Autumn reminds me of St. Paul and his paradoxical Gospel. Who else describes God's servants as those who are 'sorrowful yet always rejoicing', 'dying', and yet, 'we live', and is there any better picture of that than a fallen autumn leaf? Death and glory in a golden turn, energy and decay, eternal life in crimson, throbbing veins etched as a final word through the brown fabric of death. Ah, autumn. To me it is a yearly, living picture of Christ's life burning in those who love him, an affirmation that even the dying gloom of the broken world can't hide.
And yet, there is that gloom, that brown curl of death around the gold. This year, the death stands out very strongly to me.
I mentioned last week that I find the world to be a little louder in its confusion this year. I think my perception is heightened by both marriage and ministry. This is the world, the 'time', in which my new husband and I step into a vocation of ministry and service, and it's the world into which (I know you're thinking it!) we might bring children. Frankly, I don't see a safe or stable place.
Last night, Thomas and I sat at dinner in a restaurant where a party of several dozen second-year students played a drinking game, each calling out the most shocking (and let me tell ya, it was an education) actions of their classmates over the past year, forcing the person described to stand up and take a drink. My soul felt seared as I listened to these casually stated acts of real degradation, things that will wound and cripple those people for years to come, a recital met with laughter. That followed an afternoon in which I'd read all manner of political opinion, argument, and extremity (I really don't like politics), and wrestled with a theological problem that quickly became personal, and confusing.
Confusion. It is a word that defines the world I see right now. I see a world of competing, radically self-oriented ideas in the secular world. I see a world of relational disintegration, of broken families, of wanton sexuality seeking a true love it will never find in itself, of an increasingly impersonal culture in which we are unknown to our neighbours. I see a world of exhaustion, of distracted activity driven by screens and the chase after everything just beyond our reach. And the more theology I study, the more I am aware of confusion in the church too. There are massive, troubling debates ongoing regarding marriage, gender, love, law, all carried out by sincere, precious people, arguments that have massive consequences for the way we love the people around us and witness to Christ's reality in our time.
Because of this, I see a world marked by fear, a Christian community increasingly driven to a defensiveness that makes legalistic lines, or a lethargy that gives up effort...and hope. What stabs me most these days is the angst I see even in those who love God, the wrestling I find in my own heart. How do we vote? That's the easiest of my questions. Far more, how do we create strong families, centred churches? Do we fight for moral issues or extend grace? How do we strengthen children to remain hopeful and pure? Is innocence possible anymore? And how in the world can we heal a culture that often just seems to defy grace outright? With Eomer, in my old favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, my own mind has been asking 'how is a man to judge what is right to do in such a time?'
This morning, I curled into my coffee-shop corner, watching leaves fall, tasting the strong tang of hard questions, confusion, and self-doubt. I wanted a clear answer to my questions, a plain path to walk. Living in tension is not my thing. I found it difficult to tether my thoughts to prayer, or Scripture. But the words of my tutor here at Wycliffe echoed in my mind from the week before. In talking with her through the theological issue I find distressingly unclear, she told me I'd probably have to sit with uncertainty for awhile.
"But that means you must listen all the more," she said. "In this uncertain season, where your own wisdom fails, listen hard for the Holy Spirit."
Her words reminded me of what I read of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for one of my essays. In a letters on ethics, penned just before his imprisonment in a Nazi jail, he encouraged his followers not to depend on ethical systems and moral tradition, but rather to live by a minute-to-minute following of Christ.
When I first read that, I was indignant. His directive seemed too self-confident, too hard, too radical. Systems help us to follow Christ, I thought. A system is what I think we're all craving, something by which to easily measure our actions and come out right. But I see now that Bonhoeffer's words came from just the same kind of confusion that I feel now. He too, lived in a culture marked clearly by disintegration, where confusion left even the church in a state of paralysis. He realized that moral and ethical action was no longer clear cut. He understood that difficult, nuanced, radical decisions would be required of those who loved Christ.
Because of that, only Christ himself would do. His letter was a call to his friends to be faithful even when their systems failed. He was talking to people like me who craved a have framework to know exactly what to do, how to vote, how to believe. But Bonhoeffer saw clearly that the faithful would be made up of those "whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue" but the person "who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God" (from Ten Years On).
