Author Archives: Trevor Lee
There is a sentiment that is prevalent among Christians–especially the conservative ones (which many people would call me). I saw it today on Facebook in response to a post about the legality of marijuana.
“The world is changing, and most of it is for the worst.”
In some Christian circles it is a pastime to look at the world through “the-world-is-going-to-hell” glasses. There is a longing for the “good-‘ol-days” when everyone was Christian and we weren’t so morally corrupt–when the United States was a Christian nation and we respected God the way we should. Is it true?
This perspective is most often expressed in the direction of traditional moral issues–sexuality, substance use/abuse, church attendance, abortion, and the themes of movies and television. I don’t deny that our current cultural location leaves some things to be desired in the realm of traditional morality.
The other place this perspective pops up is in relation to the perceived “liberalization” of America. It’s when prayer is removed from schools, universities dogmatize naturalism (not the good of science, but the assumption that God MUST not exist), and people try to take guns away (yes, that’s cheeky).
This perceived jettisoning of morality and slide into liberalism is cited as sure evidence that the world is sliding down the greasy slope to oblivion. Is it?
I don’t know, here’s some of the things I see when I look around. There is an uprising pushing us to take racism seriously (and we certainly already see improvement in the effects of racism since the first half of this century). Women are more respected and have greater opportunity than they have in the past. Extreme poverty is decreasing dramatically around the globe. Bullying and discrimination are increasingly stigmatized and not tolerated. Churches are looking outside themselves at how they can work for the good of their neighborhoods and the world. Efforts to care for the physical aspects of our planet continue to be explored and acted upon. There is movement to pursue business in ways that include profit but do not see profit as the only end. Is there more work to be done? Of course! But we can point to places of improvement.
In short, there are many things that look more and more like the kingdom of God. There are also things that look less and less like it. It looks to me like we live in a time where good and evil grow up together. The world isn’t going to hell. It also isn’t on the verge of utopia. It is growing and groaning in anticipation of it’s renewal.
I hope for those who claim to follow Jesus, we will live in hope–working faithfully for the good and flourishing of the world–working against darkness and pursuing light. There is so much good to be done, and believing the world is going to hell will keep us from it. Let’s live joyfully and hopefully for the life of the world God loves and in which he’s at work.
Last week I sat down to write three letters I’d considered writing for years. They were letters to each of my family members–my wife, son, and daughter–that they would only receive in the event of my death. It was something I’d wanted to write but just hadn’t–I don’t know why. I was going on a trip and felt a compulsion to make it happen. It kind of made me wonder if I was having some kind of premonition, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.
Writing these letters was incredibly clarifying for me. What would you say to the people you loved most if you knew it was your last time to tell them anything? That was the question writing these letters answered for me. As I typed through tears, here are the things I learned.
My words won’t matter without my actions.
The first and last things I wrote to each of them were words attempting to sum up the depth of my love for them with only moderate success. While these words were important, I felt the truth that they would only matter to my family to the extent they were supported by my actions over the course our years together. I am far from perfect, but I do believe each of my family members has experienced the truth of my love for them, and that was the thing that gave me confidence in the words I wrote. I also reminded me that this joyful work of love is an ongoing one. I want to live with my family in a way that those words would always ring true.
I believe the gospel of Jesus and its implications with every fiber of my being.
I devoted time in each of my letters to trying to engage the pain of loss and how that might impact the way each one viewed God. I don’t worry much about my wife’s faith. I know it would be devastating, but I believe she’d lean on God in a time like that. My daughter on the other hand, she feels so deeply, I’m not sure what outlet she’d find for the pain. I was a little surprised at how necessary it felt to me to communicate that my own death wouldn’t shake my belief in the goodness of God at all. It’s actually the death and resurrection of Jesus that gives me an unwavering hope.
I know we’re all at different places in our journey with God, faith, and what truly gives life. Writing these letters just confirmed to me how deeply I have planted myself with Jesus. His work in the world to bring healing to every aspect of the brokenness of the world and each one of us is unspeakably beautiful. Every day I see this in ways I haven’t before. He really wants what is best for all creation and every person, no matter how hard we run from it. His victory over death and the description of what will be one day at the end of the Bible give me so much hope for a wholeness beyond what I can currently imagine. There’s just nothing more life-giving or beautiful than this and I want my family to live in that, regardless of the hardships that might come in this life.
