Going the Distance

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“We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first. Of the links between God and man, love is the greatest. It is as great as the distance to be crossed.” Simone Weil, quoted in Bread and Wine

The distance between who we are when we are honest with ourselves, and who we think God requires us to be, is vast. Everyone has a measuring tape; it’s what we do when we face our failures, is to measure ourselves against other people. Sometimes it’s only to exhale with relief when we see the misfortunes of another person—that fleeting moment when we think, I escaped again!—before we open the door to empathy. To be Christlike in these and other moments is to be a disciple, a follower, and to follow someone, especially one like Jesus, is to put oneself under discipline.

It’s not a following like flotsam that swirls in the wake of an ocean liner nor is it a following such as one train car coupled to another. Those metaphors are void of will. I mean how we overcome the almost involuntary form of our history, traditions, and reflexive rituals, our habits and the mental laziness that we use to convince ourselves we are faithful—these dispirited elements that play a part in our stumbling attention to God.

In contrast, we long to follow Christ with a will that is active, imaginative and muscular. Once we let go of our fear it’s only longing that lures us onward. Given our flightiness, we could just as well veer off on a tangent or do an about-face and lark off in the opposite direction. The problem is that longing is diffuse, scattering like motes in the sunlight. But love—longing narrowed by the will to a burning beam of light focused singly on God—that is discipline.

Already there is an element of measurement in this description, usually to our own advantage. Disciples have discipline, discipline is noble and self-sacrificing, following Jesus is all about sacrifice. Sacrifice is what makes it authentic, us putting everything aside, especially our pride, and following on after Jesus. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we’ve eclipsed the Lord, passed him up as it were, and are prancing at the head of our own parade. It’s a puzzle. Can love be a discipline?

“We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason,” says Thomas Merton, “and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.”

Be perfect, we’re told, as your Father in heaven is perfect. That maxim alone has sent many a confused teenager careening into a ditch. It’s the kind of self-improvement slogan for moral and spiritual perfection that gets weaponized in the hands of leaders who sincerely believe that the Second Advent is delayed indefinitely by our fallibility. But in these latter times, we’ve learned that the phrase is best translated “be complete,” somehow more reassuring even as we attempt to square the circle.

In my teens, I began to grasp the geologic depths of God’s love for us in the person and being of Jesus. Through the fieldwork of certain spiritual geologists—teachers, musicians, poets and pastors—the strata of evidence pointing to God’s reach over the centuries came to light. Prophets and parables, ages of sages, scriptures and songs, odes and stories, stars and rivers, devils and dust—all of it was there for the taking.

But that was the thing: how were we to act on all this? On the one hand, there were the teachers of the law, sincere and thin-lipped, who confirmed there was nothing good in us, yet we must fulfill every jot and tittle of the law in order to qualify for God’s love. By contrast, there was another party, cheerful and expansive, who held there was nothing we could do to earn God’s love, that it was all God’s doing, and our part was only to believe. Faith against works, a classic standoff. It was Paul against James in the ring, with Luther scoring the punches. The net effect of all this was a paralyzed indecisiveness, a post-modernist Protestant constriction of the bowels of our hearts. We were no good and there was nothing we could do.

Somewhere in transmission the message was garbled. All our righteousness was as filthy rags. Fair enough, our best efforts weren’t going to save us. Christ died to save us from our sins. True enough, and we couldn’t begin to calculate how pervasive our sins were. But after repentance and conversion, what then? A friend turned his life over to Christ, only to await instructions on what to wear each day. One pastor I knew implored us week after week to cling to the foot of the cross. But even Jesus left the cross within hours, as the arc of God’s justice bridged the abyss of death and touched down in the kingdom.

I found myself with Thomas, doubtful and needing evidence. ‘Touch me and see,’ said Jesus, and then gently, ‘Happy are those who never saw me and yet have found faith.’ I am also on the road to Emmaus, heartbroken and confused, but listening with rising awe to the history of the geology of God’s love, and then in stunned joy catching a glimpse of the Christ before he disappears.

According to the Gospel of John, some time passed after the disciples saw Jesus in the upper room after his resurrection. We don’t know how long it was but it was long enough that they finally furtively emerged from hiding, resigned to the fact that they were, after everything they’d seen and done, just fishermen again.

