Outside of the Catacombs

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

I recall a sermon on this verse with the headings: “Be ready, be relevant, be respectful.”  Whilst that second challenge to “Be relevant” could be said to be a tad overplayed these days, one wouldn’t want to thereby be irrelevant either, right?

The thought recalled a passage in Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk, where she observed how the story of early polar exploration can mimic our experience of the church and ministry. She describes, in detail, one of the more memorable failures in attempting to navigate the Arctic:

“In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men embarked from England to find the Northwest Passage across the high Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. They sailed in two three-masted barques. Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a twelve-day supply of coal for the projected two or three years’ voyage. Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200-volume library, “a hand organ, playing fifty tunes,” china place settings for officers and men, cut glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware. The officers’ sterling silver knives, forks, and spoons were particularly interesting. The silver was of ornate Victorian design, very heavy at the handles and richly patterned. Engraved on the handles were the individual officers’ initials and family crests. The expedition carried no special clothing for the Arctic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Navy.” The last sighting of the expedition was two months after it had set sail.” 

Dillard notes that over the next 20 years search parties discovered remains of the expedition “…life boats dragged across the frozen wilderness containing chocolate, tea and a great deal of table silver. Skeletons were found, silently gripping settings of sterling silver engraved with officers initials and family crests.

Reflecting on the early attempts of polar exploration, Dillard comments: On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.”

Are we “sufficiently sensible of conditions”? The “We” here means people who believe in a living God, who has a heart for the world He created. The “Sensible” means awake to all the emotional tugs and tussles of the world we live in. So often when I speak to people who do not acknowledge the presence of a spiritual reality in our world, they point to the redundancy of the institutional church.

And I find myself acknowledging the truth of much of what they say. So if God wanted to speak to this generation (and He surely does): would he use the Church as it is? Dillard’s parable of the Arctic expedition reminds us of the crucial importance of intelligent understanding.

God save me from irrelevancy.

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