This Far Away

With each passing day of this tumultuous year, it becomes clearer that no one really knows where this is going, and by “this” I mean pretty much everything. I was talking to a young man recently whom I know well–he has just graduated from high school and will be attending (such as it is) St. Anselm College in New Hampshire this fall. This young fellow is impressively level-headed for his age and quite intelligent, and here he was saying that he and his friends don’t have much confidence that there is any real future for them. He said, in fact, there is some doubt as to a ‘future’ happening at all. What a crazy thing to say.

And yet, crazy or not, my young friend and his peer group are not alone in their sentiments–their perspective is shared broadly among Gen. Z’ers and Millennials, and has some resonance, too, among older folk like me. Global pandemic, distrusted social systems, economic uncertainty, massive debt loads and increasing levels of alienation make for a nasty stew.

So what is a Christian to do in a time such as this? Being true to what we believe is probably a good place to start. If we’re followers of Jesus Christ, what should we be saying right now? What should we be doing right now? Whatever that is, this is a fitting time to start saying it and doing it, if we haven’t already. We’re running out of reasons to wait for tomorrow.

For me, it is to acknowledge the failure of the institutional Church, and Christians generally (I include myself and most everyone else in this number) to teach, without apology or compromise, what it means to live as a Christian in this world. How many times have I read the following: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (Philippians 1:21-24)

Do we really live as if dying is gain? Does the Church really teach this? With a few notable exceptions, I don’t believe the Church has taught this ‘next life is gain’ doctrine for about 1700 years–that’s about the time (early 4th century A.D.) the Church ascended to political power and subsequently lost a great deal of it’s mojo. And far from such a doctrine of ‘next life is gain’ making Christians ineffectual and complacent, such a confidence in the gain of death would actually induce a courage, boldness, justness, affection and compassion that would be world-changing because we would see this life as it should be seen–as a place to share Christ in word and deed and not to seek ‘happiness’ in family and career.

One of the notable exceptions where the Church has indeed taught, and lived, the ‘next life is gain’ doctrine is found, not surprisingly, in a period of the Church’s history that is often referred to as the ‘Great Awakening’. John Wesley, in a journal entry dated August 8, 1738, and giving an account of his visit to a Christian community in Dresden, Germany, called Herrnhut (German for ‘The Watch of the Lord’), shares the following:

“A child was buried. The burying-ground (called by them Gottes Acker, that is, God’s ground.) lies a few hundred yards out of the town, under the side of a little wood. There are distinct Squares in it for married men and unmarried; for married and unmarried women; for male and female children, and for widows. The corpse was carried from the chapel, the children walking first; next the orphan-father, (so they call him who has the chief care of the Orphan house,) with the Minister of Berthelsdorf; then four children bearing the corpse; and after them, Martin Dober and the father of the child. Then followed the men; and last of all the women and girls. They all sung as they went. Being come into the Square where the male children are buried, the men stood on two sides of it, the boys on the third, and the women and girls on the fourth. There they sung again; After which the Minister used (I think read) a short prayer, and concluded with that blessing, “Unto God’s gracious mercy and protection I commit you.” Seeing the father (a plain man, a tailor by trade) looking at the grave, I asked, “How do you find yourself?” He said, “Praised be the Lord, never better. He has taken the soul of my child to himself. I have seen, according to my desire, his body committed to holy ground. And I know that when it is raised again, both he and I shall be ever with the Lord.’” (Christian History Magazine, Vol. 1)

How far away are we Christians from living as we ought to live–as Christ would have us live? How far away from proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ with unbridled love and joy? How far away from truly doing justice for the oppressed? How far away from privileged Christians actually sacrificing our privileges? How far away from true mercy? How far away? For my part, I say that plain man, tailor by trade, is the measure.