by Pastor Doug Kings
At the conclusion of a delightful dinner recently, I managed to unintentionally provide a moment of tension. Our hostess was describing the significant efforts of a local women’s political action group she belongs to, including weekly calls and letters to state and national politicians.
Our conversation had turned to the climate crisis and other front-page issues, and I somehow blurted out that while I thought the group’s actions were commendable, I didn’t think they would make much difference. Oops. Now everyone was staring at me, including our hostess who was sitting next to me. “Well, what would YOU do?” she asked.
A fair question and really the most fundamental and important question for each of us. I tried to make clear I wasn’t disparaging the group’s efforts but that it wasn’t what I saw to be my calling. I’m not sure I explained very well what that calling was, however, and so I’m going to try again here.
Early in Luke we encounter John the Baptist. The crowds listening to his fire-and-brimstone preaching are bowled over. “What then should we do?” they ask. Despite the earth-rending crisis he predicted, his answer was surprisingly simple and practical. Share what you have with those who have little or nothing. Be honest in your business dealings. Don’t use power to exploit or abuse others.
John understood the corruption and decadence of his time as well as anyone. He was killed, in fact, for calling it out. Yet he was no revolutionary, nor was Jesus who was executed for basically the same reason. What they did call for was a revolution of human hearts, which is more difficult to accomplish than any political change. “Repent” means to change your mind and turn your life in a new direction, rather than feel guilty and start going to church.
I was asked if I was a pessimist. And I must admit I see little reason to believe our current national and global trajectories will change significantly, which will likely have disastrous consequences. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try to bring about such changes, if that is what you feel called to do.
As I was preparing this post Lutheran pastor extraordinaire, Nadia Bolz-Weber, posted an essay with just this point. Because of the modern media explosion, we learn of every national and global crisis almost in real time: wars, famines, natural disasters, and, yes, pandemics. Many are ongoing with complicated causes. Mix in politics and strong opinions on who’s responsible and right and wrong responses and its little wonder we feel overwhelmed. The result is that we often shut down and feel some mixture of frustration, apathy, anxiety, anger, despair, and depression.
Bolz-Weber picks up an idea of Marcus Aurelius but also attributed to Francis of Assisi on his deathbed: I must do what is mine to do. She writes:
Every day of my life I ask myself three discernment questions …:
What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do?
What’s MINE to say and what’s NOT mine to say?
And the third one is harder:
What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?
To be clear – that is not to say that it is not worthy to be cared about by SOMEONE, only that my effectiveness in the world cannot extend to every worthy to be cared about event and situation. It’s not an issue of values, it’s an issue of MATH….
I only have so much water in my bucket to help with the fires. The more exposure I have to the fires I have NO WATER to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires close enough to fight once my bucket is full again.
So I try and tell myself that It’s ok to focus on one fire. It’s ok to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about. That’s enough.
As Bolz-Weber says, for Christians this is a question of discernment, an ancient spiritual practice. It involves both self-awareness and understanding and an openness to the movement of the Spirit in our live. Fundamentally it requires an experience of God’s grace: knowing that we are not called to save the world, but in response to God’s love we reach out to serve where we can. And that’s enough.
As I said, I am doubtful that our planet will avoid the multiple crises looming ahead and indeed already appearing. However, a brief survey of history shows that crisis is at least as much a part of human experience as peace and tranquility—and we aren’t given much choice in the matter.
We do have the choice of how to live and respond in such times, however. There are multiple stories from Holocaust survivors about how a few individuals were remarkably able to bring light and life into the concentration camps. Their experiences and fates were no different than anyone else’s but somehow, they didn’t focus on that but on the needs of those around them. And most important they conveyed to others their conviction that whatever the circumstances, life is worth living.
Christians are not called to be optimists, but we are called to live in faith and hope. These aren’t based on persons, ideas, strategies, or techniques but on the awareness of God’s presence within and around us, always and in all situations. And as Paul says, the expression of our faith and hope is love. Thus, the question, “What is mine to do?” is really the question, “Who is mine to love?” at this time and in this place.
Blessings in your life and ministry.