My wife, Kay, was born in the jungles of the Amazon in Peru, her parents were missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators where she lived on a compound with nearly 100 missionary families. Everything that was done there was somehow related to translation of the Bible into the many as yet unwritten languages of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. What has been accomplished among the tribal peoples of the jungles in Peru is nothing short of miraculous. But, transferring a missionary kid who’s whole life has been immersed in an environment where the dominant value of life is the visible furtherance of the gospel among those who have never had even an opportunity to hear, to the secular environment of Western culture is a recipe for crisis, or if not crisis at least for ongoing tension.
When we first got married over 35 years ago, this tension was not immediately obvious. I was involved in full-time ministry with Youth for Christ in Orange County, California. During that time, Kay assisted me in ministering to the high school kids of Costa Mesa and Irvine. When I left Youth for Christ, we packed up our trailer, and headed to Dallas Texas, where for the next 10 years I was involved in ThM and PhD study. In 1984, ten years and one month later we left Dallas. We set our sights on the San Francisco Bay area, where I had been hired as Asst. Prof. of Theology at Simpson College. Her life was focused on the home, raising the children. As the children grew and got off to school. It became necessary for her to venture out into the workplace. Feeding four voraciously hungry boys on a professor’s salary became more than a challenge. It became an impossibility (at one point our food bill was regularly larger than our monthly rent!).
As she moved out into the workplace, the tension of the secular versus sacred raised its ugly head. It wasn’t that she objected to working, but if she had to work outside the home, she wanted to be involved in something that counted for the Kingdom, to be in some kind of ministry work. Many, many nights when she would come home, she would share her frustration. She was working in an office for an electrical contracting company and although there were several Christian friends who worked in the office with her it was still a secular job. It wasn’t involved in building the Kingdom. Several years later, she changed jobs. She was now an executive assistant and office manager in a small financial planning firm. But in some cases, this was even worse. She was faced day-to-day with the pursuit of money and felt the tension between God and mammon. About 2 ½ years ago, she changed jobs again. She is working at a small startup company that manufactures a medical device to deal with chronic back pain. Again, it is a secular environment, although in this job she loves the environment and the people, even though she is the only Christian in the office. However, she continued to feel the sacred-secular tension.
As a student of the Reformation, I have been convinced for decades that the sacred-secular tension that my wife feels and that many who have grown up in the evangelical community feel, arises from a misreading of Scripture, and a misunderstanding of the nature of God and his relationship to creation. Beginning in the ancient church there was a wedge driven between the material and the spiritual with a corresponding wedge drawn between the secular and the sacred. During the medieval period, this wedge became a veritable wall. Anyone who was serious about his or her own salvation became a priest, monk or a nun (speaking in broad brushstrokes here). Also during this period the incarnation of Christ and his full participation in the same type of life that we share faded into the background and He became progressively viewed as the divine judge who condemned humanity for its failure to achieve the standard of perfect legal righteousness. (By the way, it was during this period that the we see the rise of Marion devotion as well as the cult of the saints in an attempt to find a sympathetic intercessor who would get the ear of the righteous judge.) This was the issue that tortured Luther—he hated the righteousness of God for it was the basis on which he damned sinful humanity. Ultimately, Luther discovered the true nature of divine righteousness. It was this discovery that kicked off the Reformation.
Luther and the other first generation Reformers went further—much further. They rejected the idea that matter was tainted. The creation had been blessed by the Creator and declared to be “very good.” With this understanding, the sacred-secular dichotomy had been healed. But over the generations the rift appeared again. In the nineteenth century it opened again with a vengeance and infected and still afflicts many evangelicals to this day. (The development here is a bit complex so I won’t get into it now. Suffice it to say that the rise of Liberal Theology with its emphasis on the Social Gospel played a major part here, as did the apocalyptic pre-millennialism that advocated radical separation from the world and dedication to missions and evangelism. Involvement with the world is, after all, like polishing brass on a sinking ship.)
In all this we have lost sight of the nature and implications of the most basic and foundational doctrines of Christianity—the trinity and the incarnation: that God is three eternal persons who live in constant and perfect loving relationship, and that the eternal Son of the Father has joined himself to the totality of human nature, not just for thirty-three years, but for eternity. To stop and reflect, really reflect upon these two truths staggers the mind.
C. Baxter Kruger, in his work The Great Dance, does just this. At one point he reflects:
What are we to make of the fact that as the son of God lived out his sonship, his divine life, he did so as a carpenter? Think of the hours and hours spent in the shop, the years of apprenticeship, the days and months and years hammering and cutting and carving and sanding. What are we to make of the fact that the vast majority of God’s time on earth was spent in such ordinary, mundane activity? Have you ever thought about that? Most of God’s time on Earth was not spent in what people call “full-time ministry.” The incarnate son spent more time making things with his hands than he did preaching.
When you stop to think about it, when the Trinitarian life of God worked its way out in human existence, it was all very ordinary. I am aware of the supernatural things that happened in Jesus. I am aware of the astonishing miracles. But I would hazard a guess that the Son of God, ate more meals than he performed miracles. I know that the incarnate Son healed the sick, but I also know that he made a lot of tables. He had a lot of conversations with regular people, grew up in a family of brothers and sisters and cousins, celebrated birthdays and went to parties.
For at least a moment in history, human laughter, human sharing, human compassion, human love, human fellowship and camaraderie and togetherness were all more than human. For at least a moment of history, carpentry and the delight of making things and helping others, human excellence and the pride and joy of creativity in design and moving from design to completed product, were all more than merely human. They were the living expression of the humanity of God, the living expression of the incarnate Son, living out his divine sonship, the living expression of a man utterly baptized in the Holy Spirit. (62)
Certainly the fact that the Incarnate God worked at a secular and ordinary job, gives the lie to the idea that it is only “the spiritual” that matters. The eternal Son of God, by, through and for whom the entire universe was created, out of love and compassion for His creation, united himself eternally to humanity in its ordinariness and its physicality. This is the basis for meaning in everything we do: the heroic, the “spiritual” and the ordinary. All are important because God himself has, out of his overflowing and gracious love, joined himself to us as human and in the process brought humanity into eternal relationship and participation with God. Peace and joy have come to my wife as she has accepted and embraced participation with God in the ordinary.