I watched the series finale of The Office last night. Intriguing! There was so much there that echoes biblical truth (and so much there that undermines it too).
The last line was:
I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?
Mark Galli has an article in the latest issue of Christianity Today about Rob Bell. But it’s about more than that. It’s about our religion of feeling and disdain of the ordinary. I found Galli’s last words to be utterly profound and full of biblical truth.
To be sure, we now also know joy, but only because the promise of our redemption is assured by Christ’s death and resurrection and made known to us by the Holy Spirit. But it’s not a present experience of redemption – of flourishing and thriving, of becoming all that we can be, of amazement at the immediate encounter with God each day – but the assured hope that redemption is coming. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv. 24-25, ESV).
To wait in patience is just the opposite of what we are often encouraged to do. Instead, we convince ourselves that we don’t need patience as much as willpower, because if we do everything right, we can make divine encounters a daily, ongoing, and enthralling experience. But with this comes the corollary: There must be something wrong with me, something lacking in my devotion, if I don’t have these experiences. By contrast, Paul’s admonition to wait in patience suggests that it’s normal not to have such experiences.
Yes, they do happen. In his grace God gives us periodic glimpses of the future, tastes of what is coming. This happens in those famous conversion experiences, and in healings, in miracles, in those moments when God’s presence is keenly felt. I myself have experienced a healing of severe pain in my leg. I have also almost been “slain in the Spirit” (but got hold of myself just in time!). And as the Spirit leads, I speak in tongues. I have also had ecstatic experiences when the love of God penetrated my whole being.
And in a life of 60 years, I can count these experiences on one hand. Because I’ve had such experiences, I understand perfectly the desire to have them all the time, and to imagine that maybe there is a technique, a method, a way to pray, a way to be open and alert – something! – that will allow me to experience this daily. Believe me, I tried that for a while and discovered that, yes, I could manufacture something very similar to a genuine spiritual experience. But it soon became clear that the search for daily wonder was creating a religion of Mark Galli. It wasn’t helping me love my neighbor, though it did help me judge my neighbor as relatively unspiritual, at least compared to me.
I believe there is yet another reason we’re fascinated with divine encounters: our boredom with the life God has given us.
Instead of a life of experience, Christ calls us to a life of love. And a life of love for the most part means attending to the tedious details of others’ lives, and serving them in sacrificial ways that most days feels, well, not exciting at all. Rather than sweeping the kitchen, cleaning the toilet, listening to the talkative and boring neighbor, slopping eggs onto a plate at the homeless shelter, or crunching numbers for another eight hours at the office – surely life is meant for more than this. We are tempted to wonder, Is that all there is to the “abundant” Christian life? Shouldn’t my life be more adventurous if God is in me and all around me? How am I going to be all I’m supposed to be if I have to empty bedpans in Peoria? I would just die if I had to do that.
Yes, you would. Jesus called it dying to self. Love is precisely denying the self that wants to glory in experience. The cost of discipleship most of us are asked to pay is to live the life God has given us, serving in mundane ways the people he has put in our path. To be free from the self and to discover such love is the essence of abundant life.
As Paul put it, in the final analysis love is not about speaking in tongues, having prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries or knowledge, having experiences of wonder, or being all we can be. Love instead “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7; ESV). Yes, endures. It endures now because it hopes. And it hopes because it has not yet been given in full what is promised, but only glimpses here and there, mere appetizers to the great kingdom feast.