My fear is that they wouldn’t continue living fully.
Look, when I think about losing one of them, I struggle to think how I would continue to live fully. There would be a long period of grief. That loss would never leave me. Both of those things are okay, even good. At the same time, my love for them compels me to long for their good. I spent some time specifically encouraging them to seek healing with God through grief so they could pursue a full, happy, purposeful life. I understand I don’t have control over that, but I didn’t want them to have any sense that they would fail to love me by living the life they’ve been given fully.
I certainly hope those letters are never opened. I’m also thankful I wrote them. I’d want my family to have those words. I am also thankful for the things writing them taught me. It revealed the depths of my feelings and convictions. After all, there was nothing to hide there, no pretense. I’m thankful for the clarity it gave me. What would you say?
There is no black and white, only gray. There is no truth, only what is true for each person. Persuasion is a violation of the other.
These sentiments and the perspective the represent have become deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of our society. They are nearly assumed by all who are tolerant and loving. They are becoming the proverbial water in which we swim.
This perspective has certainly been doing its work on my own framework for engaging the world. I have dramatically shifted not only my perspective, but also my approach to issues and people, in the last ten years. I do believe that listening is a far better first step than talking (even if this doesn’t always work itself out in my practices!). I do believe that there is great nuance in our world–pure black and white is naive. People truly do have different perspectives that dramatically color perception. Yet there is in all of this a path that leads to oblivion. Football reminded me of this.
Yesterday I was watching one of the first football games of the year, and after a play was ruled to be a fumble, the team that had lost the ball challenged the call. The referee went to watch the review and the commentators walked all the viewers through slow-motion replays. As this was happening a thought struck me. We are all looking at this replay assuming there is objective truth to be found. It either was or was not a fumble and we will have a better chance of determining the truth through slow motion replays.
Now there is still plenty to soften the edges of this assertion. Fans of each team will find ways to see the replay as favoring their team. They may see the truth if they are willing to work hard at laying aside their affinities, but it will be difficult. Sometimes there is not a clear angle and the best the referee can do is make an educated guess about what happened. The play may even be so close that there is no way to tell for sure what happened. Yet none of these things negates the underlying assumption of all the people watching the game that there is a true event that actually happened. And if there is a true event it is something everyone should try to see as it really is.
I recently had the joy of speaking with an international student from Iran. He was so honest, personable, and engaging. In the course of the conversation he shared his belief that all religions necessarily divide people because they create “in and out,” “us and them.” After more conversation and reflection on this, I think he was on to something, but not just about religion. In his expression of agnosticism he was also creating a division of belief. I was either with him in that belief or not. There isn’t a position to be taken that doesn’t create “us and them” on some level. This doesn’t mean people can’t deeply love and befriend each other across these beliefs. We absolutely can. I’d even say “us and them” is too strong–perhaps better to say there is no way to erase significant differences without all believing exactly the same things. And we will wrestle with this because there is a reality to be sought out and discovered.
Like the football play, there is a reality. Either God exists or he doesn’t. Either Jesus died and rose from the dead or he didn’t. Either he will return as King or he won’t. These are not matters of opinion, they are aspects of reality with which we must wrestle. (It would be nice to have an instant replay!) Even those who say there is no truth are trying to get at the truth. That the world is random and devoid of meaning is still a claim to know the nature of reality. We’re all pursuing that. I hope we pursue it with love, grace, and peace toward each other and a willingness to listen before talking. I hope we recognize the difficulties of the pursuit based on our own ingrained perspectives and biases. I hope we remain humble in our beliefs and interactions. And I hope we understand the gravity of the pursuit. It is not unimportant. It is not something to be cast aside as antiquated. It is something to be pursued with the best of ourselves, in community, with humility and intention.
So that we may know the truth and be set free.
As I was writing this post, I came across this quote.
“What is love? Love is the absence of judgment.” The Dalai Lama
Maybe it depends on what you mean by judgment, or maybe the Dalai Lama and I just disagree.
Judgment is a dirty word in our society. It is one of the most carnal and insensitive acts a human being could perpetrate on another–to judge them. It is one of the two deadly sins Christians most frequently accused of perpetrating–judgment and hypocrisy. It is regularly berated by Christians as they remind us that we are called to love, not judge. It is the trump card tossed at people with whom we’d rather not have a dialogue–“Stop judging me (or them or whatever)!” Accepting the narrative that judgment is antithetical to love and in itself is a vice is deeply problematic.
