White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Birds of The Air

Published Monday, September 30, 2019 By Jen Pollock Michel

I had prescient hesitations before marrying Ryan, a long-haired business and economics major now sitting in the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company.  Wholly committed to Jesus, at twenty-two he was not committed to full-time ministry.  I, on the other hand, was studying to be a teacher and planning to give my ‘everything’ to Jesus, imagining it would lead me to a life of singleness and missionary service.  Reading the biographies of Amy Carmichael, of Helen Roseveare, of Darlene Deibler Rose, I thrilled at the unadulterated devotion of these women, anticipated my own disappearance in some remote corner of India or the Congo or Papua New Guinea.  It was their heroism I coveted; it was their degree of specialness in the kingdom of God that I clamored after.

Elisabeth Elliott, the wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliott, who returned to Ecuador with their young daughter after her husband’s brutal murder, had been a resident of Williston dorm at Wheaton College, the same dorm I moved into the winter of my junior year after returning from a semester abroad.  I lay in my top bunk, imagining this to be the very room where she’d penned some of her most fervent prayers to God.  From the third floor, I tried breathing in her valor, her surrender; at the age of twenty, I tried gaining something of her uncompromising faith.

Jim and Elisabeth Elliott’s names, among many others, hang along a wall at Blanchard Hall, the stately limestone building that stands at the highest point of Wheaton’s campus.  The names of these devoted students, flung far into the world for Christ, some never to return, are cataloged by year of graduation.  The wall proves that their lives have mattered, that they have been sufficiently poured out on the altar as they counted everything as ‘rubbish’ compared to the infinite value of knowing Christ and making him known.  As an undergraduate, even as a woman returning twenty years after my graduation, I have urgently wanted my name on that wall—in part, because I’m that desperate for approval, in part because it hasn’t ever been hard to imagine that massive ledger God must be keeping in heaven.  Brow furrowed, pencil sharpened, he is, as I’ve often seen him, bent over the numbers—the sacrifices, the salaries—weighing human lives to calculate their kingdom contribution.  To have your name on the wall, you could be assured that your account with God was in the black.

Kingdom lives, I have often assumed, must necessarily follow a narrative of gloomy sobriety—like that of Aiden W. Tozer, who married his wife, Ada Pfautz, when they were both young.  Lacking a seminary education, Tozer aspired to be a preacher, and many considered him to be specially anointed by God.  On the day of his ordination to the ministry, he determined to resign all selfish ambition and greedy desire.  “Save me from the bondage to things.  Let me not waste my days puttering around the house…..Deliver me from overeating and late sleeping. Teach me self-discipline that I may be a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”  Tozer’s devotional life was characterized by rigid fervency.  As Karen Wright Marsh describes in her book Vintage Sinners and Saints, he spent hours in his prayer closet, lying prostrate before the Lord.  His was an otherworldly life, as he described it should be in The Pursuit of God, “If we truly want to follow God, we must seek to be other-worldly…..Every man must choose his world.”

But if Tozer’s ‘other-worldliness’ seems heroic, as Marsh describes in her book, his exacting life came at great cost to his family.  Aside from the financial strain he caused them by foreswearing profits from his books and giving away half his salary, his children remembered him, after his death, as distant and disengaged.  His wife, remarrying after his death, said, “I have never been happier in my life.  Aiden loved Jesus Christ, but [my second husband] loves me.”

In contrast to Tozer’s ascetic life, however, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early life as a child, adolescent, and young man was a relatively pampered one.  As biographer Charles Marsh describes him, born to upper-middle class German parents, Bonhoeffer was a bit of a dandy, writing away to his mother from his first ministry position with requests to send clothes.  Bonhoeffer had never known want, only relative privilege.  He was well-educated, well-traveled.  When he started a seminary for the Confessing Church (the movement of churches during World War II that did not join the pro-Nazi Protestant Reich Church), it was furnished by a patron with dueling grand pianos, and it was at the piano that Bonhoeffer could fall into excited, even frightening fits of ecstasy.  Bonhoeffer was a man who would preach a rousing sermon; he was also a man to appreciate a night at the opera.  Even from prison, he was writing to his family, asking for better clothes.

In Scripture we have fierce and frowning men like Tozer—men like John the Baptist.  John arrived on the scene with his camel-hair cloak and leather belt.  He stood on the periphery of society, eating locusts and wild honey and calling down the brimstone of God’s judgment.  “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has demon’” (Mt 11:18).  John’s crime was belonging too little to this world; his fault was his otherness, his set-apartness.  This lone voice crying out in the wilderness makes few friends as he baptizes men and women in the river Jordan.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  (Mt 3:7).  Jesus was not one of those fierce and frowning men.  It is curious to me that John the Baptist was accused of being too heavenly-minded, Jesus too earthly minded.  Surely Jesus, Son of God, would not keep company with revelers—would not himself be one.  But in contrast to his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth was a regular guest at parties and a regular host at his own table.  He lacked the expected asceticism and was considered by the religious leaders of his day as being too much of the world.  His first miracle, of course, was providing the wine for the local wedding festivities.  “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him!  A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Mt 11:19).

It’s the stories of Tozer and Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus, that keep me wondering: What is the shape of a kingdom life?  Just how worldly—or how ascetic—is it?  Paradoxically, I seem to be offered examples of both kinds of lives, which leaves me with more wondering.  Am I meant to be Tozer, wearing out the knees of my pants and refusing proceeds from the sale of my books?  Or am I meant to be Bonhoeffer, seeing no inherent crisis in privilege and obedience?  Am I better off to imitate the stern faith of John the Baptist, whose name most surely made it on the wall of God?  Or can I, like Jesus, indulge an eating and drinking faith without fearing the wrath of the ledger-keeper?

