Lately, I’ve been thinking about my friend, Charles, and missing him. He was a husband, father, English teacher, social worker, canoeist, bluegrass player, therapist, connoisseur of green-apple moonshine, and a good friend. He spent the last decade of his life as the Director of Student Services in my hometown school district, on the front lines of advocacy for some of the most vulnerable children in the community. It was a role he relished almost as much as playing Gordon Lightfoot and John Prine songs on his guitar.
Charles died a few years ago, succumbing to leukemia. Friends of his gathered on a scraggly piece of land along the Tallapoosa River in north Georgia for his memorial service. I am certain that we gathered exactly where Charles wanted us. He loved that piece of land and the river that runs through it. He used it as a retreat for his body and soul. It was his sanctuary.
I use the word “sanctuary” intentionally, for Charles wouldn’t enter a church. See, there was always a rebel’s spirit behind Charles’ jolly smile, and he had lost a good deal of faith in politics, education, matrimony – in the human race in general. He seemed to have lost the most faith in religion.
He and I would often speak of religion. At such times I could always count on him to sum up his faith by quoting Emily Dickinson: “Some keep the Sabbath going to church; I keep it staying at home; With a bobolink for a chorister, and an orchard for a dome…God preaches – a noted clergyman – and the sermon is never long; So instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going all along!”
Yet, for all the lost confidence, Charles never lost his hope for living in a better world. This was, after all, his calling. He wanted life to be better, more just, peaceful, and whole. While often disappointed, he kept wishing – and working – for nothing less than the Kingdom of God (though he disagreed with my terminology).
The “Kingdom of God,” can invoke images of a faraway heaven where we will live in the sweet by-and-by. I don’t think that is accurate, because heaven is just not that far away. Jesus taught that while there is an eternal element to Christianity, having faith is not so much about moving up and out when we die; it is about embracing and fostering the presence of God in this current world.
Imagine (to quote another of Charles’ favorite musicians) a world with “nothing to kill for.” Imagine all people “living life in peace.” Imagine a world where the “lion will live with the lamb, where swords are beaten into plowshares, and justice rolls down like the waters.” But do more than imagine such a future – do more than simply wish for it – work for it. Implement it. Practice it. Live it.
I believe, with all my heart, that one day all of creation will be remade. I believe the universe will be divinely washed clean of all that has gone wrong, and the world will be set right. But I do not believe such faith gives me permission to be a spectator waiting for utopia. Such faith compels me to act, as Charles did, living as God would have this world to be.
So it never troubled me that Charles didn’t go to the “House of God” on Sundays. Rather, it encouraged me that he went to do the work of God every day. I was never bothered by his claims to have no faith. Rather, I was challenged by how he actually practiced his faith. So what if he wanted the church to be “better.” He was making the world better.
Let this be a challenge to us all – especially those of us who enthusiastically gather each Sunday or Sabbath: Not all of God’s work is done within the four walls of the church house. In fact, the lion’s share of it is done outside. And that’s good, because that is where it is needed the most.