Our legal system is based on judgment. When a murderer is judged to be guilty and subsequently sentenced we don’t object that the judges are just being judgmental. Parenting is an ongoing exercise in judgement. When my son threw away our trash at the frozen yogurt shop without being asked today, I judged that he was performing a kind act of service and affirmed him for it. When he yells at his sister I judge that he is being unkind and instruct him to adjust his actions, and hopefully his posture toward her. Hiring and firing are direct outcomes of judgment. We inspect a resume and judge a candidate’s personality and fit before deciding to hire. We judge that an employee’s performance is not good enough and we fire them. Is the act of making these judgments wrong (and if it is, isn’t that a judgment?)?
Judgment divorced from love is harmful–at times even abusive. But I don’t know that it is best to call judgment divorced from love judgment. I think it is something else. It’s something Jesus gets at.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
There is a type of judgment that is “unChristian,” but there is also a type of judgment that is essential to following Jesus. What Jesus is denouncing here is twofold. First, it is judgment without self-reflection. It is not that there is no speck in the eye of the other, but that one cannot remove that speck without dealing with the blurred vision being caused by the plank in his own eye. The passage does end with the plank and the speck being removed. The other sense in which judgement is denounced is when judgment is condemning. We should not stand in condemnation over another. When judgment is divorced from love it quickly becomes condemnation. There is no room for us to condemn others.
So judgment of condemnation or without self-reflection is wrong and deeply harmful. Period. Moving on from this point, there is a proper judgment that is wed to love. We can describe this judgment as discernment leading to action. There is no way to read the rest of the Bible and come away thinking what Jesus was getting at in the passage above was that we should not discern the difference between right or wrong and take action based on that judgment. The good of each person and the whole world requires an ability to judge the difference between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong.
It is fashionable to say that right and wrong are matters of personal fancy, but when the truly reprehensible happens we cannot toe that line. A teacher in our city was just arrested for sexual assault of a student. No one is advocating that the morality of this act is in the eye of the beholder. Right and wrong are only matters of preference until it makes us uncomfortable. No doubt the lines between good and evil are not always clear. Gray areas are real things. But the complexity of virtue and vice does not negate their existence, it only increases the need for wise and loving judgment.
The sacrificial death of Jesus is the pattern of the deepest love–a love that is wed to judgment. It was the judgment that sin and death were destructive and needed to be broken that led Jesus to give his life. In that act of sacrifice he levied judgment against sin (something present in all people and enacted by all people) and loved the world in the deepest way possible. Without judgment this love would not have been necessary. In our culture it may be wise to use the word discernment rather than judgment. However, talking about this issue is important because when people are accused of judgment in our society it is often a discernment that is unfavorable to the sensibilities of another, not a condemnation. And we cannot lose wise discernment (judgment) that leads to action. For the sake of our selves, families, friends, neighborhoods, cities, and the good of the world we must allow judgment and love to remain deeply wedded.
I am hesitant to write about things like what is happening in Baltimore because I know I am culturally. socio-economically, and geographically distant from what is happening. I’m writing today because I feel compelled to as a pastor. I see so much coming from people like me that looks and sounds nothing like Jesus. For those of us who claim the name of Jesus, he is our King and example. Our common call is to be conformed to him and his ways–not to bow to any particular cultural ideology. We’re not doing that.
The idolatry of order.
Destruction of property is wrong. Violence is wrong. But what about systemic injustice? What about huge numbers of people peacefully protesting out of their anguish and frustration? Is violence only wrong when it is directed at those in power? Listening to the reaction of many who claim to follow Jesus generates the feeling that some feel relieved by the pockets of violence that arose among the protests. It serves as an opportunity to decry everything that’s happening and move 100% of the focus off of the misuse of power and seemingly rampant injustice. Order has been removed! How could you ever support people who mess with order!? Civility and order are good. Violence is not. But for the love of God (and yes, I mean love of God), can we please stop acting like order is the only virtue that matters to God? Let’s look to the Bible we claim has authority and see the beautiful picture of God’s intentions for the world. Does it include violence and chaos? No. (Except when God’s Spirit shakes things up!) Does it include systemic injustice, lack of compassion, hatred, and racism? No! We are making one virtue an idol and bowing before it.
