'You are a mist that appears for a little while...'
The times we live in are revealing that James was right all along. But just as our awareness of our vulnerability and mortality has emerged from the shadows, so too, among some, an awareness of the place God holds. By Steve Finamore
The letter of James, the brother of the Lord, Chapter 4 and verses 13 – 16, says this;
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (New Revised Standard Version).
An unusual text provoking some strange thoughts during this present lockdown that has made this the most memorable of Easters.
My colleagues and I have not abandoned our practice of meeting together every morning to read the Scriptures together and to pray. Like everyone else, we are learning to do this virtually. Our Bible selections remain guided by the college reading plan and James was one of the texts we read and discussed. We were struck by the warning found in these verses.
After all, our diaries are full of the plans we have made. I was due to take a sabbatical and had arranged my studying, my writing and my retreating. Others would deliver their classes, visit a range of churches to speak or to listen to students and take the holidays that had been carefully scheduled. Days away were diarised, examiners’ meetings arranged, and end of year events planned.
There is nothing unusual about this. We could all construct similar lists. This is a product of the way we live and work. We make our plans and we see them through. Of course, things sometimes go wrong but not for all of us and not all at once. We have no experience of a line being put through everything.
Of course, in our community, we made all these things matters of prayer and committed them to God, but I cannot shake the feeling that the words of the Lord’s brother mock our presumption. And not just ours but those of an entire culture that regarded its own word as secure and definitive. It turns out that we had no idea what the future would bring. We have had to learn what we should always have known. We are contingent. We are fragile. We are powerless. We are like one standing on the shore telling the tide not to come in. Our awareness of our vulnerability, our mortality, has emerged from the shadows to which we had exiled it and has now stepped into the spotlight. The times we live in are revealing that James was right all along. We are a mist that appears for a time and then vanishes. A mist that has the appearance of substance but leaves no trace. Everything we thought we knew, all we thought certain, has proven false. And in the depths of our being we feel unsettled for the future will not declare her secrets. Chaos is come again. The plague has come down like a wolf on the fold.
Ours is a thoroughly believing community where passionate spirituality and radical discipleship are our highest values. But to a large extent even we had been sucked into faith in our capacity to determine the future. That is the way of the culture in and to which we are called. In that culture, at least among those who command, the gap between our previous perception of ourselves and our present reality is being made ever starker. This is our wake-up call. Our rude awakening. We have for too long pretended that we are God. We have presumed too much. For a while we made God in our own image and then we cut out the middleman and made God redundant or declared him dead. Something other than humans is determining our present way of being and our prevailing humanism has taken a body blow. The crisis is calling out our functional atheism.
And this is Eastertime. We celebrate the resurrection of Messiah Jesus from the dead. We understand it as the first instalment of a future resurrection of the people of God. Jesus’ defeat of death is the sign that death is not the defining force in the universe and that any apparent hold it has over us is temporary. But there is another sort of resurrection happening. Our human-centredness and our functional atheism are undermined. A fresh awareness of God is in the air.
Without claiming that the virus is some kind of act of God, or presuming that theism is the only possible response, it seems possible to ponder whether western culture’s decision to issue God’s death certificate was more than a little premature. It seems that among some, an awareness of the place God holds in other cultures and the place God once held in our own is emerging (or re-emerging).
This is not a process being driven by logic or reason. But then our culture’s functional atheism was never based on reason. It is really an argument about emotion and awareness. Our sense of control over the environment and over our own lives made us feel that we were our own creators and our own sustainers. We had no need of God. Now this sense of control has been revealed for what it always was, and we know in our guts what most of humanity have always known; we live in utter dependency on something or someone over whom we have no control. Christians believe that this is a someone and that this someone is utterly loving and gracious.
There’s a resurrection going on. It’s the rebirth of the idea of God within our culture. And it demands a narrative, a story that offers an account of what is happening. The gospel is that narrative and it is time to renew our commitment to telling that story.
Steve Finamore is the Principal of Bristol Baptist College
Image | Jack B | Unsplash
This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
Holy Week - let us follow Jesus by Andy Goodliff
Scattered yet gathered - a reflection on virtual communion by Simon Woodman
The perils of cheap religious talk - it's an unfolding, multifaceted tragedy. Let's not be hasty with glib responses; better to follow Bonhoeffer's lead in leaving the unsolvable unsolved. By David Bunce
The anointing at Bethany - we read this story in the light of nurses, chaplains and others who are being present with those who will die
Waiting … - Geoff Colmer reflects on waiting - waiting at the moment, waiting in Holy Week
Maundy Thursday, foot washing and love - a reflection by John Goddard
'Christ died for our sins' - How do we interpret this statement from 1 Corinthians 15:3 – and what does it mean for us today? By Edward Pillar
The day of nothingness - Holy Saturday is the pause, the space, the moment in between - and it seems particularly significant now, writes Ruth Gouldbourne
Silence in the face of the mystery - Why Holy Saturday may be a day for us right now. By Steve Holmes
Covid 19: Lazarus or Jesus? - Sally Nelson highlights the unique, theologically profound contribution the church offers at this time
Resurrection in the time of Coronavirus - Resurrection offers the possibility of a new world – but first we must face the issues of the old one. By Edward Pillar
What difference does Easter make? The risen Jesus is the living Jesus, and Easter means we do not stop seeking to understand, respond and follow Him. By Andy Goodliff
The melting pot of honesty - The church’s form may well have changed greatly by the time we emerge from this global pandemic. As we patiently seek Christ, Craig Gardiner highlights a refining virtue
Do you have a view? Share your thoughts here.