GlobalView from Bishop Bill Atwood
Though I had grown up in church, I didn’t have any understanding of the Gospel, neither did I know Jesus. My church memories were not hostile at all. I had friends there and enjoyed youth gatherings and the opportunities to “wax philosophical” with other adolescents. Nowhere in the process though do I remember anything about spirituality. It was more a culture that welcomed questions and postulations, but offered few actual answers. I even remember telling the Rector of the last Parish I attended in college that I felt like had grasped the underlying message of the church as basically “being nice and not cheating on taxes.” He nodded and sort of grunted signifying agreement. He later went on to be a luminary in same-sex advocacy, had an affair, left ministry, and I think became a stock broker. (Not kidding.)
After I finished Emory University and my diploma was placed into my hand by a surprised Dean who said, “Wow, I never thought I’d see you on this stage,” I went into the US Air Force into Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), in the Summer of 1970. UPT is called “The Year of 53 weeks,” during which a full range of topics and skills are drummed into the students. The standards are very rigorous. More than half of our class washed out. Some were eliminated on medical grounds. One got the boot for using drugs. Most of those who had to leave washed out for failing to meet the flight standards. A couple chose SIE (Self Initiated Elimination) but didn’t say why.
After the 53 weeks, on July 8, 1971, we graduated and got our wings. We all waited to hear where each of us would be sent. I was assigned to a large four engine transport called a C-141 Starlifter. It was a big plane, capable of carrying trucks, tanks, cargo, or troops. It could even be re-configured as an air-evac plane, with 80 hospital litters to carry patients.
I enjoyed the flying, but always had a nagging emptiness. That sense of inner void led to meeting Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, 1972. I remember it as though it was yesterday. Having really heard the Good News for the first time from a friend who was the wife of another pilot, I prayed, “Lord, I will go wherever You say to go. I’ll do whatever you say to do. I’ll be whatever You ask me to be, and I’ll say whatever You ask me to say if You will do two things: be real in my life and satisfy the longing in my heart.” Faithfully, He has been doing that year after year. I can only wish that I had been anywhere near as faithful as He has been.
I vividly remember one day while I was heading out for a mission dressed in my flight suit; I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I was startled at the juxtapositioning of my two identities-man of faith and man of combat. That moment triggered deep questioning about what it meant to be both a Christian and a military pilot. I knew philosophically that there was not much difference between carrying cargo and dropping bombs, especially if the cargo was bombs. I knew that I had been drawn to fly the air-evac flights and did many of them, but I was still a military man and needed to come to grips with that. Many people assume that Christians are constrained to be pacifists. There are others though who maintain a costly commitment to Christ and still serve in the military, even in combat roles.
What the Lord showed me as I read history and studied the Bible is that it is crucially important to assess what faithfulness requires. I came to the position that St. Augustine was right and there is the possibility of a just war. Though I had not thought about it consciously, I was also greatly influenced by the Nürnberg War Trials, having grown up there while the echoes of those trials were still reverberating around the city. Eventually, I came to the position that it was possible for me to serve in the military as a Christian, but I also had to monitor orders to assess if they were lawful or not. Righteousness may demand refusing an unlawful order, but then it almost always comes with a terrible price when we stand against unrighteous deeds. Sometimes that prices is our freedom, reputation, or even our life.
The question at the heart of the challenging times I was facing then is much like the question we face in the church and culture today. Each query can be spoken from one of two different—essentially opposite—perspectives. One perspective will say essentially, “Lord, how far can I stray and still keep my salvation.” That is not, however, the way that faithful people are called to live. Instead, there is another way. I was blessed early on in my walk as a disciple to be taught by some very mature and wise Christians. They taught me that faithful Christians say, “Lord, show me ways that I can be more faithful; ways that I can be more closely conformed to your heart and will. Even if it is costly, show me what is right. Show me how I can draw more closely to You and to Your Cross.”
In this fallen world, the easy way is almost never the righteous way. It is also almost never God’s way. Of course, we should not choose a solution just because it is hard, we should choose a path because it is right. Whatever else we might say about choosing a righteous path, it is going to be costly. Those faithful leaders were very helpful in assisting me in taking the first steps of fidelity. They taught me how to weigh my heart in the Kingdom justice balance of Scripture and what to do in repentance when I came up on the wrong side. Over time, I was able to learn some things about how I was called to live.
