Ten or so years ago I was traveling through the Midwest to speak at a conference. A young man had picked me up at the airport and we were driving through farmland country. I liked him immediately, and we jump straight into conversation. As we drove through the flatlands everywhere we looked there were farms, tractors and men plowing. I asked the young man what he was planning to do when he gradated from college. He quickly replied, ‘I am going to seminary.’ ‘So you want to be a pastor?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. So I asked if he had ever thought about how the Holy Spirit related to all those farmers plowing their fields. ‘No, not really,’ he said, ‘I have never thought about that.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it would be a good idea for your think on that, as almost all of your parishioners will be farmers, or from farming families. These men spend 60 plus hours a week farming, and their families are right with them. So if you don’t know how the Holy Spirit relates to what they do, you are essentially saying that most of their lives fall outside the realm of the Trinitarian life of God. As their pastor, what exactly are you going to urge them to do to be spiritual?’
After a moment of awkward silence, I asked him if he prayed before he ate supper in the evening. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I always thank the Lord for the food we are about to receive.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why thank the Lord?’ It was one of the first times that the utter craziness of the sacred-secular dichotomy was so clear to me. The young man looked at me like I had grown a third eye. ‘How is it that you thank the Lord for the food that these farmers and their families grew with such great care, and yet you do not know how the Lord relates to their lives as farmers? And what exactly is the good news that you will be proclaiming to these farmers and their families?’
One of the great disasters of Western deism here stares us in the face. These farmers and their wives and children give their lives, day after day, month after month, year after year, to grow food to feed thousands of people. And I would hazard a guess that for the most part they love what they do. On Sundays they do their religious duty and go to Church, or at least they used to. I wonder if they have ever heard a single sermon on the way their lives and farming are a participation in Jesus’ anointing in the Holy Spirit, one of the ways they are a part of the kingdom of the Triune God. And if not, what then have they heard?
What do we say to the man who drives the bread truck six days a week, or the teacher who gives her heart for children with little recognition of her real value and less money? What do we say to the fishermen, the firemen, the oil workers and architects, the nurses and mechanics, the sanitation engineers, social workers and business men and women, to the fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers about what they do with the vast majority of their time on this planet? ‘Sorry, what you do is nice, but second class, just on the edge of the Holy Spirit, but still outside?’ I have seen preachers do the lip quiver asking for money to support people who are in ‘full time’ Christian ministry, as if the farmer and his family, the nurse, the grandmother are not.
I think this is one of the great issues of our day. If the ‘modern’ Christian message is incapable of affirming people in their humanity, in their work and play and relationships, then we don’t have anything much to say to them, other than ‘do your duty now so you can go to heaven when you die’? Why should they come to Church? Why would they be interested in anything we have to say. The modern message is irrelevant to their lives here and now.
But what if we told people who they are? What if we told them that they were included in Jesus, and in his relationship with his Father, and in his anointing in the Holy Spirit? What if we told the bread truck driver that his work was inspired by the Holy Spirit himself? What if we treated him as if it were true? What if we told the teacher that her burden for her students did not originate in her at all, but in the love of the Father, Son and Spirit, and that her participation in their love was as beautiful as it was critical? What if we told the farmer and his family that the Lord has no intention of being the Lord without them (to borrow from Karl Barth) and that their farming was the fruit of the Holy Spirit? What if we began to relate to people and to what they do with the honor and respect that belongs to Jesus himself and the Holy Spirit?