A Silent Center
white knuckles cling
against peace and cries
into chaos flying,
centrifugal to death
in attempt to salvage
human breath for breathing,
through peeling purge
that burns away flesh
to white bone singed and aching
for skin new to inhale
holy fire once again,
until the timely scourge
of sin is complete
but now seems never-ending,
a war fought to enter,
a stake in celestial claim,
a conquering of a silent center
Impressing Amy. The place was St. Patrick’s school in Kent Ohio. A couple dozen of us first and second graders were playing on the merry-go-round during recess. We took turns pushing as hard as we could, sometimes two or three at a time, but being so young we never managed to get the merry-go-round spinning too fast, which was fine by us. Suddenly we were approached by three older boys. I suspected they were at least in sixth or seventh grade. Us younger kids were as intimidated as we were perplexed. Older boys never played with younger kids on the playground – except occasionally to torment us. And they certainly wouldn’t be interested in playing on the merry-go-round!
The merry-go-round slowly came to a halt as all our attention became focused on the three boys. “We’ll give a dime to anyone who can stay on the merry-go-round while we three push,” the tallest one said with a sinister looking smile. This was the early 1960’s, so a dime meant something, especially to a seven-year-old. But there were no takers. “Okay, a quarter. And you only have to stay on a minute.” He flashed the quarter, but still none stepped up. The prospect of flying off the merry-go-round spinning as fast as these three could spin it was a strong deterrent. “You guys aren’t all chicken, are you?,” one of them said with a sneer. “A quarter for one minute!”
At this point some of the girls in our crowd began egging us boys on. One of the girls was Amy, a girl in my class whom I decided I wanted to marry when I grew up. She was the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen and I’d been trying to impress her all year. Most recently I had taken to wearing my uniform shirt collar up around my neck because Amy had a strong accent I thought was German. By wearing my shirt collar up I felt it made me look more like the German soldiers I saw on television. Well, it hadn’t worked. But accepting a dangerous dare might! How could she fail to be impressed by my bravery?
So, in my self-styled German uniform and with my heart pounding nervously, I stepped forward. “I’m not chicken!” I said in defiance. The girls cheered. Then Danny, who was always in competition with me and whom I suspected also liked Amy, quickly followed. Showing false bravado Danny and I taunted each other while the three boys taunted us both.
We climbed onto the merry-go-round and the spinning begun. Within a few seconds we knew we were in trouble. Never had we gone anywhere close to this fast before. I immediately surmised that I’d never be able to stay on for a full minute. My hands were having difficulty hanging on and I was already feeling nauseous. Terror struck as I envisioned the prospect of throwing up in front of Amy! Then I had an idea. It occurred to me that the older boys hadn’t specified how we had to stay on the merry-go-round for a minute. Past experience had taught me that the closer you are to the center of the merry-go-round, the less you feel the pull of the spin. So, fighting the centrifugal force of the tremendous spin, I slowly began to pull my way to the center.
The older boys immediately began to object, but the girls – including Amy! — argued that they hadn’t made staying on the edge of the merry-go-round part of the deal. Though the older boys spun all the harder, trying to keep me from reaching my goal, I finally arrived. I was amazed at the contrast between the center and the parameter. Despite the vicious spinning, it was perfectly calm. I lifted my hands triumphantly and began to laugh – just as Danny let out a blood curdling scream as he lost his grip.
As Danny flew, we all began to realize what a totally asinine idea this was. His body made a sickening thud and we heard a loud snap when it hit the ground. When he finally stopped rolling his head was all bloody, his arm contorted in a most peculiar manner, and he began to scream in pain. I was still sitting in the middle of the merry-go-round, waiting for it to become safe enough to exit, when Sister Margaret showed up on the scene, looking more angry than concerned. A half hour later I and the three older boys found ourselves in Mother superior’s office, all in deep trouble. The licking I got would have been worth it had Amy expressed some admiration for my bravery or had I gotten my quarter. But neither was forthcoming. Meanwhile, my nemesis Danny was immortalized on the playground. His cast and bandaged head became symbols of heroism and no one seemed to remembered that I was the first to step forward.
From that day on falling off the merry-go-round was described as “doing the Danny.”
Yet, I took pride in having outsmarted the older boys. They had the strength, but I knew the secret of staying on a merry-go-round, regardless of how fast it spins. You just have to stay in the center.
It’s the secret of the merry-go-round – and, I believe, the secret of life.