Is it possible to die for God and worry for the state of one’s shoes while climbing the scaffold?

To Give and To Enjoy

My friend Christina says we would have made good nuns.  She speaks with a kind of wistfulness about the celibate vocations, which isn’t to say that she or I wish life were different so much as we long that life fractured less between morning carpool, book deadlines, and afternoon pickup, to say nothing of piano lessons and basketball tournaments.  Our domestic roles, however much we cherish them, make us subject to constant demand and constant interruption—this, no matter how early we get up.  There are thoughts to think and prayers to pray—and the dryer is always dinging.

But it’s not just that I long for a quieter life; I long for a more guiltless one.  I imagine myself clothed in one of my two black habits, kneeling at prayer.  Dedicated fully to God, I no longer pay a mortgage or pay to color my hair.  I am divested of my worldly possessions and every self-recriminating thought of selfishness and greed.  I am Thérèse of Lisieux, praying fervently to God: “My God, I choose all!  I do not wish to be a saint by halves.”  I imagine the either of the nunnery sparing me the or of the world.

But it is a fantasy that bursts like a bubble the moment I open the budget spreadsheet on my computer.  I am not a nun, wearing out her knees on the cold stone floor of a convent.  Instead, it’s the week for deciding on the contractor we’ll hire to renovate the house.

In the book of 1 Timothy, Paul offers words of paradox for the rich of the world seeking to live kingdom lives. His words are not, as some suppose, the and that so many of us cherish, plying us with the lie that we can serve the kingdom of God and our 401(k)s.  No, Jesus has already fiercely dispelled that rumor: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money” (Lk 16:13).  Like Jesus, Paul warns the members of the Ephesian church about the seduction of money and the apostasy on the other side of greed, writing, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”  The almighty dollar, Paul writes, is a sword on which any of us might fall: “It is through this craving [to be rich] that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:9, 10).  To make wealth an unequivocal blessing from God is to miss the truth of Scripture; money can indeed be a curse.

I don’t want to foolishly say that the rich are blessed, that the prospered are the divinely favored.  But I do want to say that the rich and prospered, in God’s kingdom, have a much greater responsibility than apologies for their privilege.  If I have sought eithers and ors in my kingdom calling, it has often been to assuage my guilt for my privilege.  But Paul, writing to Timothy, pastor of the Ephesian church, seems to have no consideration for my beleaguered conscience.  He writes,

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)

In the kingdom of God, I am paradoxically called to give and to enjoy.

As cure for the love of money, Paul does not command an ascetic life.  Earlier in 1 Timothy 4, he has in fact called out for the false teachers in the Ephesian church who have forbidden marriage and the eating of certain kinds of food.  Asceticism of this sort is not holiness, Paul writes.  “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (vv. 4-5).  Paul returns to similar themes of enjoyment and gratitude that we read in our discussion of the incarnation.  The material gifts God provides need not be a source of shame, even if they must be handled with great caution.  There is temptation to pride in wealth.  There is a false hope we could derive from our perceived financial insecurity.  Our money can, in real ways, displace our trust in God.  Do not hear me say that we get to serve the kingdom of God and mammon.

Paul tells Timothy to ensure that the wealthy people in his congregation are living the right story of the good life—not the story whose version Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:32: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”  To live a kingdom life is not to gorge on every pleasure offered today.  There’s a better story to live, and to live the story of God’s kingdom has implications from what we do with every dollar passing through our hands.  Do great good in this world, writes Paul.  Serve and share, remembering that every ‘sacrifice’ is an investment in the life to come.  Give and give away in order to ‘take hold of that which is truly life’ (1 Tim. 6:19).  Own everything loosely: because anything can be lost or needed by another.  The Dow Jones doesn’t decide our future: ours is an otherworldly hope, a hope often measured by a willingness to do without.

I know people who live this hope well; none would wish to be named.  I think of the couple that moved back from Europe after their banking careers has secured a comfortable financial future for themselves.  When they returned to the United States, they didn’t buy the large, beautiful suburban home they could have easily afforded.  Instead, they paid cash for a small Cape Cod house and invested the rest of their savings in a small local Christian school they started together, both working for years without salaries.  They live the secretive life of the kingdom, hardly letting their right hand know of their left hand’s generosity.

It’s my secret too: what we have and what we give away.  But I’m learning this much: if generosity is at the heart of God’s work in the world, paradoxically, so is gladness.  I hope we’ll learn to live the kind of radically generous, radically carefree earthly lives that the kingdom inspires us to.  Not because there’s a wall and a roster of names, not because there’s a ledger-keeper but because we follow a radically generous God who became poor for our sakes.   I hope we’ll guiltlessly seek first God’s kingdom coming, knowing there’s nothing we need worry after, nothing we need secure for ourselves, nothing we need prove or earn or hoard.  I hope we’ll invest zealously in the life to come, knowing there are no rights we can’t give up, no entitlements we can’t abandon.  I hope we’ll remember that God’s clothing the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.  Homes, even renovated ones, never lasted into eternity anyways.

Jen Pollock Michel is a speaker and author of Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World and Teach Us To Want.  A wife and mother of five, she lives in Toronto, Canada.  The above excerpt is abridged from Chapter 7, of “Birds and Barns”, from Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jen Pollock Michel. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com  

  • Jen Pollock Michel