The Struggle of Friendship (especially for 30-something males, which I write about because I am one)
Friendships for men in their thirties are hard. I say this based on my own experience and on conversations I’ve had with many other men in their thirties. It might be true for men in the forties, or even fifties. Shoot, it might even be true for women! But I’ll leave that judgment to people who are those things. Here’s what I’ve experienced and heard from others that makes these friendships hard.
I always have to ask.
I feel like I am always the one to initiate getting together with other guys. Over time, this makes me feel like they don’t really want to get together in the first place. But as I’ve talked to other guys, they feel the same way. We all want to feel like others want to be with us, and when we don’t feel that way it’s easy to pull back. So we need to keep asking. The reality is, when people say no, it’s probably not because they don’t want to say yes. It’s because…
No one has time.
The reality of this time in life is that it is actually busy. In college I thought I was busy. I did have at least three to four hours a day in class. The reality I see now is that I wasn’t busy and that I had an enormous amount of time to hang out with friends. An amount of time that will never be matched again in my life. Right now there are family dinners, kids activities, bedtimes (anyone seeing a theme here?). It is also a time of giving a great deal of time and sacrifice to careers and dreams. I wouldn’t want to give up any of it. I love my kids and wouldn’t want to take away any of the time I spend with them. I cherish it because I know it will be gone before I know it. I also love my job and enjoy working toward some dreams I have. But all of this adds up to very little free time.
Regular time with other guys has to fit into an hour early in the morning or an evening once a month at best. This kind of limited time certainly can sustain friendships, but it does have limitations. I’ve realized people actually are busy–we don’t just say it. Maybe someday there will be more free time and more time to devote to friendships.
We feel pressure.
Because of limited time and limited invitations, there is pressure to make every interaction deep and amazing. My best friendships were forged over time through playing basketball, sharing dinner, watching movies (and often discussing them), and being there for each other when times were tough. The common denominator with all these things is time. Now that there is less of it there is pressure to maximize the short time we have.
A friend of mine once said that the measure of a true friendship is the ability to be in the same place at the same time without the obligation to say anything. We put too many expectations on our limited time together. Sometimes deep conversation is great, but maybe time spent just hanging out isn’t wasted either.
But we want friends.
Despite the difficulties, I can say unequivocally that I value friends. I wish I could spend more time with my college friends–the guys who became like brothers to me fifteen years ago. I wish there were more nights to play basketball, catch a movie, or just hang out and enjoy a good beer with my friends here. I wish a friend would drop by my house to say hi–even if he only had five minutes. I wish guys would ask me to do things, and keep asking even when I have to say no five times in a row. I wish I would keep asking even when other guys have to say no five times in a row. Maybe I will.
Michelle and I are not known for wild excursions. Because we make dates happen so infrequently we tend to stick to things we know we enjoy–hikes, movies, dinner. But deep down we both relish new experiences and finding hidden gems. So when Michelle told me she had purchased a Groupon for a BBQ class I was excited to try it out. The class descriptions said we would be learning the techniques of BBQ in a hands-on, interactive environment.
We rolled up to an old strip mall on Friday night at 4:45, ready to uncover the experiential treasure of Ruff’s BBQ class. The sign was half lit and the store where the class would take place seemed disheveled–all wonderfully setting the stage for a true hole-in-the-wall jackpot. We checked in with Ruff himself, settled into our seats, and waited. A few minutes later Ruff walked up onto a platform in front, and for the next hour and a half we sat in our seats while he and his assistant talked about BBQ. Mercifully we were given a break and invited to look at their inventory of BBQs outside, so we glanced at them and fled to the car. Then we went to dinner.
Despite the letdown, I did take a couple things away from that night. First, I did get an idea for how to turn my grill into a smoker. Second, it made me think about how people probably experience our church gatherings.
No one cares about insider quarrels.
In an attempt to be funny, Ruff’s assistant consistently made references to how she doesn’t talk to people because of their beliefs about BBQ or how differing opinions on methods cause she and her husband some marital strife. Sometimes I didn’t know what she was talking about. Even when I did, I just didn’t care. I have no personal investment in whether injecting meat makes you more or less of a BBQ master.