The Merry-Go-Round “Flesh.” The experience of living isn’t all that different from our childhood experience of being on a merry-go-round. There is a tranquil center and a centrifugal force that relentlessly pulls us from the center. There is the peaceful domain in which God is king and a fallen world that relentless pulls us away from this peaceful domain.
In varying degrees and in a variety of ways, we all experience the strain and nausea of this pull. For many it takes the form of perpetual business, resulting in physical, emotion or spiritual exhaustion. For others it is experienced as a pervasive anxiety, an uncontrollable anger, an unbeatable addiction or a persistent sadness. Other’s manifest the pull as a tendency toward jealousy, a chronic irritableness, a compulsion to control people and circumstances or as an insatiable hunger to acquire things. And for most of us the nauseous pull at times takes the form of a gnawing sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, boredom and alienation.
The Bible describes symptoms such as these as “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21), for the merry-go-round world we have described is life in the flesh. The biblical concept of “flesh” (sarx) refers not to our literal skin or to our fallen nature, but to a false mode of existence. It is life lived as though what was true is false, and as though what was false is true. We live in the flesh insofar as we live as though God were not real, as though the Creator did not have total claim on one’s life, as though we were lord of our own lives, as though the physical world were all that concerned us and all that existed. We live in the flesh insofar as we live like we were merely complex animals, conscious only of our physical environment and unaware of our spiritual environment. We live in the flesh insofar as we are defined by our circumstances, hungry to get worth, significance and security by things we accomplish, people we impress, possessions we acquire, things we control, bank accounts we build up, reputations we establish, gods whose favor we win by religious performances, etc….
We live in the flesh insofar as we aren’t living in the Center, getting our entire worth, significance and security from the fact that our life is hid in Christ (Col 3).
The Self-Spinning Merry-Go-Round. Life in the flesh is not only life outside the Center: it is a form of life that continually pulls us away from the Center, like a spinning merry-go-round. This brings me to the most sinister and destructive aspect of this false mode of life.
Imagine a demented, child-hating inventor who created a merry-go-round that didn’t need to be pushed. On this merry-go-round, the children who rode it could themselves determine how fast they wanted to spin by how tightly they gripped the outside bar. What is demented about this? Well, the faster the merry-go-round spun, the tighter the children would have to grip the bar to keep from falling off. But this would only make the merry-go-round spin faster, which would force the children to grab tighter, and so on. Once started, in other words, the only way the children could get off the merry-go-round would be to “do the Danny.” And the longer they waited, the more painful would be their fall once they let go. l
This is precisely how the merry-go-round of the flesh operates. While in normal merry-go-rounds kids hang on because their being pulled by the spin, in the merry-go-round of flesh we spin and are pulled because we hang on. The tighter we hang onto things, the more we are pulled from the Center, which makes us hang on all the tighter. The more you care about your accomplishments, recognition, material possessions, security, money, or religious performances, the more they pull you from the Center. And the more you’re pulled from the Center, the more you care about such things. The more you care, in other words, the more you feel you have to care. You start by clinging to things, but they end up clinging to you. You begin by owning them, but they end up owning you. Whether we’re talking about accomplishments, recognition, material possessions, security, money, religious performance, or whatever, the flesh way of doing life is inherently addictive.
And all the while we’re getting nauseous. Our physical, emotion or spiritual exhaustion increases. We grow more fearful, more angry, more addicted, more depressed, more jealousy, more irritable, more greedy, and more empty, bored and alienated. But so long as we buy the lie that there’s life found in this world, so long as we cling to anything as a source of worth, significance or security, all these symptoms will only serve to make us cling to our stuff harder. We think that if we let them go, we’ll “fall off” the merry-go-round. Our lives will become worthless, insignificant and we’ll experience pain.
A Classic Illustration. A classic illustration of the self-spinning flesh merry-go-round is Ebenezar Scrooge in Charle’s Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Ebenezar once was a poor young man who was deeply in love with a wonderful young woman. Before marrying her, he wanted to establish himself in business to provide for himself and his family. At this point he was interested in money for the right reasons; he simply wanted to support his family and help others. But as time went on money became an end in and of itself. He clung to it, and the spin began. The more money Ebennar acquired, the tighter he clung to it and the more he felt he needed more of it. He became addicted to money. It became his all-consuming obession. The tighter he clung, the faster he spun, so the tighter he clung.
And with each increase in speed, Ebenezar became sicker. He gradually shrunk into a pathetic miserable miser who loved no one and was loved by no one. He became a fool who lost life by trying to cling to what is not life. He had allowed himself to be pulled far from the Center, where real life is found. Thankfully, of course, the grace of God in the form of three Christmas ghosts was able to rescue him by convincing himself to let go of the merry-go-round and let himself fly.
