We live in the best of times. That’s a short statement, but a statement which carries with it a long list of possibilities. It’s not very difficult to name just a few of the blessings which we daily accept as a matter of fact. We eat three meals every day and, generally speaking, our refrigerators are stocked with food that will feed us and our loved ones for a week or more. Most of us also have closets full of clothes — we certainly don’t have to wear the same suit or dress each day. We have ready access to doctors and medical treatment. We live on a continent where there is an overabundance of water; we live on a continent where God reveals Himself in breathtaking scenic beauty; and we live on a continent where we have the freedom to worship Him without fear of imprisonment. Our children may attain their education in either a Christian school or a home school taught by dedicated Christian parents. We may freely pass on our heritage in Christ Jesus. Yes, we live in the best of times.
But we also live in the worst of times. Our Wednesday July 16, 1997, Owen Sound newspaper carried a rather extensive article which was highlighted with the words, “Topless stroller surprises shoppers.” It reported that a woman by the name of Elizabeth Jaskula, an exotic dancer, had walked through downtown wearing only shorts. Accompanied by two male companions who were also shirtless, the 22-year-old had asserted, ‘“I’m allowed to do it. It’s legal.” It was the second time she had gone topless in downtown Owen Sound. Several men driving by twisted their necks around for a better look. People walking by either stared or ignored her. A number of women, the article reported, congratulated Jaskula for the courage (gall?) to be able to do what she wanted to do. Owen Sound Police Services received only a few complaints. In December 1996, Ontario’s Court of Appeal overturned a five-year-old conviction against a Guelph, Ontario woman who strolled topless downtown on a hot day. That now makes it legal for women to bare their breasts in public in Ontario. Yes, we live in the worst of times. The phrase “the best of times and the worst of times,” was coined by Charles Dickens in his Tale of Two Cities to open this book, which deals with the era of the French Revolution. A quick flashback into history can give us a graphic indication of the worst of times in that era — in the year 1794 specifically. The following is a true accounting.
Sixteen nuns walk down the street. Two by two they walk. They belong to the Carmelite Order. Hoods move gently in the wind and hands clasp sedately. They walk as if they were going to chapel — to worship. A tumbril waits for them. The heavy, two-wheeled farmer’s cart is the last of one, two, three, four wagons today. And all of these wagons are full. All of them are loaded with people men, women and children.
Listen to the first wheels of the tumbrils turning. They turn with a slow sadness — a hoarse grating like that of a man who is beginning to weep. The sixteen nuns climb into the last wagon. See, the smallest one, she trembles a little, but her partner puts an arm about her. See, the small one, she smiles now. The wagon begins with a jolt. The nuns cannot sit down. They stand together — as a family they stand together.
It was only a short while ago that their cloister was closed down. They remained living together. This was considered a crime and they were denounced. The wagon tumbles them to the right and to the left. People look at them through windows. Others, lining the streets, point and laugh. There are very few who look away. It is an offense to pity the ones who are going to die.
The wheels stop turning. The destination has been reached. The guillotine, that great, bloodthirsty equalizer of rich and poor, men and women, old and young, stands ready. In front of it chairs are set up as for a service. Men chat. Women knit. Children play.
The Carmelites pray. Their prayer, however, cannot be long. The guillotine works fast. It eats like a famished man. See how quickly it is the turn of the fourth tumbril. The nuns descend from the wagon. The first sister, the leader, asks a question. People can hear her voice clearly and they listen. “Why,” she asks, “have we been sentenced to die?” Fouquiet Tinville, the man who condemned her and her sisters to death, answers, “Because of your foolish attachment to ludicrous religious practices.” Immediately the nun turns. She calls out to the others lined up by the tumbril. “I have the answer, my sisters. We are condemned because of our belief. What a blessing to be able to die for our Lord.”
There they stand. Sixteen at the foot of the scaffold. No tears, but singing now. “Come, Holy Spirit,” they sing. Strong voices they have, and sweet. Even the little one, the one that trembled, sings. Now there are fifteen voices; now there are ten; now there are three; now there are none.
Without commenting on the misplaced faith of the Roman Catholic nuns, and God will judge them in the end, we can unquestionably say that this was indeed the worst of times. It was a time of atrocious cruelty; it was a time of hideous poverty; it was a time of hypocrisy; and it was a time in which a volcano of hatred erupted against both God and men.
Dickens’ famous line, “the best of times and the worst of times,” has a universal, all-time ring of truth to it. No matter what era we live in, both the best of times and the worst of times are present. The best of times should be particularly obvious to the Christian. Knowing that God holds every era in His hand, knowing that He controls all things, and knowing that all things will work out for good to those who love Him, is not just good — is not just better — but is best.