Engaged concern for the poor and oppressed.
Jesus said he came to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. We are proclaiming bad news to the poor and telling the oppressed to deal with it. There are Christians I have seen say that people don’t deserve to be heard because some have perpetrated disorder and violence. What?! We ignore the plight of the poor and oppressed because some people acted wrongly? It just doesn’t make any sense from a Christian perspective. We are the people called to see the image of God in all people. We have the strongest reason of all people to pursue true equality and dignity for everyone. Why are some of us its greatest opponents? We are the ones who should be praying for and pursuing, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is one of holistic peace–not just peace for a few people who are like me. Can we PLEASE listen to Jesus instead of FoxNews or MSNBC?
Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Love should drive us. I would just ask each of us to take a few quiet moments and ask ourselves, “Am I honestly being motivated by love in my current approach?” Not by a shallow love that has no tolerance for pain, but by the sacrificial and enduring love most starkly displayed in God on a cross?
Let’s take these words about love and let them form our responses and thoughts…
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
“There will never be a system so good that the people in it no longer need to be good.”
Since I heard those words from Gary Black at a recent seminar, I have begun seeing its implications in our world like the kid in Sixth Sense sees dead people. We are often ignorant of the components of the culture in which we are entrenched, and I I was not aware how much faith we place in systems. But since it was pointed out to me, the places I see it are overwhelming.
When a pilot crashed an airplane into the French Alps, there was immediate attention given to the systems of security on the plane and the systems meant to encourage mental health in pilots.
Our church has been working on bylaws, and no matter how much we tweak them, we can always find ways that something could still go wrong. We just can’t get the system tight enough.
The illumination of violent police behavior across the country has ignited the debate about how to fix the system with increased surveillance, changes in leadership, and adjustments to training procedures.
Wherever you find tragedy, injustice, or shortcomings, you will find people clamoring to change systems. On one hand this is good. Systems do indeed play a substantial role in shaping our world. They can contribute to restraining evil, promoting justice, and providing opportunity. We should be concerned with systems. The problem comes when we move from understanding the importance of systems to asking them to bear the full weight of responsibility for reality.
One of the reasons we place so much emphasis on systems is that we are reticent to talk about character and virtue. We dare not offer that there are certain human characteristics and behaviors that are more noble than others. Ways of being and acting that are better for the individual and for society as a whole. These ways of being and acting are generally sacrificial and difficult. They are not founded on the self, but on the common good. At times we praise these characteristics when they are displayed, but we celebrate them as unattainable anomalies, not virtues which all might pursue.
That leaves us with nowhere to go but to systems. We should work on systems, but we should not be surprised when the systems fail us, and we tweak them, and they fail us again, ad infinitum. The only sure way to attain justice and flourishing in the world is by the agency of virtuous people working for the good of all. If all people put evil to death in themselves, the systems of the world would still promote goodness but would no longer need to restrain evil. Indeed, that is our ultimate destination.
We live in a time where despair, evil, and frustration are mixed in with hope, love, truth, and goodness. We need people who will live as good, courageous, upright people in the midst of whatever systems they function. Because “there will never be a system so good that the people in it no longer need to be good.”
There are many reasons I like Facebook. I keep up with people from whom I’d otherwise be completely disconnected. I read articles that I’d never find if people didn’t recommend them. I even get a laugh now and then.
There is at least one thing I really don’t like about Facebook–memes relating to significant issues. I reached the breaking point today. So here are the four reasons I hate Facebook memes about serious issues.
They have no nuance.
Memes are inherently VERY short statements that have no context. This isn’t a big deal when they are just making a joke, but when they attempt to address serious issues in our culture they suck all nuance from the conversation. Foreign policy that involves hundreds of people, centuries of history, and layer upon layer of cultural dynamics cannot be reduced to a sentence or two with any integrity. The same could be said for the cultural issues that seem to be raging in our country. The lack of nuance leads to the next one.
They are unintelligent (at least most of the time).
