“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Over 200,000 miles from Earth, one of Odyssey’s oxygen tanks had exploded, making Apollo 13’s lunar landing impossible. Returning home required nudging Odyssey into the gravitational pull of the Moon – to slingshot the craft around the Moon and back home. A similar maneuver might help faith communities in one of the biggest problems they face day in and day out.
We’re talking about the fact that Europeans and Americans rarely take religion seriously. Read The Guardian, The New York Times, or the Economist – it’s hard to find an article where God is referenced as a respected voice. What does he know about banking reform or good music? Two weeks ago in a New Yorker piece, Burt Boyar described his friends’ reaction when Sammy Davis, Jr. took his conversion to Judaism seriously. They were incredulous. “You must be joking.” Davis wasn’t joking.
If you consider the daily “stuff” of life – building homes, running companies, getting married, having babies, raising families – the Judeo-Christian definition of reality is rarely taken seriously or acted upon by those who shape our country’s shared life. Did Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac for example consider the Christian faith as a possible contributor to shaping sane and sensible lending practices? Are you kidding? Do you hear national leaders looking to the Bible as a sensible way to address the fact that out-of-wedlock births have climbed to over 40 percent in the US? We’re approaching levels in France, where 59 percent of all first-born French children were born to unwed parents, according to France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies.1 The Christian faith is about saving people – not making sense of daily life. Houston, we have a problem.
But it’s not a problem without a solution. In the Old Testament, God’s people were called to shalom – to seek the wellbeing of others, not just within the community of faith, but to all. Now there’s a word you don’t hear at Goldman Sachs – shalom. It is seeking and promoting human flourishing. In Jeremiah’s day, when the Jews went into Babylonian exile, they were told to build homes, plant gardens, get married, raise families – you know, normal stuff – and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29). Read that again. Shalom was promoting human flourishing in pagan Babylon.
But what does human flourishing mean? In Genesis 1:26-28, God commanded the original couple to “have dominion” – literally, to make stuff. Humans were to plant gardens, get married, raise families, and make better stuff. Making better homes and gardens – and businesses – required a template. The pattern can be found in a biblical code: ought-is-can-will. It’s a definition of reality intended to help marriages or businesses prosper, but the Jews had not followed it. God sent the Jews into exile so they’d once again practice shalom, come to their senses by seeing that this ought-is-can-will pattern is everywhere and for everyone, and return to him.
Does this remind you of a story Jesus told about a father who had two sons? The younger one came to him and arrogantly demanded: “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So the father divided his property between them, the younger son took it, went to another country and blew his wealth in wild living. A severe economic downturn hit, making things worse – the kid took a job feeding pigs. A famine followed making things even worse – the son considered filling his stomach with the crap the pigs ate. After getting a belly full of reality, the son “came to his senses” and returned home.
This is the third of Jesus’ three stories in Luke 15 about “seeking the lost.” The first two, the shepherd and the woman, remind us that lost people matter to God. The third gives us the manner of seeking lost people – shalom. The father gave his son the inheritance because the boy believed he’d flourish elsewhere. The father is promoting flourishing, even if it means in a pagan land. He lets his son go, hoping the boy will see ought-is-can-will is everywhere, come to his senses in the everyday warp and woof of life, and return home. He let reality do its work. It works.
Shalom in today’s world means seeking the prosperity of people in everyday businesses and schools and neighborhoods and sports leagues – you know, regular workaday institutions, not just “religious” ones. We build beautiful companies and organizations where people can flourish – experience shalom – in workaday life. This is also how we solve one of our biggest problems. Our definition of reality is rarely taken seriously because we rarely seek the peace and prosperity of everyone in everyday life. We don’t trust gravity, i.e., reality, to do its work. We don’t see shalom as “seeking the lost.”
In modern faith communities, “seeking” often translates into quitting our day jobs and going into “full time Christian ministry.” We think this is being serious about “seeking.” But “seeking” in shalom is acting as the NASA engineers did when Apollo 13 was going in the wrong direction. They nudged the craft into gravity. Gravity is reality. We ought to nudge our friends and colleagues at work toward an awareness of ought-is-can-will as reality. Some will see it and come to their senses, asking us where it comes from. When we connect the code to the “four chapter” gospel of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, they might slingshot back to God. They might take the faith seriously.
If you think about it, NASA engineers had to let Odyssey continue in the wrong direction before it could head in the right direction. Can you imagine how cool it would be if faith communities were confident that God is seeking in the everyday warp and woof of life and we let reality do its work in people’s lives? This might be so riveting that one day they’d make a movie about the church’s creativity in promoting human flourishing in every arena of life. We could call it “Houston, we no longer have a problem.”
1 Molly Moore, “More Longtime Couples in France Prefer L’Amour Without Marriage,” Washington Post, November 21, 2006, p. A22.