As Christians we must also have the capacity to see and face the worst of our times. There is nothing so sad as a Christian who is not separate from the world; a Christian who has lost the capacity to blush; a Christian who has lost the capacity to feel deeply the heinousness of the sin around us. Charles H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), wrote the following in a sermon entitled, “Maschil of David”; a “A persecuted believer! Are there any such nowadays? Ah, dear friends, there are many such! When a man becomes a Christian, he straightway becomes different from the rest of his fellows. I was standing one day at the window, meditating what my sermon should be, and I could not find a text, when all of a sudden, I saw a flight of birds. There was a canary which had escaped from its cage and was flying over the slates of the opposite prayer when he was in a cave” (Psalm 142).
“A persecuted believer! Are there any such nowadays? Ah, dear friends, there are many such! When a man becomes a Christian, he straightway becomes different from the rest of his fellows. I was standing one day at the window, meditating what my sermon should be, and I could not find a text, when all of a sudden, I saw a flight of birds. There was a canary which had escaped from its cage and was flying over the slates of the opposite houses, and it was being chased by some twenty sparrows and other rough birds. Then I thought of that text, ‘My heritage is unto me as a speckled bird; the birds round about are against her.’ ‘Why,’ they seemed to say to one another, ‘Here is a yellow fellow; we have not seen the like of him in London; he has no business here; let us pull off his bright coat, let us kill him, or make him as dark and dull as ourselves.’ That is just what men of the world try to do with Christians. Here is a godly man who works in a factory, or a Christian girl who is occupied in book-folding, or some other work where there is a large number employed; such persons will have a sad tale to tell of how they have been hunted about. ridiculed and scoffed at by ungodly companions.”
Spurgeon goes on to say, later in that same sermon, “I am rather glad that there should be some trouble in being a Christian, for it has become such a very general thing now to profess to be one. If I am right, it is going to be a very much less common thing than it is now for a man to say, ‘I am a Christian.’ There will come times when there will be sharp lines drawn. Some of us will help to draw them if we can, when men shall bear the Christian name, and then act like worldlings, and love the amusements and the follies of worldlings. It is time that there was a division in the house of the Lord, and that the ‘ayes’ went into one lobby, and the ‘nays’ into the other lobby. We have too long been mixed together; and I for one say, may the day soon come when every Christian will have to run the gauntlet. It will be a good thing for genuine believers. It will just blow some of the chaff away from the wheat. We shall have all the purer gold when the fire gets hot, and the crucible is put into it, for then the dross will be separated from the precious metal.”
Two things then are required of Christians. The first is that they clearly see and thank God for the ever-present best of times. The second is that, living in the best of times, they must be aware of the worst of these times. They must be able to hear the death tumbrils which pass their houses every day. The wheels grate and weep. There is one which carries a abortion. It wears a white doctor’s coat and has no shame. “You are the master of your body,” it calls out, “the mistress of your fate.” Blood stains the asphalt of our streets and trickles down our highways. And, like Pilate’s hands, these roads will not wash clean. And they lead to death. There is another tumbril which carries divorce. It is thin and ugly. “Come with me!” it screeches. The demand echoes across our lawns. “Come with me and you will be free! You owe it to yourself! You are number one!” But death waits for this tumbril also yes, death waits. Another tumbril carries homosexuality. It is a monster—abnormal and repulsive. Yet it thinks itself great, beautiful and normal. It preens in the cart, thinking it charms the world. “Look at me! I was born this way! Accept me! Love me! Honor me!” But death waits — death lurks. Tumbril follows tumbril rapidly. Pornography leers out over the edge of the next cart. Grinning, its mouth is an open tomb and the stench of its breath is vile. The next tumbril carries euthanasia. It is almost invisible — very difficult to see. “I am dignity.” It sings an off-key melody and crooks a wraith-like finger. “I am free will and dignity. And if I choose to die, that is my business. Do you hear me? And on it rides — to death — to hell! Another cart holds hypocrisy. A fearful apparition of a monkey wearing a clerical collar is seated on a wooden pew. Pretending to hold scruples and religious principles, it folds its paws in feigned prayer to please the public.
Other carts follow. And thousands upon thousands of people are content to walk the road with them — are content to walk alongside the worst of times without acknowledging the best of times. They cheer; they clap; and they dance. And there is room for everyone because the road they travel on is very wide. But it leads to destruction — to the devil’s guillotine. We are so used to seeing these wagons pass that we don’t always pay attention to them anymore. Filled with feeble attempts to improve humanity, with human attempts to usher in an earthly paradise, they are modern revolutions against the laws that Christ has set up for us.
True followers of Christ can never have the best of times without being aware of and being actively opposed to the worst of times. Christians must be prepared in season and out of season to promote the gospel of Christ. It was not the blood of revenge which was needed in the French Revolution to bring about social change; it was the blood of the cross. This is the blood that should be spoken of today to the myriad revolutions passing us by. Christ’s blood is the only atoning power that will save from the guillotine of death. It is the only thing that will change the worst of times to the best of times. For it is truly written, “On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove the disgrace of His people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 25:7, 8).
And then we will only have “the best of times.” Only time will be no more.
Mrs. Christine Farenhorst is a regular contributor to Christian Renewal. This article is reprinted from the Reformed Perspective magazine, December, 1997.