I am not saying the people who post them are unintelligent. I’m sure I have improperly reduced complexity for the sake of a point in the past. And I am not saying that complexity cannot be simplified for the sake of understanding. However, very few Facebook memes are legitimately bringing clarity to complexity. Nearly all the ones I see are quippy and poorly reasoned. It takes about five seconds to come up with ways they are grossly deficient.
They are intentionally polarizing and inflammatory.
Facebook memes are intentionally polarizing and inflammatory. Those who agree with the sentiment they’re expressing read them and say, “Of course, no one could argue with that!” Those who are not on board with the sentiment being expressed read them and either lash out in anger and frustration or think, “I disagree but that isn’t fair to my viewpoint at all!” I submit that the authors of these memes do that on purpose. Conciliatory, gentle, and generous comments on polarizing issues don’t get reposted. Comments that whip people into a frenzy on both sides do. We live in a world desperately in need of dialogue and cooperation. A world where we see each other as people, not issues. These memes are diametrically opposed to that.
They shut down dialogue.
There are numerous times I have considered responding to one of these memes. My potential responses were going to be earnest. But when I thought about actually typing them into the comments and hitting “enter” they came across as dismissive and sarcastic–even to me. So many of these issues need real dialogue and understanding, but the form of these memes shuts that down before it has a chance. Certainly Facebook isn’t the best forum for dialogue in any case, but I have experienced posts where people ask genuine questions or share honest thoughts, and something resembling a beneficial dialogue ensues. Most Facebook memes essentially say, “Here’s how it is. Period. Take that.” Not exactly an invitation to dialogue.
I’d encourage all of us to think about what we post on social media–especially if it pertains to volatile issues. For those of us who say we want to follow the way of Jesus, we are to seek peace, to love others as we love ourselves, and to be ambassadors of Jesus who seek reconciliation. Social media is far from the best place to do all these things, but let’s not let it be a domain where we jettison them for memes that work against all of that.
My wife (Michelle) is awesome. This is not a post about that. It is not “an open letter about why I love my wife.” But she’s a pretty phenomenal spouse, and when someone is good at something it’s good to learn from them. So here are five things I’ve learned about marriage from her. I imagine they could be helpful for others too.
I have some control over the state of my marriage.
“I just don’t love him anymore.”
“There’s nothing I can do. Our marriage isn’t going well, but that’s just how it is.”
Michelle has taught me that the idea that the state of marriage is something that exists entirely outside my control is a lie. A lie lots of people believe. There is a widespread cultural dogma that holds that romantic love is based on feelings that are entirely outside our control. We don’t believe that about love for our children, our friends, or even our sports teams. But when it comes to marriage we just hold on and hope “those feelings” don’t totally go away.
Michelle is intentional about doing things that contribute to the strength and beauty of our marriage. Through her actions she reminds me that I have some control over the state of our marriage. I can do things that contribute to its strength and beauty and I can do things that detract from it. We all get that there are big things that can do this, but every day there are little things that add up to great importance. She builds our marriage daily and I’m the glad recipient of this gift. I’m learning to get better at doing the same.
I have choices even when my marriage feels out of control.
There are times when things feel out of control in marriage. For a variety of reasons we find ourselves in a place we wouldn’t choose. We aren’t as connected as we’d like to be. We find ourselves butting heads out of the blue. There are things that contribute to this, but they go undetected and all of the sudden our marriage feels out of control.
When that is the case it is so important to understand that we have choices about what we do in the midst of it. Michelle and I have gone through some times like this. As I look back on those times I realize that it was in those times where she stepped up the things that build up our marriage. She encouraged me more than normal. She reminded me that she loved me with a love that goes beyond how she feels at a given moment. She bought my favorite iced coffee even though the price tag usually keeps me from buying it.
I can guarantee she didn’t FEEL like doing all those things. She just made up her mind to do them. In the midst of marital turbulence she made choices to move toward me rather than away from me. That is not the natural direction in those times–it is a direction that takes courage, intention, and practical action.
Working on myself is an act of love.
Lately God has been working with Michelle in some really deep, and at times painful ways. She has entered into those tender and difficult places with grace and courage. She has developed tremendous vision for how this is something that is important for our marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that is the primary point, I’m just saying she has helped me to see that not working on myself can really be an act of selfishness. I’d rather buy her flowers or rub her shoulders than enter into the painful places where transformation is needed. But the latter is a greater gift. She’s inspiring me to see that working on myself is an act of love I can offer to God and to her.
