Essay / Culture

Tangled Up in Blue

An hour ago I unloaded my things after a long drive down the 5, back from three weeks in Berkeley with two other faculty members, their families and thirty-some students. Every year, a crew of Torrey students and faculty live in Utopia, also known as the Westminster House in Berkeley. Mornings are for classes, afternoons and evenings are for reading and Boggle and basketball and impromptu karaoke and exploring that most explorable of towns, Berkeley.

It happens rather suddenly, as we find ourselves transplanted from finals week to summer commune in the space of one weekend. And, as happens in all summer camps (for, though Torrey Berkeley is certainly far more than a summer camp, it bears a certain family resemblance), there is an inevitable wistfulness in the last few days as people lament the coming end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity recently, and I think that’s to “blame” for our wistfulness. It is, I think, the relative simplicity of three weeks in a new city without bills to pay, jobs to attend to, with one small group of people who is your social circle for the duration, that encourages the relationship and growth that invariably occurs. It’s the unplugging that happens, leaving our lives suddenly less than full, that creates the space for reflection, friendship and rest.

This year’s theme was “Alive Together with Christ.” We read Ephesians every day. (Try it! Here’s why…) We also read the lives of a handful of saints talking about a handful of saints — St. Athanasius on St. Antony, Elisabeth on Jim Elliot, Sheldon Vanauken on his life with Davy, G. K. Chesteron on St. Francis, the life of David Brainerd (with some of Jonathan Edwards’ reflections), C. S. Lewis on C. S. Lewis, H. C. G. Moule on Charles Simeon, and the story of John Bunyan’s conversion. Add the medieval morality play Everyman and Shakespeare’s forgotten but wonderful Pericles, and you have a full summer school class.

Beginning with the story of Jim Elliot’s spartan life, it became apparent that the holy men and women possess a singleness of focus and affection. Elliot loved to quote 2 Timothy 2:3-4: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” For Elliot, this meant, among other things, putting off marriage. For a long time he intended to stay single, knowing that the practicalities of family life might keep him from reaching the Auca Indians with the gospel of Christ.

Most of the saints’ lives we read spent a disproportionate amount of time in the years of preparation (late teens through late twenties, typically) to fulfill that to which God had called them. These are years of temptation, years when one’s focus is tested by distracting goods. For many, marriage threatened focus. Vanauken’s rhapsodic account of the love which enclosed him and his wife painfully matures to the realization that a love so ultimate, so self-protective, so exclusive is a love in which God cannot make a home.

For Francis, it was private property. He sensed, and rightly, that “stuff” tends to weigh us down spiritually and sought a Teflon approach to possessions. For Antony, it was society itself that presented a problem, fraught as it is with distractions from the one thing needful. So he fled to the desert. Now, getting away didn’t exactly solve Antony’s problems. He was plenty busy in the desert in spiritual warfare. But at least he could recognize them as problems. The threat of distraction is that the real struggles against the principalities and powers will be unrecognizable to us. The busyness of our days, then, keeps us from the hard work of standing firm, as we forget that there’s a war on.

As he is called to a day of reckoning, Everyman faces the desperate truth of James 4: “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” This stark opposition lies at the heart of Paul’s counsel to Timothy to avoid entanglement with the world.

A few things to note. First, when Paul says “world,” he doesn’t mean “earth” or “human society.” He means “the world insofar as it is opposed to God.” Paul isn’t saying that saints need to hate trees and symphonies. Further, he doesn’t say “civilian pursuits” are wrong; they’re just not for soldiers.

And there’s the rub. All these great, happy things around for me to play with. Nothing at all wrong with them in themselves. It’s just that, if I want to be one of Paul’s “good soldiers,” I need to keep myself from being entangled with them.

Applying this to our daily lives is famously difficult, though. For an older generation, entanglement with the world meant playing cards, going to movies, dancing. For John Bunyan, it meant avoiding bell-ringing. Discernment is a key piece in this. I suspect, though, that we can often enough use the principle of careful discernment to evade the question of our own already thick entanglement with the world. Discernment then becomes about what I’m allowed to do rather than what I ought to do.

Many of us who are evangelicals have one eye in the rearview mirror as we drive as fast as we can away from our fundamentalist hometown. Remembering the “don’ts” that seemed to summarize legalistic upbringings, we rejoice with Paul’s dictum that “all things are permissible.” We have encountered the freedom of the wide-open space of the gospel. So far, so very good.

My worry is that we have forgotten holiness. We are enjoying the gospel’s freedom so much that we forget its call to holiness. We forget, too, that holiness is for the sake of mission and worship. The Father sets us apart to live as witnesses who invite others to live holy lives of worship.

Paul’s wonderful metaphor of entanglement reminds us that, though the decisive battle has been fought and the foe defeated, we continue to wrestle with spiritual forces, forces that would like nothing more than to insinuate themselves into our lives, to creep and crawl and cover us with worldly concern. They know that they don’t need to create titanic falls; they only need to harry, to worry, to distract, to get us to window-shop, maybe to daydream — that is, to entangle us. They know, too, that tangles are self-perpetuating. In fact, even trying to untangle a tangle can lead us to further tangles!

My last trip (of many) to Moe’s in Berkeley found me buying a few more books, just as one of my students was selling some of his books. He’ll be a full-time Marine in a few months, and he is working toward fitting all he owns into a small container. All the non-essentials, many of the essentials, must go. I’m a civilian. What’s more, I’m a teacher. So books are right and good for me to buy. But not for him.

I hope that, when I come to life’s end, everything I have, all my concerns fit in a small container, too.

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