But as Christians we talk about all kinds of things that must seem like whether or not to inject meat to those who are new to the faith. We make inside jokes that people either don’t understand or just seem awkward. Not everyone grew up in church and gets the “church jokes.” This was a good reminder for me. Because my whole life has been spent in and around church I know I talk about things in ways that will mostly resonate with other long-time church people.
This doesn’t mean that the way we do communion or whether we are “missional” or whether we know how to bridge the sacred secular divide don’t matter. I’m sure that to truly master BBQ the things Ruff’s assistant was referencing mattered. But we need to be careful not to assume knowledge or investment by people who may not have it. And we need to be careful about the language we use lest we unnecessarily exclude people.
Not everyone cares.
I was truly interested in BBQ. I was looking forward to learning about it and having a good time with my wife trying to make it. I am not looking for a career in BBQ. I will not spend much time studying it or practicing to get better at it. I just don’t care. The most it would ever become is an occasional hobby.
Not everyone connected to churches cares about following Jesus. Some feel it’s an obligation. Some think it’s good for their kids. Some are a little interested. Some enjoy the show and the people. Some think it will help them make their lives better. There are many other reasons people connect to churches or show up at a gathering. For some it is unlikely to ever be more than a hobby.
I don’t think following Jesus at the level of hobby is a tenable position. At the same time, I think there is wisdom in understanding that this is the case as we live together in community. We won’t all have the same level of commitment. What we do with that is another question.
People don’t enjoy being treated like idiots.
At times the BBQ teachers spoke in inside jokes I didn’t get or didn’t care about, but much of the time the spoke like I didn’t know you could cook meat and put it in your mouth. There was needless repetition of simple concepts, making the presentation unnecessarily long. Oh, wait, certainly I’ve never done THAT with a sermon. There was demonstration of simple things like how to use a pair of tongs.
It made me think about how I speak to people. How often do I explain things that need no explanation? How often do I drone on about things people understood ten minutes ago? People may not have knowledge of insider language and concepts, but there are many things that are common sense that they get easily. I just need to learn to know the difference and act accordingly.
When people leave it’s not personal (or at least not always!).
As a pastor, I take it hard when people leave our church. I view church as family more than organization (though certainly there are elements of both). So when someone leaves it’s a bit like having a brother or mother or cousin say they never want to see you again. I also tend to think I just wasn’t good enough. That’s not right, but it’s my reaction at times.
When Michelle and I left the BBQ class it wasn’t because we didn’t like Ruff and his assistant. In fact, there were things we really appreciated about both of them–not least their passion for what they were teaching. We left because we’re not committed enough to BBQ to ride it out. We left because we didn’t have a relationship with anyone there. We knew we’d never see them again and no relationship was lost. We left because it wasn’t what we expected.
I don’t take leaving a church lightly. At the same time, people do it. I’ve done it. It happens for a variety of reasons–many bad ones and some good ones. And no matter how personal it feels, there’s a good chance it’s not.
Three months ago our kids started playing soccer. When we signed them up we expected it to entail an hour a week for practice with games on the weekend. We should have asked more questions. As info about the season came in we found out our son would have two practices a week with an optional third practice on Fridays and our daughter would have two practices a week. My son’s team needed a coach, so I agreed to do it. We launched into the first weeks of the season with discomfort and regret as we felt the loss of less scheduled evenings, time with family and friends, and presence in our neighborhood.
This week is the final week of soccer for this year, and while I’d expect to feel relieved I actually feel a little sad. I don’t think the change in my emotions has much to do with enjoying soccer or coaching–though I do enjoy both of those things. I think it has much more to do with acclimation. Because as I think back over the past year I remember discomfort when we moved to our current neighborhood and started spending a lot of time with neighbors and people who were a part of our new church. Before that most of our evenings were free and spent as a family. But within months our kids went from struggling with all the people around to being disappointed when there was a single evening without others around. I can remember similar transitions with work schedules, job requirements, and family commitments. It seems like when things change, a little time passes, and we acclimate to the new normal.
So why does this matter?
