Birling is a little known sport featured at lumberjack contests. The trick is, roughly, to maintain one’s balance on a spinning log floating in the water longer than one’s opponent who is trying to do the same thing on the same log. This always struck me as frightfully difficult. Something similar is funambulism, or, walking on a tightrope. In both birling and funambulism, special gear is often used to assist the person, including the right footwear, and balancing poles (in birling, abandoned once the contest begins in earnest).
Imagery from these sports has found its way into popular speech. We might make a comment such as “he constantly has to walk a tightrope.” (One is reminded of the well-known section in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels describing how Lilliputian ministers were chosen or kept their rank by performing this task.) Or we might say that someone is trying to avoid falling off one side of the log or the other. When we point out that doing something is as “easy as falling off a log” (as Frank Gilbreth unwisely predicts about having his tonsils out without anesthesia, in the original film version of the book Cheaper By The Dozen), we are stating the truth by declaring its opposite – that staying on that log is extremely tricky, while falling off of it is unbelievably easy.
The idea is of course maintaining a delicate and difficult balance between two equally important and necessary things, in the face of not only our limitations, but opposition, including opponents who seek victory over us by “knocking us off balance.” It is much easier to go one direction or the other than to stand upright. Constant vigilance and corrective action is necessary to succeed, and frequently failing, then having to get back on that log (or tightrope), is the experience of all who attempt to master it.
It seems to me that the Christian life is filled with birling and funambulism. There are many areas in which fruitful and faithful service to Christ requires standing upright on a log or tightrope, often while life, the world, our own inadequacies, the actions of opponents, and certainly our real enemy (Satan) makes being swept off to one side or the other almost irresistible. Heart or head? Both. Word or deed? Both. Work or rest? Both. Grace or law? Both. Denounce sin or declare grace? Both. And just like folk doing birling or funambulism, we as Christians need to have the right equipment and know how to use it. For us, these include: the Word of God; the Holy Spirit working within us and speaking to us in His wonderful “still, small voice”; the wise counsel of our spouses, families, spiritual overseers and friends; regular and faithful preaching applying Scripture to our lives; and even at times the solid truth embedded in the rebukes and attacks of our critics, enemies and opponents.
We can also see that maintaining equilibrium doesn’t simply mean keeping opposites in balance. Rather, it involves understanding the mutual complementarity of both sides in a marvelous whole; appreciating the ways one cannot really exist without the other, but rather are mutually depending and reinforcing.
One of the hardest logs to stand balanced on is “truth or love.” In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul describes “speaking the truth in love” (v. 15). The reader, as always, should note the larger context of this phrase. That is, speaking the truth, but in love, is part of the work of the Church and the saints together, as the Church and its people individually grow in unity and in Christ, become mature (‘no longer children”), and avoid being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men….” (v. 14). The saints within the Body of Christ speaking the truth in love and so growing individually and corporately while remaining faithful to sound teaching in the face of opposition and false doctrine.
This applies so very clearly in the modern conflicts about matrimony in which every single area of godly marriage, including sexual practice and gender identity, is being contested inside and outside the professing church. On the one side, we have those who are willing to compromise truth to be “loving” – and so fail to be truly loving despite their good intentions. On the other hand, often (actually or in their minds) provoked by the increased hostility of our culture to sound Christian teaching and practice, we have those who claim to pronounce truth but do so in mean-spirited, hateful, out-of-balance ways. Since they are rejecting love for truth, they generally end up with neither, as their understanding of truth becomes twisted by their lack of love. Either way — truth without love, or love without truth — we have neither, and because of that, we also do not have unity, maturity, or any of the other fruits we enjoy when truth is spoken in love.
When we hear awful things like Pastor Steven Anderson celebrating the Orlando massacre because its victims were (mostly) homosexual, we do not see truth. Rather, we see someone with a terrible black hole where love should be, wielding Scriptures out of context as weapons to destroy. We have a man who is far more in need of forgiveness than the unfortunates he is denouncing and mocking. In the mouths of the Steven Andersons (or Westboro Baptist churches) of this world, the Biblical teaching that God regards homosexual practice as sin is not magnified at all, but lost within a terrible, sick, perverted lie – that God would ever rejoice in someone engaging in the mass slaughter of innocent people. I cannot judge this man’s ultimate state before God, but I can say that, so far as I can tell, “Pastor” Anderson and I do not serve the same God. My God delays final judgment not because He winks at sin, but because He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In other words, my God presents truth in love. He presents truth because He loves. My God, in His zeal for both truth and love, would rather sacrifice His own Son to a criminal’s death in the Cross than to see one of His little ones perish; showing Himself to be both just and our justifier (Romans 3:26). My God Himself not only endured the full horror of our just punishment, but He also forgave the men who stood at the base of the Cross who had hammered thorns into His head, spat on, whipped, and mocked Him, were taking public pleasure in His suffering. Love and truth. Mercy and justice. Each one-hundred percent, in harmonious, complementary, radiant beauty.