So off they go, fishing all night for nothing. In the morning light, a mysterious figure on the beach calls out to them a crazy thing. “Shoot the net to starboard and you’ll make a catch.” Fishermen knew to crowd the fish toward the beach on the port side in the shallow water, not the starboard side where the fish could dart out for the deep. But when, against their own practice and knowledge, they followed what the lone figure on the beach suggested, their catch was so great they couldn’t haul it in. Then they knew, and John exclaimed, “It’s the Lord! At that Peter jumped into the water and thrashed his way ashore. No walking on the water this time, just an electric surge of joy that it was Jesus on the beach. He jumped because that’s what Peter always did. He did not jump out of fear of breaking the rules or of guilt for not following them. He jumped for the love of the Son of Man.

Anything that compels us to cross that great divide between ourselves and God, that does not come from gratitude, will end in failure. It is a discipline not of compulsion but of love and longing.

“So that the love may be as great as possible, the distance is as great as possible,” comments Simone Weil, a person whose spirit burned with an intensity that resisted evil without becoming it.

She sees God, with our consent, conquering the soul. “And then when it has become entirely his, he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone, and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made toward it. And that is the cross.”

“He is as near to thee as the vein in your neck,” says the Qu’ran. And so, like the prodigals we are, we are drawn home at last across the universe.

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash.com

Wisdom for the Contingent World

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“The truth is, that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size . . . How oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying, because he really does undermine everything.”— A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life

It is a remarkable fact, given Christianity’s 2,000 years of history, that Jesus was not a Christian nor is it at all certain that if he could walk among us in the flesh that he would know what to make of what we have made of him. Like a child’s bendable toy, Jesus can be made to assume almost any posture that we choose. And it has been pointed out innumerable times that what we make of Jesus says more about us than it does about him.

When we try to measure his effectiveness as a reformer in terms of how closely his followers adhere to his ideals, we have to admit that Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Paul, Mohammed, and Darwin, Marx, and Freud have had a far greater direct influence on the human race.1 Even so, for a figure in history whose story has nevertheless touched billions of people, it is sobering to realize how little we know of him as a man. Millions invoke his name as a prayer or an oath and of his image, there is no lack in art, music, drama, poetry, and scholarship. Bumper stickers proclaim him, from the testy, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” to the smug, “Jesus Christ is the answer” to the cloying, “Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. His party is the Kingdom of God.”

A. N. Wilson’s book, Jesus: A Life, quoted above, attempts to grapple with the powerful story of Jesus (Wilson calls it a ‘myth’), a story that cannot be fully contained by the factuality of history but spills over in narrative and imagination. Wilson, who read history at Oxford as an undergraduate, cannot shake off his fascination with Jesus and Christianity, despite his skepticism about the divinity of Christ. He sees Jesus as ultimately a tragic figure whose attraction for us is unparalleled, and who was a Jew who only longed for faithfulness in following God. Our encounter with his story, says Wilson, arises from a careful reading of the Gospels, while knowing that they are not biographies nor are they historical accounts as we understand them.

Jesus did not fit neatly into the various strands of Jewish life and thought of his time. He was raised in Galilee, traditionally a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and included among his friends Simon the Zealot (read terrorist), a tax collector, professional fishermen, several women, and various members of the priestly ruling class. Swirling around him during that time were Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, followers of John the Baptist, zealots, and the thousands of simple, often desperate, common folk. He was accused of loving his food and wine too much and of flouting the rules about Sabbath. All of this made him suspect in the eyes of the religious authorities. Yet, in the last week of his life he has dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee and another one, Nicodemus, comes to him at night to speak with him directly.

To be a Jew in his time was not to belong to a religion set apart from political life, but to be suspended in a web of religious, historical, and cultural threads that composed a whole life. Jesus cuts across all these threads in his own way, and yet somehow appeals to people of all classes.

Greg Riley, in One Jesus, Many Christs, says “People, apparently, did not follow Jesus for his words. For all the attention given in the modern era to the sayings of the historical Jesus, his precise words seem hardly to have mattered at all.” Yet for us, the Gospels are stories about Jesus with claims to be the teachings of Jesus. Each gospel writer has reshaped the oral traditions of Jesus’ sayings and each one views Jesus from a particular perspective. Their timelines of events in Jesus’ life differ—for different reasons—and they transpose his sayings into contexts that vary considerably.

