“It was getting hotter.”
That’s what Frank May noticed at sunrise, as he looked out the window of his apartment in India. Taking a deep breath, he felt like he was in a sauna. “He was thirsty and the jug by his bedside was empty. All over town the stressed hum of window-box air conditioner fans buzzed like giant mosquitoes. … Wails of dismay cut the air, coming from the rooftop across the street.”
The next day, the temperature rose to 107 and the humidity to 60 percent. People were dying all over the place. Frank walked with a group of neighbors to the lake and found a desperate scene. “There were many, many people in the lake, heads dotted the surface everywhere around the shores. … It just felt better. … They could sit on the shallowest part of the lake bottom, heads out of water, and try to endure.”
Frank shut his eyes, fully immersed in the shallows. The night dragged on, feeling like years, and in the morning he stirred and gradually he came up from the water. “Balancing his head carefully on his spine, he surveyed the scene. Everyone was dead.”
This gruesome scene is from the first chapter in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future. In it, aid worker Frank May just barely survives a brutal Indian heat wave, one of a number of severe weather events that may afflict our planet in years to come. Then, the book tells stories of people fighting climate change in innovative and surprising ways.
But what is “the Ministry for the Future” described in the novel? It’s a group created in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. Its mission is to “advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens” and defend “all living creatures present and future.” The ministry’s staff includes lawyers, economists and ecologists. It contains experts in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences. It employs an expert in artificial intelligence, as well as disaster and refugee specialists.
A ministry for the future … what a fascinating concept. Usually, we make decisions based on the interests of people who are alive right now. But what if we thought about the needs of future generations? What if we were concerned about all living creatures, present and future?
In the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Colossians, he asks that they “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will” so that they “may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work” (1:9-10).
Paul does not long for “the good old days.” He is not fixated on the past. He does not ruminate on what happened last week or last month or last year. Instead, he looks to the future, praying that the followers of Christ in Colossae will be equipped to face the challenges that lie ahead. He wants them to continue to be filled “with the knowledge of God’s will.” He prays that they “may lead lives worthy of the Lord.” And he hopes they will “bear fruit in every good work.”
Paul is creating a ministry for the future, based on the conviction that decisions should be made today, with an eye toward people’s needs tomorrow.
Robinson’s novel is focused on climate change, which is certainly a concern to Christians who want to practice care for God’s creation. But mission and ministry for the future can include a wide variety of issues. The critical shift is to advocate not for ourselves, but for the world’s future generations.
Paul wants us to be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9). He was writing to the followers of Christ in Colossae, a city on a major roadway in Asia Minor, a part of the Roman Empire that now lies in modern Turkey. The Colossians were familiar with Greek and Roman philosophy and may have been influenced by Jewish mysticism and the Hellenistic mystery cults known as “neo-Pythagoreanism.”
Try saying that five times fast! Neo-Pythagoreanism is a real tongue-twister.
In any case, there were a lot of schools of thought in Colossae. The people were being pulled in many different directions, just as we are today by a variety of issues.
To people embroiled in fierce debates, Paul prays that they may “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will.” This is not philosophical knowledge, but instead it is practical knowledge. This wisdom is “the ability to choose right conduct,” says New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln; “here in Colossians the wisdom and insight produced by the Spirit have an explicitly ethical dimension.”
Paul doesn’t want us simply to talk the talk. He wants us to walk the walk. That means you honor your marriage commitment, care for the children in your family and the wider community, try to see the image of God in people who have a different point of view, and then work together for the common good.
That’s the kind of ministry that will make for a better future. Ministry based on right conduct, grounded in wisdom that has an ethical dimension.
At the same time, we are challenged to “bear fruit in every good work” (v. 10). This means following Paul’s guidance to the Colossians in showing each other “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” It means bearing with one another, forgiving each other, and — most of all — practicing love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:12-14).
A friend of Frank May shows these qualities in the novel The Ministry for the Future. Frank is dying in Switzerland, near where this friend is working, so she visits him. “She realized that she believed, as much as she believed anything, that when someone was dying, it wasn’t right that they be left alone, stuck in a bed, attended only sporadically by nurses and doctors. That wasn’t proper; it wasn’t human; it should never happen.”
And so, this friend turned Frank’s room into her office. She stayed with him, doing her work while playing jazz on a music box, day after day after day.
That’s ministry — ministry for the future. Actions marked by compassion, kindness, patience and love.
But such actions are not merely individual efforts. They should extend to community conduct, becoming part of the fabric of congregational life, so that the church becomes what Paul calls “the body of Christ,” the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today (1 Corinthians 12:27). As the 16th-century mystic Teresa of Avila said:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.
Imagine yourself looking for a church 10 years from now. You walk through the front door, and you’re not sure whether the worship service is going to include praise songs, traditional hymns, or some new kind of Christian fusion music. But you are immediately greeted with kindness and compassion. You hear a message marked by wisdom and humility, one that helps you to “grow in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). And you get the feeling that love is what binds the church together in ministry and mission.
You are definitely going to want to be part of a congregation like that. It’s the kind of church that Paul envisioned in Colossae, in which people are rescued by God from the power of darkness and transferred “into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (vv. 13-14). That’s a Christian community that future generations are going to need, so let’s start building a “Ministry for the Future” now.