“When the world falls apart, what can the good hope to do” (Ps. 11:3 ICEL)? The psalmist’s question has been with us for maybe 3,000 years or longer, and today it’s as relevant and penetrating as ever.
I’m not sure the world is falling apart – we’ve survived hard times before – but the news these days does make me wonder. Around the globe there are wars and rumors of wars. Terrorism and violence pervade our national life, including insurrection against our nation’s Capitol. Gaping social fault lines are appearing in an astounding abandonment of science and reason in many responses to the covid pandemic. We’re witnessing a growing, self-made collapse of the environment. And divisive rhetoric has become standard fare in our public discourse. Maybe your world falls apart because of a medical diagnosis, or because of the loss of a job, a loved one, or a life-long dream. “When the world falls apart, what can the good hope to do?”
Thomas Merton wrote, “We can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any moment . . . . You cannot rely on structures. They are good and they should help us, and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if everything is taken away, what do you do next” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton)? If the structures upon which we have relied are taken away, what do we do next? “When the world falls apart, what can the good hope to do?”
What can we do as the church – the body of Christ! – to reclaim our voice and proclaim good news, to turn to those around us who are fearful of heart and say to them in the words of Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, [the God who] will come and save you” (Isa. 35:4)? How do we stand firm in a faith like that of the Syrophoenician woman who elicited healing for her daughter, a woman whose faith, Matthew’s gospel tells us, amazed Jesus (Mark 7:24-30; Matt. 15:21-28)? How do we speak – and become – good news to a fearful and trembling world?
New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his 2019 book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, wrote about what happens when the first half of a person’s life comes to an end – when formal education has been completed, a family and career have been established, a secure life has been built and success achieved – and the life we’ve created collapses, when all we’ve achieved is taken away from us, or when it turns out that what we’ve achieved no longer suppresses the deep hunger that gnaws away at us. What happens, he wonders, when the structures that have supported us are taken away? “When the world falls apart, what can the good hope to do?”
Brooks offers some ideas about what to do, and I believe they’re good ones. He suggests we anchor ourselves in one or more of four commitments that provide a sure foundation for a life of meaning and purpose, four commitments that, because they depend on us, cannot be taken away from us: commitments to a vocation, to a spouse and family, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Brooks has his own explanation of what those commitments entail and the life that results from them. And I find some distinctly Christian perspectives on those commitments.
When the world falls apart, one thing we can do is make or renew our commitment to a vocation, to a calling in life, for that’s what vocation means: a calling. A vocation is not what we choose to do; it’s what life calls us to do. Referring to one’s vocation in life, Parker Palmer wrote, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation).
A commitment to vocation is really a commitment to being who we are created to be. According to an old Hasidic tale, “Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: Why were you not Moses? They will ask me: Why were you not Zusya.’” Most of us masquerade in costumes designed for us by our parents and by our social and cultural surroundings. We learn to be the persons others want us or need us to be, and seldom or late in life do we become the authentic, gracefully eccentric individuals God is creating us to be. When the world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to hearing and responding to our true calling in life.
Second, when the world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to a spouse and family, and that doesn’t necessarily mean our family of origin or a spouse as defined by others. You may recall when Jesus was sitting with a crowd and his mother and brothers came looking for him, and he responded by saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33, 35).
A spouse and family are those with whom we are in a relationship defined as an authentically creative response to God’s reconciling work within us and through us and among us. When the world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to living intentionally in a network of relationships defined not by our will but by God’s. We can seek out those relationships and commit ourselves to them at a deeper level.
Third, when the world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to a philosophy or faith, and not necessarily the faith of our fathers and mothers. Jesus was steeped in his faith and lived it to its fullest. Yet the only two people who were reported to amaze him by their faith were from outside his faith: a Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) and a Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). And while he first thought he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt. 15:24), he grew to understand that the gospel he embodied was intended for all nations and peoples (Matt. 28:19).
Jesus’ faith grew and expanded during his lifetime, and we can commit ourselves to the growth and expansion of our faith as we embrace a new and changing world today. “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face,” Emerson wrote. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs” (“Nature”). Our foundations hold firm not when we stand in the faith of others but when we stand in our own original faith. When the world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to growing in insight and faith to face what lies ahead.
Finally, when our world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to a community. Luke tells us God has placed us in relationships, in communities, so that together we will have a means of seeking and finding God (Acts 17:26-27). If we would seek and find God, we must look to our relationships with others. We find God where our lives meet in community.
True community is not a gathering of like-minded people. God doesn’t place us in community because we think alike – we don’t – or because we worship alike – we don’t do that, either. God places us in diverse and challenging communities so our relationship with God can be nourished, so the God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each person can be filled, so we can learn to serve God in equally diverse ways that please God. God places us in community so we can learn how to love – so we can learn to value each other as having essential roles to play in creation, even if we don’t know what those roles are; so we can learn how, without each other, our own lives would be essentially diminished; and so we can develop an ethic for living with all others accordingly, thereby manifesting the reign of God on earth. When the world falls apart, we can commit ourselves to building authentic community with those in whose company God has placed us.
Making or renewing those four commitments – to a vocation, to a spouse and family, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community – is a lifelong process and will not bear fruit quickly. But even if our efforts seem to produce no results and the world still seems to be falling apart, we trust that one day a light in exact proportion to our efforts will flood the soul. So even today we say with the prophet Habakkuk, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Hab. 3:17-19).