I'll Fly Away
Don’t tell anybody, but I am a fan of Southern Gospel and Bluegrass music. Having spent some time in the Southern United States while attending seminary, there were certain tunes and lyrics that were so catchy you could not stop singing them. Even when a song seemed to promote a questionable theology, it was all I could do to force myself to stop humming the tune around the house. One such song goes by the title of “I’ll Fly Away” and has been recorded by such a broad spectrum of singers as Charley Pride, Andy Griffith, Randy Travis, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson and Jars of Clay. Of the many variations of the song which exist, one of the versions contains these lines: “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away. Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away. Oh how glad and happy when we meet, I’ll fly away. No more cold iron shackles on my feet, I’ll fly away.”1Great tune. Bad theology. Is this what David had in mind when he wrote “the length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10)? Was David giving expression to a desire to escape from the “prison walls” of this world and to be set free from the “iron shackles” of life upon the earth as we know it?
David also makes mention of “flying away” from it all in Psalm 55. When pressed about by enemies and the wickedness of men which surrounded him and were causing him to suffer, David cries out “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest – I would flee far away and stay in the desert” (Ps.55:6). Whether this passage influenced such men as Anthony the Great who, along with other Desert Fathers, moved in the third century to the Egyptian desert to seek a deeper spiritual life in complete isolation from others, is an interesting question. What is clear is that by the 6th century, Benedict of Nursia, considered the father of Western Monasticism, could write a Rule for the monks under his care which included the following description of the anchorite (or “hermit”) monks which Benedict considered the best of all kinds of monks: “that is, of those who, no longer in the first fervor of their conversion, but taught by long monastic practice and the help of many brethren, have already learned to fight against the devil; and going forth from the rank of their brethren well trained for single combat in the desert, they are able, with the help of God, to cope single-handed without the help of others, against the vices of the flesh and evil thoughts.” 2In this understanding, the goal of Christian discipleship is to achieve a spiritual life which consists in complete removal and flight from the world to do battle with sin and Satan in isolation from all others (and the church for that matter).
Rousas Rushdoony, the American theologian and philosopher who died in 2001, in his little book The Flight from Humanity, points out that the “lives of the saints” are sometimes painful reading. He relates the fact that “it was considered a virtue in Isodore the elder, guest-master of the church of Alexandria, that, ‘up to the very end of his life he wore no fine linen except for a headband. He neither bathed nor ate meat.’” 3In another instance, Melania, who had a reputation for holiness, rebuked Jovinus who had washed his feet and hands with cold water after a hot journey. The substance of her rebuke was an appeal to her example as being separated from the things of this world. “Look, I am sixty years old and neither my feet nor my face nor any of my members, except for the tips of my fingers, has touched water ... I have not made concessions to my bodily desires, nor have I used a couch for resting.” 4Rushdoony humorously comments, “we learn nothing about Biblical holiness from Melania, although we do begin to realise what ‘the odor of sanctity’ could have meant.” 5But do we still face this temptation to fly away to the desert today? Do church members long to fly away from their work place or fly away from struggles within the church? Does the church long to fly away from the wickedness of the world?
John Stott, the British evangelical theologian who died in 2011, sounded a warning to the churches in 1985 when he wrote:
Too many of us evangelicals either have been, or maybe still are, irresponsible escapists. Fellowship with each other in the church is more congenial than service in an apathetic and even hostile environment outside. Of course we make occasional evangelistic raids into enemy territory (that is our evangelical speciality); but then we withdraw again, across the moat, into our Christian castle (the security of our own evangelical fellowship), pull up the drawbridge, and even close our ears to the pleas of those who batter on the gate. As for social activity, we have tended to say that it is largely a waste of time in view of the imminent return of the Lord. After all, when the house is on fire, what is the point of hanging new curtains or rearranging the furniture? The only thing that we really should engage in is to rescue the perishing. Thus we have tried to salve our conscience with a bogus theology. [6
Stott goes on to quote some comments from a student attending a Christian seminar on the topic of the future. “Do you realise,” a student asked the speaker, “if we start feeding hungry people, things won’t get worse, and if things don’t get worse, Jesus won’t come?” The logical conclusion to such an argument seems to be that Christians, who of course are looking forward to the return of Christ, should do all that they can to hasten his coming, namely, ensure things don’t get better! Just imagine the possible slogans for your next outreach event which such thinking would inspire: “We are the Reformed Church of Any town, we care for our community and that’s why we want to help you become more impoverished.” “Are you concerned about political corruption, the promotion of sexual promiscuity, the breakdown of the family, and the re-definition of marriage? So are we. Please join us next Sunday for a special celebration service as we recognise things are getting worse.” Or perhaps your next youth event or an upcoming Youth Camp would draw greater numbers with a slogan such as “are you looking for purpose in life? Would you like to know God’s calling for you? Do you want your life to have meaning? Then join us for our next youth event as we continue work on our underground bunker hidden 1 km under the church building.”
Where the early church had its desert fathers, the contemporary church has its desert children. But what does the Scripture say? Perhaps the following three contrasts would be helpful to our thinking and to our evaluating of our own temptation to, at times, “fly away.”
