Vol 7, Num 10 :: 2008.05.16 — 2008.05.30
Like the contemplative movement inspired by the monastics of the fourth century, or the holiness movement through Methodism in the eighteenth, it seems (I don’t think it’s just my own experience) that the Church is undergoing a bit of renewal at the dawn of the twenty-first, too. And it has something to do with work.
I grew up in a church tradition that preached the imminent doom of the world and the corresponding hasty necessity for (soul-only) evangelism. My work was to preach the Gospel swiftly, and to secure as many converts for Heaven as possible. Heaven was our home, of course, and it would come when God said it would. Soon, we knew. We didn’t use the term “Kingdom” much, probably because it sounded too historical and earthly, and there was certainly no talk of “building” the Kingdom, except when referring to altar calls. We all knew the visible world would go up in smoke momentarily, so our work was simply to gather the harvest and wait.
But there is a re-drawing of Heaven going on. In this movement, “Left Behind” isn’t a reference to the non-believers who missed the trumpet call. Rather, it refers to the Christians. Believers are here for good because this—the terra firma you and I are standing on—is the future location of the New Heavens and New Earth. Christ will reign right here, not in a cloud- and cherubim-filled outer world. In the new drawing, prominent Christian publishers print books like Heaven is Not My Home by Paul Marshall, Heaven is a Place on Earth by Michael Wittmer and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright.
This re-drawing has substantial implications for how we live our daily lives, and particularly for how we view the role and importance of work. If heaven is clouds and harps, then every earthly thing in my life is eternally invalid, or at most, irrelevant. Houses, trees, family, transportation, jobs…it’s all temporal and therefore seriously meaning-impaired. But if heaven is every earthly thing made new, then suddenly these items matter because we understand them as originally intended. They were called “good” for a reason and no amount of human sin can make them forever un-good, work included.
In contrast to my childhood eschatology and its earthly implications, work has a very different meaning for me today. I work for an organization whose annual conference implores students to envision living out the Christian faith through their future nine-to-five jobs. I don’t mean just reading the Bible in the lunchroom at their nine-to-five jobs. I mean through, as in engineering irrigation systems in drought-prone climates, writing foreign language textbooks that promote understanding between urban blacks and Latinos and proposing law reform to combat global slave trade. Oh, we’re still commissioning them to share the Good News, but their jobs are now an integral part of that central mission, not simply a chore to help pass the time until they get to heaven, or a covert means of meeting non-Christians.
A different meaning of work is also reflected in what I promote, such as the mission of Redeemer Church’s Center for Faith and Work in Manhattan. I read vocation-focused magazines like Comment and lecture on the practical and theological significance of a job. My own blog, for goodness’ sake, is an encouragement to students and practitioners of pop culture advertising! The re-drawing of heaven has seriously shifted the way I live. But it has also opened a new category of questions: as co-laborers with the risen Jesus, how big is the task of building the Kingdom? Are we making progress? How long till the work is done? Are we really “building” or just creating some sort of signpost—an attractive sampler for potential clients (i.e. an updated version of the descriptions from previous generations: “streets of gold,” “mansions with many rooms,” “white robes and angelic choirs”)? And, if we are actually building, how much is our responsibility and how much is God’s?
Along with this new category of questions comes a new temptation as well, one that I’m calling Melinda Mae Missiology. I hear it in conversations about calling and vocation and building the Kingdom, and I hear it in me.
Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.
And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.
She took little bites and she chewed very slow,
Just like a good girl should…
…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale
Because she said she would!
Shel Silverstein, “Melinda Mae” from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Melinda Mae offers a very appealing formula for our twenty-first century missiology. It’s attractive and we’re tempted to emulate it because she not only foresaw a task in its entirety, but she also plugged away at it for a lifetime and then witnessed its completion! Eighty-nine years is a long time to sink your teeth into any goal, especially when success is unknown and unlikely. We want control, not unpredictability; closure, not loose ends; success, not futility. That’s the reason the writer of the book of Hebrews labored at providing the famous Hall of Faith: confidence is the antidote to growing weary and losing heart (Hebrew 11-12:3).
