In the aftermath of General Conference 2012 I cannot help but reflect on the tendency I see in struggling local churches or denominations that prefer to look back toward the “good old days” rather than to the future. It’s an understandable desire to go back to the Garden of Eden when churches were packed and finances were good. However, if the good old days were that good then why are we in the mess we’re in now? Easter People are supposed to be headed to the New Jerusalem anyway. It’s a risky thought to stake your hope on the future, but looking backwards makes for crooked furrows whether in plowing or being a church.
It’s no accident that God put cherubim with flaming swords to guard the entrance to Eden after Adam and Eve’s exit. If we could have gotten back there after having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then get another chance to partake of the Tree of Life, too, then we would be doomed forever to know both good and evil. The Gospel takes us to a better place, a New Jerusalem, where we can live forever in Christ knowing only good. We need to press past halcyon memories of yesteryear, celebrate the good of our history, but keep as our primary objective the risky but Christ-like adventure of the future.
Playing things safe is a natural tendency for most of us. Taking risks has bitten us more often than not. Armchair quarterbacking has been replaced by the safer second-guessing that comes from the sofa. “It’s too dangerous!” is a good thing to say to precocious children, but, if we’re not careful, we may oversell fear to the point that children, or any of us, aren’t given the permission to risk and fail. Risking failure is at the heart of maturity. Wisdom comes from experience, and the only way to get experience is in trying something. General Conference 2012 was a more than a bit deficient in attempting a new thing or anything. So much for making history!
Risk-taking for growth is so counter-intuitive. It goes so much against the grain of our “Be Safe!” society. One of my most frightening experiences was extremely counter-intuitive. I was in a seminary course called, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I should have gathered from the title what I might be in for, but naively I went along hoping for a nice camping trip in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
Everything was fine with the hiking. It was cold, but not unbearable. Even as this was in the middle of May, there was chest deep snow as we followed the trail through some of the passes. After a week of hiking and camaraderie we had our first stretching experience. Each of us was given a piece of plastic for a shelter and then led off into the woods where we would be alone for three days. I didn’t know where I was. No one was allowed any food so that we had to fast. I did have a water bottle that was surreptitiously refilled each night by someone I never saw or heard.
The first half day was okay with my mind focused on settling in, setting up my tarp, unrolling my gear, etc. That night was a little scarier. We weren’t allowed flashlights, and it was literally pitch-black. The stars were amazing, but the rustling sounds of wildlife kept me on guard. During the night some animal came barreling through my open-ended shelter. It was probably one of the many tiny chipmunks that inhabited the area, but, in my mind, it sounded like it was the size of a wild boar, something impossible in the Adirondacks.
The next day was spent reading the Bible and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together. What was constantly on my mind frankly wasn’t what I was reading. I kept thinking about food and wondering what time it was. The group leaders confiscated my watch before leading me out into the wilderness. The food issue also possessed my thoughts. I tore through my backpack hoping that a stray M&M had escaped from my gorp bag before it had been absconded. There was nothing to be found. That day lasted forever, it seemed. I was frustrated in every way: bored, grumpy, and totally out of sorts.
The next day was more of the same until mid-day, at least my best guess of mid-day. Finally I gave up on hunger. I quit thinking about time. My notions of time and space were pierced by the extreme beauty of nature and God’s own quiet closeness. The sounds and the silence of the forest became relaxing and exhilarating friends. My reading of the Bible and Bonhoeffer was suddenly charged with a clarity that I had never known before. When darkness came I slept with a rare contentment.
Three days of solitude and fasting ended the next morning as I was led back to the group gathering area. All of us were treated to lentil soup and hot tang to reacquaint our stomachs to food. Everyone seemed cleansed, purified, and peaceful. It was great and it was needed. The risk was worth its reward, and it was good preparation for the unforeseen adventures that lay ahead.
I share this in the aftermath of GC 2012 to say that I know we had better days in terms of metrics years ago, but we worship a risen Lord who wants to take us into an uncharted future. It is not an unknown future, however. It ends in the New Jerusalem. Therefore, we need to lay aside our fears and our tight grip on institutional preservation. If Jesus is Lord then the future is where we need to be. We have Jesus with us and He’s no wimp. My favorite poem describes Jesus as a risk-taker better than I. It’s by Ezra Pound and called the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere.” It helps to understand the poem if you know that “fere” is Old English for “friend” or “companion” and the poem’s perspective is from one of Jesus’ original followers:
Ballad of the Goodly Fere
Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.
When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.
Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.
Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.
I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.
They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.
If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”
“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”
A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.
He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,
Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.
A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.
I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.
O Goodly Fere, Thank you for inviting us to be a part of your grand adventure. We will leave behind Eden for the New Jerusalem!