Jeff Haanen

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Theology

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Theology

Why serving the common good isn’t enough

 

In past years there has been a renewed interest among evangelicals in “the common good.” Several years ago Gabe Lyons started a traveling conference called “Q,” which chose the tagline “ideas for the common good.” Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today, recently counseled evangelicals to restore the historic phrase to our shared lexicon. A conference in Virginia was recently entitled Common Good RVA. This Is Our City regularly features stories about Christians who are making “common good decisions” in their city. It’s as if evangelicals have self-consciously come out of their narrow religious enclaves and now are finally caring about elements of urban life we share with our non-believing neighbors.

But there’s something awry here. 

The problem doesn’t lay in the actual actions themselves. Cleaning a beach or planting a community garden is well and good. But what makes Christians unique in the world? Is it these types of “common good decisions?” Absolutely not. What makes Christians unique is the harmony between serving the common good and speaking the words of the gospel.

Secular people or people from other faiths make these kinds of “common good decisions” all the time. Take, for example, the Acumen Fund. The Acumen Fund is a non-profit that uses entrepreneurial ventures to address poverty throughout the word. According to their website, they’ve impacted over 100 million lives. They invest in social business, and have alleviated poverty through small business for people stretching from Cambodia to Peru. Health, water, housing, energy, and agricultural products. All accessible to millions because of their work. And at least from their website, it looks like God isn’t terribly important  to their organization. (The examples could go on and on, from TED presenters to the work of the Gates Foundation.)

Now, Christians would rightly say that this is an expression of “common grace” – God providing for the world even through non-believers. And I believe Christians should rejoice in any and every step toward justice and peace, whether at the hands of believers or non-believers. Christians are right to work alongside of anybody and everybody in bringing about relief for the poor. But I would still ask: What difference is there between this “common good decision” and that of a Christian?

What makes Christians unique is not their good deeds, but the message they bear of a man whose incarnation, life, death and resurrection has permanently altered human history and now demands the loyalty of every human being. Christians are indeed called to good works (Eph. 2:10), but they are called to do them “in the name of Jesus.”

This idea may be controversial, even for my fellow Christians, but if good deeds are not done “in the name of Jesus,” they can’t truly be called Christian. There is a deep tendency in the past several years among evangelicals to stress building community and engaging the broader world, but there hasn’t been a concurrent revival of interest in evangelism. But Christians who seek to live faithfully for God in the world must always marry their “common good decisions” with the words of the gospel. This doesn’t have to be annoying or necessarily happening every day, but we must give all men a reason for the hope we have (1 Pet. 3:15), whether we design residential homes or fix cars. The pendulum has swung the other way, and it’s time we brought it back to the center.

Consider the pattern of Jesus in the book of John.  When Jesus healed a paralyzed man in the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-14), he immediately explained his actions through teaching (5:16-47). The next chapter Jesus makes a “common good decision” by feeding 5,000, but then he also tells everybody that he is the bread of life. His miracles were meant to verify the truth of the gospel. Again in chapter 9, he heals a blinds man, and then talks about spiritual blindness. He always brought together his actions with his words.

In contemporary evangelicalism, many pastors have gone bonkers over “common grace” and “common good decisions”, but in the process some have forgotten the very public role of “special grace”, that message of God’s redemption in Jesus that is meant for the whole world.

We should not over-react again and then say that the fine people at the Acumen Fund, for example, aren’t important, or that Christians should only be evangelists and abandon the life the world. This would be a bad idea.  But what makes Christians unique in the world is the gospel. Our common good decisions should point to the gospel, and our words should make it explicit.   If we leave out the actions, the words of the gospel are empty. If we leave out the words, our actions are mute. Mission is built on the premise that social involvement and preaching are two sides of the same coin.

Serving the common good isn’t enough by itself. But when Christians illuminate the motivations for neighbor love with the Christian story, actions become rich symbols of the reign of God in the world.

(Photo: Water Fountain, Andrew Brandon)

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Theology

How pastors can inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide

 

I recently interviewed David Platt, the pastor of Brook Hills Church in Alabama, for  Christianity Today. We talked about his new book Follow Me: A Call to Die, A Call to Live – a theological follow-up to his bestselling Radical. Though the book had redeeming qualities, I found myself disagreeing with Platt on everything from his use of persecuted Christians in the Middle East as models for American discipleship to using hell as a motivator for evangelism. But perhaps my greatest concern was how he, and many pastors, can inadvertently exacerbate the sacred/secular divide.