In the November 30, 2007 edition of catapult, contributing author Adam Smit challenged our short-term, shallow efforts at work: “In terms of development [in Africa], we want to believe that buying the right concert ticket or a special GAP t-shirt will really help just enough that we can continue going about our daily lives, guilt-free.” I agree with him that this type of pseudo-response is ineffective and even damaging. He goes on to say that “any attempt at redemption needs to have a working relationship with the suffering and misery it’s trying to overcome.” Smit is advocating a get-in, get-dirty, long-term commitment that follows in the manner of Jesus’ own work. I like this. But his last line caught my attention because it made me realize how difficult it is to know how much of the redemption—the building—is really up to me. He writes that “redemption addicts” are on a “mission to infiltrate, destroy, then rebuild the whole works brick by brick.”
This is a genuine tension-increaser because it looks so much like Melinda Mae’s approach. On the one hand, we are the hands and feet of Jesus. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done. If nobody frees the enslaved child, she remains a captive. If nobody addresses gang violence (even from within the gang), then the violence won’t stop. On the other, we are tempted to view this as a do-it-yourself, Build-a-Kingdom project, finishable if we simply take little bites and chew very slowly.
I know we need to stack bricks (not just get our names engraved in one), but how much of it is our responsibility? Fifty percent? Fifteen percent? Seriously, try to put a number on it and see what your answer reveals. If you and I have a lazy spell and only put in five percent, will the completion of the Kingdom be delayed by so many years? And if we bust, and give seventy-five percent, could we speed up the process? We know that no matter how much work we do, there’s still a load of issues we can do nothing about. Does this mean we take the job as far as we can and wait for God to finish it supernaturally? Are we merely grunt-work laborers or do we get to be finishing carpenters, too?
These are my questions and they pop up when I read headlines like this one:
Volvo’s 2020 vision: The injury-proof car
The automobile company renowned for safety has cast a vision “to create an injury-proof car by 2020” (Reuters, May 1, 2008, Sarah Edmonds). One representative from the Volvo safety team specified “zero fatalities and zero injuries in Volvo cars,” and then added an even more unbelievable goal of “no accidents in the future.” Well let’s say that every Christian college student entering every vocational field created similar goals. Now let’s imagine that the goals could be mostly, if not entirely achieved (Volvo’s current Safety Concept Car already provides rather convincing support for their 2020 goal). Volvo will take care of traffic safety and inspire others to follow suit, Supernanny Jo Frost (a nanny by trade) will motivate families across the globe toward healthy parent/child relationships, scientists will beat the cancer cell, marketers in the Truth campaign will continue shifting consumer sentiment away from tobacco use and eventually eliminate cigarettes altogether in America, Trevor Field will provide clean water for “water-stressed communities across South Africa” with his PlayPump project, etcetera.
These are do-able projects and we’ll see many like them accomplished in our own lifetimes “because we said we would!” Yet, they aren’t enough. The fact that they aren’t enough may be unsettling, but this provides no excuse for bolstering the Melinda Mae in us to try harder. Nor does it provide any rationale for apathy. Instead, it offers a chance to be reassured of our position. Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic Bishop who spent his life working for the poor in Latin America, offers a comforting reminder on this point:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work…. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (Excerpted from the poem, “A Future Not Our Own”)
We would never profess to be solely responsible for building the Kingdom, though honest introspection may reveal more of Melinda Mae’s Missiology in us than we thought. What we need is a Christo-centric missiology, along with a bit of Adam Smit’s conviction which pushes us toward Jesus’ carism and his thorough addressing of people’s needs; a bit of Melinda Mae’s resolve, where we live as if we could eat the whole whale in eighty-nine years; and a bit of Romero’s sobering perspective that rightly sees God as the master builder. Perhaps then this movement will lead to serious renewal for the Church as well as for the world who observes it happening.