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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

The Sun is Still Shining

"I've been thinking of a story from the Old Testament: Moses stood all day and all night with outstretched arms, praying to God for victory. And whenever he let down his arms, the enemy prevailed over the children of Israel. Are there still people today who never weary of directing all their thinking and all their energy, single-heartedly, to one cause?" So said Sophie Scholl, a young German woman whose valiant story I have come to know through one of the classes here at Semester. A student, a nurse, she was a member of  "The White Rose," a group of students and intellectuals dedicated to opposing Nazi ideals during the years of WWII. Sophie (and her brother Hans) wrote and distributed pamphlets exposing the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, contradicting Nazi propaganda. Of a strong, thoughtful faith, and from a family already known for its moral integrity in the face of Nazi persecution, Sophie was arrested when she was caught distributing "treasonous" material at the University of Munich.

I learned a good bit about her in a lecture on culture by John Stonestreet, one of my favorites of the semester. A lot of what we discuss here is how to live out faith in Christ in a such a way that we embody the gospel, incarnating the very life of God into the culture and world around us. For me, them's fighting thoughts. The more I learn, the more I understand that something is being asked of me, some offering of myself is required to live this love to the full. Sophie's story has haunted me in the last weeks. She wasn't all that different from me, a simple student, a young girl from a Christian family who suddenly became a martyr because she lived her love of Christ to the zenith, and not that many years ago. Her life is my challenge. How, I ask myself, may I so live out my love of God?

The day after we discussed the Scholl siblings in class, we watched the movie based on their story: The Last Days of Sophie Scholl. The film is remarkable on many levels. Based primarily on the actual interrogation transcripts following their arrest, the film presents the Scholl siblings as they were; young, in love with life,  passionate in their idealistic defense of human dignity and value. Step-by-step, word-by-word, we watch them as they are forced to decide whether their passion is something to be held in silence, or robustly lived. We watch as they decide to live it out, and thus, to die. Convicted of treason, they lost their lives to their cause. Or rather, they gave their lives to something that they believed was far greater than themselves.

The movie ends with Sophie, face luminous, looking back as she is led away to die saying "the sun is still shining." That picture was a quiet theme playing throughout the imagery of the film - the sun still shining, slipping through prison bars, falling on the faces of enemies... and friends. A light undimmed by the turmoil in which Sophie herself was caught. And, as she went to die, a light that beckoned her beyond the confines of the tragedy that was all, for the moment, that she could see.

Wedged between two of my girls, I sat in the dark of the after-movie moment, crying hard. It is rare for me to cry hard at anything, but in the past years, I find that I am deeply undone by stories about those who face death... with light in their eyes. I knew that in Sophie's story I had touched something living, the vein of something golden running through the great mountain of human history.

And the gold was that fire-tempered, flint-faced, tender, set-heart resolve to give and be all that holiness requires. It was Sophie's understanding that her great idea (so called in the movie), her belief in a law of love giving order and meaning to the world, was greater even than herself, a thing so awe-full, so demandingly beautiful that she flung her whole life to the affirmation of its reality. In her story I touched the strange exultation that comes when love defies death, stares that "last enemy" in the face and declares it to be a feeble, passing thing in the face of the sun that shines beyond the edges of time. What I found in her was, to pare down the words that cluster and push so urgently in my mind, an encounter with the Cross, most grievous and most golden of truths.

I think we speak rarely, these days, of the Cross when it comes to living the Christian life. It is easy to think of it as something past, the means by which my happiness and redemption is assured, something Jesus did. Yet, "take up your Cross and follow Me," is the call given to all who look for salvation in Jesus. Take up the cross that is the grief of trying to live Love in a broken world. Carry the shame, the struggle, the rejection. That is what I am called to do. That is what Sophie Scholl did.

But the reason that Sophie's story so stabs and challenges me is that, in watching the movie, I saw her gradual embrace of the Cross. The slow, sure process by which she was transformed from someone who held an ideal, to one who was held by an ideal, not merely owning it but being formed by it to a courage beyond her own original resources.

Sophie was no drawn-faced martyr. She was young and vibrant, engaged to be married, articulate, lively. And when she was first caught, she spent a whole day defending herself against the charges, striving to protect the others in the White Rose, denying her involvement. But there came a point when she was confronted with signing a "confession" in which she repudiated the ideals held by her brother and the rest of the society.

"Your brother has confessed," she is told, "you can sign this and absolve yourself." And she couldn't. Faced with the denial of what she held to be the truest thing she knew, she openly owned her part.

