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What Are We to Do?

Written by forrest : October 27, 2007

I started this life being raised as an atheist. That doesn’t sound like much of an advantage, but it has its uses.

For one thing, I got to see the mercy of God firsthand–in that I might have remained an atheist, except that people I met and things that happened made that impossible.

Also I got to take a highly critical look at conventional Christianity,something I might have been afraid to do from a conventional upbringing.

That’s good? Yes, because traditional Christian ideas made God seem more scary than loving. I had to reject all that–-but then, finding God to be real after all, I needed to (very timidly) call Him on it. So now I can look out at a world that looks very scary indeed, and know that the reality behind it has the love and the power to save us all.

From a secular viewpoint, there really doesn’t seem to be much hope for humanity. Our rulers are getting meaner and crazier; the propaganda system is tightening its grip on people’s minds; the technology we’re addicted to is blatantly destroying the world we’d hoped would be there for our grand-children’s lives.

Seemingly we have two alternatives: denial or despair. (Which come to mean the same thing, because living with despair makes you numb, while denial implies a threat you don’t dare face.)

So far as we know God, despair is not an option. Neither do we need denial; we can build our hope on the true bedrock rather than clinging to whatever person, institution, idea or movement we might otherwise mistake for deliverance.

This is too good a gift to keep to ourselves; but how can we share it?

There’s a traditional way of spreading what purports to be “The Gospel.” Basically, preachers would put the fear of Hell into people, then sell them “Jesus” as fire insurance. This wasn’t an ideal introduction either to Jesus or to God. After some 2000 years of such preaching, our civilization has many people who know Christian language but not the reality behind it, many others simply left adrift.

In the Quaker tradition I’ve joined, this has been a concern from the very beginning. The Society of Friends started as a movement of people who’d experienced the presence of God. Whether they called this: “Christ”, “God,” “the Light”–-They weren’t going to settle for a mouthful of words. But all too soon we became merely another denomination with a more democratic flavor, some of our members intimate with God, but the bulk of us knowing Him only by hearsay.

And now, by and large, we’ve fallen hard down into the “post” modern world. Most of us worship NPR rather than the NRA, but as Brian Drayton (_On Living With a Concern for Gospel Ministry_) put it: “Friends as a group are as infected as most members of our society with a strong reliance on human reason and strength.” That is, we ask first what’s “reasonable” and likely to be “effective”, rather than asking first “What is God’s will for us?” And we aren’t, in my experience, even conscious of this, because most of us are unaware of any alternative. Correct me if I’m wrong–-but do you (or your own churches)–do otherwise?

What really disturbs me–as I look around for ways to free myself from our insane secular world–is that I keep futilely hoping to find that within some organization. It’s like this: Some organized group might provide a niche where I could live more the way I think God intends. And if God were to lead me toward that kind of opportunity, I should certainly follow. But so far as I’m looking to that–rather than to God–for my protection, I’m missing it!

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4 Responses to “What Are We to Do?”

  1. Jim Swindle on October 27th, 2007 8:02 pm

    Your last sentence, “But so far as I’m looking to that–rather than to God–for my protection, I’m missing it!” is an excellent insight. I’ve been greatly blessed since joining a church which has an outstanding pastor/teacher, yet that’s not enough. I used to be a sucker for every “Christian” fad that came along. Each promised to be the secret to the effective/joyful/holy Christian life. Each was different–whether prayer or worship or speaking in tongues or self esteem or quietism or Bible study or something else. One of the best insights I ever had–not that it was original–was that all of the people and books and seminars were wrong if they claimed one of these was the secret. The only secret to the Christian life is Jesus. Many of these “secrets” are useful and may be very important for those who have been neglecting that particular area of discipleship, but the only real secret to the Christian life is Jesus.

  2. forrest on October 27th, 2007 10:03 pm

    The trouble I see in that is…

    I’ve put a lot of effort into “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” I do believe that ‘the answer’ to that question can convey an important message to us.—but

    Jesus is certainly not a small plastic action figure. Neither is he Jesus Barabbas (Although ’son of the father’ sure does sound like an AKA!) or any of some thousands of 1st Century Galileans also named ‘Joshua’. There is that one specific person we call Jesus, but we never get to read a word he wrote…

    We have a revelation, but that revelation was veiled. If ‘Mark’ is any indication, he was a mystery even to his chosen lieutenants who knew him face to face.

    Was this so people “would hear, but not understand”?

    Doesn’t sound like the God I know (even though He continues to mystify me!) I think people hear Jesus without understanding because the message cuts crosswise against our accustomed ways of thinking and doing.

    We read Jesus’ sayings, and we hear (at least at first) what we’ve always thought, what “everybody knows.”

    I think we were intentionally not given an actual “Gospel According to Jesus.” If we were, we (all you other people, I mean!) would grant it tremendous authority, utterly misunderstand it, and go around forcibly imposing our misunderstanding on everyone.

    What? We do that anyway? Isn’t it a fortunate miracle that we’ve been given at least four contradictory stories with myriad interpretations?!

  3. Jim Swindle on October 28th, 2007 3:14 am

    I believe you are overly pessimistic about our ability to know the truth about Jesus. The seeming contradictions among the four gospels are in details, not in the broad strokes of who Jesus is. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit opens some people’s eyes to see something of who Jesus is. Sure, our interpretations are influenced by our culture, but if we truly follow the Jesus of the Bible, we’ll start to see him more clearly. I used to be a member of a church that had only about 35 people on a Sunday morning. Among the frequent attenders were a man from Denmark, a black couple from eastern Africa, a (black) man from South Africa, an Armenian lady who grew up in India, an American-born Chinese man, and a young hispanic man. Our backgrounds were very different, but we united around Jesus (and maybe also around our enjoyment of other cultures).

    For an interesting perspective on the variety within Christianity, see Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water.

  4. forrest on October 28th, 2007 6:08 pm

    I would not say I was at all “pessimistic about our ability to know the truth about Jesus.”

    I do say that people generally underestimate the difficulty.

    Certainly they underestimate the difference between his portrayals in different gospels, chiefly via the assumption that Jesus-sub-Mark, Jesus-sub-John, etc in fact fit together to form one coherent “character”–and that that character is an accurate portrait of the historical person in question.

    I think we do, by the way, get valuable information about the actual guy and his spiritual role from these different portraits, but none of them are what you’d see if you built a time machine in your back yard and went back with a video camera.

    There is the question of “How much do we need to know?” Traditionally, this has been posed in the form: “If you believe the right thing you can escape going to Hell, and I’m now going to tell you what that ‘right thing’ is (but pay no attention to that other guy’s ‘right thing’!)”

    Since there is no “wrong thing” in that sense, there’s no serious harm in disagreeing about what’s true and significant about Jesus. I’d say there must be at least 100 ways of getting him wrong and still benefitting. But you benefit more from reading his actual words (with a critical ear for pious ventriloquism) and contemplating the various meanings that come to you. Best if you can, for the occasion, forget everything you’ve been told about what they’re supposed to mean!

    I do, by the way, understand far more than I once did, and consider it well worth the effort.

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