The Tepid and the Isolated

7 03 2009

When standing on the edge of a precipice, on the cliff of a canyon, one might become acutely aware of one’s peril.  The difference of a few steps, or even one step, could result in plummeting to one’s mortal end.  Yes, well, that’s at the cliff’s edge.  In the stroll leading to the cliff’s edge, one is on flat and level terrain, with no such risk.  If we have acrophobia, then we have a fear of heights, they say.  It’s not a fear of heights, really.  It’s just a fear of falling.  At the cliff’s edge, we are no higher than we were on our way to the edge.  It’s not the depth of the canyon, either.  If the canyon had gently sloping sides, we’d be at no risk.  The problem is the close proximity of the depth of the canyon floor to the height of the cliff’s edge.

 Think about it: we’re all sitting at an elevation of almost four thousand miles above the center of the earth.  That’s a huge distance to fall.  No one cares, because all of that distance is filled in with dirt.  More importantly, though, all of that distance is filled in fairly evenly across the face of the globe.  Were we living on an asteroid, the horizon would be slanted so steeply in many places that we could fall to our death by falling sideways.  It’s not my elevation, or the pit’s depth, but the closeness of two elevations and their difference in depth and height.  This is the essence of useful energy.

 I suppose a person could tie boulders to cables and push them over the edge to turn a generator to make electricity.  It would be much easier, though, to harness the energy of water.  Build a dam and let the water build up behind it, and then you have enough stored energy to power a small city.  By letting the water fall from a raised elevation to a lower one, a turbine can be turned, and electricity can be generated.  But you already knew that.  There’s a difference, though, between a dammed lake in the Sierra Nevadas and a large pond in Minnesota.  Without someplace lower for the water to flow, there is no way to generate energy.

Christian spirituality is like this.  Some Christians are like an empty dam.  The water on one side is as low as the water on the other side.  They are living in the world, and they emulate the world.  The world can’t tell the difference between them and any one else.  Even God can’t tell what makes them a Christian.  The man lives with his girlfriend, but he says it’s all right, because they’re “committed” to each other, or they’re planning to get married.  She says “Jesus Christ” about as often as she says the F-word, and she even says it in the same way and for the same reasons.  They both go to church on Sunday and say their amens and praise-the-Lords.

 Some Christians, however, are like very large ponds.  They’re full of the spirit, but they’re so isolated in their holy huddles, that there’s no influence on the world around them.  They have no dam with a gaping ravine on the other side.  They’re stagnant, like a mosquito breeding ground.

 The world is full of energy, and the vast majority of it is utterly useless.  In a room that is neither hot nor cold, we are still about 530 degrees Fahrenheit (295 degrees Celsius) above having no heat at all.  That’s an awful lot of heat, really.  Yet, we can’t use it to generate electricity or do anything useful.  This is because everything is uniform.  It is this uniformity that makes a hot cup of coffee seem hot, and a cold glass of lemonade seem cold.  In reality, they’re both exceedingly hot, relative to absolute zero, just as we’re exceedingly high, relative to the center of the earth (well, some people are rather high in other ways, but that’s a different matter).  It’s the heat of a coffee on a cold day or the coolness of the lemonade on a hot day that makes the difference.  If the drinks are the same temperature as the immediate environment, then they’re tepid.  If the room is as hot as the coffee, then I don’t think I’ll be having one, thanks.

 Take that back to Christian spirituality: a believer in a room full of believers is no big deal.  A preacher in a church is nothing extraordinary.  A preacher on a street corner in downtown Amsterdam is a very big deal.  A believer surrounded by heathens is a powerhouse.  It doesn’t matter if a tight little community in Georgia is entirely Christian, and a brothel in Detroit has never heard of Christ, so long as the two never meet.  You could have a pond in the high altitude of Denver, with all of the continent below it in elevation, but if that water has no place to run, right near where it happens to be, then it’s not a useful source of energy.  It doesn’t matter how cold the South Pole is; my cup of coffee is only as good as the weather here is cold.  In fact, what would be a lukewarm beverage here would be a warm beverage there.

 The lukewarm Christian is exactly like his environment.  Nothing sets him apart.  Either he’s in the world and of the world, or he’s not in the world at all.  Jesus was the perfect example of a high free-energy person.  He surrounded himself with sinners, yet he never sinned.

 There’s another side to this story, however.  The cup of coffee eventually reaches room temperature.  A drop of coffee reaches that temperature only a second after hitting the floor.  A large carafe takes longer.  A person who leaves the church loses his faith much faster than a person who attends it weekly and then some.  A hundred drops of coffee, or even a thousand drops, will all reach the same temperature as the environment within seconds, but if they come together in a single cup, the environment has less power to affect them.  Everyone we meet has the power to influence us, and we have the power to influence them.  If we lack the fellowship of believers and the reinforcement of our faith, then we risk losing that faith altogether.

 Yet, even when the individual drops are combined into a single cup, it still approaches its environment, albeit more slowly.  If we are not led by the Holy Spirit, then we will not have that internal source of energy that keeps our faith hot in a cold world.  A large body of believers, even an entire continent, cannot ultimately resist the outside influences of secular culture without the source of faith that comes from God.  If society at large says that we evolved from apes, then we will eventually believe it, unless we have that living source of faith within us.  How different is Christianity today, as the result of influences from without?

 We have here a crucial dilemma.  If we do not come together in support of each other, if we do not act as one body of believers, then our exposure to the world exceeds our capacity for faith, and we grow cold.  Some people are stronger than others are.  Some people can call down fires from Heaven in a crowd of pagan priests.  Most of us cannot.  All of us need fellowship with other believers, to varying extents.  Alternately, some of us are so devoid of ministry that we have become a hot cup of coffee in a hot room: we’re full of faith, but we’re still lukewarm, because we have completely immersed ourselves in Christian culture, or we are otherwise having no impact on the world around us.  The problem is that too much ministry leads to burnout.  Give the world all you have and you won’t have anything left, but give nothing and you’re stagnant.  The solution is to pray for as much faith as you can get, fellowship with other believers as though your life depended on it, and witness and share as much of yourself as you can to this dieing world without dieing with it.





2 responses

7 03 2009

What a great post! Thanks for writing that. I heard another way of putting the importance of Christian fellowship.

A man decided not to go to church for a while, saying he didn’t need the community (he had God and that’s all he needed).

So after a few weeks, his pastor came round for a visit. The man met him at the door and cautioned the pastor not to contest his decision about not coming to church. The pastor said ok. After the usual pleasantries, they sipped their tea in silence in front of the fire. Without speaking, the pastor reached over, grabbed a poker and eased a hot coal from the fire out onto the hearth. They both watched as the coal burned red-hot, then grew darker and darker. Again without speaking, the pastor used the poker to push the coal back into the fire, where at once it burst back into flame.

The men looked at each other. The pastor smiled, and the man said, “See you next Sunday.”

12 03 2009
Dysfunctional Parrot

It is refreshing to hear about the benefits of fellowship during a time deconstructionist movements like the Emerging church are the “theology de Jour”. Well written.

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