When I think of significant pairings, the North Pole and the South Pole, salt and pepper, and ketchup and mustard come immediately to mind.
Of late, Eugene Peterson has added another significant though strange pairing to my list of power couples: geography and eschatology. As odd as it sounds, this pair has been shaping and sustaining my soul as I fight to press on in the exhausting and exhilarating work of vocational ministry.
In Peterson’s book Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, he shares with his readers the tensions that he felt in his soul as a professional Christian by tracing his own pastoral experience through the contours of the story of Jonah. One of the tensions that he said kept his soul intact in the work of ministry was the polarity of geography and eschatology.
By geography, Peterson means both more and less than the study of the physical features of the earth. He uses the term to describe the physical place and people to whom God has called you as a minister of the gospel and a shepherd of souls. He uses the term geography to call to mind and memory your particular point on the map and period in history. He means your pews and those who people them, the unique beauty and brokenness of your zip code, and the unique idols and ideals of your congregation in your historical moment (see 1 Peter 5:2).
By eschatology, Peterson means both more and less than the theological study of the death, judgement and the destiny of the soul. He uses the term to describe the lasting things, the ultimate end-game of ministry and humanity. Using this term, he reminds pastors and spiritual leaders to remember that our faith is a future-oriented one fighting to have eternal aims in a “now-oriented religion” (see Colossians 3:1-3).
The two must always be yoked together in our hearts and minds if we are going to faithfully serve in pastoral or vocational ministry roles.
“Either without its biblical partner falsifies the pastoral vocation. Both are necessary – equally yoked….Geography without eschatology becomes mere religious landscaping, growing a few flowers, mowing the lawn, pulling out the crabgrass, making life as comfortable as possible under the circumstances…Eschatology without geography degenerates into religious science fiction. It imagines lurid scenarios of heaven and hell, quite ignoring the gospel essentials of love and hope and faith…”
As in most polarities and tensions, it is all-too-easy to swing the pendulum one way or the other. When we are only thinking about geography, we can get so sucked into our particular moment in time and the demands and needs of our congregation and culture that we lose sight of our purpose. While we are called to serve our particular people and place, we not called to coddle our congregations or pander to the pews. We are called to point them to the lasting hope of gospel with its tangible teleos of the second coming of Christ who will forever wed the new heavens and the new earth. While we are called to engage in current events, we are not to get so stuck in them that we forget our long-term goal and hope. We must remind them and ourselves that God’s people have been called to be a waiting and long-sighted people. We are not to live in short-sighted hope that a political party, a movement, or even a cultural moment will give us the progress and peace we are seeking. Only Christ can do that.
On the other hand, it is also far-too-easy to be so theologically set on the eternal ends that we forget that our geography matters. Sometimes Reformed circles are accused of being the frozen chosen, those who are so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly good. I know that I have been stuck in that ditch many times until someone or something yanks me back to the reality of the here and now that matter to God. Yes, our eschatological hope is the ultimate end, but God means to continue the spread and advance of His kingdom in our particular place and time through the conforming of our particular people to the image of Christ. We cannot gloss over current events and the felt and festering needs of the people around us, glibly pointing to future glory. We must get our hands dirty in the geography to which we have been called.
In the midst of our chaotic cultural moment where a pandemic intersects with a polarized and politically-charged election season which intersects with a nation shaken by systemic racism, we desperately need to live in the tension of this powerful pair.