Facing the Modern Malaise

 

Jesus Christ Pantocrator (Hagia Sophia)

Pentecost +23
Rev. Doug Floyd
Malachi 3:13–4:6, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6–16, Luke 21:5–19

Walker Percy was a southern writer but before that he was a physician. When he started writing novels, he turned his doctor’s eye from the individual patient before him to the societal patient all around him in our culture. In one essay, he described his call to write as follow, “To the degree that a society has been overtaken by a sense of malaise rather than exuberance, by fragmentation rather than wholeness, the vocation of the artist, whether novelist, poet, playwright, filmmaker, can perhaps be said to come that much closer to that of the diagnostician rather than the artist’s celebration of life in a triumphant age.”[1]

The title of this essay is “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise.” What does Percy mean by malaise? The Oxford English Dictionary defines malaise as “(A feeling of) vague, non-specific physical discomfort; absence of the sense of physical well-being.” The supplemental definition is an “uneasiness of mind or spirit; the unhealthy state of an institution, organization, activity, or situation.” When Percy speaks of the modern malaise, he is talking about a society where we already live in paradise and yet, there is still this unease, this discomfort, this lack of well-being.  In his novel “The Moviegoer,” Binx Bolling has a sneaking suspicion everyone is dead. We all move through suburbia from one distraction to another without ever actually living. Binx spends his time making money and going to movies, but he is simply moving through existence. He sees that there could be a search for true meaning, for transcendent life, but most of us have other concerns. Binx says, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

These phrases “everydayness of his own life” and “modern malaise” came to mind as I was thinking about Malachi. The prophet sounds the alarm to a people that have not exactly abandoned the Lord. This is the community of returned exiles. They are part of the long-awaited return that would restore the nation of Israel. But the everydayness of living has slowed things down a bit. It takes years to finish the Temple, and then, it’s really not as glorious as people had hoped. Yes, Haggai prophesies that the glory of God in the house of the Lord will be so great that it will shake the nations.

Now years later, the people continue to plod along with a less than glorious Temple and no apparent shaking. At some levels, they are giving to God and following his ways, but they are simply moving through the motions. Their unfaithfulness is not even that impressive. They are not in outright rebellion and they are not fully obedient. They are simply existing and complaining and obeying in some perfunctory way. As tried to envision this period, these people, this less than glorious obedience, I kept thinking of Percy’s language of malaise and the everydaynesss of life. This everydayness is so different than times of intense crisis.

Crisis often sparks a renewed zeal and passion. Sometimes people will remember times of intense crisis with an almost longing for a vital life that disappeared after the crisis. In his book “Tribe,” Sebastian Junger recounts the longing some survivors of war experience years later. Once the crisis is over, the vital community dissipates, and people go about the stuff of living in the everydayness.

In Malachi, the Lord is challenging every complaint of the people. In the first oracle, He begins “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2). Then the Lord turns to the priests, who continue to perform their duties, but are offering polluted food upon the altar. They are at the altar, but they are weary, and they are making the Lord weary in this empty activity. As we move through oracle of God against the people, we discover that they are unfaithful in their marriages, they are not faithful to the covenant and questioning “Where is the God who brings justice?” They are unfaithful in their tithes and offerings to the Lord, and they doubt whether God really treats the good and evil people differently.

On the one hand, they lost their expectation of the coming of the Lord, and on the other hand, they are living passionless lives of incomplete obedience. They go through the motions, but they are unfaithful in their hearts and actions. As I was thinking of this emptiness, I remember a once popular phrase, “been there, done that.” It emerged in the 1970s, became really popular in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, people were saying, “been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” It could be applied to almost any experience from bad like divorce to good like a trip to Disneyland. It was often applied to zeal in church, yeah I’ve already been there, done that. This light phrase can poke fun at some of our activities, but it also can cloak some very real pain and disappointment in life.

Like the people of Israel feel in Malachi, they are disappointed in the Temple, disappointed in God, and now they live a half-hearted obedience with no vital life. In the absence of vital life, people turn to distraction to make them feel alive. The very gifts God has given us in this life like health, sexuality, community, mind, work, and more all become obsessions where people seek out a life that is not in them. As a result, the gift of creation become deadening instead of enlivening.

Some people search for vitality by creating a never-ending string of crises. They simply move from one disaster to another problem to another crisis. For some people this ongoing crisis could be found in politics. Suddenly every issue becomes life or death. All a person can think about it the “other side” whoever that may be.  

