In Jesus Christ we have faith in the incarnate, crucified and risen God. In the incarnation we learn of the love of God for His creation; in the crucifixion we learn of the judgment of God upon all flesh; and in the resurrection we learn of God’s will for a new world. There could be no greater error than to tear these elements apart; for each of them comprises the whole. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
That early evening in Dillsboro was the kind that makes Smokey Mountain summer dusks famous. It was 1974 and I was singing with a resort ministry group. We had just finished an unforgettable feast of trout and country ham at the Jarrett House. Now the little church across the street was pleasantly filled to hear us. The evening could not have been more perfect.
We sang about the goodness of God and the beauty of God’s creation, about understanding ourselves to be persons of worth created in God’s image, and the wonder, mystery and gratitude such a perspective brings. The group’s rich, well-rehearsed harmonies conveyed these truths beautifully. Those in the audience smiled their approval as we sat down, everyone pleased that our message had gotten across.
The pastor stood up and announced that a touring choir from a Florida orphanage was at a service station next door. They were headed for Asheville, but their bus had broken down and could not be repaired until morning. The church folk responded immediately to the pastor’s request for the choir to sleep in the church and invited the children to present their program right then and there.
The 50 young people lit into a high-voltage program conducted by the large, red-faced director of the orphanage. They sang about the wiles of the devil, of the terrible wickedness in the world and of the rewards waiting for us in heaven. Between the songs, individual choir members spoke in graphic detail of the shocking abuse that had been inflicted on them. Through their sobs and heaves they cried that Jesus was coming soon to take us away from this hellhole of a world.
I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one who left Dillsboro that night deeply troubled over the diametrically opposed messages. Yes, economic station and life experiences affect our understanding, but is our faith in Christ that precariously relative?
That’s not a bad post-modern question to keep asking ourselves. But today, more than 30 years later, I’m struck by how these two experiences need each other to mutually deepen and correct. To avoid life’s harsh, raw side with its terrifying evil results in self-indulgently shallow religion that focuses on little more than the inner serenity of materially comfortable individuals. If the story of our identity has at its center a crucified God, we cannot avoid the hoary reality and language of sin and redemption. But to dwell only of life’s gross and sinister evil dulls one to the gentle, abundant gifts that arrive daily from an extravagant God who sends rain on the just and the unjust.
We cannot tear these elements apart. Somehow the resort ministry team and the orphanage choir must sing in harmony in order for the full anthem of the Gospel to resound. To do so, though, yet another note must be sounded.
Both summer dusk beauty and midnight abuse can ignore the staggering news that the re-creative power of God has already broken into the present time. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the dawning of a new creation. “When anyone is united to Christ, there is a whole new world (II Cor. 5:17, NEB). When we walk in the light of the resurrection, we give witness to the God whose love has invaded a fallen creation and who will bring to completion the redemption already begun.
Karl Barth says that the Gospel “is not a romantic report about awareness of God in nature.” Neither is it “a set of pious or moral maxims designed to straighten out the world” nor “a legalistic lament about the meanness of human nature.” Rather, “the Gospel is constituted by the mighty acts of God in history for the liberation of the cosmos.”
That’s a Song for all of us to sing!
(Originally published Tuesday, May 13, 2008)