By Stuart Devenish.
What is the status of Christianity in Western culture in what Charles Taylor calls a “secular age”? How is the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—heard and experienced in this season “after” the hegemony of Christianity has faded? This parable is the opening gambit of my book Ordinary Saints: lessons in the art of giving away your life (to be published by Wipf & Stock in August 2016).
Once upon a time there was a village set on the edge of a forest at the foot of a mountain. The ancient landscape contained much beauty and many dangers, but the wise elders chose to settle their families in that place for good reason. A river flowed through the village, fed by snow-capped peaks above. It watered the vegetable gardens, provided transport to the markets downriver, and cooled the air in the heat of the summer. But what made the village unique was the healing properties of the water. The people in that village lived longer, happier, and healthier than those in neighbouring villages. It was the water that set the village apart and gave life to the community that lived there.
The villagers had long known about the benefits of drinking and bathing in the water, and generously invited passing travellers to partake of its soothing properties. As the news of the healing waters grew in reputation, more and more pilgrims came seeking to be cured of their ailments. As they came the sick grew well, the anxious were consoled, the old and infirm felt younger, and fewer infants succumbed to illness and death. Many visitors who made short visits, chose to stay longer. Many moved into the village permanently, building houses and planting gardens of their own. And so the village grew beyond its ancient boundaries as people continued to benefit from drinking the water.
At first, the old residents welcomed newcomers and enjoyed their new fame. They prospered as prices for their food, produce and land went up. Dignitaries and high-ranking officials came to live in the village. But over time the markets became crowded, the ancient forests were chopped down for housing and firewood, the farms struggled to provide enough food, and the streets became mired in mud and traffic. And curiously, as more and more people arrived, demanding to be healed, the life-giving properties of the water began to diminish. It seemed the mysterious quality of mercy that came unseen when gently invited, withdrew when people demanded to be healed without the humility of asking.
Slowly but surely, resentment between the old residents of the village and the newcomers grew. Anger and misunderstanding arose as the old residents tried to dam the river, and as greedy merchants began to sell the once-free healing water at inflated prices. And when the cost of rent also increased, the new residents began to steal in order to pay for the expensive water. Soon, the peaceable village was wracked by violence. What began as a healing stream became a river of sorrows. And so it continued for a long time, until the mystery of the healing waters became lost to the mists of memory, the people of the village now preoccupied with their bad-tempered neighbours, and their many illnesses and ailments. Misery settled like a pall on the land.
Few continued to believe in the power of the water or expected it to change their lives or make them well. But there were some among the residents—old and new—who found silent eddies where the water still contained its healing properties. They also discovered it in wells, in side-tributaries, on the banks on the far side of the river, and—on occasion—in the vegetables that drew up moisture from the water table below. Over time, however, the story of the healing waters became, for most people, no more than old wives’ tales. But those who sought quietly for the healing water, who asked for it in humility and gentleness and who continued to drink it and bathe in it, knew the power of the water was more than a fairy story … it was real.