Amongst certain kinds of Christians over the last few years, I have been hearing the resurgence of a triggering term that sends a lot of people over the edge. The word is “slippery slope.” Not being a Baptist, I didn’t, in my youth, hear it as much as I might have, except when reading about the kinds of things that make Baptists dance (that’s a joke) and wave their arms (not in worship). Anglicans are not very interested in the idea—which the internet tells me is actually a logical fallacy—that if you do one thing, you might become more likely to do another thing that you aren’t thinking about right now. And then eventually you will do something else that you are literally promising right this minute that you will never do.
The fallacy part—and I’m stretching here because as soon as you introduce letters and symbols I have to back away and go eat toast—arises when you leap from something like (and I’m stealing this from the interwebs) “if you restrict gun use” you will eventually “be taken over by all the terrorist.” You vault, in other words, from one small thing to one big wild unthinkable thing.
In the Christian world, watching Baptists from afar, I think it went something like “if you let people watch those kinds of movies, you’ll all eventually become awful liberals.” Except that as far as I can make out it had to do with women, and certainly racism, and the sexual revolution.
As I said, Anglicans don’t worry about this sort of thing very much. They just go to church and avoid as much conflict as possible (at least in the olden days) and gently raise their eyebrows and tut-tut when cracking open the prayer book after kneeling for a minute or so as the organist plays a few gentle chords, and finding that the confession prayer has had the confession part excised from it, or that the Articles of Religion have been moved to the back and labeled “historical documents” and other sorts of not important at all changes to the common life of the church. Most people, I guess, might have worried about these little “adjustments” but the English ecclesiastical temperament is embarrassed about making a fuss and certainly doesn’t want to talk about “sex” or the “atonement” or anything like that in church meetings.
Setting the logical fallacy part of the matter to one side, is it possible to roll down an incline and, perhaps, end up embracing an idea or a way of life that, when you took the first halting step seemed wholly unthinkable to you? I mean, of course it is. The lections this morning address this very circumstance. “Blessed” announces the Psalmist, is the person who does not “walk” in the way of the wicked.
He did it to contextualize the gospel, of course, and because he was evangelically anxious about the wicked who he did not want to go to perdition. But he didn’t just announce the good news and pray for these bad people. He wanted to really “be” the hands and feet of Jesus. Confident in his own abilities and virtue, he moved into a house with them all, and joined in buying groceries and the occasional bottle of wine. Telling himself all the time that he could walk in another way should he choose to, which would be very soon, he found himself to be so horribly tired—exhausted even—from trying to explain how his life was not in the same grain as theirs, his understanding of the good and moral person meant something different. In the evenings, he collapsed into a chair, imagining that in just a few minutes he’d get up and go away. But he couldn’t. After a while, he was reclining amongst those who mocked and derided the kind of people he had, only a short time ago, counted as friends and fellow travelers. He finally joined in and himself became a “scoffer.” One thing, as it were, led to another.
Jeremiah’s tone is sharper, even, than the sort of dispassionate description of the Psalmist. “Cursed,” he cries, “is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” In this case, we’ve missed the gentle progression from one kind of life to another and are faced with the end result—curses. This person isn’t like the tree in the Psalm, that prospers next to the stream, unmoved, tranquil in trust. This one “dwells in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” He is a “shrub.”
Observe the difference between the cursed and the blessed. The cursed one “trusts in man and makes flesh his strength,” whereas the blessed one “trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” The problem with the person who walks in the way of the wicked and eventually becomes full of mocking and scorn is not that he doesn’t mean well, or have a lot of good ideas about mission, or even what God is like. The way to end up being cursed is to believe with total sincerity in one’s own judgment. Why is that a problem? Because the human heart—and I have lately heard this verse derided by some who claim to be Christian—is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” What appears to be good, to such a confused person, will generally not be good. Obviously, says such a one, I know how things should be. And so that person takes one step and then another and then another, until he is lost in a desert of sin.
The trouble, as Jesus himself intimates, is that trusting Him goes entirely against the grain. It is not the obvious thing. It feels contrary to self-preservation and even self-care. It is a precarious, nearly pathetic way of life. It feels like being taken and planted in a howling desert and being sure of withering and being destroyed by wind and devouring animals. It is full of grief, and sorrow, and trouble. It means living in an angular way with all people—wanting to get on peaceably, praying for and preaching the good news to the lost, not growing weary in doing the good works associated with the kingdom of God—but always feeling vaguely out of sorts. The blessings of this kind of life are measured out in anxiety, poverty, and loss.
And yet, the one upon whom God pours out all his blessings, who makes him so sure that he cannot be moved, who grows him into some kind of astonishingly beautiful tree planted next to a life-giving babbling stream, full of tranquility and life, that one against all that the eye can see or the ear can apprehend “trusts” him. That is, he puts aside his own ideas of what is good and necessary, and takes what God gives, however painful it appears, as the truth against which every part of him is measured. He sets aside his deceitful inclinations—so deceitful that he cannot even know or understand them—and allows God to order his steps and his thoughts.
Like the one who couldn’t have imagined saying or doing something only a short time ago, this blessed person discovers that God is enough. He is able to understand the scriptures and asses his own heart by them. He is able to endure what before would have been unendurable pain. He is able to speak about the works of God to people he had never even noticed before. He is able to endure the mockery and scorn of everyone around him. He is unshaken, though of course grieved, and troubled by his helpless estate.
He seems pitiable and pathetic, but, not being a tree by himself, because he has grown out of the seed planted in the ground, raised to life by the power of Christ’s own resurrection, nothing he does or says is in vain. He “does not cease to bear fruit.” Everything he does “prospers.”
“Rejoice,” says Jesus, “leap for joy.” Can’t imagine being able to do that? Take the first step and go to church. You won’t regret it!