My musings on church a couple of days ago led me to look up an old friend. When I was in seminary, someone gave me a copy of The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell, who was described as an Episcopal priest and a private detective. The book is a series of short pieces built around theological themes. The opening story, for which I think Bell is best known, is called “Barrington Bunny” and is a beautifully sad story about what Jesus meant when he said we must lose our lives to find them. My other favorite is “The Porcupine Whose Name Didn’t Matter.”
Neither of those is the reason I went hunting for the book Sunday night. What I remembered was a small piece on the church called “Rag Tag Army.” Though soldiering has never been a metaphor that has spoken to me very much spiritually, Bell gives it a playful and meaningful turn. I never did find my copy of the book, but I did find the story on line.
Here it is:
I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on.
Do you see how the marchers have broken up into little groups? Look at that group up near the front. Now, there’s a snappy outfit. They all look pretty much alike-at least they’re in step with each other. That’s something! Only they’re not wearing their shoes. They’re carrying them in their hands. Silly little band. They won’t get far before God will have to stop again.
Or how about that other group over there? They’re all holding hands as they march. The only trouble with this is the people on each end of the line. Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn’t holding onto anything-one hand is reaching, empty, alone. And so they hold hands with each other, and everybody marches around in circles. The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle. And, of course, a bigger circle is deceptive because as we march along it looks like we’re going someplace, but we re not. And so God must stop again. You see what I mean? He’ll never get anywhere that way!
If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring the soldier back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches. And, after all, there are frogs and flowers, and thorns and underbrush along the way. And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God-especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him! And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long.
Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way!
And yet, the march goes on…
“Make a joyful noise,” said the Psalmist.
“Go and make disciples,” Jesus said.
I can’t find anywhere in scripture where Jesus – or anyone else – says we are to come together as the Body of Christ to make sense any more than we are called to make war. When he knelt in Gethsemane on the night before his death, he prayed, “Make them one.” I remember an old sermon illustration from many years ago that described a conversation between Jesus and a couple of angels after his resurrection. They were congratulating Jesus on all that he had done. One of them asked, “What’s the plan now?”
Jesus answered, “Well, the believers I left behind will tell others and they will come together in groups to worship and take care of one another.”
“Seriously? That’s your plan to save the world?” asked one of the angels.
“That’s the plan,” said Jesus.
“What’s the back up plan?” asked the other.
“There is no back up plan.”
“Uh – good plan.”
Photo is from photo essay, “In Darfur, My Camera Was Not Nearly Enough” by Brian Steidle.