Among the small blessings of being in quarantine, as my family and I have been the last two weeks, is the chance to watch The Lord of the Rings. Each of the three films clocks in at north of three hours, and so it’s not usual movie night fare. When you’re cooped up with nowhere to go for days on end, though, they can be a welcome reprieve.
As it happens, we’ve only gotten through the first of the three, The Fellowship of the Ring. But in that film there is a powerful scene in which the wizard Gandalf admonishes Frodo, who is lamenting the hand that fate has dealt him.
“I wish the ring had never come to me,” the hobbit says. “I wish none of this had happened.”
To which Gandalf responds: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Quarantine notwithstanding, Gandalf’s counsel is an altogether welcome and necessary word right now. For we are undoubtedly dwelling in dark and disturbing times.
The events of last Wednesday in Washington were heinous and reprehensible. But while the nature and location of the Capitol riot made it uniquely damaging to our republic, the anger it expressed was regrettably not unique. A larger pattern of nihilism, paranoia, and despair that transcends social class, political party, race, sex—all the demographic demarcations we use to divvy people up—has cast a dark cloud, like the shadows of Mordor, over all of our society. Worse still, with so many of these unsettling forces being outside of our control, we can be left feeling helpless and hopeless. We don’t know if things are going to get any better or if we can even do anything about it. And so we may well wish, like Frodo, that we didn’t have to deal with such times.
Alas, it’s not for us to decide. As Gandalf put it, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” So what shall we do—in particular, as Christians, and as the Church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
That is of course a big question that I can hardly resolve in 500 words or maybe even 500 pages. But I would like to offer a pair of provisional responses.
1. Recognize the true nature of the crisis
Until the disease is properly diagnosed it cannot be adequately addressed. Our current crisis surely has economic, political, and social dimensions. Underlying it all, however, is a profound spiritual malady. I know I sound like a pastor here, but understand: I’m not saying this because I’m a pastor; I’m a pastor because I’m convinced of what I’m saying.I think that the poet-theologian Martin Franzmann gets it exactly right in his hymn “In Adam We Have All Been One:”
We fled Thee, and in losing Thee
We lost our brother too;
Each singly sought and claimed his own;
Each man his brother slew (LSB 569:2).
Franzmann succinctly expresses the indissoluble bond between our “vertical” relationship with God and our “horizontal” relationships with one another. Loss of faith begets an isolation and alienation that issues forth in selfishness and violence. And the ever-present assaults of the Evil One foment chaos and aggravate the impulses of our sinful nature.
This assessment is overly simplistic, to be sure; it’s not as straightforward as “turn to God and all will be well.” But unless and until we recognize the underlying spiritual roots to our contemporary crises we’ll just keep groping in the dark.
2. Build strong local Christian community
In the conclusion to philosopher Alisdair Macintyre’s seminal book of moral theory and cultural critique, After Virtue, he writes this:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history [of the fall of the Roman empire] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained … What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.
There’s some hifalutin philosopher-speak in there, and when he wrote those words, Macintyre himself was not yet a Christian (he later converted). But his bottom line is clear: faced with dark times, the solution is the construction of genuine—and I would add faithful—local communities. I can’t help but agree.
Suffice it to say, what the world needs right now are Christians and congregations rooted in their local place that are devoted to worshiping Christ, fostering fellowship within His Body, nurturing Christian character, and compassionately serving their neighbors. In short, churches that will attend to being the Church, the body of Christ.
Our Christian calling
Let’s let the Lord sort out the big stuff; He’s good at that. It’s not our calling to change the world, fix all society’s ills, or make America a “Christian nation.” It is our calling to share God’s heart in the little part of His good creation that He has planted us in, which we call our parish.
And when we do, the Lord’s light pierces this present darkness. This hope is beautifully articulated, once again, by Martin Franzmann—this time in his little-known hymn, “O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth”:
O Spirit, who didst once restore
Thy Church that it might be again
The bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days
There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology
To Father, Son, and unto Thee (LSB 834:4).
We don’t get to choose our times, dark though they may be. We do get to choose what we do with them. As Solomon once said, “There is a time to tear down and a time to build” (Ecclesiastes 3:3b). It’s time to build, so that the glorious light of Christ might shine out in these gray and latter days.
“In Adam We Have All Been One” Martin H. Franzmann Text: © 1969, Concordia Publishing House. OneLicense A-710759. Used by permission.
“O God, O Lord of heaven and earth” Contributors: Martin H. Franzmann Text: © 1967, Augsburg Fortress. OneLicense A-710759. Used by permission.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography