Learning from Paine

We choose how to reply to today’s ‘trying’ times
July 1, 2005

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine, almost exactly 230 years ago, watching the birth struggles of a new nation.

Perhaps because the village smithy is no longer a common part of our lives, we may miss part of Paine’s meaning, for the trying of steel is done in fire, and Paine knew well the fires of revolution that temper and test the full mettle of human beings.

In another sense, however, all times try our souls, our own day no less than any other. Paine, I think, would have understood us, understood the excitement and even the joy of trying ourselves against long odds, understood also the fears that keep us clinging to the old ways. And most of all he would have understood the inevitability of it all.

Not long ago, I read a memoir by a priest who had served the church bravely and selflessly as a missionary in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Reading the record of those memories was like stepping backward in time, into a world filled with attitudes and practices and assumptions that today seem quaint and old-fashioned. (Remember the account books of heaven where good deeds were stored? Remember fasting seven or eight hours before receiving the Eucharist?). Yet this man was a holy man, and his holiness was shaped and nourished by these things, as ours would not be.

The fires that try one generation are not the fires that try the next. Only when we return to those old devotionals or those honest old diaries do we realize how firmly the gates have closed behind us. Only the wise, the reformers and the saints sometimes manage to ground themselves firmly in the eternal and thus speak to those not of their time.

Tom Paine had an advantage over us--he lived in a time when change came more slowly than it does to us. Letters traveled by coach, England and Europe lay on the other side of a broad and capricious ocean, newspapers were printed one at a time on hand presses and handed out at the door of the shop.

Today we live in a world of instant communication anywhere on the globe, a worldwide community of nations, not all of which live as we do, think as we do or behave as we do. The predator and the corrupt still walk among us as they always have, and some of them are equipped with power we could not have imagined even a few years ago.

Change is coming at us faster than we can assimilate it: Is it any wonder that some of us are clinging to the past as desperately as if it were a lifeboat?

It’s time for us all to stop and take a deep breath and allow ourselves to realize that the moral issues that so concern us now are only the beginning. We are going to be making ethical choices about the very nature of human life, about our responsibilities in a global society where some grow obese and others starve, about a blue planet now giving evidence that it is beginning to be very sick indeed.

The times that will try our souls are here, and the only question left to be answered is how we meet them, whether we shall flee into despair or rise up tempered and flexible and strong.
These choices can be made and these problems can be solved, but only if we are -- all of us -- willing to do the hard work of wise, calm creative thinking.

I believe we can and will deal with any issues that come our way. I believe that the church must take up its leadership in the way that, at its best, it always has done -- not by power or fiat or legislation but by embracing its true vocation of servanthood. And I believe that we cannot find such servanthood until we stand up, put aside our fears and remember three things:

We may fail, but God loves us unfailingly.

The Holy Spirit is acting among us, as much today as ever in the past.

There are only two great commandments, and the object of the second one is “everybody.”