Monday, November 23, 2015

Keeping Faith

It's easier to live either with total certainty or total abstraction. When you mix the two, things get tough.

Consider the emotional state of a person and her family as they progress through a terminal illness. Before the diagnosis, death, although certain, is too far away--too abstract--to bring any real daily burden. Then, she finds a lump, and everything changes. "What could it be?" she asks herself. She shares the news with her husband, who says, "It's probably nothing," but, of course, on the inside he's anxious, too. Each step closer to a diagnosis is a step of dread. The specific possibility of her mortality is coalescing quickly. Finally, the doctor does the biopsy and sends the sample tissue off for a pathology report. "We'll know in a few days," he says, and the agony only grows. Waiting and not knowing is terrible. Then, the terrible news is disclosed. Shock and anguish overwhelm the woman and her husband. They share the news with their children. "But there are some treatment options," the parents quickly interject, knowing that, still, the prognosis is not good. Months of fighting and struggling pass. A confusion of hope and gloom pass over them in waves. Ultimately, things do not improve, and eventually the decision is reached to offer palliative treatment--enough to keep her comfortable and ensure the best possible quality of life until death arrives. And, strangely enough, for the first time since the lump was found, peace begins to settle in.

We'd rather know or not know, but being stuck in between is agony. Welcome to Christianity.

On Sunday, we begin the season of Advent--the time of waiting, watching, and preparing for the coming of our Lord. We celebrate how the world longed for the savior, who was born 2000 years ago, and we renew that longing as we await his return. The scriptural language of this season is "be on your guard" and "the Lord is coming" and "salvation is near." And, as Christians, we are called to embrace both the imminence and the obscurity of the Lord's return.

In Luke 21:25-36, Jesus declares that the end is coming soon: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves." In other words, the creation itself will reveal that the Son of Man is on his way. Underscoring the clarity of these signs, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a fig tree in leaf: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near." As Jesus puts it, it's that simple: "When you see signs in the heavens and distress among nations, get ready; it won't be long."

But it is long. It's very long. The followers of Jesus have been interpreting these signs of distress for 2000 years, and still we're waiting for his return. We've seen the persecutions of the ancient world, the fall of the Christian empire, the darkness of the Middle Ages, the skepticism of Modernism, and all the floods, typhoons, famines, and earthquakes that have accompanied the passing of time. And still no Jesus.

Nevertheless, Jesus urges us, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap." Well, that's tough. It's hard to live as if the coming of the Son of Man is certain yet know that the timing is abstract. And that's the point. Faith is hard.

We believe in a God who will save us, but salvation sometimes feels very far away. We believe in a God who has the power to make all things right, but his decision to exercise that power seems continually delayed. We believe that Jesus will come again, but we've been waiting for a long, long time. What makes us think that tomorrow will be any different?

Yet we live for tomorrow. The urgency of the kingdom is absolute. We cannot be lackadaisical. Following Jesus means living as if the end is always near. Yes, that is exhausting, but that's what shapes our lives and our faith. Living for the kingdom is what Christianity is all about. As we structure our lives around the imminence of Jesus' return, we see the kingdom breaking through. Our waiting and watching is how the kingdom becomes manifest to us. It's how the abstract becomes certain.

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