It matters because we will acclimate to our lives whether we are living intentionally or just letting life happen. Whether we live in ways that are healthy or unhealthy, over time we will acclimate to that way of life and it will feel normal. And once something feels normal, whether it’s life-giving or not, it is really hard to change because change feels hard and abnormal.
We all have ways of living that fit with our values and ways that don’t. How much of your life is lived in line with your values? I can identify quite a few areas where I let life happen to me, acclimate, and move on without thinking about it further. In fact, over time, I come to feel as comfortable in the parts of life that don’t fit my values as I feel in the ones that do.
Not a victim.
To the extent any of us live in ways inconsistent with our values we have the ability to change things–it’s just hard. There is a temptation to believe “there’s nothing I can do about it.” Life is just busy, nothing I can do. My spouse and I don’t get any time to really connect, nothing I can do. I don’t know any of my neighbors, but there’s nothing I can do. The list goes on and on. We pictures ourselves as victims of the harsh dictates of the universe–abdicating any responsibility to change things. But we can change things.
We can give up some of our activities. We can do one thing a day to pursue our spouse. We can go have a beer with a friend instead of turning on the TV. We can connect with God instead of hitting snooze. There are all kinds of things we can do, and we are not victims, but many of us do have an aversion to changing the life to which we’ve become so well acclimated.
“The reality is, we just don’t need community.”
That sentence proceeded from the mouth of a former small groups pastor in a conversation this morning at a local coffee shop. (This was said in the context of a larger conversation, much of which will be fleshed out below.) So much of the existence of the church–and certainly the existence of all forms of small groups–is based on the premise that community is essential to human flourishing. But is it?
5 Reasons we don’t need community.
#1 We have what we need.
The early church is often cited as a glowing example of true community. They were together every day. They ate meals together. They even shared their resources so no one was in need. And that was important because they really needed support from each other. There were people who truly were in need. As persecution of Christians began and spread there were those who were economically persecuted and couldn’t make a good living.
There certainly are places in the West where people don’t have what they need. And those tend to be the places where people actually seek out more community and share with each other. When I pastored a small, poor church, it was common to hear about people with a one bedroom apartment offering it to those who were homeless on cold nights. People shared because they needed each other.
My friend shared this example. In the past, when a hail storm came through and destroyed a farmer’s crop, other farmers would have them work the fields that had not been destroyed with them and then share in the harvest. It was necessary for existence. Now a farmer can just call the insurance company.
#2 We are entertained.
Why sit with friends, sharing stories and lives, when you can turn on the TV and watch professionally written stories that draw you into the lives of fictional characters who are so interesting? Why play a board game with family when you can destroy the invading alien army from your video game controller?
We have unprecedented options and opportunities for entrainment. Now I am far from anti-entertainment. There are some forms of entertainment that can bring people together. And there are times it is fantastic to watch a movie or TV show with no human interaction. But there is a reality that many forms of entertainment naturally funnel people away from community. We can be fulfilled, or at least distracted, all day long without any real meaningful interaction with others.
#3 We are busy.
There is nothing I hear more from people around me, especially church people (and very often myself), than that they are overwhelmingly busy. Many times this is true. We have been overcome by the wave of possibilities for activities and information and are drowning. We have no idea how to manage our lives in a way that would create the space for community. If we just stay busy we don’t even notice that deep community is missing that much. We are fulfilled and defined by our activity levels.
#4 We like ease.
Real community is messy. It can be very fulfilling, but it is messy. And messy means difficult, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Yuck. It seems so much easier to keep to myself. Myself always wants to do what’s easy, convenient, and comfortable. Myself is such a good friend.
#5 We have pseudo-community.
Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing. I’m surrounded by friends, er, acquaintances, er, people. I am smack dab in the middle of a pseudo-community. It’s like Cheers, except without all the actual friendships. (If you don’t know what Cheers is you should really google it.)
Then there’s the next level pseudo-communities like Facebook. I love Facebook. I even think it can be a really helpful means of staying up to date on what’s happening with people in my life. And the birthday app is a lifesaver. But Facebook and things like it can quickly move from being supplemental tools to substitutes for actual community. We feel like we know people. We get to let them know us. Even better, we get to let them know the us we wish we were.
