John Merritt

John-MerrittG. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English Roman Catholic lay theologian, was particularly famous for his epigrammatic statements. Here is my favorite:

“A PARADOX IS A TRUTH STANDING ON ITS HEAD TO ATTRACT ATTENTION.”

If a paradoxical statement is standing a truth on its head to attract attention, then a paradoxical experience feels like we are being jerked upside down and stood on our heads.

But what is the truth to which attention is being drawn? Where is the truth — in any position into which we may be forced? The truth revealed in the first instance is cognitive. However, the truth revealed in the second instance is autobiographical. Although often wrapped in pain, the truth it provides is a new perspective on how to see our autobiographies. This is the dimension of paradox on which I want to reflect.

Although an autobiographical paradox may be clothed in what we call objective reality — the dimensions of life from which we can take a step back and examine — it still is quite subjective. It is something in which we participate. Often it is too painful even to talk about, much less intentionally remember.

Like many of you, I have first perceived autobiographical paradox through sorrow, pain, tears. Sometimes all three in the same day… even in the same hour! So I hope what I share will resonate with and speak to any and every reader who has gone through experiences that have jerked them upside down and may have asked: “Where is truth to be found in any position?” “Where is God in all this?”

Two of these extended episodes, at least 35 years apart, are indelibly burned into the hard drive of my personality. The first autobiographical paradox took place when I was stationed on the National Headquarters Publications Department in New York and lived in New Jersey. Over a period of 18 months during that time, I was enveloped in profound darkness. Now some of you may think the cause of that is easily discerned: I worked on headquarters! However, at the risk of being considered strange, I don’t think so — I loved my appointment! So, I really don’t think I was suffering clinical depression. At any rate, I had difficulty doing my work, sleeping at night, or relaxing in the presence of God. Looking back on it now I believe it was rather what St. John of the Cross called “the Dark Night of the Soul” — which, though some times depressing, is not always the same as depression.

Then one Sunday I shall never forget, we made our regular trek from Belleville to the Kearny Corps where we soldiered. Its building bore no resemblance to the Crystal Cathedral, but its Mercy Seat was frequently “crowned with glory.” And it happened again that September morning in 1977 or 1978. It was Homecoming Weekend, with the then Colonel Andrew Miller — a hometown boy made good. As I was letting VaLeta and our two children out of the car in front of the building — there was no off-street parking lot — I noticed this statement on the large bulletin board out front:

“GOD HAS A SONG TO TEACH US, AND WHEN WE HAVE LEARNED TO SING IT IN THE DARKNESS OF ADVERSITY, WE CAN SING IT FOREVER.”

The 18-month cloud began to lift!

The Holiness Meeting opened with a song that I did not know —
Number 772 in the present Song Book of The Salvation Army.
As we sang the first stanza, I sensed something was about to happen:

When we cannot see our way,
Let us trust and still obey;
He who bids us forward go,
Cannot fail the way to show.
I was even more sure by the third stanza:

Though it be the gloom of night
Though we see no ray of light,
Since the Lord Himself is there,
‘Tis not meet that we should fear.

But when I sang with the congregation the fourth stanza — it happened:

Night with Him is never night,
Where He is, there all is light;
When He calls us, why delay?
They are happy who obey.

The first two lines (I am sure of it!) leaped off the page and impacted my consciousness with a word of liberating grace. This was the message: Your 18 months of darkness have really been light, for God, Who is Light, has been there all the time!

At that moment the cloud started to lift and glory palpably crowned the Mercy Seat as I knelt there at the conclusion of the meeting.

I do not know why I went through that emotionally excruciating time. Like Job in much worse circumstances, I have never discerned a definitive answer. But, in a sermon I heard him deliver many years later (and quoted here from memory) at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, Dr. Elam Davies said: “God does not always give us an answer, but He will give us Himself. I would rather have God any day than the answer. So would I and so did I — particularly the Sunday I left that shabby corps hall singing the “Forever Song” I read about on the corps bulletin board!

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