Several years ago I was in India over Christmas and New Year's, visiting two of our children who were working there that year. We didn’t see everything, at all, but we did travel through the south, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In our seeing and hearing and smelling, we were keenly aware that we were in a very different world.
For the week we were in Kerala, which is the state in the southwestern part of India, we spent days at the beach and in the mountains, and it was glorious. Kerala has a long history: Hindu for thousands of years, and since the first century, the gospel has been present through the witness of Thomas and the church which now bears his name. More recently it bears the imprint of Gandhi and Marx; on the latter, some argue that it was the first democratically-elected Communist government in the world.
Driving its roads, I was reading A Christmas Carol, a strange book for India perhaps, but in truth a story for Everyman and Everywoman — especially so at Christmas. On roads and streets wherever we went, we saw signs with the sickle and hammer celebrating the Communist vision — often banners in their characteristic red and gold colors.
A sickle and hammer? It is iconic of the ordinary work of our hands… yes, ordinary work done by ordinary people all over the face of the earth. Every one of us, every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, hopes against hope that our work really does matter.
The banners were themselves a debate between the Marxist and Maoist visions of human life under the sun, road by road offering in acronym two different accounts of the communist dream — and it was a very bad dream for many people. And yet, for all that they got wrong — and the heart of it was tragically wrong, resulting in the state-sponsored massacre of millions — what they got right was that our work has life-long, maybe even eternal meaning — yes, eschatological meaning embedded in a materialist universe. They promised that the work of human hands is written into the meaning of history; that there will be a new world someday that comes out of the ruins of our daily labor, of the sickles and hammers of your life and mine.
I should note that a few weeks earlier I had been in China to give a lecture at the Beijing Film Academy, on “Good Stories and Good Societies.” Drawing on the imagery of what “Tiananmen” has meant for generations and centuries, I explored “the harmonious society” as it has been set forth by their political leaders, and what the vocation of storyteller and filmmaker is in that larger, longer cultural vision. But I must confess that in my time there I don’t think I met anyone who still really believes in the Maoist dream — sadly, a political and historical reality that had not yet made its way to the streets of India.
Charles Dickens and Karl Marx?
A Christmas Carol, though? Did you know that Dickens and Marx were writing at the same time in the same city about the same thing, viz. the consequences of capitalism without a conscience? We know Dickens’ vision through the narrative universe he created in stories like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Hard Times, Great Expectations — and perhaps most dearly of all, A Christmas Carol. I wonder if you have ever thought of what A Christmas Carol is really all about? Or have you ever thought of it in relationship to Das Kapital, Marx’s magnum opus?
Both Dickens and Marx observed the aches and pains, the groaning and suffering of an industrializing Europe — of the dissonance between the Scrooges and the Tiny Tims of this world. Both could see that capitalism without a conscience was a cultural dead-end that would lead the masses into alienation from each other and the world around them. The one did so as an artist, with his finger to the wind, sensing and feeling the direction of his moment, mid-19th century England; the other did so as a political philosopher, with his brilliant mind at work on the social and economic reasons for the cracks in the capitalist dream that led to such alienation.
To say it very plainly: over the next century and a half, scores of millions lost their lives over the misreading of the human condition and history at the heart of Marx’s critique. The world as we know it has been radically and tragically affected by his misunderstanding of the nature of vocation and therefore occupation, of what life is about and therefore what our lives are about. In the early 21st century, there is almost global acknowledgement of this truth.
But when I was 20, I thought that Marx was very close to the truth. He had a passionate commitment to a just world; at least it seemed so to me in my young idealism. He had a comprehensive critique of the world, and of our place in it, and I desperately wanted that, too. But as tempted as I was by him, eventually I was drawn even more so into a vision of the kingdom of God. When push-came-to-intellectual-shove, Jesus' vision for the way life 'ought to be' answered my questions and addressed my hopes more fully than did Marx’s.
Like every one of you, I wanted a way to see the world that made honest sense of the world. I yearned for the world to be the way it ought to be, and I knew that I needed a worldview that could make sense of what I saw and heard all around me, that could help me understand the hopes and heartaches of human beings that were increasingly part of my place in a pluralizing, globalizing world. In the end, Marx and Mao were inadequate for that. In the end, their visions were lies of the most fundamental sort, offering a fiction about who we are and how we are to live.
But if it is a fiction, and we push away from it, the question remains: who are we, and how are we to live?
Is Christianity True Like That?
Several years ago, I was invited into a meeting with the Tiananmen Square student leaders. Of all the nights of my life, that one stands out with unusual poignancy. For hours I was in the presence of young men and women who had hoped and suffered. Some had held their dearest friends in their arms as they lay bloodied and dying. After that horrible night in June 1989, they slowly and secretly made their way out of China and were now scattered across North America, from Vancouver to Boston.
