Surprised by Ignorance

During my sophomore year at university, I met a freshman new to college life. His dad was a business-exec in a wealthy suburban neighborhood; my dad was the pastor of a poor church in a dodgy Detroit neighborhood. He studied performance violin; I studied physics.

His dad frequently traveled; my dad never missed family dinner. His older sisters taught him boys were naughty, and to flee from danger and dirt. My older brothers taught me that boys are fun, and that nothing is more fun than a set of bloody elbows and a pair of muddy trousers.

Nevertheless, a deep friendship was born. We played in racquetball matches, performed together in several small concerts, and sailed the Great Lakes. He asked my opinion when he switched majors from violin to computer science, and he gave me good advice when I switched from physics to history.

After school, we worked together for a few years. Then he took a job in Latin America and later in Europe. We saw each other infrequently, but our friendship always resurrected instantly.

After an absence of seven years, we met again a month ago, but he seemed distant and our former friendship felt aborted. We stumbled through family narratives, and we parted cordially. I emailed him the next day and suggested we not wait another seven years.

He didn’t respond.

Selling Our Soul for a Bowl Full of Gruel

Last week I read an alarming passage in Hebrews: “See to it … that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” I thought: Who would ever condemn in the same sentence both adultery and poor, hungry Esau?

Then I remembered a blogger I read. Last fall he urged followers to sign up for a goal-setting course called 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever. He shared his own goals for 2015, and I quote:

  1. Publish a bestselling book and sell at least 50,000 copies in the first year.
  2. Get a six-figure advance for my next book contract by the end of the year.
  3. Make a million dollars in revenue from my business.

If these were the goals of a secular entrepreneur, I’d merely pity him. But he’s a Christian writer. His perverted goals didn’t stop at numbers. He dug his grave deeper when he said,

Now, please hear my heart on this. All of the above is not about money. Money has never made me any happier. What has changed my happiness … is my belief in myself.

I suppose I still feel sorry for him. He’s a young man, unsure of how to handle success. He’s hungry for something—money or fame or self-esteem—but I pity him the way I pity Esau.

He’s selling his soul for a bowl full of gruel. Which God equates with adultery.

The History of the World is a Long Story of Bad Answers

My wife’s and my first home was a trilevel, with only two of the floors completed. We decided to finish the third floor ourselves, creating a family room, office, and second bathroom. I had done lots of carpentry, wiring, and plumbing before. But I had never mudded drywall.

My first and only selfie: Sam Williamson, June 1984

I figured the drywall mud would sand down easily, so after hanging the drywall, I caked on mud like a teenage boy piles his plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And then I went back for seconds.

Alas. It took us more time to sand off that surplus mud than it took me to frame in and wire three rooms and to plumb the bathroom. Carla and I spent scores of hours of bored agony, sanding, wet-sponging, power-sanding, and bathing off our layers of dust:

I had thought mudding was the easy part.

The history of the world is the long story of bad answers.

The Starving Lion

A business owner I barely knew once phoned to see if we could meet. He was an aggressive entrepreneur, a roaring lion among his peers. Yet on the phone, he seemed different, hesitant, a bit humbler, perhaps broken. He certainly choked up a few times in our short conversation.

young-lions-do-lack

We met the following Friday, which happened to be his fortieth birthday. He appeared vulnerable and exhausted, and something in my heart went out to him.

He said he had been struggling the last few months. Nothing he did relieved him of the pain. His restless nights were endless, every discussion with his wife ended up in a fight, and he had even lost interest in helping his son play soccer. As he shared, tears silently rolled down his cheeks.

His voice finally broke and he began to sob right there in the restaurant. I was still unsure what his problem was, but I felt sympathy. It hurts to watch someone suffer.

Eventually he gathered himself and explained. Ever since he was a young boy, he had aspired to run a successful business. He set a goal of having ten million dollars in the bank by the age of forty.

“Sam,” he moaned, “Including savings in my 401k, I barely have six million dollars to my name.”

[This conversation happened. As I re-read it here, I shake my head in disbelief. But it happened.]

I Wonder if Our Agendas Crucify the Life of God Within Us

Seven years ago I met a mother in anguish because her smart, capable son was living in an abandoned house, playing reggae music on the streets, and panhandling when the busking money fell short. He bathed irregularly and communicated inconsistently.

when-our-agendas-crucify-the-life-of-god-in-us

After he graduated from high school, his mom enrolled him at Stanford while he took the summer off to hitchhike around America. He called rarely, so when it came time to register for fall classes, she picked them for him.

After three weeks, her son dropped out of Stanford and began busking and house-squatting.

Two years later, his mother was desperate. She begged me for ideas. I suggested she call him and ask how he is doing. She plotted, “Oh, so then I can bring him home and re-enroll him in classes.”

“No, just to engage with him on a personal level. No pressure for anything. No agenda.”

“Oh yes, of course, that makes sense, so he’ll come home and enroll himself in school!”

“No, just ask him questions like, ‘What do you like about reggae music?’ and ‘What’s it like to live in an abandoned home?’”

“So I can figure out what’s wrong with him and fix him?”

“No, talk with him just so you can get to know who he is as a person; just for himself.”

She snapped, “What good will that do?”

Three Keys to The Seven Steps that Reveal The Five Secrets of Success

(vs. the life of God in me)

I recently feel a need for action, practically (selling our house, helping a ministry I support, promoting my book) and humanly (a friend in divorce proceedings and other friends with health or financial woes). A season of doing has descended on me.

Keys Steps Secrets of Success

But where should I best invest myself?

There is no shortage of advice. Recently, resources I used to like for their insights have transformed themselves into Giant-Task-Lists. Books, blogs, and conversations bombard me with action-items, strategies, and plans:

  • Last May, an author sent me 26 emails (twenty-six!!) urging me to sign up for his “Three Principles for Successfully Building a Tribe.”
  • A friend told me of his Four-Step action plan to make a church more mission minded.
  • A house-stager made a Two-Page list of exactly what to do to make our house “Pop.”
  • And in one week, a blogger I used to like offered: (a) Six Steps to Becoming Happy, (b) Five Keys for Achievement, (c) Seven Steps to Getting Unstuck, and (d) Eight Secrets to Escape Exhaustion. (My escape from exhaustion began when I quit reading his blog).

Despite the verbal bombardment of tips and techniques for doing, God has also been speaking in a quieter voice, with a single thought that seems more invitational than edict. It’s this:

The Life of God begins to work in me at the moment of my inability.

When Success Turns Sour

Fifteen years ago, a client of mine became president of his company. It all came about through a fluke (he was a mid-level manager), good luck, and a couple coincidences. He was very humble about his promotion, “It was just God’s grace. I hadn’t wanted it, I didn’t deserve it, and I never tried for it. God just dropped it on my lap.”

When Success Turns Sour

Within a couple years he began to attribute his advancement to his own hard work and brilliant insights. He said that his promotion had been delayed too long by people who didn’t appreciate him. He fired people who disagreed with his opinions.

He felt his genius was needed everywhere, and he was glad to offer it:

  • He convinced the high school athletic committee to change coaches because he knew a better way—though he had never played an organized sport in his life.
  • He became head elder at his church and bullied them into adopting a “better” Bible translation—though he had never studied Greek or Hebrew (not even Pig-Latin).

He once scowled in anger when a friend told him his zipper was unzipped (true story), and he sent his dental hygienist home in tears when she suggested he begin flossing (another true story). The slightest correction was met by him with red-faced fury.

Success turned a wonderful human being into an uncorrectable, insufferable know-it-all.