At several points in the book Platt references persecuted Christians as models for “real discipleship.” At one point he says, “We have brothers and sisters around the world today who are imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, and killed today not because they smile as they serve people,” but because they tell people the gospel with the words. This is true – sharing the gospel is illegal in many countries. But I had to ask, Isn’t “smiling as you serve,” especially in one’s vocation, an equally valid calling as that of an evangelist?

I wanted to push him here because in several points of the book, Platt equated a radical discipleship to Jesus with separating yourself from your career for things like prayer and Bible study. He references Luke, a successful businessman, who grew in his faith and separated himself from learning about business:

“He [Luke] told me [Platt], ‘My insatiable desire for business books, seminars, and motivational speakers has completely gone away. God has replaced that desire with a hunger for his Word.’”

Again my question: is a desire for run a business well antithetical to being fully committed to God and His Word?

Katelyn Beaty, the Managing Editor of Christianity Today, must have picked up on this subtle sacred/secular divide as well. A portion of an earlier interview she did with Platt was merged with mine for the article, and she asked him: “What about, say, a factory worker who loves Jesus and wants to follow him, but works long hours because he needs to support his family? How would you counsel him?”. It’s a good question. Can’t factory workers please God, even if they’re not converting co-workers?

Although I don’t think there’s any malicious intent here, I think pastors can often exacerbate the sacred/sacred divide by equating real discipleship with more participation in church programs, service events, or Bible studies, often at the cost of doing their daily work with excellence and in the service of God and neighbor.

Skye Jethani, a former pastor and now the senior editor of Leadership Journal, realized how many times he had accidentally contributed to this problem:

“I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world. I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the ‘sacred’ calling of the church was pitted against their ‘secular’ callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.”

Nearly all the pastors I know want to dissolve the sacred/secular divide, but in the attempt to find ushers, children’s ministry volunteers, and others to staff church programs, bulletins are often filled with ways to serve ‘in here’ and not ‘out there’ in people’s vocations.

Pastor JR Vassar of Apostles Church in New York City said at a Work as Worship Conference that the real tragedy of this situation is that instead of sending Christians into the world to serve, pastors often take them out of the world – their secular work – to perpetuate church programming. He asks a simple question: What is more significant for the church’s mission: more church programs (and a bigger church), or equipping the Body of Christ to serve God out in the world, in their careers and the tensions of a modern, pluralistic society?

Theologically I think we need to understand two things. (1) God fills us with his Spirit to speak the word of God. The examples are numerous:

  • Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied… (Luke 1:67)
  • The Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said to them… (Acts 4:8)
  • And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word boldly (Acts 4:31)
  • As he spoke, the Spirit came into me…He said, “You must speak my words to them,” (Ezekiel 2:2,7)

Those who have been given the Spirit will speak his words boldly, and be engaged in activities like discipleship and evangelism. The Scriptures make this clear.

But (2) God also fills us with the Spirit to do work. The Bible’s first mention of the Holy Spirit is in Exodus, when two men are chosen by God to make the tabernacle.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts” (Exodus 31:2-5).

If both of these statements are true, we must speak the words of God, and we also must show the majesty and goodness of God through our work.  No such sacred/secular divide needs to exist, either inside the church or out in the world

The simple lesson: let’s not remove people from the world in attempts for more build more church programs, but instead let’s equip them to be salt and light in the midst of the world, namely, at work .

Discussion question: Does your church inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide? If so, how can this change?

(Photo: Church, Lloyd Photography)

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CultureTheology

Work and the Destiny of the World

 

Our view of the destiny of the world should deeply influence how we understand work.

In the renewed Jerusalem, there is a river flowing from “the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” (Rev. 22:2).  And on both sides of river is “the tree of life, bearing crops of fruit.” The tree of life, from which humanity was exiled after the Fall in Genesis, is now at the heart of the city.  The culmination of history includes both the divine (throne, river, and tree of life) and the human (the city). The great hope of the Christian faith is for a renewed human city, a day in which God will reign over human life, including our cultural production that comes from work.

This biblical vision of the future is radical, especially when we compared to other worldviews:

  • The traditional fundamentalist vision is that this world will be burned up in judgment and believers will live with God in a disembodied state in heaven.  The idea here is of a wholly other-worldly eternal state with little to no connection with this world. Yet the Bible states that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the heavenly city (Rev. 21:24), including their finest work (like the camels of Midian, the ships of Tarshish, and fir trees of Lebanon – see Isaiah 60). In God’s grace, he brings actual human culture, though purified by fire, into a renewed earthly city. There will be real overlap between our work here and its redeemed state in the new Jerusalem.
  • The liberal vision is of establishing God’s kingdom here and now through social and political action. Outlined masterfully in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, in the 1960s and 1970s accomodationists, both liberal Protestants and Catholics, emptied traditional theology of its other worldly elements and equated social justice and politics with God’s kingdom. However, the historic Christian faith teaches the heavenly city comes down out of heaven as a gift from God (Rev. 21:2). It cannot be built, nor can we transform this world into God’s kingdom. Each generation equates some social program with God’s kingdom – and in so doing is eventually disappointed as the reality of sin disappoints all our utopian ventures.
  • The secular vision is perhaps the most depressing. The generally accepted public philosophy of secular materialists sees a distant future in which humans will be long forgotten, the sun will continue its expansion and eventually burn up the earth. The great tension in the secular mind is how to balance the view of the scientific materialists with the myth of progress, still espoused by lovers of technology, despite the horrific events of the 20th century (and the stark suffering of places like Syria). Businesses and even government entities rally behind “mission statements” even though their universe has no mission other than extinction.
  • The Eastern vision of the future is cyclical. Humanity is caught in a never ending cycle of life, death and reincarnation. The world, as well as human culture, has no real ultimate purpose. This view leads to such desperation that Buddhism was born, and it’s great hope was placed in attaining nirvana – freedom from the wheel of samara and the ultimate extinguishing of each person’s light (the definition of nirvana). The statue of the Buddha, with his eyes turned inward, is the paradigm of this worldview. Free yourself from suffering through meditation –  let your light burn out in the darkness.

Each of these visions of the destiny of the world ultimately influences our view of work:

  • Fundamentalist eschatology devalues work. Why build a house or start a business when all that matters is saving souls? This view leads to a stark division between spiritual work and secular work – a view all too common in conservative American churches.
  • The liberal view overvalues work. It equates human triumphs with God’s own kingdom, and both denies the reality of sin that has infected work, and tends to make human achievement an idol. This slippery slope of accommodation also tends to lead to empty churches, as people start question why they should attend a this-worldly congregation that is essentially no different from the rest of culture.
  • The secular view is so dark, people tend to look other places to find meaning in work, such as prestige, innovation, power, or wealth. Work here becomes a slave-driver as people put unrealistic expectations on creation rather than the Creator, and can slip into hopelessness.
  • Eastern religions have a similarly dim view of work. Not only is there no human city in the future, but each person must try to earn good karma on his or her own. Work may provide an income, but it is not connected with any objective goal for human history.  History, just like work, has no culmination. It’s an inescapable cycle.

The biblical view is that the heavenly Jerusalem is a gift, and it cannot be earned or built by men. Yet, in God’s grace, he includes elements of our work and cultural production in God’s new world.

If we truly embrace this view, we’ll be work with both tremendous hope as well as deep humility. Because God is making all things new, we won’t join the fundamentalists who undervalue the nature of God’s good creation, nor will we join the secularists who look into the future and only see a dark universe. Nor will we will join liberals who believe God’s kingdom can be built through only political action. (Nor will we join those who attempt to “transform culture” through their work and cultural engagement. Jesus clearly gives us a picture of the world growing in both good and evil as The Day approaches [Matt. 13:24-30]. For those who espouse of view that Christians should “transform culture”: can you point to a single culture in all of history that has been transformed by the gospel?)

The key way to view our work today – whether it be selling ads or teaching second graders – is as a sign, or a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.  Christians are called to be representatives of a new world, who are yet living in this age, and to tell the good news through both words and actions. The key creative task is this: how can I take my work and make it a banner that points people to the hope of a renewed heaven and earth?

Perhaps the key image here is not the developer who paves over the earthly city, nor hermit who retreats from the city’s confines, but instead the farmer, who plants the seeds of new life through the work of his hands. And perhaps some of those seeds will grow into strong trees, whose leaves will be for the healing of nations (Rev. 22:2).

Discussion question: What is your view of the destiny of the world? How do you think it influences your work?

(Photo: The Farmer)

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CultureTheology

Forming Social Imaginaries

 

What is the role of pastors and theologians in bringing about cultural and social change?

Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace, believes there is an important distinction between the role of pastors and the role of Christian laity, especially when trying to apply the gospel to our social world.

“Attending to social arrangements is essential. But it is Christian economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc. in cooperation with theologians, rather than theologians themselves, that out to address this issue because they are best equipped to do so….

“When not acting as helpmates of economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc.—and it is part of their responsibility to act this way—theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

His point is well made: the gospel does influence how we see culture and society, but the ones best suited for making statements about politics or economics (or, by way of extension, technology, education, and business) are Christian laity. Theologians are accurately described as “helpmates” of economists and politicians, and should not cross the line in trying to trade vocations. Instead, theologians should focus on shaping “social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

At bare minimum, this means two things for pastors:

(1) Pastors have a responsibility to disciple those in their congregations who serve in the public sphere. Our public activity, namely, our work, is a matter of Christian discipleship. Work is not neutral – it is loaded with temptations, idols and opportunity for kingdom service. To never speak to the issues that affect the majority of our waking hours is irresponsible.

(2) Pastors should not confuse their distinct calling as a minister of the gospel and so try to become politicians, economists, or even philosophy professors.  This is not a call to be aloof from the matters of the world. Far from it. It is a call be faithful to telling the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of the Son of God, and to walk alongside laity and shape their imaginations so thoroughly that the gospel will transform parishioners who can therefore shape society through their work.

Takeaway: if you’re a pastor, go and visit somebody at work and so hear about their high priestly ministry (1 Peter 2:9). If you’re not a pastor, go and invite your pastor to lunch and start “envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies.”

(Photo: Conversation at the Coffee Shop, Steve Hammond)

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Theology

Mission in Word and Deed

 

There is an old debate among Christians that no less affects those involved in faith and work initiatives: is evangelism the highest priority, or is it acts of justice and mercy?

On one side, theologians will argue that declaring the gospel and preaching the Word is most important. After all, eternal souls are at stake. The other side will argue that Jesus taught, “May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The priority is not in “other-worldly” pursuits, but in establishing God’s kingdom now through acts of justice and mercy.

Lesslie Newbigin, in his seminal The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, argues, “If we turn to the Gospels we are bound to note the indissoluble nexus between deeds and words.” For example, in the Gospel of John, there is a large portion of teaching from Jesus, but it usually follows something Jesus has done: the healing of a blind man, the feeding of the 5,000, raising Lazarus from the dead. Again, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus calls “his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and infirmity.” Yet as they were doing all this, he gave them a message to bear as well: “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

If we lose either part of this formula – word and deed – we miss the message of Jesus. On the one hand, acts of justice and kindness are dumb without an explanation. In Jesus day they were misinterpreted (some of his opponents said he came from Satan), and in our day there is no shortage of justice-loving people from other faiths, or no faith at all. The message of the gospel,the actual testimony to the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus, is what calls this present world into question and reveals “the hidden secret” (one of Newbigin’s other books) of God’s reign.

However, without action, preaching is meaningless. Words can be brushed aside as mere talk. In contrast, nearly all the great sermons in the book of Acts are in response to a question. Something had happened, and the masses were asking, “What is this new reality?”

So, should faith and work initiatives prioritize evangelism or justice and cultural engagement? Most emphasize one or the other. The ones closest to local churches tend to prioritize sharing your faith at work, and those with weaker ties to the church make faith and work programs primarily about doing good things (the latest phase is ‘seeking the common good of the city’). What makes Christian mission distinctive is that deeds of justice, kindness, and mercy are done “in the name of Jesus.” This does not need to be annoying – making every meeting into a chance to tell a Bible story – but it certainly requires not being ashamed of the verbal proclamation of the gospel when the time comes.

It should also be said that the primary “deeds” of our lives, for the majority of people, are found at work. And ministers have the responsibility to equip their congregations for deeds that reflect the kingdom of God. As Newbigin said,

“It follows that the major role of the Church is relation to the great issues of justice and peace will not be in its formal pronouncements but in its continually nourishing and sustaining men and women who will act responsibly as believers in the course of their secular affairs.”

In my faith tradition, evangelicalism, historically we’ve done well with evangelism. We’ve improved greatly in the past 50 years in the area of justice. But what about cultural engagement “in the course of our secular affairs?” Will we too find the words and deeds to do this with faithfulness?

Discussion question: In your work, do you tend to favor evangelism or acts of justice, that is, words or deeds? Why?

