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I must say that your letter caught me by complete surprise, but also with considerable delight. After all these years! From time to time someone or other would mention your name, but I never got enough accompanying gossip to give me any sense of your life, so the forty years since we last saw each other at university graduation are a virtual silence.
It is true, as you say, that we have lived very different lives. But I wonder how different, really. Externally different, to be sure: you wandering the face of the earth with your large doubts, I working the small acreage of my parish, husbanding my small faith; you leaving the Faith, I staying in it. But as I read your letter, I could still hear the cadence of your voice in those sentences and could feel again the old intimacies of spirit that we experienced in the years of our growing up together and that made us such fast friends.
So maybe our lives have not been so different after all. For both of us, God has held the center of our awareness and action. The contrast between your shaking your fist at him and my shaking hands with him may not be as significant as that it is God who has dominated both of our lives; we have both known that it is God with whom we have been dealing from start to finish. Your statement 'There has hardly been a moment when I haven't been aware of the God against whom I protested so much' struck me as ironic: you in your unbelieving have probably thought about God more than I have in my believing. Companions relax and take many things for granted; competitors have to be constantly on the alert.
I like the way you put it: 'I've finally decided to quit competing with God and join him.' Do you realize how biblically you have phrased your decision? For life's basic decision is rarely, if ever, whether to believe in God or not, but whether to worship or compete with him. The biblical word in this context for competition is usually 'idolatry.'
At any rate, it is going to be interesting to resume our old conversations after this forty-year silence between us, a silence in which we each have been preoccupied, in our differing ways and circumstances, with God.
The peace of the Lord, Eugene
You are fortunate to have found a congregation of Christians to join up with. And so soon. Especially since you had such an accumulation of negative experiences of church early on. Wasn't that the primary factor in sending you off into your years of wilderness wandering? But you're quite right: you could be a solitary wanderer; you can't be a solitary Christian.
It amuses me to imagine the two of us, so different and yet so alike, you putting down new roots mid-continent, with me perched a little precariously on its western extremity, the taut forty-ninth parallel both separating and connecting us. I anticipate that we will find far more connection than separation.
The peace of the Lord, Eugene
Well, that didn't last long, did it? I mean your romance with the church. Did you so easily forget that it is sinners that God calls to repentance, and that a lot of them, having heard the call and decided that they like the sound of the good news of salvation, somewhere along the way ditch the repentance part? And now you find yourself involved in a company of friends to whom you are not feeling very friendly.
You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people. But isn't that just the point? You have nothing in common with them; but God does. This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people together and then patiently, mercifully, and graciously making something of them. What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things. Of course you don't have much in common with them. The church is God's thing, not yours.
You told me earlier that your motive for returning to the Christian way was that you had tried being your own god all these years, 'gave it your best shot' you said, and made a thorough mess of it. And wasn't one of your primary strategies in that enterprise deliberately associating only with people with whom you had something in common? You said it was a matter of integrity. And look what happened you left your first wife because you no longer had anything in common with her; your second wife left you because she no longer had anything in common with you. And how many jobs have you abandoned because you had 'grown out of them'? Because of your extraordinary competence as a scientist you never had any trouble getting another, and usually better, post. But your insistence on emotional or intellectual or vocational camaraderie on your terms has left you today with neither family nor friends.
And now you are back at it, second-guessing God's way of being God. You have had a lot of arguments with God through the years and tell me that you have lost most of them. Why not give up on this one too and just let God do it his way? The church is not a natural community composed of people with common interests; it is a supernatural community. And the super in that word does not mean that it exceeds your expectations; it is other than your expectations, and much of the other is invisible to you as yet.
I'm sorry if I am sounding a bit sharp-tongued on this, but I don't want you getting off on the wrong foot in this church business. Trust me, there's a lot more going on than you will ever have in common with anyone there. Go back to the company of those seventy or eighty people on Sunday, listen believingly to the Scriptures read and preached, offer your prayers, receive Jesus in the sacrament, and bless your neighbors. And wait for the Kingdom. It's the Holy Spirit's style to fashion holy lives among the inept.