“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
–from “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats, 1919
What a sad, hard week for America; the People’s House breached, lives taken, pandemic ratcheting up and up. Never in my lifetime have the words of Yeats’ most famous poem felt so achingly true. Words written in the wake of the “blood-dimmed tide” of World War I when the Spanish flu was rising, infecting Yeats’ own pregnant wife.
And here, in the midst of our own pandemic (what family is untouched?), we see with our own eyes America tasting anarchy and tear gas inside our capitol, while our leaders deliberate whether to validate the results of the electoral college or recertify or audit claims of election fraud.
As I watched the protesters inside the capitol my mind went to 2012 when Jack and I attended a superb Trinity Forum event at our Columbia (SC) Museum of Art. The showing of Robert Coles’ prophetic masterpieces on “The Course of Empire” occasioned an invitation to cultural analyst Os Guinness, speaking on his just-released book, A Free People’s Suicide. We take our “nation conceived in liberty” and the stability we have enjoyed so much for granted, Guinness warned.
But it is more fragile than we can imagine—like a three legged stool supported not just by one leg of liberty, but also by two just-as-essential other legs of faith and virtue. When all three are strong, our nation is secure and stable. Increasingly we have watched the leg of faith fracture and weaken, and the leg of virtue fracture and weaken. And without the support of both, the leg of freedom cannot bear the load. The fracturing of faith and virtue will increasingly destroy our freedoms and the stool will crumble.
Guinness quoted Abraham Lincoln saying, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Or as Guinness so memorably rendered it, “In the end, the ultimate threat to the American republic will be Americans. The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor.” Only eight years later, after 156 days of protests and riots in Portland and other cities by progressives and now in our capitol by conservatives, we are watching Guinness’ prophecy coming true.
As a reluctant Trump voter I’ve been deeply grateful to the President for keeping so many of his policy promises. But always concerned about his virtue deficit. His tweets and rhetoric that have pounded his enemies for four years on Wednesday turned to GOP legislators and even his very loyal vice-president. Although he encouraged a peaceful march to the capitol, his contagious outrage over what may have been a fraudulent election inspired some of his followers to break into the capitol where they damaged property and a Capitol police officer died. One of the protestors was shot by the capitol security as well.
On that same night Antifa attacked stores and the courthouse in Portland again. This after other suspected Antifa had attacked the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve. The presumption was that violence and loss of life from the summer protests would ease after the election was settled. But these continued protests portend the opposite and show exactly how fragile things remain.
Guinness makes a compelling case for restoring the legs of our shaky stool before it is too late. Such important arguments, in fact, that Eric Metaxas wrote a more accessible 2017 version of its big ideas, If You Can Keep It. I highly recommend both for the wisdom we need to preserve America. But here I want to focus more on how to maintain our hope when “the centre” is not holding.
Back to Yeats and his falcon: What is “the centre”?
If you read reviews of Yeats’ poem you’ll find many interpretations of what “the centre [that] cannot hold” might be: Western civilization, law and order, human progress, human morality, even Christian morality. Suppose “the centre” is Christian morality. That “centre” is not a matter of law. The Bible teaches that without faith in Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice, without constant attentiveness to the voice of our Redeemer and his Word, we cannot keep the law. We are the falcons whose circling becomes so wide that we can no longer hear the one who commands and controls. Pure anarchy erupts in our private lives as well as our national life.
What we need is a return to “the centre” that always holds. The true voice of the falconer. The One who sits on the throne.
The Centre of our nation—our capitol, White House, and Supreme Court—may not hold. But God’s throne always will. “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19) . “The Lord sits enthroned forever” (Psalm 9:7).
The three times when the Bible takes us before that throne are all times when “the centre” of life for God’s people seems fragile: after the death of long-reigning King Uzziah, Isaiah sees the throne. After God’s people are taken captive to Babylon, Ezekiel sees the throne. And in Revelation, interspersed through the terrible plagues, wars and natural disasters of the Great Tribulation at the end of days, the apostle John sees the throne. So this is the perfect time to turn our eyes to God on his throne.