And they had a question.
As they told their stories, time and again they told of their passionate love for China, yearning to be part of its rebuilding someday. I heard again and again, “We love China!” Together they wanted to know this: “Do you think Christianity is true? True to the way the world really is?”
They explained it this way. Since Tiananmen, they had been reading the philosophers of the world, wanting a sufficient basis for responsible action in history, for taking responsibility for history, yes, for the future of China. To put a point on it: because of their love for China, their greatest desire was to return and rebuild, but knowing that it might mean suffering and even death, they wanted a philosophical foundation that would make honest sense of a such a choice.
Do you think Christianity is true? Is it true like that? Does it answer the most important of all questions, address the most complex of all hopes and dreams? What do you think?
My answer that night came out slowly, as I was painfully aware that I could say nothing cheap. They were morally and politically serious people, longing for a worldview that could make sense of who they were and how they were to live, of how they wanted to live.
What Is Urbana About, Anyway?
This is the last day of Urbana, and we have gloried in what we have seen and heard. Yes, 17,000 times. But I want to tell you of some earlier Urbanas, and set them in the context of our focus on the marketplace, and on being called to the marketplace.
About 30 years ago, I was on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and therefore working at the Urbana convention for the days between Christmas and New Year’s. Cold as we were in shivering Urbana, IL, we were also eager to be part of the grandness of the event; they were, after all, the days of John Stott, Billy Graham, and many other fathers and mothers of the faith. The imagery we used was of a “fire hydrant,” knowing that those few days would be overwhelming to most students, but that was okay. As an organization, we put into place “Urbana Onwards,” regional mini-conferences all over the country, with the purpose of making the “fire hydrant” drinkable. It was a good idea.
I was responsible for one of those regional conferences, and we planned it for February. Because of my commitments to the meaning of the mission of God, to the marketplace, to vocations and occupations of all sorts and sizes, I invited about ten people to serve as “windows” for the weekend — a national mission agency head, regional missionaries, a farmer, a teacher, a mother at home, a businessman.
My observation about Urbana was that most of those who went would eventually go home and help their fathers build buildings or grow corn, or become kindergarten teachers or university professors. They would not go to New Guinea with the Wycliffe Bible Translators. And if we were going to be faithful to our theological convictions, we would need to offer a picture to our students of that kind of diversity, viz. some who would go to plant churches in Kazakhstan and some who would go home to raise cattle. We would need to say loudly and plainly that these were equally honorable vocations, equally important callings to God in service to the world.
As I had listened to Urbanas, it seemed to me that sometimes the message was that if someone did not go overseas as a missionary, then whatever stay-at-home work that was done was a second-best choice, only justified by tithing to support more zealous and faithful friends who did take the Urbana call more seriously.
Has anyone else ever heard that?
By mid-afternoon of our Saturday at Urbana Onward, the mission agency head took me aside and vehemently criticized my choice in having butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers as part of the weekend. “You have just confused the students!” At the day’s end, he publicly called my judgment into question, in front of all the students and other resource people, arguing that God’s work was “overseas” and that we had misguidedly missed our moment.
Did You Go?
A few weeks ago, as I was walking out of our church in Falls Church, VA, I saw a friend who I knew had been to Urbana several times in his own student years, 40 years ago. I told him that I was going this year, and speaking in the Business as Mission Track. He was glad to hear that, and immediately opened his Bible and showed me a yellow card with “Urbana 1976” on it, his name and the date, promising to respond to the “Urbana” message by taking up his responsibility for overseas missions. I read it all carefully and looked at him as he said, “I guess I didn’t go, did I?”
Flashes of memory ran through my mind, and the years of knowing his story became clear all over again. Years of military service, more years of business, a husband and father, member of a church — and I said, “The whole reason I am going to Urbana this year is to say, ‘You did go.’” And he looked back at me, eyes awakened and with an honest smile, “I did, didn’t I?”
Well, friends, I offer you a cat-among-the-pigeons comment now, and I offer it with caution and humility — and yet I think it is important to acknowledge the elephant in the proverbial room of Urbana.
This week, in the Tuesday morning plenary, we heard a story of a young couple from the University of Tennessee who came to Urbana 1984, responded to the call with a decision to go overseas together once they married. The story went on, as we were told that the young man’s father asked him to come home and join the family business. Then our speaker said this, “They didn’t follow the call of God, did they?” With a pregnant pause he then added, “But now they give a million dollars a month to missions!” Many of us clapped, as if that “justified” their decision to get a job — i.e. if you have to make money, then at least you can support your friends who were more serious about the gospel and did go overseas, doing something “spiritual” with their lives instead of the more “secular” choice of ordinary work.