TheologyWork

Upcoming Faith and Work Conferences

Here are three upcoming conferences on faith and work that I’d highly recommend attending if you’re able to make it:

The Gospel at Work Banner

The Gospel at Work

When: January 11-12

Where: Gaithersburg, MD; Covenant Life Church

How much: $79 for early registration (ends Jan 7), otherwise $99

Synopsis from the website: “The Gospel at Work conference was born out of a desire to help Christians think and live differently in the workplace.  It’s designed to help Christians think biblically and theologically about their work.  What is God’s purpose for my work?  How does the gospel change my work? How does applying the truths of the gospel help me manage differently?  How does a Christian strategize and plan their career?”

Keynote Speakers: Os Guinness, author and social critic; Mark Dever, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church; Michael Lawrence, Senior Pastor, Hinson Baptist Church; Bob Doll, Former Chief Investment Officer, Blackrock; Eric Simmons, Lead Pastor, Redeemer Church

cgrva-logoCommon Good RVA

When: January 18-19

Where: Richmond, VA

How much: $55

Synopsis from the website: “A lot of Christians are confused about how the work they do Monday to Friday connects with who they are on Sundays. Yet the Bible views our work as central to our calling and a way that we can directly connect with the mission of God…Our city needs many more Christians who see their vocations as a way to advance the common good of Richmond. Together as lawyers, doctors, business leaders, electricians, artists, and stay-at-home parents, we will gather to explore what it means to see our everyday work as a meaningful part of our Christian calling.”

Keynote speakers: Andy Crouch, author and editor of Christianity Today; Dr. Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good

TGC13-BannerThe Gospel Coalition 2013 Post-Conference on Faith and Work

When: April 10, 1-6pm

Where: Orlando, RL; Rosen Shingle Creek

How Much: $235 (this includes the entire conference, from April 8-10)

Synopsis from the website: “Tim Keller and several other leaders in the church, marketplace, and broader culture will focus on a variety of issues related to the Christian faith and its role in our work and vocation.”

Keynote Speakers: Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, author of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work

ArtTheology

An Act of Creation

 

I was supposed to be networking. That’s what normal people do when surrounded by a city’s top leaders, as I was at a recent Q Ideas Conference at the Denver Performing Arts Center. But during the break between sessions, I found myself sipping coffee, standing alone amidst the buzzing conversation, and utterly transfixed by the artwork of Jake Weidmann.

Three paintings of a lion sat on easels. The first lion’s mane was ablaze, representing God the Father, a consuming fire (Deut. 4.24). The second lion’s mane was a barbed wire, an allusion to the suffering of God the Son. And the third lion’s mane was a river, the Living Water given by God the Spirit (Jn. 7:38). As I beheld Weidmann’s arresting creativity and Trinitarian imagination, I quietly thought to myself,“We are at our best when our daily work reflects the creative work of God himself.”

Made in the Image of the Maker

When looking for a model for work, the best place to start is God’s own work. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Both the Bible and the creeds (“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”) begin with the work of creation. Genesis paints a picture of the Maker of supernovas, seashores and salamanders who spawns new life and new realities through creative, joyful work (Gen. 2:2-3; Ps. 104:24-26,31).  On the sixth day, God declared his creative work was very good – and the angels shouted for joy at what they saw (Gen. 1:31; Job. 38:7).

English playwright and author Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) said that when God made men and women in His image, all he had done until that point was create.  Sayers writes,

“Man is a maker, who makes things because he wants to, because he cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job. He is made in the image of the Maker, and he himself must create or become something less than man.”

God made grass seeds, and giraffes, and those in His image make gorilla glue, graham crackers, and grandfather clocks. Work is not only something we do for money, but rather it is the first expression of our spiritual, mental and bodily faculties. At its best, work is a creative act.

The word “creativity” should be broadened past associations with bohemian artists or ad agency professionals.To create is to initiate an object or a project (a definition of the Hebrew word bara). Bringing new products, ideas Lion - God the Sonor organizations into existence is all creative work. For example, Jake Weidmann brought a trinity of lions into existence from a mere thought, which now shapes me, the beholder of his art. A landscaper conceives of a beautiful garden, plants and cultivates the roses, and sees the homeowners enjoy their color and aroma. An engineer designs a more efficient hood for a commercial stove top, and works with technicians to install his new creation. Dorothy Sayers’ masterful The Mind of the Maker argues that all satisfying human work is essentially Trinitarian in that it is creative (bringing something into existence) and follows a three-part process (idea, product, and effect, which mirrors Father, Son and Spirit).  She even wonders if uncreative activities and an uncreative outlook might be “doing violence to the very essence of our being.”