A spouse helps us see what is and what can be.
Michelle’s vision of who I am and who I can be is significantly different than the vision I have of myself. She knows my faults. Well. And somehow, with that knowledge, she is still able to look at me and see the person who is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I often cannot see that in myself. It is a tremendous gift to have someone who can.
That is the vision we should pursue of our spouse. Not a vision that denies flaws, but one that sees the beauty that is there despite the flaws. A vision that sees the potential of what can be when the other struggles to see it. I know the love of God more because of what I have experienced in this area with Michelle. She sees my deep flaws and loves me anyway. That’s what God does too. She loves me as I am and out of love wants me to become what I can be. God does too.
There is a deep and mysterious gift a wife or husband can offer their spouse when they do this. There is power there.
1 Corinthians 13 is true.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
This is possible. It is possible. It is not easy. It takes the work I’ve talked about in the other four points. But I have seen and experienced it. I believe that our marriages, animated by the life of God, can look like this. And it is beautiful. It is worth the struggle, pain, work, and commitment.
What is it that I’m supposed to do? What am I meant for? What is my calling?
We ask more questions to figure out the answer to this question. I think some of the questions we’re asking aren’t the right questions. Let me explain.
The answer to this question is profoundly influenced by what we believe about the purpose of life. This post in particular is meant to give some direction to those who claim to follow Jesus. For those who are followers of Jesus, there is a definitive answer to the purpose of life. We are part of a larger story that begins at the beginning and carries on into eternity. Our calling is deeply rooted in playing our part in this story rather than letting our calling grow out of writing our own story. No doubt our own stories will still be diverse and exciting, but they are situated in the larger story of what God is doing in the world.
In this story God created all things perfect, complete, whole. As humanity sought life outside connection with God and his purposes sin and death flooded the world, bringing brokenness, hurt, and distortion. In Jesus, God acted to cover this sin and death and birth the new reality–the kingdom of God. One day Jesus will return to consummate his kingdom of perfect peace, and until that time we have the holy calling to work with him to turn back sin and death and see his kingdom come.
With this as a backdrop, here are three questions to help us think about calling.
Have I fully accepted my primary calling?
All who are followers of Jesus must start not with wondering “what is my calling,” but by accepting a shared calling. One way of expressing this is to say that we are called to bear the image of God faithfully by living with God for others and the world. Or as Jesus said, “love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
For followers of Jesus this is the primary calling. This calling is in force no matter where we go. In one sense the answer to “what is my calling,” is just this–to bear the image of God faithfully in every place we inhabit. Your calling is not something etherial you must discern with trepidation. Your calling is to bear the image of God faithfully in all of life.
This is something we must let sink in. It is so easy to say, “oh yes, I live for Jesus in all of life,” and then move on living for ourselves. We need to let the desire of God for humanity and the world sink into our bones–to let it form our desires and hopes. Until this happens we will tend to keep this shared calling compartmentalized. It cannot stay that way. It must flow through everything we are and everything we do.
With this context, we can and should find calling no matter the details of our lives. No matter our occupation, living situation, relationships, or aspirations we are living out a calling every minute of every day. It’s not something we wait for, it’s something we already have.
Within this shared calling there is still the question of our individual calling. Two more questions to help us think about this.
How can I offer myself as a gift to the world?
This question presupposes a desire to make an impact beyond ourselves. If our desire is only for ourselves then this question might be “how can I use my abilities to be happy?” There is a wide gap between those two questions because they have vastly different ramifications.
In asking how we can offer ourselves as a gift to the world we are not beginning with self-fulfillment. We are still beginning with the self, but asking how our unique self can be given to the good of the world.
I have a friend who is both very entrepreneurial and great at construction. He’s in his early 30s and has already built and sold a sizable business. In his current business he has intentionally stayed smaller, affording him more flexibility. But recently he’s been asking how he can offer his abilities and skills to the world as a gift. Because of this he is moving forward with a plan to apprentice people who have struggled to find work for a year and then partner with other companies to supply them with employees.
He could make more money if he didn’t do this. It will require patience. It will mean doing less work because the work will go slower. It entails hiring a project manager who will also invest in the lives of people beyond construction skills.