But there are enough details here and there that could not be anything but authentic because they are too specific, too unusual, too unique to be a literary fiction. The gospel writers were not writing history, but neither were they writing fiction.

“A culture tells its members stories that embody its ideals and reinforce social norms and goals,” says Riley. “We in the modern world tell ourselves consciously or unconsciously a story of success, the Horatio Alger story, that no matter what our circumstances if we work hard and try our honest best, we will eventually climb the social ladder to wealth and status.”

There could hardly be a more definitive contrast to the lives people lived in the Greco-Roman world of the first Christians. Most people’s lives were short, subject to sudden reversals of fortune, disease-prone, and frozen in social structures that defied mobility or change. They looked to heroes, people whose physical attributes of beauty and strength and their exploits in war to win glory and honor, blurred the lines between the gods and humans. For us, Jesus was neither a conventional success nor was he close to being a hero, save in the bravery he exhibited in going to the cross. Nevertheless, for many in the first century after Christ, there were cultural templates in place to regard him as just such a hero type.

Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, gives us Hazel Motes, the God-haunted preacher who “saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark . . .” I find myself drawn to that figure too, the enigmatic Jesus who rejoices because God has hidden “these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants (Luke 10:21).”

So, who is Jesus for us? Who do we say Jesus is?

***

Jesus’ presence in my mind is like a low murmur rising at times to unspoken prayer, and then slipping back into images, questions, and memories. Every now and then I take out a book of art about Jesus, images of him in painting, sculpture, and drawing. There are black Christs, Korean Christs, Native American, Spanish, Russian, Samoan, and Filipino Christs — and many more besides. It is a visual conversation, a congress of voices that raise in praise of Christ as the embodiment of us all, God Incarnate.

I grew up with Harry Anderson’s paintings that adorned pamphlets, churches, and memory verse cards. Jesus is invariably depicted as a tall white man in robes, standing amongst a rainbow of little children, a kindly expression on his face. Later, in the sixties, as Jesus was seen as part of the counterculture, other artists depicted him as a healthy and vigorous young man, hair tousled and face sweaty, more a rock star than a man of sorrows.

Through graduate school, Jesus was an object to be studied from all angles, a being whose main effect was to stimulate several centuries of scholarship, but whose inner light and expression receded behind waves of theories and contending ideas. I didn’t lose sight of him in those days, but there was distance between us.

Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and Segundo Galilea’s Following Jesus swept away my unconscious assumptions of a middle-class and respectable Jesus. Their combined shockwave cleared my horizon about how and why he died and spun me around to face systemic evil and suffering.

Then, as I began teaching Jesus and the Gospels to first-year students, their questions forced a pause. How could Jesus help with school loans? Did he ever have an older brother who suffered through addictions? What if he had brought home a girlfriend his parents didn’t like? What if Pilate had set him free? Would he still have had to die? Gradually, we began to realize the obvious, that Jesus spoke in story rather than in precept and that the exercise of our imaginations is what would best open those stories to us.

Without question, there was much we could learn about his times from archeology and history, and there was a wealth of information about the formation of the gospels. We could reason our way through competing theories about the world-view of the gospel writers, but we could not see how radical Jesus was unless we let him lead us back to the root, the radix of God’s searing justice and love. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” Jesus said. Together, we tried to imagine how that would change our lives.

If we are reading the Gospels to understand and to feel, we will sense how terrifying Jesus is, how disruptive to those who would attempt to contain him in a system. “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” As A. N. Wilson says with only slight exaggeration, “A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation we devise. If it makes sense it is wrong.”

Life is uncertain, a truth that may seem to some perplexing, if not heretical. What makes Christianity real for me right now is the humanity of God in Jesus, the total commitment to seeing the contingency of this world from the ground level. The pain, the weariness, the flashes of anger as well as the quick compassion, all of that is there in Jesus. His constant deflection (“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”), his humor, irony, and hyperbole (“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move!’), and his sense of proportion (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”) — these things speak of God’s deep plunge into His creation.

In Jesus’ very helplessness we see our own pain and fear writ large: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? In Jesus’ last words from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit, we need not hear desolation and resignation. Through imagination and faith, they may become our daily thanksgiving for God’s sustaining love. Such is the wisdom of the infants.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life, 1992, p. 253.

