Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. Let us go the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.’ And he answered, ‘Go.’ Then one of them said, ‘Be pleased to go with your servants.’ And he answered, ‘I will go.’ So he went with them. And when they came to the Jordan they cut down trees. But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water and he cried out, ‘Alas, my master! It was borrowed.’ Then the man of God said, ‘Where did it fall?’ When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, ‘Take it up.’ And he reached out his hand and took it.
II Kings 6:1-7
‘Alas, my master! It was borrowed!’ An iron axe-head seems a small matter to us today, but in Elisha’s time an iron axe-head was a prime possession. The man’s dilemma would be similar to borrowing a friend’s computer today only to drop it down the stairs shattering it. The miracle performed by Elisha, one of many recorded in scripture, seems almost a gimmick – an entertaining magic trick. Yet, I see something deeper here.
Miracles in scripture always point to something more. Sometimes they confirm the supernatural origin of the prophet’s message, other times to the graciousness of our God. In the New Testament they serve to confirm the message of the ultimate miracle, the resurrection of Christ. But in this instance I see something simple, yet crucial to the happiness of every community of God’s people.
The dream of harmonious community life seems etched in the human psyche. Many of us remember the heady, yet misguided days of the 60’s counter-culture. There was a cherished myth of love and peace to be found in gatherings of young adults living in communal harmony. In the words of songwriter Joni Mitchell, ‘We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden!’ Few of these experiments, often situated in a rural paradise, actually survived long. Many who participated were scarred by the excesses they embraced.
There is a persistent desire, though, rooted in a deep human need for companionship. We are social creatures searching for a sense of family. We carry an almost desperate need for love, acceptance, and grace. I think this is because we are made in the image of the Triune God who is a perfect community united in perfect, unfathomable love. God is love, the apostle tells us.
This desire is constantly reflected in literature and art. We even see it in current business thought. There is much use of the term ‘team’ in business literature. A well-known book on this issue is entitled, Managing the Dream. The dream of a harmonious and productive workplace reflects a desire to live out the mandate of the garden, The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Genesis 3:15). The Hebrew word, to keep (shamar) means ‘to exercise great care over’ (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).
Our yearning to get ‘back to the garden’ is a yearning to express ourselves in meaningful work and loving relationships. Few things bring a sense of community like productive, creative work. Every community, family, church, or business must embrace an ethic of productive work in order to achieve its highest beauty and purpose.
Our community life in Jesus Christ must be rooted in grace. This means the grace God extends to us by accepting us in His Son, and the grace we extend to one another as those who share in the same gift. Worldly communities break down because they are rooted in a false premise – that it is actually possible to ‘get back to the garden.’ The garden is gone. Only a vestige of it remains. This vestige is still strong enough to provoke the fondest and most compelling dreams, but dreams that cannot be fulfilled apart from the grace of God. Every deceptive utopian scheme promotes this idea.
As C.S. Lewis writes, “If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon” (Learning in War Time, p. 63).
Likewise, we are often disillusioned by unfulfilled dreams of Christian community that we find unsatisfying, uncreative, or graceless. Church-life just isn’t what we expected. If we hold no illusions, we cannot become disillusioned. Let’s let go of our illusions without letting go of the dream.
In our pilgrimage we can taste of the beauty and power of Christ’s kingdom. We can experience the joy of genuine community. We can rejoice in creative and productive service to God together, but not without an abundance of grace. Grace (charis as in charismatic) is that power of Christ’s presence that makes possible what is impossible – that we may together catch a glimpse of that city whose builder and maker is God, and in which stands the tree of life and the river of the water of life. We cannot get back to the garden, but we can pursue the celestial city.
We crave community. However, the constant change introduced by the ‘creative destruction’ (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Shumpeter) of modern economies make a sense of rootedness and community an ever more elusive dream. Yet, that is precisely what Christ calls us to – a community of the faithful. A community which works together will see special challenges, especially when things go wrong – even little things.
Which brings us back to our story.
In the vignette above, community life is growing. There’s no room to contain the earnest seekers who want to join themselves to Elisha’s prophetic band. A work party is formed to expand the living quarters. Then something goes wrong – the lost axe-head. I see a few simple points here for us to remember.
The miracle Elisha performs shows us that God gives grace for the challenges of community life.
The life of this community was marked by growth. Life brings growth. Growth brings challenges. In turn, growth must be met by industry to be sustained. Industry, to be effective must be marked by humility. Humility is expressed here by acts of service and by Elisha’s willingness to accompany the work party. Jesus perfectly expressed this kind of humility when he washed his disciples’ feet.
Nevertheless, community life is often marked by frustrating glitches. Here is the key to overcoming a prime destroyer of the joy of community. When frustrating hindrances come up, watch for the outcome. Do we respond with criticism, belligerence, abuse? or grace, and an expectation of divine power? One response is typically carnal or human, the other is divine, a fruit of the Spirit.
This is when the doubts and accusing questions arise. ‘Why are we doing this project anyway?’ ‘You are always creating problems for the rest of us.’ ‘Why are we working with borrowed materials?’ The atmosphere becomes toxic, the common well of goodwill dries up, or becomes bitter. When this exercise of blame and recrimination is oft-repeated in a community, what goodwill we have slowly slips away. Recovery becomes very difficult. Without grace, the garden becomes infested with weeds, pests, and predators. Thus it is that worldly utopias always break down.
Every endeavor has its messy period. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes: “Troubles are ubiquitous. Surprises can fall from the sky like volcanic ash and appear to change everything. New ventures can begin with great promise and still face unexpected obstacles, unanticipated delays, and critics that pop up at the wrong moment. That’s why I coined Kanter’s Law: “Anything can look like a failure in the middle” (Cultivate a Culture of Confidence, Harvard Business Review online, April 2011).
For a Christian community, there is a source of power in the grace of God, flowing from Christ’s sacrificial gift of His life for us. He overcomes nature’s corruption, even the power of death. He makes the axe-head float, and He redeems even critical mistakes. In short, He extends grace and gives a beautiful glimpse of His city. A community which reflects the beauty and productivity of the Triune God must find in Him the ability to extend grace for glitches.