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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Few Things God Is Looking For . . . and Why Occupation Probably Isn't One of Them

A few months ago I finished a doctoral thesis on a man named Mansfield French. In the nineteenth century, mostly in Ohio, New York, and South Carolina, French was an educator who founded and served institutions of higher learning; a pastor and traveling revivalistic evangelist; a leading magazine publisher in what is called the Holiness Movement; and an abolitionist who ministered among former slaves as a missionary supervisor, army chaplain, and Freedmen's Bureau officer, lobbied the federal government on their behalf, and ran for U.S. Senate. I called French "a model of multivocational ministry," and I examined what enabled him to engage in such a diverse array of activities over a single ministry career.

Because of this study, vocation has been on mind a good deal in the past year. There are a good many people, including a good many Christians, who think nothing of the meaning and implications of what they do for work. I should note that this neglect is not always bad—it is much better to be godly at work and never think about what you're doing than it is to think much about vocation but not actually to be godly. But for some of us, Christian and otherwise, we just can't help thinking about it. The question, "What am I supposed to be doing?" is an itch that does not go away (unless we can confidently answer, "What I'm doing right now," as some of us can at times), so we keep trying to scratch it.

This restlessness also is not always bad, in particular if it drives us to listen to God and get to know him with persistence, patience, and humility. But it is worthwhile to keep this vocational question in proper perspective.

For some of us, the question of "What am I supposed to be doing?" (or "How much?" or "Where and with whom?") can loom over us with what seems like epic significance. We might be very afraid of making the wrong choice (of occupation, workplace, college major, etc.) that will doom us to frustration, failure, and/or meaninglessness. Or we might continually be roiled within where we are currently planted, unsure if we are missing out on what we are supposed to do or instead frustrated at the closed doors in the direction that we think we are supposed to go. We think that if we are not set right then we will get to the end of our life having wasted it uselessly with nothing to show for it.

That right there is the problem hidden under the surface of our yearning to do the right work, even if that yearning is mostly genuine, mostly composed of love for God and people and not of lust for self. The stakes seem enormously high because of our faithlessness. Deep down, we do not really believe in the age to come. Like any worldly person (most consistently a physicalist) we believe that this life is all there is: we really only have one shot at it.

If we are truly Christians, however, we know that this is not all there is. While most Christians (would that it be all of them) recognize that what we do in this life is terribly important because of its ramifications for the world to come, not only for ourselves but for all those around us, we still must be careful not to blow certain details out of proportion. For some of us, occupation may be one of those details.

I understand this by means of my one and only experience as an athletic coach, when I coached my son's teeball team of four- and five-year-olds. I did not stop coaching because it was a bad experience—far from it. In fact, it taught me a valuable lesson: God is really not expecting much from us.

When I say that God is not expecting much, I do not mean that God has low standards. I mean that he has very high standards about only a very small number of very basic things. Other than those few things, I don't believe that he is terribly concerned.

Coaching four- and five-year-olds in teeball requires one to teach extremely rudimentary things, because, by and large, they know NOTHING. A number of my players literally could not throw a ball, period. That's not to mention knowing how to catch a ball and how to swing a bat (and how and where to stand when swinging a bat). And then the rules of the game itself and what to do in what situation in the middle of play (for example, after you hit the ball, RUN—no, THAT WAY)—that was as obscure as quantum mechanics to these kids.

So imagine yourself in your first-ever coaching experience, and you're with a group of four- and five-year-olds, and you're beginning to figure out what you've gotten yourself into. What are you looking for? What do you want from these kids?

Only a few simple things. Will they do what I say? Will they do it when I say it? Will they have a good attitude when they aren't allowed to do what they want to do? When told to do something they can't do, will they try? Will they learn?

Notice that athletic talent is not on this list. At this point, at this level, it does not matter. At this level, no one is keeping score. There are no wins and losses. (Who would watch it if there were?) Also, these kids are small—they are going to grow a great deal before they are really playing at a high level, and we cannot tell now who will be a good athlete then.

