Complete To Complete
Past, present, and future all collaborate to make us who we are. Few would debate that both the past and the present play a crucial role in our personal formation. We can discount neither where we came from nor where we are when we consider who we are. But the question becomes more enigmatic when we turn to things that haven't yet happened. Is it possible that our future somehow influences who we are even now? If so, what might that mean for us? Strange as it may sound, I want to suggest that traces of your future exist in the present but that the best way to see those traces is by looking through the lens of the past.
The theologian J.R. Daniel Kirk identifies Romans 6 as one of the "key place[s] to look for the intrusion of Christ's resurrection into our current lives."1 Kirk insists on the word "intrusion" because the complete implications of Christ's death and resurrection have yet to be fully realized. As Christian men and women, however, we strive to faithfully embody the conviction that the consummation of Christ's redemptive work on the cross does indeed "intrude" into our day-to-day lives. Specifically, Romans 6:4 epitomizes the convergence of immanence and imminence on display in our faithful behavior: "Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."
Far from being lofty and abstract sentiment, what this actually means is that as servants of the living God, our lives are simultaneously reflective of God's past, present, and future work. Nevertheless, Christian faith remains a delicate balance of anticipation and fulfillment. If we nurture a premature focus on God's future work to the exclusion of present concerns, we risk succumbing to the very things we ignore. If, on the other hand, we live only for the present, we risk forgetting where we came from and where we are going. The question then becomes: How do we lead lives that are complete examples of what God has not yet completed?
Eugene Peterson acknowledges, "I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor; I just never had a name for it."2 His recent memoir is a marvel of seemingly unrelated events, ranging from a job in his father's butcher shop to a bloody confrontation with the neighborhood bully, converging to shape both his identity and his vocation as a pastor. In other words, Peterson reads the traces of his future by the light of his past. This is why it is now possible for him to revisit these childhood scenes and see a little boy who was somehow already "Pastor Pete" even as he wielded his first butcher's knife or found himself locked in hand-to-hand combat with his local nemesis. Only now is it possible for Peterson to look back and to see the future transform a first job and a fistfight into an apprenticeship.
Speaking personally, one of my own encounters with the future took place my senior year of high school. I was an unpromising student with no academic aspirations whatsoever. The sixth period bell had rung, and we commenced with the usual uproar with which we punished substitutes for disrupting our regular routine. In walked a wild haired man with a stack of books in each hand, and a sweater that might have been stolen from Bill Cosby. Instead of taking the bait, however, our sub countered our rude commotion with famous first sentences, beginning with Moby Dick and ending with the King James Bible. The passion with which he spoke was fierce and magnetic, and by the time he got to Genesis 1:1 his voice was no more than a whisper, and our class leaned in hungrily as though his words were the very bread of life.
The only suitable word for this occasion is "foreshadowing." I had never experienced the power and subtlety of creative language before. I never knew that an expertly chosen group of words could instill the world with a renewed sense of beauty and vitality, or that a simple sentence could awaken hidden vistas of meaning in my understanding. I never dreamed that I would one day look back on this eccentric orator in his oversized sweater and rumpled trousers and recognize that he was more than just a substitute teacher. He was a brief mentor, and in a fateful moment, past, present and future overlapped, and I brushed shoulders with my future vocation as a writer. Such moments make us privy to the future, but the recognition comes only with the benefit of the past. I think this is part of what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard meant when he said that life is lived forwards and understood backwards.
THE END IN SIGHT
The leadership trainer Bruce Bickle uses the phrase "complete to complete" to encapsulate the ideal mentality behind successful teamwork. Compressed into this phrase is the assumption that a future conclusion looms large over all efforts leading up to a given end. Michelangelo famously remarked, "I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." In other words, the ideal artist begins the painstaking process with the end already in sight and allows the future to exert its peculiar pull on her current efforts. The "complete to complete" mentality informs Eugene Peterson's discovery that he was, is, and always will be a pastor, and it seems an apt summation of my own dawning realization that I was a writer-in-waiting long before my Christian calling and a suitable platform for self-expression coincided.
Just like Michelangelo's angel, our future is here, hidden in the marble of our lives, and awaiting the chisel. Though our purpose may not always be clear, if we nurture the discipline of careful reflection, what Frederick Buechner calls "listening to your life," we will soon discover abundant clues about the future in the present. Ron Hansen believes his career as a novelist began during the 1952 performance of his kindergarten's Christmas pageant.3 Fatefully overlooked by the teacher because of the presence of his twin brother in the same class, Ron ended up as the only kid without an actual part in the nativity scene. Having already exhausted her supply of shepherds, Magi, and angels, Sister Martha promptly forfeited her own part in the play and conceded to the little boy on the verge of tears before her, "Well, we'll need a narrator. You can be Saint Luke."4
Just like Michelangelo's angel, our future is here, hidden in the marble of our lives, and awaiting the chisel. Though our purpose may not always be clear, if we nurture the discipline of careful reflection, what Frederick Buechner calls "listening to your life," we will soon discover abundant clues about the future in the present.
In the span of two sentences, Ron went from being an outcast to the envy of his entire class. More importantly, this impromptu decision on the part of Sister Martha would reveal in retrospect that he was already a writer long before he knew he was a writer. Though the complete implications of this amateur play wouldn't be fully confirmed until the publication of his first book, it is now abundantly clear that this deceptively small event was a window into the future: "I frequently have been asked when it was that I first had the impulse to be a fiction writer, and I find myself often thinking of that kindergarten play and of those hundred grown-ups and older children whom I knew weren't listening to me but to those fascinating and archaic words, 'betrothed,' 'swaddling,' 'manger.' I felt the power that majestic language had for an audience, that they'd been held rapt not just because of what Luke and I reported but because of the way we said it."5
"How shall we picture the kingdom of God," asks Jesus, "or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade" (Mark 4:30-32). Significantly, Jesus's parable reveals that there are no plants or trees without seeds, and there are no trees that weren't once seeds. And according to Michelangelo, there is no angel without the slab of marble, and there is no angel that wasn't formerly an inert slab of marble. There's no Pastor Pete without the butcher shop and the bully; there's no novelist named Ron Hansen without a kindergarten Christmas pageant. Far from indulging in empty paradox, all of these examples illustrate that the "newness of life" about which Paul speaks is available to us here and now.
Consider the acclamation, "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." The tenses behind each of these events function once again to point us to the past, present, and future. Jesus's death on the cross is the historical occurrence into which we are reconciled to God and the touchstone against which we measure our present lives. By that same token, Christ's resurrection from the dead means that his leadership and guidance are available to us here and now (Matt 28:19-20). Finally, the reality of Christ's imminent return is sealed with the guarantee of the Holy Spirit, poured out as a pledge upon Christ's followers with power from on high.6 The Holy Spirit enables us to walk in "newness of life" even as our mortal feet approach the grave.7
As William A. Dyrness so aptly puts it, "The future cannot be separated from the present."8 By the Spirit's power, we are now free to walk as members of a "new creation" set against the backdrop of a fallen world that is passing away as we speak. By the Spirit's power, we are free to live as complete examples of what God is still bringing to completion, "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).
Cameron McAllister is a member of the writing team at RZIM.
1 J.R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 87-88.
2 Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 2.
3 Ron Hansen, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 16-19.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 Ibid., italics added.
8 William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 310.