Some people search out this vital life in a string of emotional church services. I am not opposed to revival, but it is easy for us to try and generate the once fiery passions we experienced in the past. Outside of a movement of grace, these emotional highs can easily leave one emptier afterwards.

In opposition to this highly emotional sense of vitality, other people turn to intellectual vitality. They engage in endless argument over the minutiae of faith while gradually losing sight of the good news of the gospel. The extreme version of this is Rev. Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, the English cleric who spends his life pursuing outdated intellectual ideas and gradually becomes a walking dead man.

For other people pornography and sexual infidelity become way of seeking for something that makes them feel more alive.

We might even include social media and all the other distractions of the 21st century such as non-stop news channels, streaming television and music, and other forms of social entertainment to keep us constantly stimulated with ideas, sounds, images and more.

It could be fitness or even extreme sports. My brother had a friend who was almost killed while base jumping. He survived and ended up have a profound reconnection with God and his family. He told my brother that extreme sports were a way of feeding his never-ending need for the next rush.

As I recount all these, I hear the Word of the Lord in the book of Malachi, “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:7).

But how to we return while living in the everydayness of existence, in the middle of a culture distracted at every level from vital living? Psalm 98 offers a pattern of lifelong return. Return to God or repentance is not a one event at a revival meeting.  Rather, it the daily re-turning of the heart to God.

Both Malachi and our Psalm today offer thoughts what it looks like to turn and return to the Lord. Psalm 98 is part of a series of Psalms celebrating the God’s royal rule over the cosmos. The Psalm is calling us to behold the goodness of the Lord and to respond with rejoicing.

Beholding actively looking around, looking back and even looking forward. Every day we awake to the marvelous acts of the Lord. Morning light shines into our homes and we behold afresh the wonder of creation. We look out into the world beyond us the trees in our yard, we hear the birds above and around us, we see the squirrels scurrying across the lawn. Then we might look further out to the mountains on the horizon, the morning fog slowly rising, the beams of light shining through the clouds, the sky above. Beyond what we can see with our naked eyes is an ocean filled wonders of life, untold animals of all shapes and sizes covering the earth, planets and stars and galaxies in the cosmos beyond. This entire creation pulsing with vital life. This entire creation not bound by the malaise of everydayness, but constantly expanding and constricting, changing, struggling, surging with life.

Then we look back to the marvelous deeds of God’s own arm working righteousness in the midst of his people Israel. In the stories of Israel, we behold a people called out by God and yet struggling to walk faithfully. In this messy, often failing community, we see the hand of God’s redeeming grace exposed again and again on their behalf. Finally, we see the story of Jesus Christ or King Jesus, coming to enter into all the brokenness of His people with healing grace. And yet, this great grace works outward touching all nations and suddenly we’ve been swept up into the saving action of God. We have been grafted into the vine, adopted into the family, raised up into the communion of love. We both puzzle and rejoice over this ever-unfolding stories of redeeming grace.

Then we shift focus, looking forward to the God who promises to set the world to rights. Human history and creation history all come together in the story of Christ Jesus and will all be led into the fullness of love in the fullness of time. Everything in the story of God surges with hope toward the breaking in of salvation and judgment and restoration in Christ Jesus.

This intentional looking, imagining, remembering, reflecting provokes a response. It provokes rejoicing. The psalmist calls us to sing. Oh that we might be a people who sing often and everywhere, making up songs of joy and thanksgiving. We sing, we clap, we make noise, we play instruments, and Malachi tells us to give. We bring tithes and offerings as an expression of this joy, this glorious celebration. Our bodies move in conjunction with our minds. We are one whole unity of mind, will, heart, and soul, and by His grace we bring our whole person into the harmony of love and worship. All of life becomes worship, becomes thanksgiving, becomes giving to others around us, becomes a dance of vital life that is not some emotional or intellectual distraction but the very stuff of life, the joy of the Lord.

In some sense every day, every hour, every moment is a returning to the goodness of God. We still live in the everydayness and the stuff of life will still weary us at times and even weaken us at times. We are learning in small ways to keep turning and returning to the Lord of all life and love. And in its most simple form, we breathe. And every breath is a gift of God offered back to God in worship and thanks.


[1] Percy, Walker. Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays (p. 206). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

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