I learned something about this need for both truth and love, joined at the hip, when I was a fairly young college professor in my first teaching position. We had professors in this college who, despite the evangelical nature of the school and a clear statement of faith, were downplaying Biblical teaching on sex outside marriage (for example, one group wanted condom machines installed in the bathrooms!). Some were even openly promoting and defending abortion, with some students even claiming that one professor was actually transporting pregnant students to abortion clinics. Partly as a result, according to the Director of a local pro-life pregnancy center who sought me out, we had a high rate of sexually active students, pregnancies, and (sadly) abortions.
Sobered by this, where appropriate, I used my classes (for example, Social Problems, or Family) to tackle issues such as sex outside of marriage and abortion head-on, using Scripture but also empirical research to underscore the damage, risks, heart-aches associated with both. I counseled students about it, trying to be direct and loving at the same time, though I am sure that my carry-through was often of lower quality than my intentions. (I imagine my students often forgave a lot!) At one point, I even sponsored a “standing room only” debate between two local church leaders on the issue of how to best promote the pro-life agenda. Not everyone was happy about this of course, though students seemed to honestly appreciate it and the classes in which I dealt with this material were extremely well-enrolled and got solid course ratings. I wasn’t perfect, far from it, but I did try to be loving and truthful at the same time, and I did regularly get counsel from others as I tried to minister in this area, including from my pastors.
Being young and stupid, one semester, I made the class project for my Research Methods course a survey of students’ sexual practice and beliefs. The results were awful, revealing that the majority of our students were sexually active by the time they graduated, and that most of these became so while enrolled there, despite promises they made and the statement of faith each had signed. These were traditional-aged students, and virtually none of them were married.
Back then, when one did statistical analysis on the computer, one issued “orders” from a computer station that were then sent to a printer in a separate room, generating results on large sheets of green and white striped paper. Results did not appear on the screen. So if one had help, rather than running back and forth between one room and the other as one generated and checked requests for tables, F scores and the like, one would station a helper in the printer room to check results, who reported back to the person actually doing the statistical requests on the computer, sorted findings into various stacks, and so on. On the evening when we were finally ready to run the results from the survey data we had quality-checked and entered, I did the computer work, while one of the members of the class, a young lady, was stationed at the printer.
I realized as I was working that I had not heard from her in a while. These were the days before cell phones, so I went to the printer room to check on her. I found her there openly weeping, the results before her on the table. She turned to me, tears streaming down her face, and said something like “this is just awful.” When I looked at the figures, I agreed with her – I had no idea things were this bad, especially knowing (given how surveys of sensitive issues worked) that the reality at this college was probably worse than those numbers. “What do you think we should do?” I asked her. She replied something like this, “Can’t we just bury this, forget it?” I knew she was distraught, and of course tried to minister to her. At the time, I thought that her tears were simply a Biblical reaction to learning about the reality at this school.
The following year I had taken another teaching position and moved far away to another state. One day, I was working in my office in my home. My wife Kathy brought a letter to me that had just arrived, from one of my former students. I opened it. Soon, I had tears falling down my cheeks. I will never forget it.
You see, the letter was from the young lady who had been in the printer room that night. She said something like this: “Professor Ayers, you may not remember me, but I was the girl crying at the printer that night. What you didn’t know at that time was that, when we were running those results, I had just discovered that I was pregnant. What you also didn’t know at the time was that I had already decided to have an abortion. You were the only professor at [this college] who talked to us about these things. I wanted to let you know what happened. I wanted to let you know that I decided to keep the baby. And I wanted to thank you. As I write this letter, my little girl is on my lap. She is alive because of you.”
In New York City where I lived, a number of Hassidic Jews were involved in the pro-life movement, often quite actively so. They used to cite their Talmudic belief that “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.” Whether or not that is a valid interpretation of the Talmud is beyond me. I do know that, as each human being is of infinite worth, logically, this statement is true.
Regardless, I realized then what I still believe. I face pressure to compromise the truth. Not for my sake, or for my pride, but for the sake of not only my own soul but everyone and everything I care about, I cannot and must not do that. Wisdom? Surely. Discretion? Absolutely. But speak the truth as best as I am able to comprehend that truth. But I also face pressure to compromise love, to lash out, to hate, to feel righteous, censorious, superior. To focus on winning arguments rather than embracing people. And so I have to try, by the grace of God and with the constant help of others, to stay on that log, to walk that tightrope. When I fall off, to get back on, and quickly. Maybe, just maybe, someone’s life will (once again) depend on it.