by Joni Bell | 4 January 2024 |
I’m having a quiet evening sitting by the fireplace reading a good book. I enjoy some Chex-mix while I read. My husband sits near me engrossed in his book, and my kids are quietly studying in their rooms.
Then I hear it: a shout outside, a call for help. “Fire, fire, fire!!!”
I carefully peek out my front door. Is it my house? No. My neighbor’s house is engulfed in flames. Too bad, I think. Sad. They have kids, and I believe even an elderly parent living with them.
But I’d better protect my home. My home. I instruct my children to stay in the house where it is safe. My husband and I rush outside and turn on the garden hose. Then we do the logical thing: we soak our roof and the siding of our house with water. We need to be certain those flames from the neighbor’s house do not ignite ours. We just wish they were not so close.
I should probably see if I can help my neighbors. It feels like a moment of evangelical consciousness. But that could be dangerous. I pause to call the fire department—maybe they can help. For now, I will focus on protecting myself and my family. While covering my house with the water, I recall giving my neighbors a book on fire prevention a year or so ago. I passed them out all over the neighborhood. They obviously didn’t read it. Too bad. I did what I could.
I think we would all agree this is a ridiculous scenario! We would, of course, each of us, rush out of our homes and do anything we could to help our neighbors. Our first priority would be their safety!
Church and world
And yet . . . I see some parallels in this simple parable to frequently displayed attitudes regarding the non-Christian, the unchurched, the person in the secular world denying Christ. I observe too many in my faith body (and other evangelical groups) whose attention seems drawn to their own safety. It seems the church is viewed as a place of protection, even isolation and retreat. It emerges in a fear of uncertainty, of impending danger.
The error may be mine, of course. That is, I may mis-judge (or perhaps the error is in judging at all!) the nature of Christian experience in certain behaviors.
I see the energies spent to find deeply rural places to live, the efforts to get off-grid, or store up non-perishables, and I interpret such as a retreat from missional engagement.
I see virtue signaling at an Adventist gathering—long skirts with tennis shoes and classes in foraging in the woods for edibles—and I wonder what happened to the call to serve others.
I struggle with my own attitudes and am disturbed by my own self-righteousness. Yes, I confess to irritation when I encounter some making veganism central to an Adventist life (but hey, I am a militant vegan…) and looking down on anyone who hasn’t yet accepted “the light.”
Maybe I am short of the mark. Perhaps I need to take all those precautions, retreat to the woods, and hunker down for coming end-time events. From our safety in the woods we can mail copies of the Great Controversy or drive to the city for a few hours and distribute them. At least then people have been warned!
Hard times ahead?
In reflection, I agree there are tough times ahead. Climate change has multiplied disasters: storms, hurricanes, and drafts. Instability will accompany the resulting human migration. We’ve been holding our breath for years waiting for “the big one” in California, Oregon, or Washington. We narrowly missed being hit by a massive solar storm in 2012—we’d still be trying to recover if that had happened! Maybe a coming catastrophe will be even worse! An asteroid could strike us! Or disease and contagion worse than we have yet imagined! Every one of us had a front row seat to observe the lightning speed at which the coronavirus circled the globe despite our best efforts.
So yes, I too can choose fear. The tension I experience is what do we do with the possibility, even the probability, of such things happening. Or proffered differently, what do I do about the coming end of time? Do I gather family and loved ones in retreat, stockpile supplies, and cut off interaction with those “of the world”? Or, do I carry out my life among others, live in the public square, and speak of Jesus as the opportunity arrives? How do I manage an appropriate tension between fear and preparedness?
Isolation is one choice. Withdraw. Focus on keeping the world out, on assuring personal and spiritual security. The world is in stress, wars are fought, unjust laws are passed, and politicians threaten our liberty. And so we turn inward. We, or more accurately, many of us, disengage from the world of society and politics.
Perhaps, more innocently, we focus on what concerns the everyday life of the church. We limit ourselves to time with Christian people talking about Christian things. We read Christian literature, listen to Christian music, and watch Christian movies. In a word, we become remote. Social injustice isn’t addressed or even discussed as we withdraw from present life issues or engaging with the suffering.
So what shall I do with the dissonance I feel? With my irritation? Do I criticize? Or perhaps abandon the church, along with the spiritual gatherings where I do find fellowship? Or perhaps yield my displeasure and find my own retreat? How do we address the fears evoked by the teachings regarding the end time that are a part of our Adventist heritage? Do I run from the culture of this world or navigate it?
Neighbor and friend
Here is what I have decided. I will be a neighbor and friend. And yes, there is something “different” about us. Actually, we experience the witness Christ calls us to in that context. In the world, not in isolation. The church is called to a public life. Live, work, party, serve, and study with people in their daily life.
There is a reality in our shared history we need to face in the context of this conversation. “Rapture anxiety” is recognized by mental health professionals as a type of religious trauma. The condition is associated with increased anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
Here is the thing. A young Adventist may have personally been immersed in teachings that foster this difficulty. Further, our faith body emerging in the mid-19th century often had to choose between fear and joy while anticipating Christ’s return.
We likely need to face that reality and make a clear and intentional decision. May I offer a scriptural perspective? “Fear not” or “do not be afraid” appears as an admonition in the Bible over 300 times. The Gospel is a message of joy! God is in control and on his throne! The end of time ushers in hope and promise; a day we have longed for and eagerly await.
Be in the world
The apostle Peter provides good counsel while writing with reference to the end of the age:
Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. 2 Peter 3:11-14 NLT
Be in the world. Be found serving in the name of Jesus in the world. Be a member of a symphony orchestra, or enjoy their music. Take a painting class. Start an organic gardening group. The possibilities are endless. Be a part of society but be different. In a bold but loving way let’s raise our voices against injustice and unrighteousness.
Let’s not retreat from political, social, cultural, and moral engagement. Let’s honor Christ by speaking out and living out a life that is different in the city, community, and neighborhood. Contribute in areas of medicine, fine arts, music, philanthropy, ethics, science, and technology. In the here and now.
“Arise and shine, for your light has come.”
Joni Bell is a contented wife and homemaker with a dodgy past as a psychiatric nurse. She divides her time between Maine and Tennessee.