The Man and I have had a longstanding grumble about a certain road sign that we see as completely pointless. It's the one that tells you there's falling rocks. Really, what are we supposed to do when we see it? Leave the road? Duck? Come back in a tougher vehicle? The point is that, by the time we are on a road where that sign is deemed necessary, it’s already too late. We are at risk, either from rocks raining down upon us or from obstacles in our path. At best it’s an indication we should keep our eyes peeled.
This week at Safe Space we were thinking about stumbling blocks, which may be defined as ‘an obstacle or hindrance to progress, belief or understanding’. In the Bible it is used by Jesus (Matt 18:1-9) and about Jesus (1 Cor 1:18-25). In the former stumbling blocks are seen as inevitable, and in the latter Jesus himself is the stumbling block. Clearly then they are not necessarily bad; conflict in our ideas is to be expected at times, challenging and ultimately moving us on.
The phrase is used commonly to denote anything that gets in the way of our plans. We trip – over finances, education, job interviews or whatever, and are said to have reached a stumbling block. We trip, but we soon right ourselves, finding a way over or through or round it in true ‘going on a bear hunt’ style. But in matters of faith, are we perhaps more likely to give up altogether? Here stumbling blocks often involve the very people or institutions that should be there to support us through dark times. Rather than staying to work things out, it may seem easier to avoid the issues altogether – to get off the road.
For example: I have tried to list as many stumbling blocks I can think of with which I
have wrestled over the past twenty years.
The Church’s attitude to women
The Church’s attitude to sexuality
The Church’s attitude to the sick
The Church’s attitude to race
The doctrine of penal substitution
The Church’s attitude to poverty and wealth
The Church’s attitude to eternal destiny
The Church’s attitude to issues of morality
The Church’s attitude to mission
The Church’s attitude to prayer
Suffering, both personal and global
The Church’s attitude to science
All of Paul’s letters
The Church’s attitude to single people
The Church’s attitude to the Bible.
I know it’s subtle, but you may just be able to recognise a theme coming through there… And no I’m not talking about any particular church. Sometimes the block has come through one or two people; sometimes through a book, or a preacher; sometimes through an all-pervasive attitude. What scares me is that I am sure no-one set out to become a stumbling block to me; and so it stands to reason that at times I have been that for others.
What happens when I feel ‘blocked’? Sometimes I wrestle, engaging with the subject through reading, discussion and thought; sometimes I put it on the back burner. Sometimes I pray, and maybe get angry with God – for not making things clearer to me or, more likely, to others. The end result is either that I feel drawn towards God, or alienated from him. Fortunately such alienation has always come round in God’s favour, so that now I tend to not worry too much – it’ll sort itself out, given time. I just need to stay receptive to the possibility of that slow shift in a Godward direction, or occasionally, a Eureka moment. One of the most important things to me in my wrestling is to try to grasp at a God's eye view - to appreciate how different the perspective of a divine, all-loving being must be. God doesn't zoom in and out, shifting his attention like some sort of almighty Google Earth; this God, the God that can dance through nebulae, and brush each blade of grass, is in all of it, all of us, simultaneously. The small obstacle that I view as insurmountable may be just a trivial speck to him; but he holds me, even as I hold it, and so wrestles along with me.
Stumbling blocks can be huge obstacles; or they can be small, unseen stones that trip us up and leave us flat on our faces. I read recently a travel journal, in which the writer visited the neolithic burial chamber of Gavrinis in France. At the entrance to the passage tomb there lies a stone embedded in the floor, over which many visitors trip. The guide shared the theory that this stone is placed deliberately, to force visitors to this grave to kneel in respect.
Perhaps stumbling blocks could develop in us a new respect and reverence for the God that sent his own stumbling block, so that we would not boast of any wisdom we had gained on our own merit.