The Life of the World to Come: A Review of Kingdom Calling

My mom isn’t a Christian, but in recent years my mom and I have had many meaningful conversations about matters of the heart and the things that truly matter.  I think this comes as a result of both of my dear grandparents–her parents–passing away within these last ten years, as well as my dad having had major heart as well as neck reconstruction surgery (both in the last five years).  Perhaps not surprisingly, our conversations often seem to come back to the topic of sorrow.  Mom had some chest pains last year, and I was worried so I wrote her a letter (thankfully, the pains turned out to be “minor”).  In sharing my anxious concerns for my mom with my good friend Brad Anderson, Brad quoted to me these words of a much-loved hymn; I passed them on to Mom as well:

Jesus, what a help in sorrow!  While the billows o’er me roll, even when my heart is breaking, he, my comfort, helps my soul.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Hallelujah! What a Friend!  Saving, helping, keeping, loving, he is with me to the end.

You know friends that Christ, the one to whom Christians ascribe the Isaiah “man of sorrows” referent, despaired ultimately that we would never have to; he took on our sorrow that we might know his joy.

I’m often captivated by the Christ as 2nd Adam motif that runs in parts of the New Testament corpus.  I’m captivated by the image of Christ as 2nd Adam because I feel in my own bones the failure of the 1st man.  Alexander Schemann writes in his book For the Life of the World:

And Adam, when he left the Garden where life was to have been Eucharistic–an offering in the world in thanksgiving to God–Adam led the whole world, as it were, into darkness.  In one of the beautiful pieces of Byzantine hymnology Adam is pictured sitting outside, facing Paradise, weeping.  It is the figure of man himself  (For the Life of the World, p. 18).

I know well Adam’s weeping, and being a pastor of many, I’ve tasted overwhelming sorrow more times than I care to recall. There is also the song “Winter Winds” of Mumford & Sons, not so much an ancient hymn but one that tells the truth about the world no less:

Oh the shame that sent me off from the God that I once loved
Was the same that sent me into your arms
Oh and pestilence is won when you are lost and I am gone
And no hope, no hope will overcome…

And my head told my heart
“Let love grow”
But my heart told my head
“This time no”

Recently our pastoral staff at Grace Chapel began a preaching series in 1 & 2 Thessalonians. What I’m struck by is the utter hopefulness and steadfastness of these people.  They truly are good people who are remembered by the Apostle Paul and his travel companions as those whose “work produced faith,… labor (was) prompted by love, and… endurance (was) inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thess. 1:2,3).  I gotta tell you, when I read Dr. Amy Sherman’s book recently, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, I thought that Dr. Sherman very well might be a modern-day Apostle Paul putting in a precious word of commendation for Wendy Clark, the young business owner of Carpe Diem Cleaning, or Perry Bigelow, the Christian real-estate developer who seeks to offer foretastes of “the city whose builder and architect is God,” or Dave and Demi Kiersznowski of DEMDACO who built an office space that is “beautiful, creative, pleasing and full of light,” and also implemented “an adoption aid program as a way of meeting the needs of orphans and widows,” or Coke executive Bonnie Wurzbacher who champions business as “very important, noble work through the world,” and also who appreciates the work of Pastor Victor Pentz who equips marketplace leaders to think theologically about their daily work, or historian Anne C. Bailey who uses her work to promote racial reconciliation, Jeannine Lacquement who promotes social justice through dance classes, Milt Kuyers from Milwaukee who stewards his vocational power to create economic opportunities for disadvantaged African Americans from distressed neighborhoods, or Carlos Oscar who is a Latino comedian who desires to promote the values of Christ in the entertainment industry.

I thought, “Dr. Sherman is pulling a ‘Paul’ when he says of the Thessalonians that ‘The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia–your faith in God has become known everywhere’ (1Thess. 1:8).”  Also I thought, to use my dear mentor Steven Garber’s precious and sacred words of affirmation for those whom Steve appreciates, “Well, good for you Amy Sherman.”

Sherman does a splendid job “exegeting” many Scriptural passages, perhaps the prominent passage being Proverbs 11:10, “when the righteous (tsaddiqim) prosper, the city rejoices.”  What does it mean for the Church to be the tsaddiqim of God and to “rejoice the city”?  Sherman’s Part 1 “Theological Foundations” does a nice job building a theological foundation for why our work might be thought of as integral to the mission of God in the world; for perhaps the most pressing question in all this “vocational stewardship talk” might be, is it faithful and true to the testimony of Scripture?  Sherman shows us that it is.

In Part 2 “Discipling for Vocational Stewardship,” Sherman gets us to consider where among evangelical people the “integration of faith and work” is being and has been done.  She makes the case that there are many parachurch groups that are doing this good work but that perhaps our local churches have tended to be a day late and a dollar short, that there is much work still to be done in our churches–the work of giving our people a robust vision of just how large and comprehensive is the Gospel of the Kingdom that brings us to see how Christ purposes to redeem every square inch of the universe, even the very soil of the earth on which my kids play football and my garden is planted.

Interestingly enough however, there is a substantial gap, even among Christians who are doing the good work of seeking to integrate faith and work. Citing Scholar David Miller’s book on the history of work in the Faith and Work movement, such emphases can generally be identified: 1) the Ethics quadrant, those who give attention to business ethics, personal virtue and even questions on social and economic justice; 2) the Evangelism quadrant, those who see work as an opportunity to till the ground so that Christ might be proclaimed; 3) the Enrichment quadrant, those who seek to incorporate therapeutic and contemplative practices to aid workers who are discouraged and 4) the Experience quadrant, where workers see their work as having intrinsic value, not merely instrumental value.  So these groups provide “counsel, books and conferences to help individuals discover their calling and align their natural and spiritual gifts with careers in which those talents can be well deployed.”