As I look at the situation of the fault line in the Anglican Communion today, there is no surprise about the course that those who do not know the Lord will take. If they have not been exposed to the fruitfulness of Biblical discipleship and new life in Christ, they do “what their heart tells them” instead of being guided by what the Word says, or what the Lord says through the inner voice of the Spirit.
There is also no surprise of the actions that rise from those who are committed to revision of the faith. They are guided by principles other than Scripture. Often, their decisions will rise out of the core value of Paganism: what can be done to eliminate distinctions. Seeking to progress in the belief that all creation is one, they want to remove barriers between men and “god,” people and animals, and drop standards of judging behavior that result in distinctions they deem artificial. It is actually Paganism (that we are one with god, trees, dolphins, and each other) that motivates a great deal of modern undercurrent. Dr. Peter Jones of “Truth Xchange” has written brilliantly about this.
What is particularly painful for me is the situation with those who have known the Lord and tasted His goodness, but then look to see how far they can drift to accommodate “innovation” trying to avoid having to pay too great a price. God is very gracious. He allows us freedom. He knows that freedom is central to love. Freedom, however, makes it possible for us to choose rebellion. He even allows us to choose to separate ourselves from Him.
Recently, a senior Bishop speaking at a small gathering I attended said, “We are going to have to accommodate same-sex blessings in the Church in order to have traction in the culture. If they won’t listen to us we won’t be able to lead them to Christ. We will, however, hold the line against same-sex marriage.”
Of course that is flawed on oh so many levels! It is not faithful to Who God is, or what He says in His Word. It is a strategy that will not yield fruit. We cannot build on the sand of attempting to bless what God seeks to redeem and expect it to bear fruit fit for eternity. Who is the Christ to whom he wants to introduce them? Is He the Christ of Scripture or one of his own concoction?
Instead, what should be asked is, “How is it Lord that we should live and move in order to be more closely conformed to Your heart and character.” We should be seeking to move closer to the Cross, not see how far we can stray from it and still keep it in sight. I am convinced that the perspective of those who discipled me all those years ago is still the right perspective; pursue intimacy with God, not seek to find how far we can compromise without falling off the edge into oblivion. One of the most challenging areas is how many compromises we are willing to make in order to get funding.
Institutionally, I’m glad to say that the Bishops in the Anglican Church in North America are, as a group, approaching challenging times. Learning from those who gave us refuge overseas, we seek to be found faithful to Scripture. As it turns out, we got much more from courageous leaders in overseas provinces than institutional refuge. We were also exposed to men and women who hold following Christ as the highest ideal. Higher even than life itself.
When our Bishops meet, we talk about how He may call us to sacrifice and what it means to be faithful. When we gather, we share, study, and pray asking Him to lead us, instead of just asking God to bless our plans. It is vastly different from my experience of the church of almost thirty years of ministry before. I cannot remember ever hearing people say, “How can we be more fully conformed to Christ? How can we be found more fully faithful?”
In the old days of ministry, I remember hearing lots of people say essentially, “God should bless our plan because our ideas and efforts are so good and well intentioned.” In far too many cases, they weren’t, and He didn’t.
Here are some areas in which we need to be called to account, to live our lives faithfully for Christ in the midst of what is happening around us. Christians are called to find how to live in the midst of the way:
- Radicals kill and maim
- The faith is being distorted in parts of the church
- Some government leaders betray their people
- Some people with resources consume, acquire, and waste without regard for others
- We live segmented lives, claiming holiness in one sphere and discarding it in another
- We treat those with whom we disagree
- We respond to violence
- We protect those who are under assault
What we do matters. It matters for us, it matters for our churches and families, and it matters for others. It even matters for our enemies. Sometimes we have to act decisively to interdict evil and its impact on people who are largely defenseless. Sometimes the most loving thing to do in a situation is to cry out and act with an emphatic “No!” that confronts evil. We don’t do that because it is easy. We shouldn’t choose it because it is hard, even though it probably is. We should do it because it is right.
In 1973, Howard Ball, an associate of Campus Crusade said, “Many people think it is hard to live a faithful Christian life. That’s ridiculous. It’s not hard; it’s humanly impossible.” By that he meant that we could not live a righteous Christian life in our own strength. Thankfully, we are not left on our own. Through the presence of Christ, with the experience of the Father’s love and acceptance, when we seek the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians can face dreadful circumstances with hope, clarity, fidelity, and godly love. Many are doing it every day. I pray that more of us will. I pray that I will.
The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood is Bishop of the ACNA’s International Diocese and an American Anglican Council contributing author.