God in the Gray
This is my camera. I have a digital camera too, but this is the camera I would use all the time if I could. It’s an Olympus film camera, manufactured a few years before I was born. It’s entirely mechanical, and that precision engineering can be felt with every advance of the film, every press of the shutter release, and every clap of the mirror and snap of the shutter.
I only load this camera with black and white film. That lets me save money by developing it myself, but it’s also the way I see the world. Even my digital images usually end up black and white. Stripping out color somehow simplifies a photograph, allowing it to evoke and depict emotion with more vigor and depth.
Of course, calling film or an image “black and white” is a bit of a misnomer. For most images, there is very little true black or true white. Instead, the frame is filled with a range of gray. Photographer Ansel Adams is noted for his iconic images of Yosemite National Park, but he also forever affected the world of black and white photography by developing the Zone System. It was Adams’ belief that the human eye is capable of observing ten gradients of gray, with pure black at “Zero” and pure white at “Ten.” More than any other photographer before his time, Adams stressed the importance of the gray values.
When making photographs in black and white, it’s pretty easy to see that most of life falls outside pure black and pure white. Most of life takes place in zones 1-9—various shades of gray—and yet it is precisely this grayness (what photographers call “tonality”) that gives an image its certain “je ne sais quoi“, a certain something that makes it meaningful, worthwhile, and valuable.
Our scripture text today has a certain something about it too—something that draws us in, something that we want to be true, something that draws a line in the sand. It is a text that has been preached any number of ways over the ages, but today we focus on the element of choice—”Choose today whom you will serve”.
Moses has called the people of Israel together; he knows he is at the end of his life. Moses knows he won’t be around much longer to keep them in line, and he wants to set up Joshua (the new leader) to be as successful as possible. So he recounts their journey, the avenues God has provided, the ways they have failed to live up to their covenant with God, and the expectations that must be met if covenant will continue. And then he draws a line in the sand—black and white:
Are you going to follow the one true God, or are you going to follow other gods?
It’s a clear-cut question, and it cuts to the chase in terms of Moses’ experience and expectations of them. Reading ahead, we learn that they will choose to follow God, but as Joshua leads them in to the Promised Land, the world they encounter is less the black and white of Moses’ choice and a lot more gray—and as a result, their commitment to follow God becomes less confident and more cultural.
You see, Moses paints the world in black and white, as if all a preacher (or a parent) needs to do is say “don’t do bad things” and everyone will make good choices from then on. Maybe, with the kind of relationship Moses had with God, there was a lot less gray in his viewing. But on some level, presenting the world as black and white to the Israelites left them ill-equipped to live life in the gray of the world they encountered.
Gray of the Bible
I feel for the Israelites. In the little country church I grew up in, preachers presented everything as black and white.
This is good and that is bad;
This is what God loves and this is what God hates;
This is what a good Christian looks like and this is what a bad Christian looks like.
Every choice—from the clothes you wore, to the haircut you had, to the Bible translation you read, to the denominations that made up the “true church”—everything was black and white. If it wasn’t black and white to you, then you probably weren’t part of the “true church” and needed to repent.
But like the Israelites, the world I encountered wasn’t black and white—heck, the Bible I read wasn’t black and white.
Genesis 6 says Noah took a single pair of everything onto the ark; but Gen 7 says Noah took one pair of unclean creatures and seven pair of clean creatures.
God tells Abraham that the covenant he is making is an everlasting one; yet God tells Moses he wants to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses and his family.
Isaiah clearly identifies the “suffering servant” as Israel; yet the NT writers believe it prophesies Jesus.
Jesus commissions a woman—Mary Magdalene—to be the first evangelist, communicating the message of Jesus’ resurrection to the (male) disciples; yet Paul forbids a woman teach a man anything.
Paul is so sure 2000 years ago that Jesus is coming back any day that he suggests people refrain from getting married; yet we are still waiting today.
These are gray places in the Bible—and there are many more. But life in the real world is filled with gray as well. Of course, you don’t need me to remind you of that.
Is Everything Moral?
I want to suggest (though) that much of the gray looks that way because we try to fit every single thing into moral categories: it’s right or it’s wrong; it’s a sin or it’s God’s will; it’s black or it’s white. But many of the choices we make every day—perhaps even most of them!—are not moral choices. Take:
My decision to wear gray or tan slacks.
My decision to eat Grape Nuts instead of Honey Nut Cheerios.
My decision of what time to leave the house this morning.
All of these are choices—some perhaps more prudent than others—but none of them are moral choices. None of them (for me, in these instances) involve a risk of sin. None of them are black and white. They are simply the day-to-day usually gray choices that make up life.
Making Gray into B&W
We create problems for ourselves and others when we try to make gray spaces black and white. If you start suggesting that my cereal choice is black and white, you are speaking only from your own preferences. To force your preferences onto another human being (or to suggest that your preferences are God’s intention for every other human being) is the height of pride and a denial of God’s image.
We do this with the Bible too. We pretend that the gray places of the Bible are black and white, picking and choosing a few obscure verses out of their literary and historical context and pretending that these rare references indicate God’s black and white will for all humans everywhere and for all time. This, too, is a sin against God and each other.
Muddling B&W into Gray
But just as severe are the cases where we muddle true black and white into gray. Throughout the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—there is clear concern expressed for those on the margins of society: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and other marginalized and victimized people. Jesus is clear in his actions and teachings in rooting himself into this tradition and understanding—it is a black and white issue for Jesus and the Bible: God cares for these people and faithful followers will do the same. But we try to make this black and white requirement a muddy gray. By asking our own 21st century versions of “who is my neighbor?,” we continue to act contrary to our calling and promote our own interests above those for whom God and Jesus show the most concern.
So what do we do? How do we discern true black and white in a world of gray? How do we separate our moral choices and obligations from the mundane decisions of life? And maybe more important: Where is God in all this?
Let me start with the last question: God is in the gray because that is where we live. God loves us so much that Jesus emptied himself and broke into our gray world, living and breathing and loving and suffering and dying among the gray, just like the rest of us.
But not just like the rest of us, because Jesus’ death is not the end of his story, nor was it another death of another rabble-rousing Jew in the first century. In his life and death, Jesus reveals for us the most complete picture of who God is and how we humans were made to be and live. In his death on the cross—innocent as he was—he broke the cycles of violence and hate, providing a way for us to live a new way. In his resurrection, we have hope of being raised to new life when he returns.
The way we learn to discern true black and white in a world of gray is to disciple the Truth. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” If you want to know black and white, you need to know truth. You need to disciple the truth. That means you need to so completely internalize the life, teachings, actions, and way of Jesus that your choices and actions and interactions are identical to those of him. If Jesus is the Truth, then even the Bible itself needs filtered through the sieve of Jesus in order to determine true black and true white. If it doesn’t align with Jesus’ teachings or actions, then perhaps it is best left gray.
But gray can be beautiful too. Just like the photographs I admire, the author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly urges his audience to find joy and purpose in the mundane gray of life. Over and over his remedy to life’s bleak outlook echoes: Recognize the good gifts that come from God, find joy in work and in companionship, and celebrate life.
It’s that beautiful tonality that the photographic greats pursue. It’s that beautiful life that allows us to walk the path of our Savior through this very real world and into the next.
We thank you, God,
that you may be found in the gray of life.
Help us to mentor the Truth:
recognizing black for black,
white for white,
and gray for gray.
In all of life’s circumstances,
teach us to find joy,
to discover friends,
and to recognize that every good gift comes from you.
In every decision and circumstance,
give us courage to follow Jesus,
regardless of consequence,
and regardless of expectations.
Give us the faith
to take him at his word.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.