Monday, May 30, 2005

A Clean, Well-Lighted Bushel

I've been listening in the car recently to an audio book featuring excerpts from first person accounts of historic events. I was especially taken by one account of the Black Death, the famous Bubonic Plague which killed off a significant portion of Europe's population between 1347 and 1350.

The account used to describe the event comes from Giovanni Boccaccio's classic book of tales called The Decameron. Boccaccio describes how it soon became evident that merely touching an infected victim, or even being in the same room with them, would likely kill anyone trying to help. This prompted a number of uninfected people to take a somewhat debatable course of action:

"Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death or sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures."
That is, in fact, what The Decameron is, the fictional record of a group of uninfected people who hid out together in safety during the plague and told humorous and sometimes bawdy tales to each other over a 10-day period to keep themselves amused.

Why does this passage describing events more than 600 years ago speak to me now? Because I recognize myself in that group of people who basically gave up, who wanted nothing more than to hide themselves away from the horrors of the world and live the good life amidst the suffering and blackness.

Today, we're confronted not with a plague of physical sickness, but with one caused by moral decay. How should a Christian respond, and how should he not?

After giving the issue a lot of thought, I've come to the conclusion that there are two ways for a Christian to respond inappropriately to the evil in our world. The first, of course, is to embrace the oft-used philosophy, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Do it out in the open or behind closed doors, whatever you're comfortable with, but accept the supreme value of "tolerance." By all means, subscribe to the Playboy Channel, order the adult DVDs, drop by the strip club, visit the Internet porn site, meet the mistress, gamble away the paycheck, have just one more drink.

I have to confess that my record in past years of resisting these sorts of temptations is not pristine. But now, as a middle-aged family man, I find that it's another type of temptation I fight most against.

It starts with a simple wish for peace and order. I patiently endure the neighbors next door, the ones who play loud music (of a kind I don't like) for everyone to hear, whose foul-mouthed kids stay out unsupervised until all hours of the night, who leave trash in the street and beer bottles on my lawn, who seem to always be sleeping soundly on Sunday mornings, until one day I let myself think, "Lord, I wish they would move."

Then I realize that the neighbor across the street is not too hot, either, and probably just as pagan, and I think, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if good Christian families moved into both of those houses? What friendships and fellowship we could have."

I hear the constant drone of stories on TV about children being snatched from their homes by molesting monsters, or being beaten to death by hardened child playmates, or about increasing drug use or rampant cheating or infidelity or government-sponsored immorality, and I take the fantasy a bit further. I think, "Wouldn't it be great if there was a subdivision that I and my other good Christian friends could create for ourselves, a subdivision full of just Christians, where all the kids would be polite and reverent, and all of the adults would be respectful of each other? Think of how well everyone would get along! What neighborhood barbeques and Bible studies we could have!"

But as news of the evil world piles up, and it becomes clear that evil can penetrate any normal city or suburb at will, my fantasy gets more fantastic and frantic. What about our own gated little community out of reach somewhere, maybe up on a breathtaking mountaintop in Colorado? No, wait -- what about our own island? Yes, that's it. We'd have our own Christian island, with a Christian government, Christian schools, Christian businesses, Christian garbage pickup and Christian ice cream vans with loudspeakers blaring "Jesus Loves the Little Children" instead of "Turkey in the Straw." We'd be totally safe and secure and self-sufficient and happy, and think of the awesome Bible studies we would have!

As a 44-year-old man with a wife and two children I want to protect, this is the temptation I most find myself fighting when confronted with the reality of a lost world -- not the sinful urge to embrace its evils, but the equally sinful urge to flee it altogether. I'm seduced by the notion of giving into the temptation to just be left alone, to be able to sleep a peaceful sleep, wake up and read the Bible or whatever strikes my fancy, to listen to beautiful music, play with my wonderful kids, spend time with my sweet wife, congregate with like-minded friends, and never be bothered with inconvenient people who don't agree with or even respect or understand my beliefs, whose kids are growing up seemingly without any moral code or positive role models, whose messy lives I would really have to get right smack dab in the middle of to have a hope of changing for the good.

You might say, well, what's wrong with that? Doesn't God love us and want us to be happy? Is it so wrong to want nice things and to be around good people?

Well, no...but if we call ourselves Christians and claim to have read the Bible, we know the full answer. When it comes right down to it, we are called not to strive for comfort, not to flee the world, but are called to be vessels through which God can transform mankind.

We know how Jesus acted when he was on the earth, and yes, He spent many days in quiet, peaceful places with his disciples, teaching and fellowshipping. But after a time, He always walked straight into the gathering places of tax cheats and prostitutes and lepers and rebels, into the worst stinking hell holes Israel had to offer. And His purpose was never to indulge in the sins offered there, but to be as light unto darkness, and to rescue lost sheep.

I know that now is the place in this essay where I should place the personal turnaround "clincher" paragraph. You know, the one that says that even though I once avoided the lost world, I have fully reformed and now realize the extent of my responsibility to spread the gospel. I would tell of how I have begun reaching out to my neighbors, to strangers, to the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, all in Christ's name. But I can't be honest and write that paragraph, folks. I admit with shame I'm not there yet.