What did you think of that story? How does it relate to what you have heard in this track? To why you are in this track? Does giving money to missions justify us in our work? Is that the point of our work? Is that how God is honored in our work? Is that why God made us to work?
We stumble over ourselves in trying to understand who we are and how we are to live. Not only was that true of Dickens and Marx, of the Tiananmen student leaders with their deeply-held hopes, but of each of us here at Urbana.
We stumble over ourselves in trying to articulate a worldview that can make sense of those longings. I am sure that our speaker on Tuesday didn’t mean what he said the way that it sounded, as I am sure that he is a holy man, a man who knows God and his word with great integrity. But what he said was not very helpful to us, to those at Urbana 2009. What is the reason for the marketplace? For vocations in the marketplace? So that we can tithe and more, giving our income to support what God really cares about, i.e. overseas missions?
It is an inadequate worldview, and an insufficient story about who we are and how we are to live.
To Keep on Keeping On
I was asked to speak into this challenge on this last afternoon of Urbana, and in particular to do so in light of the thesis of a book I wrote, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior. The book grew out of my years of teaching students in many different settings and wondering why it was that some 20-year-olds keep on keeping on, deepening faith and hope and love over the course of life — and why some don’t, instead inch by slow inch stepping away from commitments that were once deeply held and choosing to live by other loves.
As I listened and learned, I found that people who sustained their beliefs, who deepened their sense of vocation over time, were marked by three habits of heart to these commitments.
- A worldview that can make sense of what we believe and why we believe what we believe, in the face of the challenges of a pluralizing, globalizing world.
- A mentor who incarnates those beliefs, allowing me to see that words can indeed become flesh. We only learn the deepest lessons in that over-the-shoulder, through-the-heart learning.
- A community that sustains those convictions over time, embodying the worldview through the thick and thin of life. We will not keep on keeping on without a community of like-hearted, like-minded folk like that.
These truths are true whether we are men or women, older or younger, farmers or computer engineers, rock stars or concert pianists, whether we are line-cooks or chefs, small business owners or corporate executives, lawyers or doctors or cowboys instead — or even butchers, bakers, or candlestick-makers.
If you intend to take what you have heard here and live into it for the rest of your life, you will need a worldview that can make sense of the world in which you live, a mentor who can give flesh to the words of that worldview, and a community that will be yours as you live out that worldview over the course of your life, showing the plausibility of what you believe and why you believe what you believe for yourself and to the watching world. That is as true for the student leaders of Tiananmen Square as it is for you.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Two short stories as we conclude.
Over 20 years ago I was leading a reading group in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University. Week by week we met, reading widely and deeply. Sometimes philosophy, sometimes theology, sometimes technology, but always we were thinking about vocations in the technological society. To me they were PhD students in engineering disciplines and were the most “renaissance” of all the students that I have known.
One day the door cracked open, and someone listened in for a moment; at least that was our assumption, as no one entered. Well, the next week we had a visitor join us. A professor of artificial intelligence at an Australian university, he was at CMU for a sabbatical, and had heard that there were Christians meeting in the conference room of the Robotics Institute. When we finished that day, he said to us, a bit sheepishly, “I came looking for you last week, but when I opened the door and heard you discussing technology, I just assumed that you weren’t the Christians.”
And this story, too. A couple of months ago I had lunch with a friend who is a lifelong entrepreneur. You would be amazed at what you see and do every day that he has had something to do with! Over our salads, he said to me, “You think my work matters.” I looked puzzled, and he added, “Most of what I have heard from the church and the parachurch is this: ‘bring your checkbook with you!’ They are glad I come, not because of what I do in business, as if business was any part of God’s work in the world, but because I can write a check. But you think my work is important, that what I do and the way I do what I do in business is an important part of what God cares about in the world.”
Not a sickle and a hammer for my friend, but he has longed for his work to matter — to God and to history. And his sad testimony is that mostly it hasn’t — at least that is the message he has received for 25 years from the church and the parachurch.
So, brothers and sisters, this is the Business as Mission Track, and it is Urbana 2009. Will you be different in your generation? Will you do the work you need, in prayer and study and thinking and reading, as you live into the best of Urbana, a vision of the world full of great needs, of complex hopes, a world that deeply and desperately needs you? Not only “you” in your 21 year old energies and idealism, but you as 30 year olds with maturing vocations, and you as 45 year olds with deepening wisdom about your callings, and you as 60 year olds who have formed habits of heart about who you are and how you are to live that have lasted a lifetime — yes, remembering our missionary doctor from Afghanistan this week as well as Eugene Peterson and Nietzsche, that your life has become a long obedience in the same direction.
Amen. And may God bless you and keep you as you take up this vision for life, and for your lives.
Photo credit: smemom on flickr