In a couple days I’ll follow this up with the reasons we do need community.
This week I had the opportunity to go to an event put on by Leadership Journal called Redeeming Work. It was focused on the meaning and importance of our work as image bearers of God. Events like this one–focused on the idea of vocation (our call into every part of our lives, not just the ones we get paid for)–are becoming more prevalent. I have personally been deeply moved and shaped by these conversations in recent years. While this focus does not comprise the whole of the Christian life or the Gospel, it is an essential piece that has been too often ignored.
One of the questions that has been raised at nearly every event I’ve been a part of around this topic is whether this is a conversation of privilege that only applies to those who are able to choose their jobs and find themselves in a place of some influence. The question is framed in relation to two groups of people–those who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively little influence. These two groups have some significant differences, but they often overlap.
So can people who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively low influence find meaning in their work? There are reasons to think they can. (In sharing these reasons I also want to acknowledge up front that it is much easier to write about these on a blog than to actually find meaning.)
We are made to work.
Work is not something people were cursed with–it was part of the gift of being human. People are made in the image of God and at the very beginning of the Bible we are presented with a God who works. He brings all of reality into being. And then he gives humanity the work of cultivating and tending what has been made. Working is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. This work does not have to be paid. This work does not have to be chosen. And this work does not even need to be liked. Not working is destructive to the humanity and dignity of people–I’ve seen that firsthand.
All work benefits others–it contributes to the common good.
Other than work that is obviously destructive and sinful, all work benefits others.
Some jobs are more obviously beneficial than others. A doctor restores health to sick people. A teacher educates children, giving them hope for the future. But what about the man who sits in a cubicle and enters data day after day? What about the woman works in a call center fielding calls from angry customers? The importance of their work may seem easier to question than a doctor or a teacher. However, if you spend a little bit of time considering how their work impacts others it is not too difficult to see the value it adds to society. I am not advocating the distance that technology and cubicles can put between people, but they cannot negate the benefit that work provides to others–they don’t have that much power. The man who enters data is enabling the execution of projects that would not happen without him. The woman answering phones is finding ways to make things work the way they are meant to and has the opportunity to help people move from frustration to joy if she is willing. (The ability to see these things requires that we don’t make an exact correlation between meaning and happiness–I’ll touch on that more in a minute.)
We all have influence.
Some people and some professions have more influence on other people and the world than others. That is true. But this fact does not negate the influence of all people and professions on the world. Every person can influence the day of whomever they come across by the way they treat them. Each employee can seek to give feedback at some level, even if it seems small. Take Jim as an example. He was a friend from a previous church who spent his days pushing a grocery cart around to dumpsters, digging out metal, and then walking it over two miles to the recycling center. Not exactly a job bursting with opportunities for influence. But Jim regularly had stories of the lives he impacted along the way. Not to mention the significant amount of metal he kept from going to landfills over time. Jim believed he could influence things, even if it seemed small to others. We may wish for more influence believing we have none or we can steward whatever measure of influence we’ve been given.
Meaning and Happiness are Not the Same
Being happy about your work and finding meaning in it are not the same thing. It is possible to find meaning in something you do not enjoy. Finding meaning is likely to increase your level of enjoyment, but it is not a necessary correlation. If the question is “Can everyone love their job?” the answer might legitimately be no. But if the question is “Can everyone find meaning in their work?” I believe the answer is yes. (Again, excluding work that is inherently unethical or destructive.) Answering yes may be a long journey, and perhaps a slow one, but it is one worth taking.
Most of our visions of life are utopian. A family without conflict, whining kids, or short-tempered parents. Schools where all children thrive, grow, and flourish. Neighborhoods where neighbors know and care for each other. A personal future full of health, financial security, and happiness.
The thing is, our world is not a utopia. Nothing goes fully the way we plan (or at least not for long). We experience brokenness in our relationships. We are frustrated in the pursuit of our plans. Our bodies break down. In short, we experience the world as it is, not as we imagine it.
