Anyone who has read best-selling author Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People will remember that his second principle is “Begin with the end in mind.” One must have a clear vision of where to end up before one can discern the best strategies and tactics for getting there. I don’t know where Covey came up with his second principle but I suspect it came from the Bible.
From the Old Testament through the New Testament, the constant theme is that God offers hope of future reality that will be more wonderful than anything we can imagine. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes and the dwelling of God will be with humanity. We don’t know exactly how we get there, but God created a covenant with us and wants us to trust him to bring it about. We are a people of the future living in the present.
I heard Craig Barnes preach once about this issue. He made the point that for the person who does not know God and have the assurance Christ, the future is uncertain. It is only the present that is certain. Consequently, we have a decided tendency to hang on to the present. Not so for the Christian. The future is the only thing that is certain. It is the present that is tenuous and uncertain. We live in the present in anticipation of the future. Furthermore, we are called to bring the future into the present by being God’s faithful community ushering in the New Jerusalem. But do we mainline Presbyterians do this?
My friend Carol recently sent me the Spring 2005, issue of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary. The topic for this issue is “Left Behind,” referring to the mega-selling series of books by this title. The journal's articles deal with Dispensationalism and eschatology. All of the articles are excellent! One reflection in particular struck me. It was written by Kenda Creasy Dean. She is reflecting on her son’s choice to attend a Young Life camp instead of going on a church mission trip. She examines the telos of a youth camp experience. (Telos means "end" or "purpose." Not to be confused with the planet in Star Wars.) Here are two paragraphs from her reflection:
Consequently, Christian youth events that have existential traction do not meander aimlessly. They aim for a conclusion, with everything structured to honor the event’s culminating moments. The “end time” of the event (ordinarily, the program for the last night’s worship service) ritualizes our understanding of the “end times” described by Christian theology. It is decisive. One chapter closes and another begins. Decisions are made, preparations ensue for a different world—the world that is Not-Camp. In the closing rituals of the last night of camp, we expect Jesus to come. We expect God to act. Furthermore, having had a foretaste of glory divine, young people are sent out from the religious camp or conference, like John of Patmos, as apostles of hope. In short, the condensed week of a summer youth camp or conference enacts an ordu salutis (order of salvation), not to manipulate God’s saving activity, but to dramatize it. Christians are story people, and every story—even God’s story with us on earth—has a final chapter. And what we do on the last night of camp says a lot about how we think the story ends.
This surprises us. Many of us aren’t even aware that we even have a governing eschatology, much less that we enact it with young people. “End time” rhetoric conjures up images of heaven, hell, rapture, and the Second Coming of Christ that have been treated as “the theological equivalent of Timbuktu” in the mainline Protestant church for most of the twentieth century, according to Mark Ralls, writing in Christian Century. “Like a lot of mainline Protestant pastors I know,” confessed Ralls, “I’m caught between honest belief and embarrassment.” Our way out has been to sidestep any overt discussion of eschatological issues altogether, leaving them to our more literally minded conservative Christian friends. We mainliners prefer transitions to endings, rehabilitation to judgment, regeneration to apocalyptism, phases to finality. But there is a cost to this. Our silence on the subject of eschatology, our reluctance to speak of God’s future for fear of boxing in God’s expansive grace, has the effect of muting the telos of Christian theology. Youth are thus left to conclude, quite understandably, that the church simply is not going anywhere.
Bingo! As I have been working on the Mission Work Plan Taskforce for the General Assembly Council I have read through the early chapters of the Book of Order looking for a statement of our telos. What I was struck by is that there really isn’t a clear explicit statement of our telos. Nearly everything is stated in terms of what we do, not what we are accomplishing. Even the Great Ends of the Church are actions that presume a telos. You can infer it from what is written but it really isn’t stated. All through each of our governing structures I see the same thing. There is much action with no end in mind.
Ask a Dispensational Fundamentalist (and great many others) what a Christian’s purpose is and they will tell you it is to “save souls.” Why? So that when we come to the end of time we can live with God in heaven. Mainliners have typically been critical of this reductionist approach to eschatology. We are about what God is doing in the present. In fact, I think Dispensationalism is the only thing the Presbyterian Church has judged to be a heresy in the Twentieth Century. Nevertheless, you have to admit, the Dispenstaionalists types know what they are trying to accomplish.
But ask a Presbyterian what a Christian’s purpose is they will say something like “Love and worship God, do justice, and be a good person.” Ask why and the response you will usually get is a blank face. At best, “Because that is what the Church does.” There is no telos. The telos is the action itself without any conscious thought to eschatological outcome. There is no bringing the future into the present because there is no concept of a compelling future to bring into the present! So what is our telos? It is almost as if to ask the question is to be suspect of introducing heresy. We have become eschatophobic.
I have a cure for this disorder. I will be making a recommendation to the General Assembly Council that we scrap the 2006 General Assembly and instead send our commissioners to a Young Life summer camp. I figure even a heretical Dispensational eschatology is better than none. Short of that, I suggest that maybe it is time we asked if we have lost our way and need to rediscover the future we are to bring into the present. We need to lose our eschatophobia if we truly expect to be the people of God.
(By the way, be sure to check out the all the Insights articles. I found them to be very good.)