Sherman states that all four quadrants are important and have their own strengths, and that we should find ways to combine all four; nonetheless Sherman’s research reveals, of the 15 evangelical “market place ministries” that she researches, most of the focus lands in Quadrant one (ethics) and two (evangelism), some on three (enrichment) and none on four (experience).  “None of the marketplace ministries we examined fit into quadrant four (experience), where the work itself is valued and deeply contemplated” (p. 96).  Dr. Sherman’s point is that there is still much “work” for the Church to do.  The rest of Part 2 talks about how churches might “inspire,” “develop” and “form” this vision for vocational stewardship so that it becomes deeply woven into the character and hearts of the people of God.

Part 3 “Pathways of Vocational Stewardship” gives practical advice as well as a flood of examples of people “deploying their vocational power.” The topics discussed: 1) blooming where you are planted; 2) donating your vocational skills; 3) launching your own social enterprise and/or 4) participating in your church’s targeted initiative.

So here was my “take-home:”  I loved the book.  However, I must tell you that Sherman’s conclusion that comprises the last ten pages of her book is what I loved the most.  I have a confession to make about much of my journey through Dr. Sherman’s book: I often felt overwhelmed by the many examples of people “building for the Kingdom” in their marketplace work.  I vacillated from anger, “Why isn’t the Church doing more to affirm the vocational gifts and talents of all her members?” to being overwhelmed with despair “I’m not like any of these amazing people who have done these great things for God! What in the world am I doing with my life?!” But when I came to Sherman’s conclusion, I exhaled.  As I read those last ten pages, I thought “Now here is someone who is telling me the truth about the world:”

Sometimes stories can be simultaneously inspirational and immobilizing.  We hear the account of someone–perhaps like the someones in this book–and think, What they’ve done is pretty amazing. I loved hearing about it.  But I don’t think I could ever do something like that….

Maybe this has been your reaction to the stories told here.  As a church leader or an individual parishioner, perhaps your heart sped up a bit when reading these accounts–but then doubts crept in. You wonder whether you have the energy or creativity, the latitude or fortitude, or the capacity or competency to live missionally through your work (or lead your congregation in doing so).  The vision of vocational stewardship for the common good is attractive, you concede, but perhaps not attainable. You’re just not sure, as a church leader, that you could move your flock in this direction.  You’re just not convinced, as an individual worker, that you could imitate the sorts of actions you’ve read about here.  (p. 223)

Dr. Sherman, you have “pastored” your readers well here.  Thank you.  So much of my own ministry is giving voice to the doubts, fears, and disillusionments of a dearly loved but often sorrowful people.  My doubts, fears, and disillusionments were given a voice.  Dr. Sherman “pulls back the curtain” and talks about how the churches and people profiled in the book have “struggled, questioned, gotten frustrated and taken missteps along the way” (p. 224). I needed to see just how “human” these people were, just as the dear and good people of Thessalonica were, having undergone “severe suffering” (1Thess. 1:9), “toil and hardship” (1Thess. 2:9) and even having been found to be lacking in faith at times (1 Thess. 3:10).

I needed Dr. Sherman’s conclusion to help me process through a kind of tension I feel about my life and the world in which I live:  the Kingdom of God is here but the Kingdom of God is still coming as well.  Both are true aren’t they?  We pray “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done On Earth as it is in Heaven,” and we even taste its goodness from time-to-time, do we not?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his work Life Together said that even the fellowship of one brother or sister in Christ is like a benediction from above.  At the same time, most of my conversations that are honest about the world inevitably turn to the reality of sorrow in our lives.  What about you?  Remember the inner turmoil of the sorrowful one in “Winter Winds”:

And my head told my heart
“Let love grow”
But my heart told my head
“This time no”

You see friends, Lent is a time of anticipation and longing, when we are reminded that the Kingdom isn’t yet fully consummated.  It’s a time for somber reflection on the sorrow of Christ and the extreme cost of the Atonement for a Beloved people.  It’s a time to identify with the weak, the imprisoned, the fatherless and the widow.  It’s a time to remember that even our “best efforts” are co-mingled with sorrow, toil, frustration and a sense of incompleteness.  By the way, I can have this conversation about sorrow and a longing for something better, really, with anyone, Christian or not, for it describes the world that is really there, even if it is not the world that should be or the one that always will be.

Still, take note that the Sundays throughout Lent are not actually “of Lent,” or rather more appropriately, “in Lent.”  What is that all about?  Well, every Sunday throughout the year is a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and His Great Triumph!  And it is really as we move out in the power of the resurrection every day of the year that we are equipped for our “Kingdom Calling,” stewarding our vocational power for the common good.

Schemann observes that it’s when we participate in the Eucharist on Resurrection Sunday (I might add, even “in Lent”) that “Adam is again introduced into Paradise, taken out of nothingness and crowned king of creation” (For the Life of the World, p. 45). You see, it is this “good food” and resurrection power that comes from the Perfect Man, the King of Creation, that once again establishes us into the world as it should be and makes “building for the Kingdom,” even with all our sorrow, worthy of our best efforts. . .so live the tsaddiqim.

Well, thank you Amy Sherman–you are a dear sister who inspires the Beloved tsaddiqim of God to live in the great hope of the life of the world to come.

Mike Hsu pastors at Grace Chapel in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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