Many puzzle over how to best ground a theology of work. Should it begin with evangelism, ethics, or simply a desire to do a good job? Today several leading voices are looking to creativity to understand work. Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making grounds a theology of work in both our identity as sub-creators and cultivators of God’s world. Tim Keller’s new book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work spends no less than three chapters chewing on the creation narrative.  Marketing Guru Seth Godin believes the most exciting work is found in “art” – doing something unpredictable, brave, and un-chartered. Even the staunchly atheistic Ayn Rand saw the centrality of creativity to human work:

“Whether it’s a symphony of a coal mine, all work is an act of creating, and comes from the same source…the capacity to see, to connect and make what had not been seen, connected and made before.”

I work in an office. On some days, I find myself checking email every other hour, bouncing between websites, and meandering the halls of my school. I come home utterly exhausted, feeling like old Bilbo Baggins: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Other days I plan my schedule, start and finish significant projects, and come home brimming over with energy for my kids. What is the difference the two days? Sustained, creative work.

Re-centering on God the Creator

Far too many churches see faith and work ministries as an optional add-on. But when viewed through the lens of the doctrine of God the Creator, integrating faith and work becomes central. We are reflections of the God who weaved together atom and galaxy, desert and DNA. Our impulse to create and work comes from bearing the image of the Maker. In a world where most work is seen merely as a means to money or leisure, the mandate to create human culture (Gen. 1:28) as a fulfillment of our very reason for being (Eph. 2:10) becomes ever more pressing. The need for joyful, satisfying work beats in the human heart. This is precisely why unemployment is so distressing. All of us, from the elderly to small children, are made to make. My four-year old daughter declares this truth when I pick her up from preschool: “Daddy, look what I painted for you today.”

A renewed commitment to teaching about God the Creator can also give deep hope to so many who despair over their jobs.  Again Sayers writes,

Far too many people in this country seem to go about only half alive. All their existence is an effort to escape from what they are doing. And the inevitable result of this is a boredom, a lack of purpose, a passivity which eats life away at the heart and a disillusionment which prompts men to ask what life is all about.

When people hate their work, or perceive it as a necessary drudgery that gets them to the weekend, they go about “half alive” and often fall into a trap of boredom and meaninglessness.   But the biblical story is founded in a Creator who works for sheer delight, and is making all things new. When Lion - God the Spiritthis narrative is applied to writing lesson plans or building clinics, a renewed motivation for culture making can bring about a deep happiness to even the most mundane task. It may even bring about the cultural renewal.

As I came out of my trance staring at Jake Weidmann’s three lions during a break at the Q Conference, I took a look outside the window. The rising sun lit up the Rocky Mountains in the distance, and sprinkled its warmth on the flock of cars filing into Denver. As I sat at my table and prepared for the next presenter, I quietly wondered what life would look like if we viewed work not as a job, but as an act of creation.

 

 

CultureTheology

Between NPR and K-LOVE

I often find myself divided when driving in the car. Should I turn my radio to NPR or to K-LOVE? Most days I find myself compelled to listen to both.

NPR (National Public Radio) is my daily connection to the world. News, author interviews, Science Friday – to me, the life of the world is beautiful, and immensely important to God. Whether it be education (my own field) or the latest research in brain research (certainly not my field), this is where real human life is found.

But if I listen to NPR exclusively, I become worn out, feeling kind of thin, like old Bilbo Baggins, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” The sad secular monks who fill the airwaves of NPR have knowledge, but most don’t have hope, a reason to dance. Frankly, most days I need a reason to dance.

So, I turn to K-LOVE. The praise and worship songs (most of them, anyway), give me hope. Christ is resurrected from the dead, and the song of the redeemed spurs on the people of God. Yet if I listen only to K-LOVE, I begin to wonder what’s happening in God’s world, the world that he so loves (John 3:16).

And so I flip between NPR and K-LOVE, knowing my home is in another country, yet I’m called to this world at this time and in this place. It’s this tension that leads me to yearn for a way to bring K-LOVE into NPR, that is, to bring the gospel into fields like education, science, politics, and art.

But how might we actually do that?

My favorite author, Lesslie Newbigin, believes this intentional equipping of the saints to serve well in their secular work is a part of the mission of the church.

