Where should our eyes be fixed?
I enjoy meeting people at the church door after a service, especially newcomers. But occasionally such meetings can be difficult- which is what happened on the Sunday before last.
The gentleman in question had, as far as I know, never been to Christ Church before. He was too angry to tell me his name, or even to me in the face, but threw remarks over his shoulder as he walked out of the door. The reason? I hadn’t mentioned what he called “the situation on the Mexican border”, meaning the enforced separation of the children of illegal immigrants from their parents by US immigration authorities. I tried to explain that it was possible to mention every item of current affairs in a service, but he didn’t want to listen. “The eyes of the world” he said had fixed there, but mine had been fixed elsewhere; and so he walked out of the door.
Was he right? Partly, yes. I had just come back from ten days in Israel at the Gafcon conference, and my mind and heart were full of that. On the other hand, I had in the service talked about the situation in Northern Nigeria, where hundreds of people have been killed by raiders, and school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, (see the previous post on this blog). At least one, Leah Shibaru, is still being held because she has refused to renounce her faith in Christ. Those children were also forcibly separated from their parents, and what they go through, (which may include rape), will be much worse than what the children on the Mexican border go through. Yet the world focuses on the latter whilst forgetting about the former. I have yet to see clergy and celebrities demonstrating for the release of the Chibok and Dachi girls, and the gentleman at the church door didn’t seem to want to know about them.
For the record, I think that the policies of the Obama and Trump administrations on the children of illegal immigrants have been appalling, and should stop. Of course it is wrong to separate children from their parents in this way. But I am not convinced that we must always say so in a church service. For a start, we need to beware of how the news media will focus on a fashionable cause whilst ignoring others. In the case of the Mexican border, it is able to show dramatic images of weeping children, which fit with a pre-determined “Trump Bad” political narrative. No such images of kidnapped Nigerian school girls are available. Furthermore, such images are easily manipulated, and seems to have been the case with this story. In this case, a widely-distributed photograph, presented as a child crying after being taken away from his parents, turns out to have been nothing of the sort.
The media is very selective in what it allows to hit the headlines. So in the last two years, the world has been outraged, rightly, by the treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Yet the Karen people have been suffering similar treatment at the hands of the Myanmar’s government for decades, and the world has ignored it. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the Rohingya are mostly Muslim and the Karen mostly Christian? The killings in Northern Nigeria have mostly been reported as inter-communal conflict between “herdsmen” and “villagers”, ignoring what they really are: the killing of Christians by Muslims.
So I don’t think that it would be wise to focus in church on whatever story is in the news that week. Sometimes, when people lead intercessions in church, they can be a round up of current affairs, plus the names of those who are sick. Indeed, they sometimes sound as if we have to inform God about what is going on in the world.
Above all, I don’t think that our eyes should be fixed where the world’s eyes are fixed. That doesn’t mean that we should have a pious indifference to suffering. Jesus famously told a parable about a priest and a Levite on their way to Jerusalem, whose eyes were so fixed on their religious duties at the temple that they looked away from the man who lay bleeding by the roadside. Jesus instead wants us to be like the Samaritan, with eyes open and alert to the sufferings of our neighbour. Moreover, it is right that that suffering being recognized and not ignored in our prayers and our worship; many of the Psalms are a prime example of this.
Even so, I don’t think that this is where our eyes should be fixed. Colossians 3:1-2 says:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things”;
and 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
“Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen”.
Christians have died and risen with Christ, and that rewrites our agendas, resets our priorities, and makes us see things in a different way. This can be seen in the prayers in Paul’s letters, which say very little about current events and issues, but a lot about knowing Christ better, the growth of his kingdom, and being strengthened to serve him. It is not the job of the church or the preacher to give a commentary on current affairs every Sunday. It is our job to fix our own eyes on Christ, and to direct the attention of others to him, as the Lord of every nation, and the only hope we have of escaping eternal suffering and separation in hell. That is the unique mission that God has given to the church: as Gafcon put it, “to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations”, and he is all that we have to offer people. One of the most moving things about meeting the Nigerian Christians there was seeing how their eyes are not fixed on their present sufferings, but on the eternal glory of Christ. When we meet, we should not ignore human suffering; but our eyes should be fixed on Christ.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. –Hebrews 12:2.