I'm of a generation that frequently criticized previous generations of Christians of being so heavenly minded to be of no earthly good. I am still critical of a style of Christianity that devalues history and reduces the dealings of planet earth into some giant soul sorting mechanism tagging gnosticly thin people representations for heaven or hell, yet I am increasingly seeing what we have lost in under-appreciating and under-realizing the promise of the age to come. More and more I am convinced that Christians who fail to meditate on what we have in Christ in the age to come sin more, needlessly suffer more, and fail to thrive as we should.
North Americans throughout the twentieth century increasingly began to believe that the earth was flat. The levels of connected reality that most throughout human history perceived was reduced to an agenda of maximizing personal experience from childhood to death. Even though as a culture we think of ourselves as reaching new heights of empathy for the suffers of the world, we expend the vast majority of our considerable wealth on our own entertainment and security. The motto "you only live once" has given birth to a frenetic pursuit of striving to fix all we judge to be insufficient. If you suspect CS Lewis' observation that our appetites were designed for a world beyond the one in front of us is true, then believing "you only live once" is a recipe for frustration and disaster.
My favorite quote for 2009 is from Karl Rahner. "In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we eventually learn that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished." Our cultural flat earth offers little hope of seeing the score completed leaving us in the torment.
The problem generated by earthly uselessness due to heavenly mindedness is due to a poorly realized connection between the age of decay and the age to come. The path to righting this wrong is found no place else than the body of Jesus Christ as it moves from cross to open tomb. In a sense our lives sometimes look awkwardly stuck in that Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. To get unstuck I often think about Paul's prayer in Ephesians 1:17-23. This prayer unflattens the earth for me.
A vision of the coming age to come helps me endure the loss of the age of decay and gives me hope that whatever notes of the symphony that I manage to post will be perfected and completed. Ray Brinks, my missionary mentor in the Dominican Republic used to remind me "If something's worth doing it's probably worth doing poorly." This helps me come to peace with the practical realities of this age that will always frustrate yet should not be allowed to deter both hope and joy which motivate Christian effort. It also helps keep me from falling into frantically imagined self-saving sins that continually tear up the fragile fabric of human community.
The key to being of earthly good is in fact being mindful of earth's perfection in the age to come. Overly optimistic do gooders of the age of decay often burn out quickly. All that we fix is quickly undone and our troubles are often compounded by the fixes themselves. Only by knowing that the symphonies will be finished and by trusting the finisher can we actually begin to experience comfort and joy.