Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Pilgrim Way

“Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”

- I Peter 1:17 (New International Version)

Life in America these days seems so out of balance. Environmentalists tell us that nature is out of balance, on the verge exacting its long overdue revenge on its ravagers. The economy is out of balance. The stock market can’t seem to find a point of equilibrium. The debts, both national and individual, are fast becoming un-scalable mountains. The deficit of political trust is enormous, and it’s growing. On a personal level, the age-old American ideal of responsibility is being slowly subsumed by an ever growing sense of dependency and entitlement. And, religion, which should be the core balancing mechanism in society, has become a compliant follower of social trends. America’s civil religion has become what Richard John Neuhaus described in 2009 as “mass Gnosticism.”

A little more than a generation ago we Evangelicals were in the throes of making America the “Christian” society we all wanted it to be. Our tears flowed when we heard Ronald Reagan speak of the “city on the hill.” We came to believe that our birthright and responsibility was to build the New Jerusalem promised thousands of years ago.

It all seemed so right at the time.

Seeing America as she is today, floundering in a sea of competing ideologies, it begs the question – how did the wheels come off the wagon?

Before he died in January of last year, Richard John Neuhaus penned what I believe was his most important book, American Babylon. I read it right after Christmas and I’ve been pondering Father Neuhaus’s insights and implications ever since.

This morning, as I write, three things come to mind.

First, we are living as exiles in Babylon in much the same way the children of Israel did thousands of years ago. America is not our final destination. This should seem self-evident, but our track record since the eighties reveals otherwise. We have been too locked in time and space for too long and, as a result, we’ve failed to see the self-evident truth that should be propelling us home.

Our pilgrimage will one day end in the New Jerusalem. And, the New Jerusalem we seek will not be built by human hands. Abraham saw this when he left Ur of the Chaldes, seeking a city whose builder and maker was God. It’s the city Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego chose over the wealth of Babylon when confronted with the probability of death in a fiery furnace. The prophets, both great and small, chose the New Jerusalem over social respectability and acceptance. And Jesus, who we call the High Priest of our confession, said very clearly that, while he was a king, his kingdom was “not of this world.”

America is not our final destination! We are indeed, strangers and aliens, pilgrims seeking a city we haven’t yet seen.

This brings me to my second point. Does this mean that we Christians are jettison our societal responsibilities here in 21st century Babylon?

Absolutely not! We must embrace them. Our role, as citizens of two worlds, is to reflect the values of the city we seek. We live here in a society of competing interests. We should be seeking to be transmitters of a new community of common interest. The world we are passing through is a world dominated by self-interest. The one we should reflect is governed by love and grace. The exercise of power is the order of the day here in Babylon. In the kingdom to come, our king is, and will be, a servant-king and our role here and in the New Jerusalem should/will be that of servants as well.

My third point follows. We should be the most hopeful people in Babylon. This is not the time to hang our harps in the willows. It is as much a time to rejoice as it has been for the multitudes who’ve gone before us.

Father Neuhaus has completed his journey. He closed American Babylon, his last work, with these words:

“As Christians and as Americans, in this our awkward duality of citizenship, we seek to be faithful in time not of our choosing but of our testing. We resist the hubris of presuming that it is the definitive time and place of historical promise or tragedy, but it is our time and place. It is a time of many times: a time for dancing, even if to the songs of Zion in a foreign land; a time for walking together, unintimidated when we seem to be a small and beleaguered band; a time for rejoicing in momentary triumphs, and for defiance in momentary defeats; a time for persistence in reasoned argument, never tiring in proposing to the world a more excellent way; a time for generosity toward those who would make us their enemy.”

We who are pilgrims would do well to heed his words.