With Bonhoeffer's ringing words in my memory, I managed the "obedient action" of turning to my daily Psalm (31). And there, I found this affirmation: God is my refuge. Thus began a psalm that is a poignant recital of things that should cause despair. 'Lying lips', 'wickedness', 'terror', 'contempt'. David, the psalmist, does not gloss over the darkness in which he finds himself. Rather, he spells it out with distressed eloquence, putting it bluntly before God. In his litany of distress I found my own angst articulated, my own concern clothed in words.
But...God is my refuge. That is how the Psalm begins, and that is the unshakable framework of faith in which David works out his discouragement, his terror at the wickedness around him. The very act of bringing his fear to God becomes David's way of journeying back from the wasteland of despair into the 'secret place of God's presence', the reality of which he has discovered afresh toward the end of the Psalm. There, 'goodness' is 'stored up' for those who take refuge in God. There, God's face shines on him. There, God shows the wonders of his love, even in the very midst of a 'besieged city'.
And David's voice was added to that of Dietrich's and my tutor's as my own angst was answered with the clear invitation, not to lethargy or discouragement, but to a belief in the refuge of God's presence and a daily decision to dwell there in the coming years. I wasn't expecting a 'solution' to my dilemmas, but in that Psalm I found a clear directive. However complicated and subtle the moral dilemmas of this time, however dark the world around me, Christ is in me and God is my refuge. That doesn't mean I know the answers, way, or solutions to the many dilemmas I see, nor am I given a system by which to eke out the right actions. Rather, I am given God's presence.
Nothing but Christ will do. And the radical act required in this complex time is actually very simple; just to abide in Him. I don't find this easy and frankly, I think it will be difficult for all faithful people. Because the easy way is to retreat into legalism or relax into passivity. It's a difficult balance to live in the tension of faithful confusion. To hold back from judging or despair. To act or speak in faith when the risk is loss of approval. To create and build when the future is uncertain. Further, it's difficult to push away distraction, to make time for quiet, to cling to Scripture, to reaffirm truth and choose the hope it offers. I want clearer answers on how to 'fix' the world and which person to choose to do it and I don't want complication in my theology.
But the truth is that my hope doesn't lie in any answer or action I can get my hands on. My hope, and the hope of this whole, dying glory of a world is in Christ. His presence 'with us' is the Light invading the darkness, revealing God's love in the 'besieged city' of a dying world. To live consciously in his sweet, holy company, to lean into it, and allow his voice to gently lead me is the daily work to which I must give my restless heart and mind.
This past July, I helped to run a theological conference in Oxford at which a famed ethicist spoke. In the Q&A following his talk on the difficult ethical dilemmas of the modern age, one attendee asked him point blank (and I paraphrase): 'in a time when the concept of freedom is incredibly individualistic, and we have countless ethical dilemmas and moral choices to make, how do you explain freedom and obedience in a Christian way'?And the good professor, with a calm eye and steady voice answered without halt (again, I paraphrase, I can never capture the perfection of his answer): 'freedom is to walk so closely with the Holy Spirit that, in the moment of choice, you can perceive the perfect action, the 'good work' to which He draws you. Freedom is the choice to step into the place that the Holy Spirit has prepared.'
Oh. May I daily take that step.
I look out my window up an Oxford cobbled street in a swift rain of scattered, golden leaves. The brown arms of the trees show ever barer. But they are not dying. Sap runs quick in their inmost roots and I am reminded of Christ's command to his disciples at his last supper with them: "abide in me". I am the vine, you are the branches. And in him, we will not wither. The leaves of our certain assumptions and expectations, even our comfort and ease and certainty may wither away in the cold winds of the world. But in Christ, we live, and the sap of his love burns golden at our core. In this uncertain season, in this autumn of a broken world with the wind rising and the bright leaves dying, I choose afresh to hold hard to Christ, to root deeply in his presence so my growth, my free step forward becomes his glory burning through the darkness.
Reading: Fidelity by Wendell Berry. I sat down again and read through the whole story of 'A Jonquil for Mary Penn'. The whole collection of short stories is a wonder. Also, George MacDonald's Fairy Tales (The Light Princess with the theological pun on a girl's lost 'gravity' is better every time I read it) and I must admit it, another Brother Cadfael mystery too. So enjoyable. So well written. So fun.
Listening: The Book of Secrets by Loreena McKennit. It's been my wistful, haunting autumn music for over a decade.