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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Clerks and Dossiers

“Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!”

That Psalm 74 is a doozy, and it doesn’t easily resonate when we try to apply it to church life in 2017 in our (comparatively) easy-going Western world. The Asaphian contemplation of Zion in ruins appeals to me poetically and dramatically, but in our day the “sanctuary” (assuming any of us would recognize a sanctuary if we saw one) is not burning, and the enemies of God have not recently taken their axes to the dwelling place of his holy Name.

Well, not visibly anyway.

To the Lone Islands, Caspian!

There are a couple of chapters in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader that I first disliked as a child, then kind of grew on me as I aged. (And yes, I still go back to all those Lewis books ... er ... religiously.) It’s the story of King Caspian’s official visit to the Lone Islands, in which, instead being paraded regally into rightful Narnian territory as ought to have happened, he is unrecognized, taken prisoner and sold as a slave in the market. (Don’t overlook the allegory there; it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, though I managed to miss it entirely on my first four or five reads.)

Anyway, what irked me as a boy about the Lone Islands pit stop in Dawn Treader is that it’s full of clerks, letters, dossiers, ink-pots and sealing wax, as opposed to wizards and dragons. The latter, obviously, are much cooler and more other-worldly. Even as an adult, I’ve had enough clerks and their dossiers for twelve lifetimes. You can keep them all, thanks, and I suppose technically I’m one of them.

Psalm 74 is all dragons and wizards — or at least fire, destruction and sea monsters. The churches in 2017? Well, sometimes it feels like we’re a bunch of clerks sending out non-compliance reports and filing sufficient numbers of useless dossiers to choke Leviathan.

Meh.

Papers and Schedules

A few months back, I walked into the physical dwelling place of an old, medium-sized downtown church I’d had recommended to me. If the Holy Spirit of God was working dramatically in that building, he was definitely doing it on the sly. I was introduced to a bunch of soft middle-agers puddling around with paper and schedules. Amiable enough, but quick to drift back to their laptops to respond to yet another email.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing good was happening there. But whatever spiritual battles were being waged behind the glass of office dividers, they weren’t obvious.

That shouldn’t be the way of it, should it? Despite the fact that most of us laid-back twenty-first century Churchians rarely break a sweat over sin, hardly ever talk about hell, can’t picture the spirit world as a concrete reality and see at least half of Old Testament prophecy as near-meaningless allegory, we recognize that at least in theory “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Somewhere way, WAY back in our minds, a few of us are not entirely reduced to bureaucratic mush, not least because this is the word of God speaking. Even if we can’t picture it and have never seen it, God himself has declared through his apostles that it is so. Orthodoxy and simple faith demand that we assert it too.

An Enemy Has Done This

And in fact those dire warnings of Asaph’s day are not without their counterpart in twenty-first century Christendom. In the Lord’s kingdom parable, when the servants tell the master of the house that his wheat field is full of weeds, he replies, “An enemy has done this.” That’s the kingdom of heaven for you. We’re in a war, and there are stakes, enemies, lost territory, disputed allegiances and fallout of eternal consequence.

But in those parables in Matthew 13 we have the whole thing in a nutshell: a (literally) garden-variety agrarian metaphor that speaks to a potent and imminent spiritual reality. On the surface it’s wheat and weeds. What could be more mundane? Underneath it’s angels, the fiery furnace, the gnashing of teeth and the end of the age.

Do we dare fall asleep when such things are happening on our watch?

Flesh and Blood

Quite accidentally, I got into a discussion about Greek and Hebrew translation with a co-worker last week. It started from the most innocent and inconsequential trivialities about everyday French and English, and suddenly in the middle of it I realized I was no longer wrestling against flesh and blood. To all earthly appearances, we were merely sitting in an office lunchroom passing time after a very ordinary plate of burritos, but in reality we had been transported into cosmic territory.

Her eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Those are not small stakes.

I found myself talking about the fact that God has stepped out of eternity to communicate with man, and that being the case, then what he has said matters. If God has spoken, we must use every asset at our disposal — even if we are merely clerks and functionaries — to figure out what it is that he was trying to communicate. Our personal opinions are worthless. Only truth matters.

And of course then we got interrupted. By another clerk. There were dossiers to be filed. And we dutifully filed them. I speak metaphorically.

Crushing the Heads of Leviathan

But this is the nature of the Christian life, isn’t it? It’s small and seemingly insignificant, and then suddenly … it isn’t.

Anyway, when I read Psalm 74, that’s what I’m looking at. Applying the words of Asaph or his descendants literally to the church today would be a grotesque exaggeration. But if we are talking about hidden spiritual realities, it’s not impossible that the One who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to his fellow creatures might have something to say about my conversation with a lost fellow flunky in the corporate wilderness of the Lone Islands.

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