This shape of things resonates well with Christian theology. God has created a perfect world, and that world included giving humans the choice to pursue evil. We did and perfection was destroyed. Brokenness has entered into every corner of life and reality. Yet the good that was there at the beginning has not been eradicated. And one day, at the return of Jesus, all that is wrong will be made right.
In the meantime, we are left with an important question–will we allow the frustration of our utopian visions to make us cynical or will we recognize the good in things and celebrate it wherever it is. Putting it another way, can we be okay with okay (or at times even excited about it)?
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I did a triathlon. I trained for months to prepare for it. It was a struggle. I had to fight off my unhealthy habits (with varying levels of success) and a couple injuries. But I got ready. We went with some friends to the mountains for a couple days before the event and on the way up I felt a cold coming on. By the day of the race I could feel the rasping in my lungs. I thought I’d be okay, but less than 100 meters into a one mile swim I couldn’t breathe. I had to consider having them pull me out of the water. I fought through it, but the best I could do was a slow breast stroke. I was one of the last ones out of the water and when I finished my primary emotion was embarrassment.
So in that case, what do I do? Focus on the difficulty and how far short I fell of my goals or find satisfaction in the fact that I didn’t get up and I finished my first olympic triathlon?
As long as we live in this world where the kingdom of God is present but not complete, we will have to continually ask ourselves that question. Can we be okay with okay? Or will we wallow in the frustration and disappointment of how what is is less than what we imagined it could be?
This year Trailhead had the opportunity to participate in a Vocation Infusion Learning Community. It was an amazing experience and is shaping the way we think about discipleship and a number of practices we’re implementing. Trailhead is committed to being low program, so our goal as much as possible is to work at infusing ideas and practices of vocation into the things we already do rather than creating new programs. Here are some of the ways that’s happening.
We’ve created a space in our weekly liturgy for an interview or story. Our plan is to do a vocation interview at least half the time, and as much as 75% of the time. At Redemption Church in Phoenix they call this an “All of Life” interview. These interviews highlight the specific types of work people do. Our first three weeks have been with a guy who flips houses, a teacher, and a stay-at-home mom. After the interview we ask everyone who works in the same field to stand and we say a prayer specifically for their work. Here are the four questions we ask.
- Tell us about the work you do.
- As an image bearer of God, what is one way your work reflects God’s character and his work? (In other words, how is the work you do the same as the work God is doing?)
- What is one way your work gives you a unique perspective on the brokenness of the world? (Sin infects everything–how do you see this specifically because of the kind of work you do?)
- God calls us to love others as he has loved us. What is one way you are able to “love your neighbor” through your work? (In other words, what’s a practical way you bless people through the work you do?)
Vocation and Kids
We are working on a number of ideas in regard to vocation and kids. We want our kids to grow up understanding the concept of vocation as much as they are able and feeling like it is an important part of what it means to follow Jesus. In other words, we want to make disciples who would find it strange not to see every part of their life as touched by the gospel.
One of the first ideas we’ll implement is giving parents a resource to engage their kids on the area of vocation, and specifically work, in the home. Many families do some kind of conversation around the dinner table. In our family we share our high and low for the day. So we’ll give parents a list of questions (similar to the four above but with language that helps kids get it) and encourage them to share this with their kids once a week. Then, as the kids start getting it we’ll encourage parents to have their kids answer these questions at least once a week.
Apply Vocation to Preaching
We’re asking our Teaching Team to consider how the idea of vocation relates to what they are teaching/preaching as they prepare. When possible we want to use real-life examples from people in the congregation to tie what we’re speaking about from Scripture to the life people live throughout the week. Sometimes this fits better than others, but we are at least looking for those connections.
Vocation Infusion Team
There are quite a few other ideas we have coming away from the Vocation Infusion Learning Community, but we can’t implement them all at once, and some of them will never fit. So we formed a Vocation Infusion Team that will do two things. First, we’ll review the things we’re already doing to see how effective they are and talk about how we can do these things better. Second, we’ll continually be assessing if there are new ways we can infuse understanding and practice of vocation into the things we’re already doing.
