What if the Sky is Falling?
I received two pieces of rather severe correspondence before I poured my first coffee this morning. One was an online response to something I had written here that was picked up by another website. I had portrayed God as too merciful, I had ignored some of the more severe things Jesus said, I had failed to take Scripture seriously, I was dangerously misleading people, etc. I’ve received comments like this quite regularly over a decade of blogging, so it wasn’t particularly surprising. The other was a handwritten letter about the Canadian political situation from a stranger in another city (There was a time when, upon receiving letters like these, I would ask questions like, “Who is this person? Why are they sending this to me? What’s the connection here? I’ve since learned that these questions are very often futile…). This, too, was rather familiar in content and tone, and could be crudely summarized as a “sky is falling” type missive. Secularism, pornography, Shariah law, feminism, gay agendas, communism… The list was long, it was dire, and it required my immediate action. I sighed, and reached for my coffee.
Usually I find it easy to dismiss stuff like this. My general policy is to keep my personal engagement relatively tightly confined to this blog and to my Facebook page. I don’t respond on other websites that pick up what I write. I know that responding to angry people on the Internet has, shall we say limited value? And I certainly don’t respond to letters from strangers that show up on my desk for reasons I know not. There was a time when I would agonize about how to craft replies that would convince and convict and compel people to see the obvious errors of their ways and the even more obvious resplendent lucidity of what I had written. Ahem. That time is gone. I’m getting better at letting angry people stay angry. Especially on the Internet (how else would the Internet continue to exist without anger to fuel it?). There will always be people who think the sky is falling—that I’m teetering on the precipice of heresy, that our nation is going to hell in a hand basket, that the end is near, that unless we do something now, all that we hold sacred and dear will evaporate in a godless and danmable mist.
Today, however, I had a different response to these two severe pieces of correspondence. As I was gratefully seizing upon that first coffee, I had a thought that went something like this: What if they’re right?
What if things really are rather dire? What if all of the encroaching “isms” and agendas that so terrify my letter-writing friend really are leading us down an unwise path? What if there are important losses that come along with all of our political gains? What if cultures can’t be sustained on the basis of little more than individual rights and freedoms? What if there really are sacred givens to how we understand ourselves and order our collective life that we ignore at our peril?
And what if God really is a bit more severe than the one I often describe and praise and point to and wrestle with in my writing? What if I do tend to ignore the hard parts of the bible, and Jesus’ own words that don’t fit my preferences? What if words like “mercy” and “compassion” and “love” and “forgiveness” roll off my tongue a little too easily? What if I too easily quiet the voice of Christ himself that says hard things about sin and judgment and exclusivity—the Christ who pronounces not just blessedness but woe? The Christ who talks not only about the kingdom of God and paradise but a winnowing fork and, gulp, an unquenchable fire? The Christ who talks about a father who waits at the gate longing to say, “All is forgiven” but who is also prepared, apparently, to say, “Away from me, I never knew you?”
For Jesus does, after all, say some hard and inconvenient things. In case we had forgotten.
And it is, after all, rather easy to say easy things about God.
At the end of the day, I (with at least a bit of fear and trembling) retain my convictions about the world and where it’s going, about God and where he’s going. I (mostly) believe that the sky is not, in fact, falling, and that the hysteria we often encounter is (mostly) misplaced. I believe that God is—truly, mercifully, finally—love and that even while we obliviously and routinely bastardize the word, that love shall be the last and best word pronounced upon our world. I (mostly) find it difficult to believe in the frightening God that some of my critics are so convinced is more real than the one they encounter in my writing. Mostly.
But there are days when I think it’s useful, even necessary, to wrestle with views that we’re not inclined to share, views that we have, in fact, spent long years ridiculing or refuting, dismissing or demonizing. Or just ignoring. Views that our opposition toward might provide the very oxygen and lifeblood for our carefully curated identities. And I mean seriously wrestle, not just in a perfunctory way that allows us to feel good about heroically reaching across a boundary marker before settling back into our cozy certainties. Ridiculing and refuting, dismissing and demonizing… these also turn out to be pretty easy, after all. Too easy. And too convenient.
From a Christian perspective, it seems to me that this kind of wrestling is what love of neighbour (and enemy) demands. We must not close the door to a God who has a history of speaking unpleasant truths via unpleasant means (see, for example, any of the prophets). We must not filter out all the inconvenient voices that refuse to tell us what our itching ears want to hear. We must not become those who have eyes to see and ears to hear but do little of either.
And finally from a personal and, it is to be hoped, an equally Christian perspective, I am convinced that the stakes are rather high. It matters that we seek to understand who God truly is and what God truly wants. I don’t want to be in the business of selling false comfort and cheap hope, proclaiming, “peace, peace!” when there is no peace. The only thing that frightens me more than a frightening God is the prospect of arriving at the end of my days and discovering that I have busied myself with little more than the construction of the oldest and most boring of idols: a God in my own image.
Thank you for this post. In my effort as a pastor to speak the truth of God’s powerful grace in Jesus and the truth of God’s passion for the poor and outcast in a polarized climate, I must ask: is my version of truth merely a reaction to one (U.S.) political agenda and a support of another political agenda? How do I discern the truth of what God is trying to say amidst all the loud voices of what is truth and what is “fake?” Do I have the courage to wrestle in listening for God’s truth? I believe this discernment in some ways necessitates at times uncomfortably listening to Christians from another perspective and, yes, another political agenda, wrestle as well. I can’t assume, perhaps, that I know what God would want to say in the congregation I serve. I can assume, however, that no one pastor will get it “right,” and that God can only manage to reveal some of God’s truth to others through me. Yes, I can assume, that God will speak in spite of me. Your post is a helpful reminder to maintain that humility as I continue to serve in challenging times.