Isaiah 6:1 “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up…”
If you are “high and lifted up,” people must look up to see you. They are down and you are up. Picture yourself being ushered into the office of the school principal at your child’s school. Or your boss’s office. He is seated at his desk. There is no chair for you to sit in, and he doesn’t stand. Don’t you feel his authority? There is something inherently unequal about standing before someone in authority who is sitting.
Now picture the principal’s or boss’s desk up on a platform about ten feet above your head. How might that make you feel? God’s throne is above all other people, all other thrones. Everyone looks up to him, and he remains seated.
Isaiah doesn’t tell us what the throne looked like. But John does:
Revelation 4:2-8 “…behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne
“And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.
“The Centre” that always holds is a gleaming throne surrounded by a rainbow of intensely radiant emerald light and twenty-four other thrones—twelve for the Apostles, twelve for the heads of the tribes of Israel. The surrounding circles of light and thrones emphasize the physical centrality of this throne. It literally IS the center of light and life and everything else in the universe. Jesus reigns not alone and remote, but in the midst of community. Shared command and control. He promised his disciples that they would reign with him. Here we see his promise fulfilled.
“From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder….”
The throne is not a bureaucratic place full of the sound of papers rustling or people coughing or talking or shuffling their feet. The throne is surrounded with peals and rumblings of thunder punctuated with cries of the four living creatures—all eyes and wings and animal faces saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come.”
How do you respond to lightning and thunder? When it’s background it’s arresting, feeling a bit ominous, but also cool and mysterious and not too threatening. But when it cracks or peals nearby…Martin Luther was so terrified that he cried out for help and swore he would become a monk if heaven delivered. Thunder signals danger. It is not a “tame lion” who sits on this throne.
It is especially dangerous, even deadly to approach this holy God in our natural, sinful state. Around the throne are also seven torches of fire, the seven spirits of God, and a crystal sea. To approach the throne you must be purified. You must be holy, even as God is holy. You must be washed by the blood of the Lamb who died for you to make a way into the majestic perfection of God.
How entirely “other” is the majestic throne of God
John can hardly wrap words around it. So different from the carved presidential desk, pretty drapes or lovely view of the rose garden from the oval office. Or even the shadowy depths of the great hall where Queen Elizabeth sits on her throne and opens Parliament. God’s throne radiates power and glory and strength beyond the categories of this world.
But by faith we are welcomed. Not only welcomed, Jesus promises, “The one who conquers [by faith], I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). What an extraordinary promise!
Jesus wants more for us than we may desire for ourselves. Through all our loss, pain and suffering he is building into our souls that “eternal weight of glory” that will prepare us for our reigning role in his Kingdom. A future beyond imagining. The throne is our great hope in darkening times. And our destiny for eternity.
Revelation 22:20 “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The final prayer of Revelation echoes the longing of our hearts. “Come quickly Lord Jesus.” A prayer we speak with more and more urgency. Yeats picks up on that longing in the second stanza of his poem.
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
But Yeats doesn’t envision Jesus returning for us. Rather he sees a “pitiless…rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.” His wife and baby both survived the Spanish flu. But, in light of the human suffering he is witnessing, he is clearly disillusioned with human morality and progress. Maybe even God. His poem, entitled “The Second Coming,” offers no hope.
I’ve wondered if Yeats was deep enough into Revelation’s account of the Second Coming that he could envision the Antichrist slouching toward Bethlehem. But struggled to believe in the goodness of God or his ultimate triumph over the beast.
If indeed we are facing the run-up to or even possibly having to endure the Great Tribulation ourselves, we realize that to pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we are praying for Revelation’s trumpets and bowls, plagues and horrors to come quickly. Praying for Yeats’ “pitiless, rough beast to slouch toward Bethlehem”—a fearsome prayer for which we may need to be sacrificially ready. But on the other side of the Antichrist and tribulation…like Moses, we can see “him who is invisible.” And he is breathtakingly good.
The Centre of God’s throne is established in the heavens forever. It cannot be shaken or moved. It cannot be overcome by any greater power…because there is none. God on his throne is terrifying to his enemies. But in these days of uncertain earthly power and influence beset by human lies and frailty, we remember: Through Christ we are “more than conquerors” and his Kingdom, our kingdom, is forever.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:11).