Leaving Salem

I seem to have more epiphanies in coffee shops than in church sanctuaries. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it is the combination of early morning air, a clear head, and the aroma of boiling java that opens me to things divine. It may also be because I rarely have time to reflect while in church. I’m always leading a prayer, or looking at my sermon notes, or trying to remember the announcements or someone’s name. In the coffee shop I’m free of these things.

Just a few days ago I was in a local coffee house enjoying a nice latte and it was all rudely interrupted. Two blokes planted themselves at a small table next to me. I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping on their conversation. Really, I wasn’t. They were speaking loudly and in an unguarded manner. Someone in the next building could have followed the dialogue. They chatted about their work, the cooler weather, their golf games, and finally settled on the topic of the miserable state of the world. When you’re seeking a moment of reprieve, the condition of world politics is the last thing you want to hear about.

But I endured, knowing these two arm-chair diplomats would soon finish their cappuccinos and be on their way. Before leaving one said, “I wish Jesus would just come back today and get us out of here. Then everybody left behind would have to sort this mess out.” This statement was followed by a near gleeful exchange about God’s coming judgment on the world.

When they finally left, my coffee had turned cold. So had my heart. It was not so much their eschatology, that is, their beliefs about the end of the world, which chilled me. I have been familiar with their exact system of thought since my childhood, drinking it down with my mother’s milk. It was their hoped for escapism and stark abandonment of God’s creation that made me shiver.

Their solution, put in post-Katrina terms, was an air rescue. Thousands – millions – drown in rising despair, but a few are snatched from the roof tops at the critical moment. Those unfortunate enough not to catch a ride are abandoned to divine retribution. And maybe it was the casual manner such weighty things were discussed that contributed to my unease. The Apocalypse was handled with the same relaxed tone as tomorrow’s weather forecast. How was this possible? How could the destruction of the universe be spoken of with anything resembling delight? I suppose it’s very difficult to give a damn about the world, or the people in it, when our greatest hope is to escape it.

Christ entered the world, we Christians believe, as Divinity in the flesh – come to pierce creation with the hope of the kingdom of God. His message was not about escaping to paradise per se, letting the chips fall where they may. It was about living out that redemptive kingdom, now. When his contemporaries rejected this hope, Christ was struck with bitter weeping, his heart broken apart. And when Jesus looked out at the multitude of miserable peasants, abusive religionists, and corrupt governments of his day, he didn’t see targets for God’s judgment. He saw vulnerable sheep without a shepherd.

Christ was up to his eyeballs engaging the culture, not hoping for its destruction. Speaking of himself, Jesus said, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it” (John 3:17). To follow Christ is to follow this path of salvation. To reject this path is to insulate ourselves from having to get redemptively involved in the world’s troubles.

After reflection, my interrupted morning coffee was no interruption at all. I learned a few things about others, and more importantly, a few things about myself. While I do not share the theological escapism of some, I do share the same basic desire to find the easy way out, to isolate myself, to avoid the hard work of participating in redemption.

I would rather remain safely tucked away in a sanctuary, or a coffee shop, than patiently and deliberately enter the lives of those around me.  May God have mercy on me. In turn, may I have mercy on others.

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