There was, I think, a certain recklessness to her idealism (oh how well I know it) in the beginning. It was partly what got her caught, a last-minute impulse to push the dissenting pamphlets off a university balcony so that they fluttered down over the heads of the students below. She was young, impassioned with a sense of justice betrayed and her own stewardship to set it right. Life was strong in her. She had no wish to die and I think there was something within her that fought that end.

And until that moment of truth-telling, the ideals had required nothing of her. Oh, the passion was real in her mind, faith and justice and courage, all blazing concepts that burned in her head and heart. Just as they do in mine. Yet they required nothing, until her arrest, but daring. And that, for an idealist, isn't the hardest of tasks.

But when the fatal moment came, when she knew that profession of those ideals would set her feet on the road to an early death, she made a remarkable choice. Throughout the interrogation that followed her confession, she articulated, defended, and owned the ideals that were the bedrock of her life and would bring about her death. The conversations with her interrogator are remarkable. Her firm articulation, her reason, her calm reveal her absolute belief in the ideals she held. She carried her faith unflinchingly up the hill toward death, and it turned her idealism into a Christ-like passion.

"The sun is still shining," she said, and it was not merely the end remark, it was the core assumption of her whole life. Word by word in the days before her death, she made her confession to herself, to God, to the Germans, that the ideals she espoused had the right to require her whole life, for they had made her, not she them. There was a great light, beyond the touch of human corruption, that called her to itself, claimed her fidelity, and gave her courage to follow it beyond the confines of a broken earth.

Ah Sophie, teach me. For when I first truly claimed the Christian faith, I did not realize that I was called to die. Not only to suffer the death of sin within myself, but also to walk a slow dying through this broken world. To struggle with health. To yearn for friendship and rarely find it. To be sometimes grievously hurt. I am still learning to understand that Christ's life in me is one that brings me safe through death. His grace gives me the strength to live Love in the midst of a broken and dying world, but it does not exempt me from it. How little we speak of the Cross.

A couple of years ago, after a summer in which my grandmother had died, my car was totalled, my health declined, and three colleges rejected me, I sat on a mountaintop on a dusky, starlit autumn evening and cringed as I tried to lift my face to God. How can loving You mean such pain? What does it mean to have your life? Am I protected at all? I thought loving you meant life and happiness and safety. All I seem to find is grief.

But "take up your cross," was the whisper I heard. And though at first it frightened me, I began to ponder it, to seek its truth in Scripture, to own it in my thought.  "Take up your cross." As Jesus did. Jesus, sweet, unblemished, holy God who bore the grief and suffering and shatteredness of the world upon his own back. Carried it to the utter end, to the death that assured our salvation. To walk with Christ then, is to imitate his own slow journey through a broken world, bearing the pain, the grief.

And yet, my walk is different from Christ's. Jesus carried his cross to death so that I (and Sophie and countless other glad-eyed lovers) may carry mine to life.  Death would have the final word if Life himself hadn't died to defeat it.

The sun is still shining.

Sophie might just as well have said the Son. For the Morning Star glimmers on the edges of the world, having leapt from the grave and conquered all darkness. He beckons to us from just beyond the touch of time and his life gives us the courage to carry our cross and die to death.

With all of my being, I want to live in that light. I crave the tempered steel of that resolve to live in light of eternity. I want to demand of myself all that must be given in Love, hold nothing back, neither kindness nor conviction nor tears spent nor love given. Or even my life. I may not die swiftly as Sophie. My death may be the longer one of sin conquered within myself, of grief borne in peace, of sickness faithfully suffered. But if I am willing, as Sophie was, to die for what I hold to be truest in this world, I will follow Christ, and I will follow him beyond death into life.

The sun is still shining. Sophie called that to her brother as she walked to her death.

The deathless light reaches out to all of us with the offer of eternity and the challenge of a bravely lived death. Today, are you ready to die? Am I? I want to answer "yes" to Sophie's question, I want to follow her in affirming that there are those in this world who will offer their lives in a white-hot love to a great cause.

For beyond the small horrors of the dead hearts and dark souls around Sophie, beyond the decay of this world, beyond the struggles and despairs we encounter daily or their power to take life away, there burns a high and untouchable beauty. Sam Gamgee's "light and high beauty," a love which does not cease, a peace which never has, and never shall, be disturbed.

With Sophie, I think I am learning to die.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King