This week a couple articles have become popular on social media that provide some good fodder for conversation about biblical interpretation. The first one was from World Magazine entitled “Gungor Drifts from Biblical Orthodoxy.” (Gungor is a band that focuses on Christian themes.) The second was a response from Michael Gungor on the band’s website entitled “I’m with you.”
There are a number of nuances to the issue, but at the core the disagreement is biblical literalism. Do we take the stories and metaphors in the Bible literally? The article is especially focused on the events of creation and the flood. (Michael’s response focused most on the flood.) There are books that have been written about these issues, so I have no intention of pursuing the minutia of the topic in a blog post, but reading these articles spurred a few thoughts that are important to me in approaching biblical interpretation.
Jesus is the Center
The Mennonite Brethren Church (Trailhead’s denomination) speaks of this as having a “weighted canon.” The Christian faith rests on the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus has not been raised our faith is pointless–mere fantasy. There are things that must be taken literally if we are to have a faith that honestly reflects the overall witness of Scripture (not just a verse here and there) and the teaching of Jesus.
I spent some time in a denomination where some churches had lumped everything about Jesus into the category of myth. While some kind of humanistic religion remained, it was not Christianity. I’m not sure where the line is on what must be taken literally in Scripture, I do know it is before the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus.
Beginning with Jesus gives us a lens for viewing the rest of Scripture. Since these articles used the flood as an example, let’s run with that. How does the literalism of that event impact the truth of the gospel that is wrapped up in Jesus? If the flood were more myth than truth, would it negate the importance of Jesus from incarnation to consummation? Would it tell us less about the reality of the human condition and God’s desire for humanity?
One more point on this. One real fear for giving up literal interpretations of things like the flood or the creation account are that it is a slippery slope that leads to giving up the Bible as literal completely. Agreed. As I said above, I’ve seen it happen. So another question would be, does seeing some of the Bible as poetic or metaphorical necessarily lead to seeing it all that way? Can we commit whole-heartedly to the reality of Jesus, from incarnation to consummation, without committing to a literal reading of every story in Scripture? (I’m asking this honestly.)
Jesus is revealed in Scripture, so these questions must be taken very seriously. My hope in my life, community, and world is that he will be received as Messiah and King and that his kingdom will come. My framework starts with Jesus and works out from there.
Is science pitted against faith? That is the message that can come across when we get into these discussions. The Bible says the world was created in six days; science says it happened gradually over millions of years (I am not even talking about evolution here, that is another debate, only about time). The Bible records 6,000 years of history; science says there are hundreds of millions years of history. The Bible says there was a flood that covered the whole earth; the geological record doesn’t support this. So must we choose? Hold on to the evidence of Scripture or agree with the evidence of science?
People on both the side of naturalism (as an ideology) and Christianity seem to answer yes to this question. The naturalist community wants to sever faith from thought for the sake of dismissing faith as a fairy tale. At times the Christian community severs faith from thought for fear of having to rethink things like creation and the flood. Both of these approaches embrace an unnecessary dualism.
God created humanity in his image as beings who have the ability to think rationally and to know things that go beyond that ability. We are meant to be beings who embrace and know through thought and experience. This is not to suggest that the biblical accounts are irrational either. The truth of all reality as expressed in Scripture does take faith, but it is also rational. All philosophies require faith at some point–Christianity, atheism, and everything in between. This is not a coincidence. Any explanation of the world requires both thought and faith because that is a reflection of our Creator.
We were created as whole beings, in the image of God, to function as a reflection of God who is both word and mystery. It is unnecessarily dualistic to say that we must set aside rationality or faith when they lead us into tension. We should engage that tension using both–trusting that God has given us rationality as a good gift but that it is unable to hold the full weight of reality (and that is true no matter what your ideology).
Start with a literal reading.
On Facebook I had a friend write, “I tend to go with a literal interpretation of Scripture unless it’s obviously not literal.” That’s not a bad way to approach the text. I would say that fits with my approach. I believe the Scriptures overall are not only God’s revelation of himself–his character and his work–but also an account of history. That history may not be quite as scientific as modern history, but that doesn’t make it less true. Much of the narrative of Scripture, especially the history of the Israelites and the Gospels are written as a recording of things that actually happened. Beginning with believing that to be true is a great place to start.