“The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of the Christian faith. This is very difficult…There is need for ‘frontier groups,’ groups of Christians working in the same sectors of public life, meeting to thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in light of their faith.”

One way we can intentionally live on the “frontier” between the private world of religion (K-LOVE) and the public world of politics, education, art and business (NPR) is by joining with small groups of Christians who can work out the problems of their field in light of the gospel. In these small groups conversations are hosted that can help to heal the public/private divide, and can help to unify our commitment to the gospel with our commitment to the life of the world.

Discussion questions: Do you prefer NPR or K-LOVE (or something else)? Have you ever met in a “frontier group” that discusses the problems/opportunities of your field in light of the gospel? If so, how did it go?

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Theology

Work and Ecclesiastes

The author of Ecclesiastes understood work. His career was an unparalleled success, yet half way through his life, he came crashing to earth. His lessons from the top are just as applicable today as they were 3,000 years ago.

Many believe King Solomon to be Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes.

Many believe King Solomon to be Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth (“the teacher” of Ecclesiastes) did some of the most significant work of his day:

“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees…”

From public works to sprawling homes, Qoheleth was a builder. Yet he found his work utterly meaningless.

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

He hated life, despite enormous professional success and wealth. What could lead to this gnawing despair? He goes on to explain:

“I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.”

After amassing wealth and professional success, he realized that all he had accumulated would be left to someone else – gardens, homes, money, flocks, all of it. His work led to despair because he originally saw it as a means to accumulation. Working only for money, homes, or public prestige led to despair when he began to consider his looming death. He could not take all his money with him after death; what had he ultimately gained?

Qoheleth, however, recognized there was another way of looking at work that led to happiness.

“People can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil. This, too, I see is from the hand of God.”

There are two view of work operating here, one that leads to despair, the other that leads to life.

(1) Work is primarily a means to accumulating wealth. We work for big 401(k)s, new cars, second homes, and flat screen TVs. These are the real goals, why we take certain jobs and work overtime.

(2) Work has inherent value, and can be enjoyable in itself. Here, we work to make something beautiful, excellent, and worthwhile – to meet a real need of our neighbor.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who spent time in New York City. “In New York,” he said, “People live to work.” People move to New York to work – and achieve. In Denver, however, the attitude is different. “Here people work, but mostly just in anticipation of the weekends. This city, so in love with the outdoors and the mountains, is based on recreation. Work is just what we have to get to the slopes (on the 10k race) on the weekends.”

In NYC, work itself can become an idol – a source of meaning and identity. In Denver, work more closely approximates the view that led Qoheleth to despair. Work is a means for accumulation, in our case, to recreate on the weekends.

The biblical story tells the story of a God who does 6 days of joyful, satisfying work, and rests on 1 day. We find our peace at work when we work hard, and do work of inherent value (not just monetary value), for 6 days, and yet never make it an idol by obeying the command to cease work for a day.

Discussion question: Which view is more prevalent in your field: work as a means for accumulation, or work as inherently valuable?

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Theology

Mixing Faith and Work

every_good_endeavor_sm2_thumbAmericans spend more hours working per week than any other developed nation. Work defines many of us. Yet it’s rare that churches will intentionally talk about work on Sunday. Tim Keller wrote a new book on this topic that I recently reviewed for Comment Magazine. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012) is theologically rich and philosophically informed, yet accessible and filled with practical wisdom. Here’s the first section of my review:

When British missionary Lesslie Newbigin returned from the mission field in 1974, he was often asked, “What is the greatest difficulty you face in moving from India to England?” He always responded, “The disappearance of hope.” During the forty years he spent in India, the West had lost a sense of direction. The idea of progress, so strong in the 1930s, now seemed cliché. Adrift in a sea of pluralism, many youth became little more than isolated individuals pursuing personal gain. Ministers and academics began to question how to address this hope-starved generation. American sociologist Robert Bellah proposed a humble remedy: “To make a real difference . . . [there would have to be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.”

Today a renaissance of the idea of vocation has planted seeds of hope throughout Western cities. There have been few more integral to this movement than Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Since 1989, Keller’s writing, preaching, and teaching have impacted thousands. Now Keller, arguably the most culturally influential evangelical alive, has published his masterwork on faith, work, and culture. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work is theologically rich and philosophically informed, yet accessible and filled with practical wisdom. Drawing on decades of study and ministry, Every Good Endeavor may soon become one of the most important contemporary books on faith and work. Continue reading…

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