Consider further that the things that you tell the kids to do and how they respond in that first practice have no bearing on what position any of these kids will be playing when they are eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, if they are still playing at all. Moreover, these kids do not even know what baseball is, not really. Even if you told them, "When you're in varsity, you'll be a shortstop," they would have no idea what that means. (They might ask, "What's 'varsity'?")

Now imagine that on this teeball team, the first practice is actually a tryout. At the end of practice, there will be a cut—some will continue on to play baseball for many, many years, while others will never play again. Now you are beginning to grasp what this life is in comparison to the world to come.

This entire life that we live in these bodies, however many years that we have, is no more than the first teeball practice of a group of four- and five-year-olds. It is the beginning of a series of practices and games that lead eventually to a major-league-caliber season that never ends. All God has been looking for for these thousands of years of human existence is who really wants to play. I can only come up with five simple questions that he is asking, five things that he is looking for in people:
  • Do they recognize me?
  • Do they want me?
  • Do they love what I love and hate what I hate?
  • Do they trust me?
  • Will they do what I say?
Each of these questions is profound and the manifestations of them in our lives are enormously complex. I do not mean to offer a reductionistic, half-inch-deep view of religion. I merely assert that at root, these things are the few that God wants from people. Anything and everything else, any other command or instruction, derives from them.

Notice that what we do for a living is not on the list. Not directly, anyway—it can be strongly affected by loving what God loves and hating what God hates and even by doing what he says. My point, however, is that if God has us spend this whole practice throwing a ball against a wall, it does not mean that we will be a pitcher in the major leagues. We might end up a designated hitter instead (except that in eternity there will only be the National League, so forget I said that).

If you are privileged to look back on your life one trillion years from now, your profession today, no matter how important for God's kingdom even, will not be what you see. You will be serving then in a vocation that is absolutely incomprehensible to you right now, and far more important as well. All you will see is what God is looking at today: can he coach you?

I should also point out that the default answer to each of God's questions for each person on earth is "No." Fortunately, God is not satisfied with that answer, so he intervenes to alter people's dispositions so that the answer might be "Yes." Are you altered? If you want to be, it may already be happening. Make sure.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Contrasting Approaches to Reading the Bible

I have observed two basic approaches that people take to reading the Bible. And the more learned and scholarly the people are who read it, the more pronounced these two approaches appear and the higher the contrast between them.

One approach is like a prospector searching for gold nuggets amid a welter of silt and rock. The reader sifts through the material, discarding the impurities, accretions, and distracting substances to find the comparatively few precious elements in the texts.

The other approach assumes that the entire thing is pure gold. The problem is that the reader is visually impaired and handling the material in a dim room. Therefore the gold is sometimes hard to see—the luster of much of it is not bright, and sometimes it does not look like gold at all, but the reader believes that it still is.

In the first approach the defect is in the material handled. In the second the defect is in the handler and the environment (the world) in which it is handled.

In the first approach, the reader critiques the word and alters it. In the second the word critiques the reader and alters her.

One might posit that both are possible, that one could approach the biblical texts as imperfect things read by imperfect people in imperfect situations. In that case the critique and alteration goes both ways.

That is logically possible, but in practice I believe it to be rare if it ever happens at all. At least one reason for this is that human beings powerfully oppose being altered deeply. (Even the most flexible and adaptable of people, for example, oppose any attempt to make them inflexible and nonadaptable on certain matters.) Therefore, when the text demands something tough—a major behavioral sacrifice, or an even more imposing relinquishment of one belief or opinion for another—the option of identifying that text as impure (textually obscure, culturally bound, politically motivated, from an unreliable source, self-contradictory, etc.) is too alluring. The path of least resistance is impossible to resist.

I take the second approach instead. The reasons for this are complex, and I do not intend to get into them here. But you can find part of them in this old post.