So much of life is either/or. There seems to be no escaping it. Either you order the cheeseburger with French Fries or you go for the pepperoni pizza. Either you root for the Hokies or you pull for the ‘Hoos. Either you vote for the Republican or you vote for the Democrat. Either you accept the job offer and uproot your family to move to a new state or you turn it down, and risk being let go. Either you decide to marry this person, choosing to be with them for the rest of you life, or you don’t, and decide to remain single for at least a while longer. Either you’re still alive, cured of the disease that creeps within or you’re not, and your loved ones are planning your funeral. So much of life is either/or. We find ourselves facing forks in the road, trapped by decisions and defined by dilemmas—either ones we make ourselves or ones that are made for us. It is impossible, if not greedy and indulgent, to wind up with two different or opposite things at the same time.
So much of life is either/or, and yet God’s ways toward us, by contrast, are usually both/and. With God, all things are possible, and so we find our life in him so much of the time is, in fact, about being two different or opposite things simultaneously. We are both lost and we’re found. We’re in bondage to sin and yet we’re free. Upon reflection, we realize we are a both sinner and we’re a saint. God’s kingdom is now and it is also not yet. As Jesus points out, we are to both practice our faith fervently and also make ourselves look like we’re not.
The fancy, SAT word for a both/and scenario is paradox. It is the ability for two otherwise contradictory things to exist at the same time. And there’s probably no one better than apostle Paul at using and explaining paradox to illustrate what it means to live as a Christ-follower. In one of his letters to the church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth, when he tries to clarify his own faith and how it effects others’ perception of him as he serves them and proclaims the gospel, he actually lists a long string of these both/and statements:
“We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and yet well known, as dying, yet look!—we are alive!...as going through pain yet always happy as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet owning everything.”
One might say it sounds both confusing, and it somehow makes complete sense. What Paul means is when you know you’ve been reconciled to God because of what Christ has done, you find yourself almost always at odds with the broken world around you. Others see your actions and values—values which emphasize compassion for others and serving the lowliest—and interpret them as making no sense in a world that lusts after things like personal fame and material wealth. They are blind to the fact that there is actually great joy to be found in such a way of living. The world around looks at how much some of great faith have given up, sees how they share with the less fortunate, and therefore find them utterly destitute, unaware of the reward they receive through serving, unaware of the reward they is storing up in heaven.
Living as two polar opposite things at the same time is what Paul says people of faith become accustomed to now that they have been reconciled to God through Christ. They are living, breathing paradoxes. Even though they are still sinners, they are also still becoming the righteousness of God.
And that’s the root of this paradox. Because, you see, it is not just an imperfect world that is at odds with God’s new creation in Christ. We must also admit there are still parts of ourselves in conflict with the peace we find through faith. That is, this is not just a matter of how others perceive our both/and qualities. It is we, ourselves, when we’re honest, who are constantly living this tension.
That is one reason why the ashes which will momentarily mark our foreheads so appropriate. They themselves are a paradox. Ashes are at once a symbol of death and decay, a bitter remnant of a life that is over, and yet also an agent of cleaning and cleansing. They are something that cultures, including ancient Israel, have long used to show repentance, shame, and guilt, and yet out of the ashes new life can arise. Ashes are both a sign of our mortality and of our eternal hope in Jesus. We are not in this life either dead or alive, either condemned or saved, but both dead in sin and alive in Christ at the same time. We are both declared guilty, trespassers, and also saved for eternal life. And when we hear that to God we are both one and the other, it allows us to be honest about both: real about our sin and what it does to us and others, but also hopeful about what Christ provides.
Another person who dealt a lot with the both/and nature of the life of faith was Martin Luther, a devoted student of the apostle Paul. So much of Luther’s theology, which is being revisited in a special way this year as it 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, which Luther effectively began, is built around these paradoxes of Christian faith. Luther had a deep understanding of his inner brokenness. He even had a special German word for it: Anfechtung. Difficult to translate directly into English, Anfechtung was Luther’s way of describing the way the soul is tormented by this ever-lingering sense of doubt and despair and hopelessness regarding his or her condition (to be honest, most words in German sound like despair and hopelessness). He writes of it in a line of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” when he says, “no strength of ours can match [evil’s] might. We would be lost, rejected.” Luther’s own sense of Anfechtung was often psychologically crippling, especially in his early years.
I was unable to find any proof of this, but I would imagine Luther loved Ash Wednesday. The rituals and meaning of this worship service would have resonated for him, the ashes a sign of just how corrupt his feelings of despair had left him. And yet, we can imagine he would have loved the fact that the ashes were marked in the form a cross: there could be no clearer sign of a gracious God, one that had found him in the suffering of His Son. We are not either destined to death or claimed by God. Luther emphasized that we are both at the same time: dying, and yet rising…ever being drowned in our baptism, and ever being lifted up to new life…knowing our separation from God is always there, and also knowing that we’ve been reconciled.
The last act of Luther’s life, was to travel to his hometown in the winter of 1546 in order to help two of his brothers reconcile to each other. He was in very poor health, but made the journey anyway. He managed to succeed in getting his brothers to come back together, but in the end it was too much for him and he began to die. We know from the things he wrote and said in the last days and hours of his life that he was still tormented by Anfechtungen, by that inner worry of doubt in God and despair. Here was a learned man, fluent in scripture, responsible for reforming the church in many ways, and still unsure of God’s eternal care. A note he scribbled on a napkin two days before he died ends with the words, “We are beggars. That is true!” Those are the last words he wrote, after writing hundreds of thousands.
For him, until the end, faith in God still involved paradox, and that was good, for it still ultimately pushed him into God’s arms of mercy, fully relying on grace. He wasn’t either saved or totally rejected, but both/and: both a holy child of God and a beggar for his forgiveness.
So this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, this whole life in Christ, let’s try to remember we live as “both/and” people in an “either/or” world. “Either/or” has its place, I suppose, for things like ordering food and choosing a spouse. However, when it comes to God’s loving actions toward us and knowing we’re reconciled to him, let’s realize we’re caught the tension of a blessed paradox which will one day—one bright day with no more ashes—be resolved. We are both lost and found, both guilty and forgiven. Having nothing yet possessing everything. We come forward and kneel at the rail, ashes on our heads, and hold our hands out like beggars…and as beggars who have become very rich.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.