It feels like the sky is falling.
I don’t mean to alarm you, as though you aren’t alarmed already. If my finger is on the pulse of American Christianity — and I’d like to think I’m at least somewhere close to the pulse — then I can feel the increased heart rate that can only be associated with a deep anxiety, even a fear. We are afraid of the unknown.
As some of us begin our time in Seminary and others are nearing the end, we all look ahead to the ministry landscape that we’ll be joining (or have already joined!) and wonder what we’re getting ourselves into. We watch as COVID-19 numbers rise yet again. We watch as stores stock up in anticipation of another lockdown. We watch as churches hold worship services headlined by political figures. We watch as the analysts warn of post-election unrest no matter who wins.
We watch, and our heartbeat speeds up a little more.
We can’t even begin to predict the lasting effects of coronavirus on our churches — not only the virus, but the mental strain of lockdown. We’re still unsure how the results of the election will (or won’t) be accepted, and their far-reaching consequences here and abroad. We don’t know what’s next. I can hardly tell you what I’ll be doing next week, much less in a year, and that makes me worry.
But somehow all of this trouble is good news.
I managed to find time to read an interview with Wendell Berry, a poet-farmer-philosopher from Kentucky, who was describing his admiration for the Shakers (a common name used for The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing). As their name suggests, these people were very aware of the end times — they knew that the sky was falling. And yet despite this knowledge, they worked. They planted their crops, and saved seeds for next season. They developed healthier diets for the elderly. And in Berry’s words, they “built the best building in Kentucky.” From all of this, Berry learned this advice: “If you know the world could end at any minute, you know there’s no need to hurry. You take your time and do the best work you possibly can.”
When we look out and see the end of the world as we know it — and perhaps that’s dramatic, but it’s exactly how it feels — we can settle into the reality that it simply isn’t our responsibility to fix. Berry states earlier in the interview that “the effective boundaries of responsibility are your own limits. There’s so much you can do, and you ought to do it. That’s all. But to sit here and hypothesize the worst possible thing that could happen and decide what we’re going to do about it… seems just a waste of time.”
We human beings have limits. We are finite. God is God, and we are not. And once we relinquish ourselves to that reality, give ourselves over to it, the anxiety of the world crashing down fades just a little, and we are empowered to act. When we stop trying to fix the world’s problems (which we have neither the business nor the ability to do), we enable ourselves to faithfully witness to the world of our limits (which we have the calling to do).
I leave you with a short poem from Berry, and I hope it comforts you the way it has comforted me:
Don’t pray for the rain to stop.
Pray for good luck fishing
when the river floods.
To Live and Love with a Dying World
Berry, Wendell. New Collected Poems. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012.