On the last day of school, Jim Rodgers received a note from a student in his freshman English class, which read:
My freshman English teacher, Mr. Rodgers, is, without a doubt, the biggest inspiration in my life today … He does not know how much he has affected my life. He has saved it.
Mr. Rodgers wrote a book called The Old Guy Rules. Though I had been in treatment for depression, it didn’t seem to matter. I was all ready to commit suicide, but I wanted to read Mr. Rodgers’ book before I “passed.” I ordered the book online, downloaded it, and began to read it.
It completely stopped my negative thinking. I wanted to be an “Old Guy,” and I wasn’t about to miss my chance.
Rodgers read the note in complete in shock. The female student had been hospitalized earlier in the year, but the administration did not explain the cause. He was unaware that every day she was battling a debilitating depression. Neither did he suspect that this bright, talented young girl considered her life of so little worth that she had wanted to end it.
The integrity of Rodgers’ life impacted the life of a very fragile girl. He had watched his own dreams of an NFL career disappear after college. He had endured a severe crisis when his marriage ended suddenly, leaving him to raise two young children. And he was trying to deal honestly with the aging process. Rodgers had encountered and conquered obstacles in his life, making him the person and the teacher who he is. And who he is rescued someone else’s life.
Rodgers illustrates the theme of James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World. For 2,000 years the Church has interpreted for their generation the mission that Jesus gave to His followers, to take the gospel into every part of the world. Hunter, the LeBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, explains the complexities of this task in our generation due to the complexity of our culture.
Critiquing the current strategies used by the Church to engage the world, Hunter argues for a “faithful presence.” “For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; [between] the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point.”
Hunter identifies three areas where this faithful presence should show up. First, it means we are fully present to one another, to both those within the community of faith and those without. Some theological divisions within the Church are understandable, but the myriad of factions and schisms dividing the Church would rival the political parties of some national parliaments.
But the Church’s greatest challenge in this area, Hunter suggests, is a faithful presence to the outsider. Many Christians too quickly condemn those who fail moral and theological tests. Some treat homosexuals and Muslims with a shameful contempt. Others practice informal shunning of those who do not measure up to social or character standards.
God instructs His people, in both the Old and New Testaments, to accept and love the stranger. The rationale is that every insider was at one time an outsider. The Israelites were strangers in the land of Egypt (Lev. 19:34). Every Christian was formerly alienated from God’s covenant promises before entering the community of faith. Separating people on the basis of class, status or any other artificial means of division is never acceptable for the Church.
The second area faithful presence should be evident is in our tasks, the responsibilities and activities we must perform to live in this world. Work is both virtuous and difficult. Christians should approach our work in the spirit of Colossians 3:22-24, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” This demands an excellence in all our tasks, at work, at home, at church, in the community.
The third area where faithful presence should be visible is in our spheres of social influence. Hunter shows that every social relationship carries power. Christians are not called to abdicate this power, as some wrongly interpret. “Where power is exercised, therefore, it must conform to the way of Jesus: rooted in intimacy with the Father, rejecting the privileges of status, oriented by a self-giving compassion for the needs of others, and not only noncoercive toward those outside of the community of faith, but committed indiscriminately to the good of all.”
Hunter masterfully argues for a life well-lived, holistically and consistently, which promotes human flourishing for everyone with whom we come into contact. The degree to which our lives have been transformed by our relationship with Christ will manifest itself to those around us as we flesh out, embody and enact the gospel. Who we are will, in turn, impact the lives of those around us.