This is the foreword written by my friend Len Sweet for my upcoming book Then. Now. Next, about the future direction of the Church.
Full of Futurity
Whatever way we turn, whichever direction we look, we see looming on the horizon wars on terror, nuclear war, climate change, Islamist jihadism, unraveling nation states, pestilence, and a Titanic-like tryst with an iceberg of time and technology unlike the world has ever seen. Mind-bending technological “progress” is moving far beyond moral comprehension with much less constraints. Fleas carrying the Black Death (bubonic plague) have been found in Arizona as recently as 2017. Welcome to the future, a future as bleak, some say, as Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
One reason I enjoy science fiction is that novelistic imagination of the future gives us a tighter focus on and clearer mirror of the present. You might even say science fiction is less about the future than about what people see and fear in the present. In his academic study of Apocalyptic Fiction (2017), Andrew Tate shows how science fiction is now “haunted by dreams of a future that is a place of ruin.” No wonder the Left Behind series sold 65 million copies, and counting. In a world where everything seems to be falling apart, paranoid delusion might be the very definition of sanity.
Every time I wonder why people are so fearful of the future, I remember that, even in the best circumstances, the future will wipe away our way of life, along with all those safety and security measures we’ve tried to cocoon ourselves in. It’s easier simply to block it. Yet we stagger mindlessly into the future at a perilous price—the cost of deformation and death.
Set the alarm or not, morning comes. Ready or not, the future shows up. A default future arrives willy-nilly. A desirable future, not to mention a dream future, is birthed in blood, sweat, tears and a prophetic imagination. By discounting the future, the church never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The last prayer of the Bible points and pulls us to the future.
He who has come is coming.
The night will not be long.
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
Jesus comes to us from the future and pulls us forward. Jesus is the real inventor of futurology, even though the German political scientist Ossip K. Flechtheim (1909-1998) coined the term. Jesus is always ahead of his disciples. He pulls us towards him more than pushes us from the behind. To study Jesus is to study the future. Jesus was not in the business of making points but of making turning points, creating “turnings” that would turn-about (metanoia) our lives and the world to face God and the future. The gospel story is in the turnings, not the points. Biblical futurists re-turn the present toward the future. If a prophet is one who speaks for the future, we must all be prophets now.
When Jesus taught us to “live abundantly,” he taught us to live OUT OF the past, to live IN the present, and to live FOR the future. You can’t live in the past and go forward. Or in the words of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), “Remembering occurs only with the intention of making it possible to foresee the future.”
In an echo of a departing Jesus’ futuristic words to his disciples “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear,” the artist/poet William Blake wrote to Thomas Butts (April 25, 1803), “I have a thousand and ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity.” How many of our hearts are “full of futurity?” In a world with hearts full of futility, we need hearts “full of futurity” for each other and for each other’s future.
The academic discipline of futurology and futurist studies traditionally moves from present to future. In contrast, biblical futurology moves from future to present, from Revelation 21 and 22 to today, from the New Jerusalem to cities in peril and under siege. The phrase from the Gloria—Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, or “Seated at the right hand of the Father”—is a prophetic promise of who owns the future, not a seating chart.
To live an inspired life is to live an in-spirited life or an in-the-Spirit life, a God-breathed life which enjoys the life of the future now. For the Spirit is the first fruits of the final harvest, the earnest or down payment of what is to come, the arrabon or “seal” of the future. That’s why to live inspired is to live dangerously. The Spirit does not sub-vent but subvert the status quo.
The renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked to judge a piano competition in London. The scorecards were marked on a scale of one to 20, with the most outstanding performances rating a 20. During the competition Rubinstein listened carefully to the students’ recitals and marked his cards as each finished.
At the end of the competition the sponsors looked at the scores and were shocked to see that most players had been given zeros. Only a few had rated scores of 20, and there were no scores in between. The sponsors hurried over to Rubinstein and asked him why he had judged the entrants in such an arbitrary manner. “It’s simple,” replied the great master. “Either they can play the piano or they can’t.”
Getting ready for the future is a lot like playing the piano. You can’t be “ready” for the future. You just do your best to prepare and then play. Sometimes you’re ready. Sometimes you’re not. The first dice were used to tell the future. There always has been a bit of a gamble to futuring. Either you’re ready for the future, or you’re not.
David McDonald has written a stirring manifesto for the future that readies the church to play. “Nothing ages as fast as the future” writes Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006). But Proverbs 31.25 assures us that the virtuous and valiant can “laugh at the future” and leave the church “full of futurity.” You too will be “full of futurity” after reading McDonald’s manifesto.
Leonard Sweet, best-selling author and futurist
Drew University, Tabor College, Portland Seminary