The lesson to be learned is that when we cling to anything, it exercises a power over us to cling to it tighter. And the tighter we cling, the more we are pulled from the Center, from fullness of life, from the Kingdom of God. When we cling to things for life, we loose life. This is our false, flesh, mode of living.
We cling to our life as though it were ours to cling to. We cling to our self-centered way of living, making decisions solely on the basis of our self-interest, as though we were lord of our own lives, as though we were the Center. We cling to our demand to have things go our way, as though we were God. We cling to the rightness of our opinions, beliefs and behaviors as ways of feeling special over and against all who differ from us. We cling to our judgments as though we were omniscient and sinless. We cling to our money, comfort and possessions as though we had an inherent right to such things. Out of fear we cling to our nationalism, as though we could ever find true security in this. We idealize and cling to youthfulness, as though aging and maturing were a great evil. We cling to memories of having been wounded, thinking that doing so preserves something of the worth that was stolen from us. We cling to our demands that life be fair to us, that we be happy and that we now experience life “to the fullest,” forgetting that the majority of the world experiences more injustice and less of “the good life” than we, though we have done nothing to merit our own privileged status. And we cling to ways of medicating ourselves from the nausea the spin of flesh living creates in us, not realizing that our clinging only makes the merry-go-round spin faster. We try to momentarily relieve our pain through alcohol, drugs, obsessing on work, sports, politics, sexual fantasies or actual affairs.
We hang onto such things because we think we will fall of the merry-go-round if we do not. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we think that to let go of our possessions, our security, our control, our concerns, our demands, our rights, our self-centeredness or our obsessions, would be to loose life itself. But in reality, it’s the act of clinging to such things that keeps us from experiencing real life, kingdom life. It’s clinging to such things that makes us spin, pulling us farther and farther from the Center. Its clinging to such things that gives us nausea, making us exhausted, fearful, angry, depressed, jealous, irritable, greedy, empty, bored and alienated. But so long as we are deceived into thinking we need such things to live, our nausea only makes us cling tighter, which makes us spin faster, which pulls us farther from the Center.
Letting Go. As with the children on our earlier discussed self-propelled merry-go-round, there’s only one way off of the demonic merry-go-round we are on, and that is to let go and let yourself fly. If you want to get free, you’ve got to “do the Danny.” If you want to find real life, you have to release your grip on life and let yourself fly. It’s scary and even feels like death. But it’s the only way to find real life.
Few themes permeate Jesus teachings as thoroughly as this one. For example, Jesus several times taught, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). While crosses have become quaint religious symbols and even merely decorate jewelry in our culture, in the Roman Empire they were tools of torture and death. So, when Jesus told his audience to “take up your cross daily and follow me,” they understood he was telling them that following him would involve daily torture and death. He was telling them that following him would require denying themselves and letting go of everything they held dear before.
To find the true life Jesus offers, you’ve got to let go of the merry-go-round bars and let yourself die.
Along the same lines, Jesus frequently taught, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Lk 14:25). In Luke he spells out more specifically what this means when he adds,
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions (Lk 14:26-27, 33).
Jesus is of course using hyperbole when he tells us to hate our family and even life itself – we aren’t to literally hate these things. But our allegiance to Jesus is to be so much greater than our allegiance to anything else that the contrast between the two is to be as extreme as love and hate. To find real life, we must let go of everything. We must “give up all our possessions.” To find abundant life, we must accept that we own nothing, not even our own life. To find the rest that comes from abiding in the Center, we must let ourselves fly off the merry-go-round of the flesh way of living. To live, we must die.
Note that Jesus says that no one can be a disciple if he doesn’t give up all his possessions. In other words, this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – one who is disciplined by Jesus. Often people in our culture think that such radical living is only for “saints,” those rare super-Christians who adhere fanatically to Jesus’ teaching. Yet here, and many other places, we find that such is not the case. Dying to the world, living without clinging, is the very definition of what it means to be Christian, or Christ-like.
Letting Go. Jesus’ doesn’t give us this austere teaching because he’s trying to make us miserable. He gives it because he wants us to live. He knows that clinging to things as a source of life actually robs us of life. He knows that trying to find our worth, significance or security in our wealth, social relations, achievements, national identity, religion or anything else is as empty as it is destructive. He knows the nauseating spin of the flesh merry-go-round and wants to free us from it. He wants us to live in the Center, the domain in which God is king, and thus enjoy the life God created us to live. But to get there, we’ve got to let go and let ourselves fly. We’ve got to experience die.
