical sort of worldview for the Wisconsinite. Those of you in other places populated by the children of Germans and Finns will certainly understand. There is something beautiful about it, in a patriotic sort of way: the rugged independence of the American, the John Wayne type, stoic, and — in these parts — often dressed in wool plaid. The beauty of this independence is quickly eclipsed by the sadness of it all. In this all-American worldview, the person must be all things to himself, must be his own friend, confidant, confessor, doctor, and ultimately tyrant.

It reminds me of a joke told by the character Rorschach in the graphic novel Watchmen:

Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”

For the evangelist, in the parish and on the streets, it seems plain that what is offered by the church is the escape from this hamster wheel. From the insanity of the spirit of the world we can be freed, because there is another, One other who can be for us the true other to the incessant sameness that we find inside of ourselves. God is self-sufficient and is whole within himself. We are not self-sufficient and are made whole by something outside ourselves, something that is other than us, because “The Glory of God is the Living Man, and the Life of Man is the Vision of God.”

Evangelism shouldn’t be so crass as to hustle some self-help method to alleviate the depression and boredom of the modern person, but it offers Pagliacci something to see other than his own show. Evangelism offers the vision of God that is the very life of the person. Perhaps Pagliacci enjoys his own show, at least for now. Perhaps he has found within himself some facsimile of being fully alive; even within his own struggles, his cornfed strength and American moxie and grit have made him steely enough to pull the old yoke a few more yards.

Ultimately, Pagliacci will find the old yoke is too burdensome to bear. The burden will become intolerable, the same old show unfulfilling and meaningless, the jokes falling flat, and he will burst into tears and say, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci” when invited to one more go on the merry-go-round. He will find himself, as we all well should find ourselves, a poor master of himself, a poor friend to himself, a poor doctor of himself. Because the life of man is not the vision of man, but is the vision of God. He finds himself, in the words of the great theologian John Prine, “wrapped up in his very own chain of sorrow.”

There the evangelist or priest differs from the doctor of the joke, and points, as Karl Barth taught us to point — like John the Baptist in the Isenheim Altarpiece — with our long finger toward the crucified Lord. We point and we say,

Beloved, look here, this is your life and your meaning and purpose: the crucified one who is risen! Here your struggles and pain will transform into everlasting joy. You no longer need to be all things to yourself, but this one, who is one in three and three in one, can be all things to you now! Rejoice, O sinner, for God has called you to his table!

If this is the mission that we hold, if this is our Great Commission, and if this is the alternative that we offer — life instead of death, the vision of God, “man fully alive” — how could we not look out our windows and be zealous in our proclamations? If we believe that this is true and that Christ is Lord and God, how can we stay quiet behind our office windows? If we look outside our leaden windows and see that the Glory of God is indeed the Living Man and the Life of Man is the Vision of God, and the street is full of Pagliaccis, full of cowboys trying to ride alone, we must go out as abolitionists and tell them of the One who can break the chains that they have forged for themselves.

Our aim is to convince Pagliacci the clown, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that the grand drama of God’s salvation is far better than their penny ante vaudeville act. The Christ who has come into the world knocks even now at their hearts, welcoming them, calling them, beckoning them out of themselves, out of their own show, and bringing them into the narrative of the New Testament, which is and always has been the greatest show on earth.

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