Photo: Arunas Naujokas, Unsplash.com

Unveiling Reality

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What in Greek was called epiphaniea meant the appearance, the arrival of a divinity among mortals . . . Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things and persons. — Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things

In Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, the blustering, bumbling, red-faced, and violently suffering protagonist, confides to us that, “when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, ‘The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.’ This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself.”

This is an insight that arrives unexpectedly, cracking open his hard and aching heart, and setting him on a picaresque journey of self-discovery to Africa, where he learns humility and wisdom — and where he finally feels that his spirit is no longer slave to his body. It’s an epiphany, a moment when he understands his reality in a way that he never could have before.

It is reminiscent of another story, one that Jesus told, in which a young man, impatient and strident in his demands, took his inheritance and left for a far country, breaking his father’s heart and setting ablaze a fire of resentment in his older brother. Later, after his money has burned up in moments of profligacy that have begun to blur and fade, he takes whatever work he can to sustain himself. One day, while mucking out the pig pen of a farmer outside the city, he “comes to himself,” a telling phrase that both reveals the split within himself as well as the potential of reintegration. It’s an epiphany that wells up within him while he is up to his knees in pigs, proving that a life-transforming moment can break in on us, no matter where we find ourselves.

Czeslaw Milosz calls an epiphany “an unveiling of reality” in his international anthology of poetry, A Book of Luminous Things. He writes of ancient cultures in which streams were inhabited by the naiads and forests by the dryads, and the gods sometimes walked among humans. “Not rarely, they would visit households and were recognized by hosts.” Abraham entertains God in the guise of three travelers and later, “the epiphany as appearance, the arrival of Christ, occupies an important place in the New Testament.”

We are living, says Milosz, in a world that has been deprived of clear-cut outlines and has been drained of color. This deprivation is not much helped, he continues, by theology, science, and philosophy. While they try to provide cures for nihilism, they are not usually effective, and instead, give us descriptions that simply confirm our condition.

Poetry, however, looks at the singular rather than the general; it focuses on the leaf, not the forest, and thus it cannot help but see the variations, the diversity, the abundance of throbbing, colorful life. A poem, by describing a particular moment of present reality, illuminates the human experience and brings the divine into the mundane. A poem bears epiphanies.

***

Epiphany, from a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’, is for Christians the season after Advent and Christmas in which we celebrate the unveiling—just for a moment—of the divine nature of Christ, that moment in which a young Jewish carpenter arises from baptism in the waters of the River Jordan, as the heavens split open above him and the voice of God declares him to be his beloved son.

It is just a breath, a heart’s beat, a hummingbird’s jeweled flash of winged light, a disturbance in the space-time continuum, but it is gratefully grasped by Jesus. John the Baptist hears it too; they share a look between them, John all fire and sword and Jesus with a muscular tenderness.

We who watch from the riverbank twenty-one centuries later may only hear thunder in a cloudless sky and shrug:

“Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.”1

John, with his fierce, hooded, hawk’s eyes, understands the moment: it reverberates in his chest like a bell. This is the moment he has prepared for all his life; it is here now, and he gives himself to it without hesitation. John had disciples, followers, people who revered him and did not shrink from his shouts into the desert wind. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease,’ he thinks. A gate, sensed but hidden, swings open behind his eyes and he steps through and knows somehow, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he will not live to see this King crowned.

“God Speaks:

It is innocence that is full and experience

that is empty.

It is innocence that wins and experience that loses.

It is innocence that is young and experience that

is old.

It is innocence that grows and experience that

wanes.”2

***

You wonder if these epiphanies can be prepared for. If they add to the quality of life, then shouldn’t we figure out a way to generate them? Yet, they come when we need them and not before. They are gifts and as gifts, we accept them or misuse them. But, faith, like poetry, cannot be duplicated: every experience is a new reading of meaning.

“If we could get the hang of it entirely

It would take too long;

All we know is the splash of words in passing

And falling twigs of song,

And when we try to eavesdrop on the great

Presences it is rarely

That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate

Even a phrase entirely.”3

Milosz shows us that epiphanies are the inbreaking of the divine in unexpected ways and places. They are ‘aha’ moments, flashes of intuition that reveal an eternity in a grain of sand. Poems may carry epiphanies for us, Nature may as well. We learn to see with our hearts as well as with our heads.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43: 18,19)

The season of Epiphany is also a time to reflect on the experience of the magi, the travelers from another land, who searched with mind and heart for the Christ child, leaving behind their familiar ways and traditions for something or someone they could not be sure would accept them.