Not fear, but FOR
In his well-known work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr makes this helpful observation regarding the theological difficulty faced by those who posit a fundamental antagonism between the church and the culture, which would drive Christians far away from interaction with their culture. He says: “the knottiest theological problem raised by the Christ-against-culture movement is the problem of the relation of Jesus Christ to the Creator of nature and Governor of history as well as to the Spirit immanent in creation and in the Christian community.” 7This is simply to recognise that we are not Deists. We do not simply believe that the world has been brought into existence by a Divine Being and then has been left to its own devices (either to evolve upward into greatness or to devolve downwards into oblivion). We believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is intimately involved with the creation – in the beginning, throughout history, and at the consummation of all things. We do not believe in fate or an abstract principle of devolution working in the world. In fact, we believe in the God who entered history and who told us categorically that “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” 8
“The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” 9Most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ did not seek to get as far away as possible from this corrupt world, but ate with sinners, spoke with tax collectors, drew near by “making himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant,” 10and taught us to pray that His Kingdom would come and that His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Scripture tells us that the demonstration of God’s love, a love which we are called to emulate, is found just here that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 11We can be thankful that the response of the Son of God to a world marred by sin was not to seek a spot in creation as far away as possible from you or me – wicked though we were, but that He drew near and was for us.
Not flight, but FIGHT
The temptation to fly away from it all is never far from each one us. Sometimes we fly away physically and move to another suburb, city, or country. We may physically remove ourselves from a difficult relationship at work, in our extended family, or in the church. At other times, we fly away mentally and escape into a dream world that we prefer to the real world around us. We may fly away to TV Land, Virtual Reality Gaming, or Online farming or social networks and relationships that serve as pleasant substitutes for the wicked world of reality. And again at other times, we may fly away spiritually. We may seek to withdraw spiritually from all that surrounds us and seek greater communion and awareness and experience of God within by immersing ourselves in thousands of books to read, web pages to surf, sermons and podcasts to download, all the while perhaps tuning out our family, the church, and the world around us. We may not physically move to the Egyptian desert or live out our lives on the top of a pillar 15 meters from the ground,12but we have nevertheless flown away. We have perhaps unconsciously or consciously adopted a dualistic view of life – the understanding that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between the spiritual and the material, the religious and the secular, the mind and the body. One realm is good and for God, the other is evil and for the devil. And for a good period of early church history, it was this emphasis on the negative, inherently sinful aspect of the body, matter, the created world, etc. that led some professing Christians (like Melania above) to equate, oddly enough, a lack of cleanliness with godliness. Niebuhr comments on the temptation towards dualism this way: “the dualistic answer has also been accepted in theory and practice by exponents of culture. Political defenders of the separation of church and state, economists who contend for the autonomy of the economic life, philosophers who reject the combinations of reason and faith ... Dualism may be the refuge of worldly-minded persons who wish to make a slight obeisance in the direction of Christ, or of pious spiritualists who feel that they owe some reverence to culture ... Radical Christianity has produced its wild monks, its immoral cloisters, and its moral exhibitionists.” 13But the Bible calls us to fight, not to flight. We are to “fight the good fight of the faith.” 14And if Jesus did not pray that we should be removed from the world,15but rather should be protected from the enemy within the world, who are we to pray against Jesus? After all, no matter what city, country, family, school, workplace, relationship, or life situation you are in, the answer is to engage the enemy where you are with the weapons and armour God has provided: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” 16And those spiritual forces are the same whether in New Zealand or Canada, on a pillar or in the kitchen, driving the tractor or pushing the pencil, mixing chemicals or preparing a sermon. In all things, our response must be fight, not flight.
Not flee, but FREE
Have you ever wondered what makes a good minister? Paul told Timothy that if he pointed out certain things to the brothers, such a title would be his. What things, you ask? “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” 17Some false teachers were forbidding the people to marry and calling them to abstain from certain foods – even though God created these things to be received with thanksgiving as good gifts from Him. No, says the apostle, everything God created is good and should not be rejected. We are free to use the good gifts of God’s creation with thanksgiving, understanding its purpose through the revealed Word of God, and in prayer for its appropriate use for our good and God’s glory. Therefore, I will take a bath (or shower) and enjoy it. A meal of vegetables and meat and wine will be my pleasure. We have been set free from slavery to sin and slavery to self through the redemptive work of Christ. We are free to enjoy God’s good creation, but we are not to use our freedom to indulge the sinful nature. Rather, we should “serve one another in love.” 18Holiness does not consist in removing oneself from the world but in living such Christ-like lives “among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.” 19I am free to live in God’s world serving Him and others and giving thanks for His good gifts, but I am not free to flee away from it all and forsake my calling as a Christian among pagans, or my calling as a member of His body, the church. Free to serve, not free to flee.
Despite David’s expressed desire to be removed from all the turmoil and opposition he was facing, he concludes Psalm 55 by reaffirming the utter trustworthiness of God in the face of wickedness. Though he is tempted to flee far away to the desert, his testimony is this: “But I call to God, and the Lord saves me ... Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous fall” (vss.16, 22). Rather than adopt the response of Fear, Flight, and Flee, we must be For, Free, and Fight!