Thursday, January 10, 2019

Work That Endures

“For behold, I create new heavens
    and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
    or come into mind…
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
(Isaiah 65:17, 21-22)

I am sitting in my car watching construction workers framing out a building. I feel a twinge of jealousy for their work. Not that I desire it in the present – I love what I do. However, I am reflecting on the reality that, come the resurrection, they will have 50 years of skills to bring to the table and I’ll need to find a new career.

The same thought struck me as I overheard a conversation between two women about one’s college-aged son. He had decided to study the visual arts. They obviously disapproved, wishing he had pursued a field that would make more money. One part of me knows the feeling and shares the practical concern; another part, though, has to wonder. After all, on the new heavens and new earth, his vocation will pay great dividends. If he had become a doctor or a lawyer, while he might cash in during this brief mortal span, I suspect in the New Jerusalem I’d meet him in vocational retraining classes.

The Christian hope has always been for an embodied eternity. We were created to work; we will continue it after Christ returns. That is one of Isaiah’s core images of God’s coming restoration – “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” In glory, there will be construction workers and farmers, those who embody God’s stewardship and shaping of the earth.

Likewise, when Christ returns and the church is unveiled like the descent of a heavenly Jerusalem, we are told that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into [the city].” (Revelation 21:24) This, of course, means that there is still a government in new creation, much to the disappointment of a few of my more libertarian friends, although it’s task will presumably be somewhat changed. Likewise, the kings’ “glory” is almost certainly a picture of treasures and great works of art, the continuing cultivation and creation of beauty. God is the great Creator; those who most share His image through their creativity will certainly be esteemed.

 It is we preachers and doctors, psychiatrists and police officers who will be left scratching our heads. In a world where God is immediately present, where diseases physical and mental are gone, and where human evil finds its end, all of us will have to learn to drive tractors or study astrophysics or find another trade. (Or more than one – given eternity, you can spend a million years on your craft and still have innumerable millions more for new pursuits.)

This does not, of course, mean that those jobs aren’t valuable in the present. They matter immensely – we are not resurrected yet, and our broken bodies and minds and souls all need care. We should accord all careers much honor in this age. However, the eternal perspective is essential because it upsets much of what we wrongly value both in the world and in the church.

In the world, we tend to hold in highest esteem those who help us live in denial of our fallen condition. This is certainly true of things like medicine, which we value not simply because it models care but because it helps us live in denial of our own mortality. It is also true, for example, of the “financial professional.” We compensate them lavishly, and in return, they allay our anxieties and promise us comfortable retirements. In that coming world, there will be no fear. In it, we will engage in fruitful, restful work for a billion billion years and be more alive, not less, as we ready ourselves for the next billion to come. The more we contemplate that future, the more we realize how broken the present truly is.

In the church, meanwhile, two millennia of spiritual professionals have peddled a vision that makes their jobs the highest aspiration of the faithful. They tell their flocks that what lasts for eternity is souls, and therefore that all labor is waste if it isn’t for the immaterial. What a rude awakening it will be when we rise from our graves and discover that this world and our changed-but-human bodies endure just as long as our souls! Again, this doesn’t mean the spiritual doesn’t matter – the care of souls is a noble calling. It is, however, no more noble than the tilling of the earth or the spreading of pigment or, for that matter, the collecting of trash.

Which is really the point I am trying to make. Many of the vocations that will be most honored after the resurrection are those we give the least respect to here. Not all of them: technology is also an expression of divine creativity, so at least some of our Silicon Valley engineers will continue in their pursuits. However, the technologist will be forced to recognize that they matter no more than the janitor; the rocket scientist and the beekeeper will sit down together in mutual admiration. This is the culture of the New Jerusalem.

This should be the culture we seek in the church as well. If that is where we are headed, we should measure our present communities against it. Where we fall short, where our culture makes us look down on certain callings, those are the places we should seek to live differently. As the arts are devalued in the name of crass commercialism, we should be havens and patrons of those arts. As the physical work of the earth is devalued in the name of the bottom line, we should be voices defending and honoring those with callouses on their hands. As the secular work of many is made to seem less Christian than those in the ministry, we should be reminded that they are doing work that endures.


Meanwhile, when I rise I plan to try my hand at being a carpenter. Or maybe I’ll learn the violin.

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