Thus, it is a season to reflect on and seek out what unifies all Christians. Michael Mayne, the former dean of Westminster, wrote in Responding to the Light, “We Christians are as diverse and varied as the colors of the rainbow . . . Though at one level we are divided and have been divided by history into our separate traditions, yet there is a deeper truth, for those with eyes to see . . . All who believe that in Jesus we see God and put their faith in him are at the deepest level already one in Christ4

An epiphany is a manifestation, an appearance, perhaps of something that was always there but overlooked or excluded out of habit and tradition, brushed aside in our haste—only to become, when revealed, so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off it.

That which changes us from the inside may be the outside seen through new eyes.

  1. Eliot, T. S. Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, 1963.
  2. Péguy, Charles. “Innocence and Experience,” God Speaks. Trans. by Julian Green. Pantheon, 1943.
  3. MacNeice, Louis. ‘Entirely’, Collected Poems. Faber, 2007, p. 171.
  4. Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light. Canterbury Press, 2017, pp. 87-88.

Photo: Joel Valve, Unsplash.com

A Wider Embrace

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“The sense of identity can make an important contribution to the strength and the warmth of our relations with others, such as neighbors, or members of the same community, or fellow citizens, or followers of the same religion . . . but it has to be supplemented by a further recognition that a sense of identity can firmly exclude many people even as it warmly embraces others.” — Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence

When I was in college in the early 70s I attempted to put a collection of essays together around the theme of “Growing Up Adventist.” I was intrigued by the prospect of different authors writing from various perspectives on how Adventism had influenced their lives. It seemed to me that one’s religion, especially one as self-defined as Adventism, would inevitably encounter creative tension with other influences, like citizenship, ethnicity, gender, language, occupation, art, and politics. I thought it would be interesting, maybe even inspiring, to see, for example, what difference Adventism would make to an aspiring musician or artist or businessperson or professor of English literature. But when I pitched it to Adventist publishing houses I received polite rejections without explanation.

There are probably a number of good reasons why they turned it down, but later I wondered if the whole question of Adventist identity was simply inexplicable to the editors. To propose that there could be multiple Adventist “identities” would suggest that social and biological factors held equal influence with religious beliefs. Even more to the point, recognizing these factors would admit that there’s more to shaping a person’s life than Adventist beliefs alone. To look at Adventism through the lenses of sociology, anthropology, and history is to understand it in its context as a human response to the transcendent. Perhaps that was somehow threatening. Even so, it’s a question that haunts me still today.

I believe now that I was misguided in trying to sift out the nature of Adventist identity as if it were something to be added on top of one’s humanity. For one thing, I remembered C. S. Lewis vigorously decrying the practice of calling oneself a ‘Christian musician’ or a ‘Christian artist’ or a ‘Christian economist.’ The thrust of his argument seemed to be that Christians must not create a parallel and separate universe. Either we are part of this world as participating human beings or we remove ourselves to a panic-room away from the world, thus becoming completely ineffective as witnesses to Christ. Furthermore, the prospect of dicing up the body of Christ into thinner and thinner bits—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, United Church of Christ, First Church of Apostolic Disciples, Christian Reformed, Plymouth Brethren, and so on—each one claiming to be a purer, more refined version of Christianity—finally crashes into Christ’s prayer that we might all be one so that the world will believe that God sent him. That hasn’t worked out too well.

Our Adventist forebears lifted up the Sabbath and the Second Coming as points that Christianity had lost or at least downplayed. We emphasized healthy holistic living long before it was mainstream, we were decisive on the dignity of human beings in the face of slavery, and we cherished education that would teach students to be more than “mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.” All of these are powerful strands in the rope of faith that we grasp today. They are also nudges, we might say, to the flow of Christian praxis in the long history of the body of Christ. But should they comprise an identity, one that stands apart in some important ways from Christianity? Do we lose sight of Christ in the insistence on our differences from other Christians?

***

I took a double major in college: I took journalism because I loved to write and I took religion because I couldn’t shake off the mysterious figure of Jesus. Not at all sure I was cut out to be a “pastor,” I harbored the idea that I could still minister, so I took religion instead of theology. Like many of my classmates, I had no clear view of what I would do after graduation. My pre-med friends had their lives laid out before them ‘like a patient etherized upon a table,’ to use Eliot’s phrase. They knew what they would be doing for the next ten years and beyond. Me? Not so much.