My friend isn’t starting a non-profit. He plans to profit. But he’s letting different questions shape how he approaches his work. He loves what he does and wants to offer himself and his abilities as a gift to the world. That leads to different outcomes.
In every situation we can become increasingly aware of our abilities and offer ourselves as a gift to the world in the name of Jesus.
Am I open to God’s specific calling?
Much of the time God does not give us specific callings within our shared calling. He calls us to faithfulness to his purposes–something that can be done in nearly any situation. However there are times when God calls people directly and specifically. Abraham was called to leave his people and move to a new land. God called to Moses from a burning bush and told him to be the instrument of deliverance for the Israelites. Jesus confronted Saul on the road and called him to become Paul–an apostle of the good news of Jesus Christ. Direct calls from God to specific things do happen.
For a number of years now my wife and I have believed that God has specifically called us to take Denver as our home. There have been choices within this where we have not felt a specific calling, but we are convinced we are to invest ourselves in this place as our home.
I’m convinced that if we remain intentionally open to specific callings from God we won’t miss them. Our part it to make a point of staying connected to God, cultivating a spirit that is willingly obedient to him, and submitting our plans to him. “If it is the Lord’s will we will live and do this or that.” We can miss a specific call from God. We will miss it when we close our ears to him through disobedience or neglect. If we remain open to him he will let us know when he has specific things for us to do within our shared calling.
We have a problem with the way we read the Bible.
The problem has its root in our self-understanding. Put another way, it is how we think of “me.” Modern (or postmodern or whatever) Western culture places overwhelming emphasis on the beliefs, preferences, and untethered identity of the individual. This is often called individualism. Individualism exercises significant power in shaping our understanding and approach to the world–and for purposes of this post, the way we read the Bible.
The biblical picture of “me” is fundamentally different than our modern perspective. In our culture the “me” comes first. The way the Bible is written suggests that “we” should come first. In other words, do we see a collection of “me” forming the “we” or “me” as a part of the “we.” Sheesh, I’m confusing myself with all this we and me. Let me illustrate.
Consider the self-understanding of the Israelites—the chosen people of God. Their favored status with God was something they received as a people. Ebenezer was not chosen by God because he was Ebenezer, but because he was an Israelite. His connection with God began with the “we” of being an Israelite. However, this did not negate what he did or who he was individually. His faithfulness to God, or lack thereof, contributed to the overall faithfulness of the Israelites. His actions impacted the community. As he lived faithfully he set an example for others and contributed to the faithfulness of the people as a whole. As he was unfaithful it began to undermine the faithfulness of the people as a whole. So his “me” was firmly situated in the reality of the “we.”
This impacted the reading of Scripture. The books of the Old Testament were a community history (books like Genesis and Exodus), instructions for community life (Leviticus, etc.), and God speaking through the prophets to the whole people (Jeremiah, etc.). All of this literature was received in community and understood from the perspective of “me” being a part of “we.” It had individual implications, but these implications were rooted decidedly in an understanding of being a part of the whole.
What about the New Testament? This paradigm is strongly echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 where he is talking about the now-chosen people of God, the Church. He says the people of the Church are a body. What each one does affects all the others. The “me” of each individual is important, and this is largely true because each “me” affects and forms the “we.”
The Gospels were written to serve as a witness to the truth of who Jesus was and what he did. This formed the foundation of the Church as it took shape. The Epistles of Paul were certainly not written to individuals. They were sent to an entire church and read aloud to everyone. They were received in community, not by individuals in a study. This doesn’t mean it is wrong to sit alone with these letters, it is wonderful! However, we should be careful to remember that they were written to communities. Places where the “me” was fundamentally a part of the “we.” The individuals who heard the letters of Paul heard them BECAUSE they were a part of the whole. Had they not been they would not have heard them.
With this understanding we can certainly still read the Bible and ask what it’s implications are for me. However, by understanding ourselves as a part of a community I think we will ask that question in less isolation. It is not just a question of what the implications are for me alone in relationship to God, but me in the context of a community that is in relationship with God. The questions can be the same, the framework is just different. And each of us, as individuals, still need to make decisions about the things we do, be aware of how we are being shaped by God, and make decisions to live as followers of Jesus. We just do this with the understanding that it’s about more than just “me” and that these decisions have an impact on the whole.
The Bible was written to us. And because I am a part of that “us,” it was written to me.