Voices

Mad missions

Avoiding the soft despotism that emphasizes personal security

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

It's good that graduation ceremonies are called commencements, as celebration yields to anticipation. Next week I'll speak at the commencement of City School of Austin, a diverse Christian school that my wife and I helped to start six years ago. The following day the moving van cometh, transporting some of our earthly goods to New York City. That will be the end-unless my mad mission flops-of our 25 years in Austin.

Did I say "mad mission"? Oops, cat's out of the bag. Susan and I have had a succession of mad missions. Did I tell you about the time we moved from San Diego to Long Beach when she was 9 months pregnant with our first child? Did I tell you how, two weeks before City School opened, we didn't have a place where the initial 50 students would go to school?

But I need to define "mad mission." In part, it's the name of a song written by Boston-to-Austin singer Patty Griffin. The song protests the non-commitment of those who join "the club that likes to say there's no such thing as love." It realizes our desperate situation: "Sometimes you find yourself / flying low at night / Flying blind and looking for / any sign of light."

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How often have you proceeded on a wing and a prayer? Griffin: "You're cold and scared, and all alone / You'd do anything just to make it home." Psalm 84: "My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord." I became involved with WORLD in 1990 when Joel Belz was almost single-handedly keeping it alive. He was joyful on his mad mission.

OK, define "mad mission." Here's Griffin's final refrain: "It's a mad mission / Under difficult conditions / not everybody makes it / to the loving cup / It's a mad mission / But I got the ambition / Mad, mad mission / Sign me up."

A mad mission is not a suicide pact: Success is possible. It's not one where people fling away their education, experience, and talents in a self-infatuated attempt to "follow their bliss." It's a mission, which means the idea is to hit a target and help others. But what makes it a mad mission is risk.

Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his wonderful 1830s book, Democracy in America, of the "new soft despotism" that could arise in a modernizing world if many people become sheep-like within big, controlling organizations that "are thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle"-but soulless.

De Tocqueville warned that an emphasis on security would leave individuals "not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided . . . until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals." Francis Schaeffer later wrote of "personal peace and affluence" becoming our god and goal.

Hard despotism today: China's one-child policy. Soft despotism: Some Americans have one child or none, because social policies or financial fears have left them softened, bent, and guided. Hard despotism: Czar Putin persecutes Protestant groups in Russia. Soft despotism: Some American pastors self-censor their sermons to avoid offending those proudly engaged in what the Bible calls sin.

Christians with big families, and preachers with biblical firmness, are all on mad missions. There's no guarantee of success: One of my mad missions, compassionate conservatism, is an endangered species in Washington.

But the beauty of mad missions, from a Christian perspective, is that our desperate search for any sign of light forces us to rely on the only light source that overcomes clouds, fog, and the darkness that is nigh unto death. Why in Genesis does light exist before the sun does? Why in chapter 21 of Revelation does the new Jerusalem have "no need of sun or moon to shine on it"?

My latest mad mission is serving as provost of a small Christian college located in the Empire State Building, of all places. Manhattan is not the new Jerusalem, but millions of people in it, who now rely on Con Ed, may one day discover the city where there is no night because "its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk."

Chapter 6 of Isaiah: "Here am I! Send me."

Oh, I'm also sticking with WORLD, of course: It's the mad mission of a lifetime. Faithful readers, please keep signing up.

If you have a question or comment for Marvin Olasky, send it to molasky@worldmag.com.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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