After high school and through college I worked every summer in some sort of church-related work as a youth pastor in California, as an assistant to pastors in England and Wales, and as a member of The Gate, folk clubs established and run by young Adventists in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that in my senior year my Religion Department chair called me into his office to tell me kindly, and with sorrow, that I “would never make a contribution to this church,” I continued to think I had something to offer. I had a notion of service that was built on impressions and images from Richard Llewellyn’s book, How Green Was My Valley, about the South Wales Valleys. I fancied that I could minister to those in the coal-mining areas of Tredegar, Rhymney, Merthyr Tydfil, and Rhondda. This was strengthened by working one summer with an Adventist pastor whose parish covered those towns. I went with him as he visited his members, driving up and over the ridges that divided the valleys, dropping down through narrow lanes to some isolated farmhouse and then farther on up to another family. I loved it. It seemed to me, naive and hopeful as I was, that such a simple, lean, and spare life could be, out of sheer necessity, filled with a muscular faith.

The other vivid image I had of ministry came as I worked for a year as a volunteer in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Newly-married and just graduated from college, my wife and I worked with another couple as teachers, counselors, and general helpers in the British Columbia Conference. We lived in the basement apartment of some church members and taught at the local SDA elementary school. One night I saw a public service announcement on our small black and white television. It showed a rancher branding calves amidst milling animals, flying dust, and wind whipping around the corrals. A pickup drives up and out gets a man in black. He takes in the scene and then drops to his knees to help with a struggling calf. The job done, both men clamber to their feet. The tag line identified the Mennonite Church as the two walked toward the house in the distance, the rancher clapping the minister on the back as they talked. It was the earthiness and the “be-here-now” presence of that minister that touched me; he was not afraid to get his hands dirty, literally, in service to his parish.

It’s funny how images stay with us. They become almost totems for us, something rooted in our soil that also points heavenward. Around them forms a cloud of memories, associations, fragments of poem and song, even feelings. These two images, as romanticized as they were for me, held a core truth of a life of service, unadorned and unassuming, close to the earth and to people. It was a faith that found its strength in commonality with others. That is what appealed to me then and still does today.

***

How are we Adventists to think of ourselves now? This krisis, this cutting-point matters. The compliance vote has laid bare a divide in Adventism. If it is eventually bridged it will only be with time and courage and honesty. Are we a religion of fear and coercion or one of confidence and community?

Lately, I’ve been reading again Jurgen Moltmann’s, The Crucified God. He writes that faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly because it grasps for security and guarantees. It usually occurs, he notes, “in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever . . . When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.” Christians who ferociously defend pure doctrine and belief “build a defensive wall round their own little group, and in apocalyptic terms call themselves the ‘little flock’ or ‘the faithful remnant’, and abandon the world outside to the godlessness and immorality which they themselves lament.” They accept their increasing isolation on the margins of society and proudly proclaim it as their badge of faithfulness. Such churches display symptoms of sectarianism in the “preservation of tradition without the attempt to found new traditions . . . increasing unwillingness to undergo new experiences with the gospel and faith, and the language of zealotry and militant behavior in disputes within the church.”

Moltmann asks, “Where does the identity of the Christian faith lie?” It’s usually tagged to membership, but that simply shifts the problem, since the church is affected by so many other interests. We could point to particular experiences we have had or examples of conversion and grace. But even these do not guarantee one’s Christian identity. Ultimately, says Moltmann, our identity is not found in our own personal faith, but in Someone who is more than our own faith. “Jesus was folly to the wise,” asserts Moltmann, “a scandal to the devout and a disturber of the peace in the eyes of the mighty. That is why he was crucified.”

So I wonder if my Christian identity should not be found with Christ first of all, specifically the crucified Christ, the one who draws all the abandoned and displaced ones to him; the Christ who came for the sick and the lost. With the right vision I can see myself as I am, all pretension aside, as real as I can bear to be, in need of grace and healing.

The most compelling analogy for Christian identity that I can think of is that of salt, which brings out the best in the world and its people, while at the same time disappearing into it. It melts ice, and it can melt the cold, mirthless, calculating heart of this world too. It is quietly pervasive, but if it wasn’t there you would miss it.

Photo: Kelen Loewen, Unsplash.com