Realizing what you need to do is only the first step -- doing it is the next. And I must pray for the strength to take that next step, to stop hiding in the warmth of my faith and begin using it like the sharp, piercing tool it was designed to be. I must not be seduced by those visions of the island paradise that constantly float into my mind, and instead realize that, while God wants only the best for me, I have a responsibility to make the best of my time on earth.

And if that means unlocking the doors and stepping out into the heart of the Black Death, then so be it.

Quote of the day:

"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

--Matt. 5:14-16 (KJV)


Anonymous said...

Often in a world going amuck, the only thing left is to bear witness to truth. This is the example we all have to follow. It is more powerful than we sometimes give it credit for. By your words you are an example. Keep writing and keep praying for perseverance.

jenA said...

jeez, you're old. but thanks for not using your headlights at lunch hour.

Jan said...

I see the makings of a great novel. If you take a handful of Christians and put them on the island, what do you suppose would happen in 5 years, 10 years, 50 years? I suspect if you played it out to the end, you'd quit dreaming about it. As one who also dabbles in such dreams, I imagine a lot of us would benefit from reading your book.

We recently had a fairly good opportunity to purchase a home in a 9-home neighborhood where two other Christian families/friends were purchasing. It was very tempting, and I did imagine the Bible studies by the bonfire (it is a wooded area) and Sunday brisket after church with our neighbors. Sounds cozy, doesn't it?

Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

...thought provoking and very much on target! I personally relate to your essay and have thought those very same thoughts. I always used to think (and still do on occasion), “...if everybody would just do what they are supposed to do, then everybody and everything would just be fine...” I have come to learn that is asking for the impossible because even I don’t always do ”...what I am supposed to do...” so, how can I expect others to always do the same?

It is natural for us all to be different--we may come be of the same religion, ethnicity, (or whatever other common ground we share)...BUT we will always be different...we will always do something that someone else may not like...we were all raised differently, so even though we think and pray to the same God, we are still going to be different from one another. Now the cruxt of it is, why can we not show more respect to one another? Why can't we be more courteous to one another? A very wise elderly little lady once offered a very simple and very profound statement to me when she observed my impatience. She said (in a little accented voi

Roberta L. said...


I've daydreamed about that island you're talking about many times. I get mad, worried, and discouraged with all that's going on in the world these days. I often feel my children are under attack and I do all I can to protect them, but I know ultimately I need to trust God to get them through.

I've realized that the island I've/we've been dreaming about is Heaven. I know that because I've trusted Jesus as my savior, I will get there one day. In the meantime, it's up to me to take as many people with me as possible. Like you, I've fallen miserably short on "recruiting". I've buried my head in the sand time and again. After all, "I'm busy raising my Christian children and don't have time to involve myself in others' lives. Besides I don't want to risk exposing my kids to undesirables. They don't want to hear what I have to say anyway, right?"

Like you, I know where I'm falling short, but I haven't taken that first step across the street to meet the annoying neighbor and maybe share the Good News that could change their life forever.

I hope that you and I, and others out there in the same boat will pray actively and muster up the courage to reach out to our neighbors--a close and huge mission field to be sure. Please keep us posted on how you're doing.

yoursbecausehis said...

The Decameron sounds like a combination of Atlas Shrugged, Canterbury Tales, and Mask of the Red Death.

Having homeschooled, I recognized many of your sentiments. How many times have I been scolded for "only letting my children mix with other suburban white Christians"? This, of course, shows a gross misunderstanding both of the homeschooling community and my personal motives. After all, if my children went to the local public school, would they not also be surrounded by other children from our predominantly white suburban community? My daughter's graduating class of eight homeschoolers contained one African-American and two hispanics--a fair representation.

Beyond that, though some homeschool with an intent to achieve the safe, secure, nurturing environment you describe, a closer look will reveal many of the same problems INSIDE as are found OUTSIDE. We DO encourage our children to be rooted at home while reaching out to the larger community, but they don't always have to even leave the "church" to find many of the evils you describe. IN THE "CHURCH"--even in the homeschool community--we know of families where alcoholism, abuse, drugs, sexual activity, lying, theft and rebellion lie hidden. As in The Canterbury Tales, it was those who professed to be on a religious journey who engaged in the bawdy tales. As in Poe's Mask of the Red Death, we sometimes think we have locked ourselves away from the plague only to find that it is locked in with us.

I guess what I'm saying is that the problem is even more complicated than simply daring to become involved as light in the darkness. We must be sure that we are walking in the lightof truth, ourselves. Our own lives must be truly His--truly different. Maybe that's part of what it means to be "His Body." The church is to be the physical expression of His presence in our generation. That's a tall order. To do it, I must truly die to my flesh and live constantly in His presence. It will be a lifelong challenge to get to that point, but His sacrifice was surely meant to accomplish more than a weekly gathering and the occasional potluck with good intentions and no real change of life.

And what do you say to a church leader who responded to a member's desire to move into an inner-city neighborhood to live and work there with the admonition that "that's not the image we wish to convey"? Are we to be more concerned with our "image" and our "marketing niche" than Christ was?

Rhino said...

Most excellent observations! I have to agree with you. That island sounds great-but we will NOT get there in this lifetime! I'm amazed how closly tracked our thoughts are (Must be one of those God things!). See "Help, I've fallen..." at