Can you see the truth of Jesus’ teaching? Scrooge had three ghosts to help him wake up, but we have the Holy Spirit. Will you let him open your eyes? Will you allow him to loosen your grip on life and trust him enough let yourself fly off this insane merry-go-round? Can you see how your striving to live is killing you? Can you realize that all of your fear, sorrow, anger, hatred and everything else that makes your life miserable is the result of your grip on some aspect of the merry-go-round? Can you see how you are owned by what you think you own? Can you see how its not in your best interest to living out of your self-interest? Can you see through the deception that life is found in what you think you have, what you think you do, what you think you know and who you think you impress? Do you hate this false mode of living enough to let go?
And can you see how this merry-go-round existence is destroying not only you but the world? Can you understand that all wars throughout history and yet today are the direct result of people clinging to competing idols? Can you see how our ever-tightening grip on our nationalism, our political ideologies, our religions, our cultures, our race and our opinions is creating the violent spin that is modern life? Can you see how mindlessly violent the world’s merry-go-round is? Are you sick enough of all of this to let it go and let yourself fly? Are you ready to “do the Danny”?
Life in the Center. When you fly, you die. But you immediately wake up to find yourself in the calm Center. Dying to the merry-go-round births you into the domain in which God is king. It is the domain of perfect love, joy and peace. It is life in Christ and in fellowship with the triune God. You were created to live in the Center, not the spin, so finding yourself in the Center is finding yourself at home. Abiding in the Center, you still see the spin of the world. Indeed, you see it all the more clearly because you are no longer defined by it. The Center gives you a perspective on the big picture you could never have so long as your hanging onto anything out of fear of falling. You are yet in the spinning world, but not of the spinning world. You are calm, not nauseous.
To live in the Center is to be set free. Having found life, you don’t need to strive for life any longer. Having already died, you no longer fear loss or death. Having found the true Center, you are freed from your own petty self-centeredness. You are, therefore, finally freed to love. Having found ultimate worth and significance in Christ, you are freed from the pathetic need to acquire worth or significance from what you think you own, what you think you know, what you think you achieve or who you think you impress. Having discovered perfect security, you are freed from the addictive compulsion to make yourself secure, whether by controlling people, acquiring things or aligning yourself with causes. Possessing all you really need, you are delivered from the diabolical grip of money, comfort and possessions.
Life in the Center, where your life is hid in Christ, is real life. It is the life we were created for.
Abiding in the Center, Moment-by-Moment. One final and very important thing needs to be said about living in the Center. Christians often put a great deal of weight on a person first “surrendering” their life to Christ. It is significant, but only because it embarks a person on a journey, not because it magically transports them to the end of the journey. The true significance of that first surrender is determined by whether or not it is resulting in a surrender today and in this moment.
Living in the Center is a moment-by-moment decision we make. The merry-go-round of fleshly living is always there for us to step into, if we so choose. And the choice not to do so must be made on a moment-by-moment basis. Thus Jesus said that if we are to be his disciples we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily ( Lk 9:23). So too, Paul said, “I die every day” (I Cor 15:31). To live out of the Center is to die to the false mode of life every day, indeed, every moment of every day.
Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4). To “abide” (meno) means to remain in a place, not just to go there on occasion. Only when we do this do we bear the fruit of living in the kingdom. As we walk in the Spirit – not just enter the Spirit on occasion – the fruit of the Spirit replaces the works of the flesh. The symptoms of the spin – e.g. anger, hatred, jealousy, pettiness, fear – are replaced with the fruit of the Center – e.g. love, joy, peace, (Gal. 5).
The question, then, is not: Did you surrender your entire life to Christ at some point in the past? The question is: Are you wholly surrendered to Christ right now? Are you dead to the pull of the world’s self-centered way of living this moment? Are you crucified to the senseless spin of the flesh merry-go-round right now? Are you living in the Center this moment? Or, is any part of you clinging?
The best way to remain aware of whether or not your abiding in the Center is to honestly look at the fruit, or the symptoms. Are you living in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you? Or do you live out of self-interest, loving those who love you, but experience hatred towards those who hate you and apathy toward those you don’t know? Are you experiencing joy and peace right now, or is your heart full of sorrow or worry? When you find that the “works of the flesh” are present, you will find, if you examine it carefully, that its because you are to some extent experiencing the pull of the fleshly merry-go-round. You are clinging to something. When you see what it is, it is time to immediately release it, take up your cross, and let yourself fly.