Thank you, Elaine. These are hard and important questions you are wrestling with—ones that I struggle with, too. I think the struggle is worth it, though. And I think that being aware of its necessity is no small part of the equation. I pray God blesses your efforts to serve your congregation well.
I’m 64.That is older than I ever thought I would be at age 25. I live in Tennessee. I have followed Christ since I was 13 and I have followed your blog for a year or so. I found it when a British missionary I met in Brazil pointed me to it. Interesting connections. In 64 years have learned there is a certain part to maturity that allows other people to be wrong, especially on religious and moral topics. I have learned that no matter what one says there is another person who disagrees with it; sometimes violently and often unpleasantly. And I have learned that (as you are doing) there is more validity to living out the commands of Christ toward compassion for the hurting and poor than merely writing about them. There is certainly a lot more validity in living it than spending ones time picking apart another person’s blog to expose their doctrinal failings. Nevertheless, you are correct. We have to hear our critics from time to time. Accepting no input, no criticism, no external point of view is a dangerous thing, especially in the pulpit. God bless you, my brother. You are doing good.
Thank for this, Bill. I find it utterly fascinating that someone from Tennessee can have heard about this little blog from a British missionary in Brazil! Interesting connections indeed!
Your words here are wise and true and I aspire to make them increasingly true in my own life and ministry. To them I would only add one thing. In addition to, “I have learned there is a certain part to maturity that allows other people to be wrong, especially on religious and moral topics” I would say, “and that I am sometimes one of those people!”
Again, many thanks for your kind encouragement. I do appreciate it.
“And I mean seriously wrestle, not just in a perfunctory way that allows us to feel good about heroically reaching across a boundary marker before settling back into our cozy certainties.”
These are wise words.
It seems to me we can never fully escape this challenge, committed (as Christians are) to the testimony of Scripture and situated (as Christians are) within a family and a tradition that is deeper, wider and more enduring than we are. There will always be something that will challenge our “cozy certainties,” not to mention our myopia.
These facts, it seems to me, require not only that we reach across boundary markers as an exercise in mutual understanding but that we wrestle with a complicated text and a Jesus who refuses to fit neatly into the identities we assign to him.
Thanks holding this duty in front of us. It is an increasingly rare thing to hear. And this is all the more reason to speak it loudly.
Thanks, Gil. This part of your comment stood out to me:
I sometimes wonder just how committed Christians are to these twin realities. Do we pay lip service to them only? Or do we actually believe that our present personal, cultural, spiritual, existential moment is the measure of all things?
…”But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship Him. God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”….
The Gospel of John.
You point us in a right direction, Ryan but perhaps the more important understanding, before the truth about God’s wholly just and fully merciful judgments can be made known to us, requires a conversion from flesh to Holy Spirit.
We are sure of these basic truths. The Holy Spirit is one with God, is God and is a unified spiritually reality that unites all who receive it’s indwelling. With the true Holy Spirit there is no contradiction or cross purpose. All is one. All is light. All is good. All is holy.
Further we know from the word of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ Himself, that the Spirit came….that something greater than Himself came….a spiritual force that could transcend time and space in the way the material Christ would not, to alleviate our suffering and guide us through to salvation. One Holy Spirit available to all peoples, in all places, through all time.
Yet what has become of the church? How many thousands of factions? How many conflicting orthodoxies? How much fear and contempt of one group of faithful with regards to another?
How can this be the outcome of the Holy Spirit? IT cannot be….IT CANNOT BE!!!
These are the outcomes of the flesh. Of men, of women, of egos, of pride…..these are the outcomes of the unholy spirit that rules the flesh. These are the outcomes of the spirit that has been given dominion, for now, over the material world…..”All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.”…
We must allow ourselves to be led to deeper conversion. We must begin the processes of, “dying to self” of receding so that the Holy Spirit might ascend.
Resurrection starts now, if we want it.
I hear what you’re saying, Paul. And I share both your lament and your hope for the deeper conversion necessary to live by the Spirit.
I guess all I would add is that in my understanding, a Christian anthropology has never held that the Spirit entirely eliminates human sinfulness, ignorance, pride, limitation, etc. There will always be a gap between the truth of the Spirit and our human apprehension of it. This is just how it has always been and always will be until the new heavens and the new earth that is the object of our hope and longing. There will always be an unfinished and incomplete aspect to our Christian experience, as individuals and as churches.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t seek continually to be dying to self (“receding so that the Holy Spirit might ascend,” as you put it). It doesn’t mean that we don’t chase after resurrection now. But I think it does mean that we are gracious with one another as we seek. We all see through a glass darkly, for now. But only for now, thanks be to God.
Entirely eliminate , no, sadly I must agree. Still the community of saints, now some two millenia in the making, have the common experience of a Holy Spirit filling that seems to suspend both the desires and actions of sin. Where light/Spirit is, darkness/sin cannot enter, so to speak.
That is perhaps our greatest shortcoming as a community of believers, we don’t aspire to become saints. We settle for so much less from ourselves. And a Spirit of truth, obliged by love, indwelling within us, is squandered.