Harrowing Of Hell
April 29, 2012

Hope and a Salamander

Preacher: Rev. Doyt Conn

We have a salamander in the basement.  There is some debate as to his name.  I call him Slinky.  My son calls him Sandy.  My daughter, the driving force for our possessing a salamander in the first place, has yet to commit to a name.  We came home from a little vacation the other day.  As I was unpacking, I saw my daughter busily moving things around the family room.  The next thing I knew the salamander cage had a prominent position near the TV.  I was curious.  “Why is the salamander in the family room,” I inquired?  “Because he stinks and is smelling up my bedroom,” she replied.  My first thought was: “who would have thought salamanders stink.”  Quickly followed by:“And so it seems a good idea then, to move the stinky salamander into the family room?”  He is rather a new addition to the family, as the name controversy might indicate, and I was as yet committed to his permanent residence.  The move made me further consider his long-term tenure in the Conn household.

What may tip the balance in Sandy’s favor is Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemane in KY.

I am reading his book No Man Is An Island, and his section on hope has given my cause to reconsider Sandy’s place in my life.

Hope, Merton writes, is an instinct that resides, by its very nature, in poverty,and seeks to move from a place of absenceto a place of abundance.

Now if Merton had a 12-year-old daughter he might have explained hope this way.We have a salamander deficit;we were salamander poor;so we hope for a salamander.Absence is replaced by abundance when the salamander arrives, and when this hope is realized, hope its self disappeared.For us hope became a salamander which then provoked the question, “Now what?”

Hope springs forth from a state of scarcity. It sets a course toward abundance, and then disappears upon achievement.What remains is the question: “Now what?”

It is a question that we can generalized into many aspects of life.  Now that I have my degree, now what;now that I got that job, now what;now that I am married;now that I bought a house;now that I have children;now that I bought another house;now that the kids have graduated;now that I sold the company;now that I have retired;now that I have downsized:now that I have a salamander…

Now what?   I didn’t know salamanders stink.

At least the salamander, do to his odiferous nature, demands I consider him.  As I wander through my house I see many, many things I have hoped for that now sit around collecting dust.  Things that I manage and maintain and move around to make room for more things to manage and maintain, none of which possess any longer the promise that I hoped they would bring.

And even while their hope is gone, I continue on expending a great deal of energy managing and maintaining them toward no real purpose at all… other than to maybe express my jena se qua.  On the other hand, if Dante were wandering around my world he may indentify my stuff as rings of hell.

So “now what?”

Merton says the only hope worth holding onto is hope in God.The only hope worth holding onto is the hope that sees through the thinginto God’s divine purpose for the being holding the thing.

His logic goes,any hope applied toward an object or a goal,disappears upon acquisition or achievement, and leaves the burden of “now what;” which over time has a cumulative effect, as one vanquished hope is piled on top of another.

Hope is meant to liberates, not suffocate.

Merton goes on to say:“The soul that hopes in God belongs to God.”The soul that hopes for things or goals is buried by them.

“When our hope is in God we no longer trust exclusively in human and visible means,                    rather to hope in God, who we never see, and who we never possess draws us into possessionsbeyond our wildest imagination,” (No Man Is An Island, p. 14).as we are drawn into the fullness of our beings.Our liberation then comes from our self-differentiation from whatwe see and manage and move around;our liberation comes from our self-differentiation from the things that are set before us- and instead liberation resides instead in the invisible presence of God,which is a hope that never goes away.

(This) Hope is built on trust.Abraham from the Old Testament is our model for trusting in the invisible God.

Abraham was given a promise,          made by God, unsolicited, that he would be the father of many nations.This was God’s hope for Abraham.

God has a hope for each one of us as well;a hope imagined when God first imagined us into being.It finds its utmost expression at the intersection of our greatest gifts and passion and the worlds most profound needs.

It took Abraham until he was 100 years old to figure outGod’s hope for him.I pray we are quicker on the uptake. But when Abraham finally did figure out his purpose in God’s divine economyhe held it as the singular focus of his life.

Did he conquer many people to insure he would be the father of many nations? – No.Did he sire many progeny to maximize the possibility? – No.

He just kept his focus on God.

He just sought God in whatever was set before him.

In the world as it is everything can be either opaque or transparent.Opaque if our trust rests upon the thing its self.Transparent if our trust sees through it into God.

Abraham was given a child.  One child.  A son.  Isaac.  One child in no way insures one will become the father of many nations.

But Abraham never thought that it did.Isaac was transparent, not opaque.Abraham’s hope was in God, not his son Isaac.Abraham trusted God.

And so when God said take your son Isaac to the mountain and sacrifice him,Abraham did.  Not thinking even for a moment that this action would or could render God’s promise null and void.His hope was not in the visible, but in the invisible.

And from the invisible God brought forth a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place.

When Isaac was born Abraham didn’t ask “now what?”  He said, “there’s God.”

We have the same opportunity when looking at the promises set before us…Opaque or transparent?“Now what?” or “Where’s God.”

Enduring hope resides in the transparent;enduring hope is found in the invisible alone,beyond our imagination,into the fullness of our being.

And so do we say… “ All this material world is just illusion?”

Not as Christians we don’t.

In fact the presence of Jesus is a God statement that claims: “this place where you live is good, so good that I’m coming to hang out there with you.  So good that if you try to kick me out, or kill me, I’m coming back anyway.”

That is the message of the resurrection,that God is right here, this near, with us, waiting to encounter us through the real, material things in this world.We don’t need many things to do this,but we certainly need some things to do this.The challenge is to see the thing, and use it and cherish it,only as a vehicle through which to engage the invisible God.

We are people of hopebecause hope never leaves uswhen we set our hope in God.

The Christian spiritual journey is to move our minds from hope in things to hope in God through the thing set before us.

And so, when the salamander shows up, opaque and demanding “now what?”ask:“Am I liberated or suffocated?Is this one more thing to manage and move around or is this a vehicle through which to experience the fullness of beingas God’s so intended?”

I wondered this as I moved the salamander from the family room down to my study.I lit some incense and cleaned out the cage.

And as I did I wondered, where is the promise?

How can I engage God’s purpose for my life through this stinky little lizard?Is he a symbol of hope vanquished,or a symbol of hope revealed?I guess time will tell.

But one thing was reveal to me…

My daughter wandered in to the study and I asked,“What do you think of the salamanders new home?” She replied, “What salamander?”I pointed at the cage.“Dad, That’s not a salamander, that’s a Gecko.”