The questions come up when there is significant (even overwhelming) challenge to the literal account. Michael Gungor goes into some depth on this point in relation to the flood in his article. At the very least, there are substantial challenges to maintaining a literal reading of what happened. Does that make it impossible–no–and he says that. Does it make it problematic, especially if we are not required to hold to a literal reading in order to hold on to the truth about Jesus–from incarnation to consummation–perhaps.
This year I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a Vocation Infusion Learning Community (VILC) with a few others from Trailhead. I have been deeply shaped by the people, concepts, and applications from this experience.
Last night I spoke on the story of a man deeply marred by evil and the restored to wholeness by Jesus. Once this man is restored he wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay. The Christian faith is often talked about as one of going.
Go be a missionary.
Go to seminary.
Go to a new place.
Yes, there are times when following Jesus means going. But there is another theme in the life and teaching of Jesus that call on people to stay. To stay in their lives–families, neighborhoods, occupations–and to live and speak as citizens of his kingdom.
I’m deeply grateful for the ways the VILC allowed me to engage the idea of vocation and was excited to be able to share something of that last night. If you feel stuck in staying or see some disconnect between what you do all week and your life following Jesus, this might be worth a listen.
We are sinners in need of the grace of God. It’s something I’ve heard since I was born. No, more than that, it has been the first word in faith in my life for as long as I can remember. I am a sinner. That is my fundamental state of existence. But recently I’ve had a revelation. It is an obvious revelation–one I should have had years ago. It’s nothing new. Things that are true seldom are. It is not something my teachers, whether in person or in books, have denied. But it is either something they did not say explicitly or I failed to hear. Sin is not the first word.
The beginning of the grand story is creation–imagination, word, breath, power–and it was good. Humanity is brought into existence and the first word is not sin. Humans are good. In fact, they are beyond good. They are made in the image of God himself–meant to carry on his work of creating, ordering, and flourishing. They are endowed with intellect, emotions, desires, purpose–and it is all good.
The reality of sin not being the first word does not diminish the reality or power of it. Humanity’s sin was to trust themselves to find real life instead of trusting that God had already given it to them. We continue on in the same sin that plagued our ancestors and it wreaks havoc beyond a nightmare. The world is broken; we are broken. Removing sin from it’s place as the first word about humanity does not diminish its destructive power. Unchecked it leads to death. Aside from the grace of God it has the power to tarnish the first word beyond recognition.
But in his mercy God has not allowed it to trample the earth unchecked. His grace touches the world, even for those who do not recognize it. But the full effects of his grace and mercy need to be recognized. They need to be accepted and clung to. Yes, it is essential that we trust in Jesus–in his death and resurrection–if we are to move toward the first word once again. He alone can dismantle sin and death. We have no hope of that on our own. Sin is not the first word but without receiving the forgiveness and victory of Jesus it can be the last.
Yet in him we have hope not only that we might move a bit closer to the first word but that the last word will resemble the first. The perfection of the creation will one day be restored in the consummation. Brokenness, despair, decay, injustice, and destruction will be banished. The first word will be spoken again.
But what does all of this matter? Why does it matter that sin is not the first word, or the last for that matter? As I have walked into this way of looking at things I have been amazed how profoundly it alters my perspective. Rather than viewing myself first as a wretch (though I often am one) I recognize that I am a part of the people meant to bear the image of God. Rather than viewing God as one who disdains my condition I see him as one who longs to restore me to what he meant me to be. Rather than thinking he needs to eradicate so many parts of me I see that his work is not about destruction but about restoration. His vision for me, for humanity, is that through the power of Jesus we could increasingly resemble the first word about us.
We are created as image bearers. Sin binds us and leads us toward death. Jesus dies and rises–providing the potential for victory over sin and death if we will receive it. When we put our faith in him he begins the work of restoring us to what we are meant to be and calls us to join him in the restoration of the world. One day he will complete this work himself. These are the words of the grand story of the gospel of Jesus.