Q. What does the snail say, riding on the back of a turtle?
I do not like roller coasters. In the realm of amusement rides, a turtle ride is about as far as I would prefer to go. I don’t like hanging upside down. I don’t like it when the track plunges so fast that my stomach lands in my throat. When my sons were small we frequented New Hampshire’s “Story Land,” with its gentle little roller coaster in which I could ride with the boys and, with the snail, yell “Whee!” By the time we moved to Chicago, living just minutes from Six Flags, my sons had learned the bitter truth: their father is a roller-coaster weenie.
A few years ago, in a snowy white-out on the Indiana Toll Road, we found ourselves in the middle of a forty-car pile-up. Semi-trailer trucks careened down the left shoulder, cars spun, thuds and crunches sounded on every side. We came to rest safely in the middle of it all. With its loops and turns, it was not unlike a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride. Yet in the moment I was less terrified in the pile-up than I am on a roller coaster. That is because on the highway I still felt as though I had some control: steer to the gap; brake gently; accelerate out of the way of that SUV. These things I could do–whereas on the roller coaster, there is not a thing to do.
It was an illusion, of course. The measure of our control has no direct relation to our ability to do something–it just makes us feel better about it. On the roller coaster with not a thing to do, or on the highway with lots to do–in either case, I was not in control.
Sometimes it seems as though the events of Holy Week got out of hand. Through most of his ministry, Jesus had appeared very much in control. He rebuffed Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. He healed those who needed it. He associated with whomever he pleased. He silenced his critics with authoritative teaching. But during Holy Week, things start happening too fast. A friendly crowd cries, “Hosanna!” A few days later they shout, “Crucify him!” There is a poignant meal. There is a betrayal. Companions fall asleep. Companions flee. Companions deny their master. It all happens so fast. Everything just seems to spin out of control.
Out of control. Here is a feeling which is familiar to us. Our schedules are out of control: snowstorms strand us, T trains fail us, the unforeseen intrudes. Our bodies are out of control: blood counts go up and down, cancer cells appear. Our world is out of control: churches are bombed in Pakistan, racism manifests itself with a vengeance across our nation.
In all of these ways our lives are up, down; better, worse; hopeful, fearful. We call it a roller coaster. And so it turns out that the uncontrollable amusement park ride, which I successfully avoid, is but an apt metaphor for the uncontrollability of life, which I cannot avoid at all.
Philip Simmons was a professor at Lake Forest College. In 1993 he learned that he had A.L.S., Lou Gherig’s disease. He died in 2002. In his book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, Simmons wrote:
“Who among us gets to dictate the terms of his or her good fortune? You can’t live for very long on this earth without confronting a fundamental truth: we’re not in charge here, at least not entirely so. Our greatest blessings, along with our greatest burdens, seem to fall upon us unbidden. (i)
“The example of Jesus, [like] the experience of mud season [in New England], reminds me of a harsher truth: to be reborn, we must first die. Dying, like mud, can take many forms, but every death, in the sense I mean, is a letting go. We let go of ambition, of pride, of ego. We let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who go before us to their own deaths. We let go of insisting that the world be a certain way. ...
“But in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations, let go our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. We may feel at times that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new one, freer, roomier, more joyful than we could have imagined.” (ii)
In his life and in his death, Philip Simmons suggests that falling (with grace) is the necessary prelude to rising (by grace).
Perhaps, then, Holy Week was not out of control, after all. At least, not out of God’s control. And neither are our lives. Our direction and our destiny are finally in God’s control, and that destiny is resurrected life–a life characterized by compassion, courage, humility, renewal and grace–now, and in the age to come.
You and I will continue to live, day to day, not in control of many things. Gut-dropping roller coaster rides will have their way with us, in many arenas of life. Our white-knuckled efforts to stay in control will not succeed, but will only serve to keep us from living fully the risen life of joy and love which is already given to us, even now, if we can loosen our grip just a little, and with the snail–sometimes loudly and sometimes feebly–shout, “Whee!”
May you fall with grace, and rise by grace. May the blessings of the Risen Christ be yours.
Faithfully and fondly,
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
(i) Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (NYC: Bantam Books, 2000), pp. 130-131.
(ii) Ibid., pp. 86-87.