It’s been curious to watch the news go back and forth all week about Billy Graham. On the one hand, accolades. On the other hand, the usual hue and cry that Christians are bad and this Christian was the worst of the lot. And in the same breath, his son has ruined it all.
It did make me begin to feel nostalgic for a simpler and friendlier past. I’m not big on nostalgia, as you know. I don’t think you can look at years and generations gone by and then at the present and always conclude that yesterday was better than today. The only reason to do that is because it’s easier to write beautifully about yesterday. You can shape and shadow it so that it looks nicer than when you were in the middle of it, hunched over on a cassock in your grandparent’s dimly lit living room, bitterly watching British Comedy on PBS on Saturday night. Your grandparents loved Billy, and they loved you, but you were a horrible teenager. And boy did they love Billy. They loved his integrity. They loved that he could be trusted. They loved the simplicity of the gospel message. They loved the pleading, the urgent quality of his voice.
And what do we love now? Later generations will have to come and look, and hopefully be kind. As I sit in the middle of this culture, watching it unfold, it seems to me that we think we love truth, but that that love only extends so far as the truth is measured by the self. I must be deeply committed to my own truth, whatever it is, and I must measure every single event or word or person by this changeable, vain standard.
And, not surprisingly, this truth of me myself necessarily leads to an ever narrowing, ever fracturing discourse. Clamor and Isolation are married to each other, Noise and Loneliness have kissed each other.
Each theological issue, each news cycle, each tweet storm produces yet another level of breaking apart. I feel it in myself. In a few short years of social media consumption I have been taught that the touch of a screen is the primary tool of my mind, my feelings, my whole self. So far from writing, thinking, speaking, sitting and staring into the void, I am always, by the soft pad of my index finger, brought into lying proximity with hundreds of strangers whom I am invited to measure by the measurement of myself. I say lying because they are not really that close. I don’t know, in the old sense of the word know, any of these people, but they are on my screen and therefore, however momentarily, in my life.
But I could go back even further and stand at the foot of a failed tower, abandoned in the hot sun. I could languish there and wonder why it is so quiet. Why did everybody go away? Leaving the bricks baking and the tools jumbled in a pile. The silence settles over the landscape that once was filled with chattering unity, with people working harmoniously together, with the delight of a common purpose. But a purpose so ghastly that God himself broke it up before it could advance one brick further.
In other words, it’s very bad for me to measure everything by myself. But on my own, I can’t climb very high. It’s when you and I agree together on some kind of idolatrous purpose that we are in real trouble. The fracturing, be it ever so painful, is always a little bit provident, always a safe guard against the great evil of what two people can accomplish together.
So there aren’t stadiums anymore of people rising up and going forward for the invitation of the gospel. There are no millions saved by the power of the word, called out by a single tremulous voice. But there are lots and lots of smaller voices tucked away, even in the highways and byways of Facebook and Twitter. There are some small booths where integrity, humility, obedience to God, and love of the gospel yet reside. Many of these felicitous and kindly voices walked away changed from those stadiums, or heard the call on TV. They gained the power to stop measuring everything by the self, the miraculous inclination to instead measure everything by scripture, by the one who didn’t have to build anything, but was himself lifted up for all of us to see.
When two people find themselves standing there, looking up at him, with maybe a third pausing to find out what the big deal is, it might feel small, and impossibly lonely. But when they sit down in a pew together it’s really mercy and truth, life and hope, a settled rest while others go and come.