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When a world crisis erupts, when President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un trade verbal threats, we worry over a looming, future nuclear Armageddon, and we look to past behavior as a guide to confrontation.
The church, meanwhile, as pastor-theologian Tim Keller points out, carries on its work in the present progressive tense: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5).
The U.S. military for two decades has had plans on the books to send cruise missiles and stealth fighters to strike North Korea’s nuclear reactors, plans that predict 1 million casualties. They remain future plans. Each day the Pentagon generals hauled out those plans—whether in 1994, 1999, 2010, or 2017—the work of the church in North Korea progressed in real time.
Each night radio host Kim Chung-seong beams broadcasts, including prayers, from South to North Korea, WORLD’s Jamie Dean reported in our last magazine issue. “Brothers and sisters in the North, I hope this time can be a moment of prayer for a miracle,” he prays on air, asking also the regime leaders would “kneel down in front of God and repent for their sins.”
Are we so preoccupied by past injustices and future calamity we fail to be a present church?
Inside North Korea the work of the church continues day by day, too. We know because defectors testify how the regime beats Christians and tortures them. In Jamie’s story we learn of a family hiding its Bible in a magpie nest. I imagine perhaps an hour-by-hour, present progressive vigil—hauling the Bible down under cover of darkness to read just a few verses then returning it to its hidden perch before daylight. These are living stones building up a spiritual house even as the kings of the earth plot forward a dire future that may or may not come to pass.
Other examples of living stones abound beneath sorry headlines. In Kenya, where tension and violence flared over a potential election outcome, American physicians Scott and Jennifer Myhre labored on, because they were called to be the present church. Nurses were on strike, and other workers had gone to be election monitors. Dr. Myhre found herself battling to save infant lives, alone.
“I turned around to ask for help, and found I was alone in a room full of infants, with a needle in a baby’s neck, and no way to reach gauze or tape,” she wrote. That morning one infant died and another neared death. Dr. Myhre worked for 10 minutes to revive the infant, who became the second to die within an hour. She found herself with “two moms to pray with, hug, explain, listen, say sorry over and over, call relatives, fill out death forms, wring my hands, wonder what we could have done.” This is the present church.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked a village near Herat, and an experienced worker who described the moment-by-moment horror there also could describe what is happening with the country’s underground church. I expected bad news. Instead he said, “The church is being strengthened there day by day.” How? By outsiders helping one Paul who disciples a dozen Timothys. They study in back offices, in homes, and sometimes by going abroad and coming back again. The worker said, “Any Afghans who show up to worship already have risked their lives. They are lions.”
And we the church in the West? Are we living stones living out a present progressive faith, or do we live it more like military generals, shelving our faith like a war option until the next crisis? Or do we live it like politicians, calling it forth when convenient? Or are we so preoccupied by past injustices and future calamity we fail to be a present church?
Living out faith in the present, Peter points out, is for sojourners and exiles, people called to offer sacrifices, to work hard at the hardest things, and to make a collective testimony while living as strangers, perhaps in our own homes, our cities, or our nation. For the past, we have the finished work of Jesus on the cross. For the future, we hold the hope of glory. Only the present rests in our hands.