by Nathan Brown
Writer Annie Dillard asks the question: “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” She goes on to observe, “On the whole I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anybody have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT…It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”1
It’s worth thinking about. Amid the bustle of Sabbath mornings, the mechanics of church organization and the comfortable mediocrity of our week-to-week religiosity, how often do we stop to think about the Consuming Fire (Hebrews 12:29; see also Deuteronomy 4:24), supposedly the centre of our faith and lives?
Sometimes God scares me — and He probably should scare me more often. We need to remember the truism that He is God and we are not. We must take it seriously. We talk much about friendship with God and this is an important way of understanding our relationship with our Creator and Saviour. But like all real relationships, it must be based on serious respect: “Friendship with the Lord is reserved for those who fear him” (Psalm 25:14, NLT).
The mystery and magnitude of God cannot be allowed to slip down the back of our religious couches as we settle in for another episode of consumer church.
When we take it seriously, the Bible stories are not just morality tales for children, rather we recognize the same God as has touched our own lives at work in awesome ways. Taking it seriously, the death and resurrection of God-in-our-world become the most profound facts of history and in the individual histories of our lives. But without sanctified seriousness, worship will simply be a routine to be endured or a succession of experiences to be sampled. Unless we take it seriously, concern — and action — for the wellbeing of others will be considered merely an optional extra to our convenience Christianity. Until we take it seriously, the Second Coming is just a nice idea, instead of an earth-shaking reality — an alternately terrifying threat and joyful promise, perhaps often both.
Only when we take it seriously will the teachings of Jesus begin to make sense in our lives. When we take it seriously, we can begin to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matthew 5:44), even if it means being ripped off. Taking it seriously, we realize there is real value to “treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). Until we take it seriously, the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12) will never sound like more than an exercise in pious idealism. And so it goes.
Half-hearted faith is nonsense. Half-hearted unfaith is equally so. Given a glimpse of the eternal significance of our lives, we step back into the banality of our world, either with a divine mission or with utter hopelessness. These are the only two ‘serious’ options — and we must take it seriously.
But this ‘taking it seriously’ is not a prescription for somber and narrow introspection. Paradoxically it is the foundation for true joy and creativity. It was precisely because he took it seriously that Paul could exhort his readers from his prison cell, to live lives of rejoicing (Philippians 4:4). And on this solid, ‘serious’ foundation, we can best celebrate the good things of life, engage with those around us and risk ourselves for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Perhaps it might be worth dressing differently for church next week — helmets and life preservers recommended — even if only to remind ourselves of the awesome Mystery we approach in worship, in Whose terrifying presence we live out our unwitting lives and Who reaches down to touch our lives in alarming, glorious and eternal ways.
1 Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, HarperPerennial, page 52.