My leadership at my church feels fruitless and my last few sermons stank; in the first 34 weeks of this year, I published only 25 “weekly” articles; and all my service to a partner charity feels last minute, like I’m doing everything in the nick of time.
Recently, I spend less time with my wife than I want; my brother (who lives in Australia) is visiting for two months and I’ve only met with him once; I’m having far fewer one-on-one meetings to care for acquaintances; and I’m falling behind in paperwork, housework, and email.
Bilbo Baggins once reflected, “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread.”
My heart says, “Me too.” I have too much to do and too little time to do it. My activities suffer from inadequate attention because I’m off to the next thing, which I’ll also do badly because something else (or someone else) cries out for attention. This morning I read this old quote:
God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, he can make something out of us.
I once visited an executive at a Christian publishing house. He wondered aloud how he should counsel an employee of his who was pregnant out of wedlock.
While he was “wondering,” the woman herself burst into his office in tears. She had shared her situation in confidence with the executive, and then she discovered he had asked several people for their “wisdom” in counseling her (just as he was asking me).
And now her secret was public knowledge.
He apologized to the woman and they agreed to talk later. After she left, he said to me, “I just hate secrets. I’ve always identified with Nathaniel in Scripture, ‘A man in whom there is no deceit’” (John 1:47).
This morning I read this quote in Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners:
To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.
My executive friend may have hated deceit, but it felt like he was full of self-deceit.
When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.
During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.
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.”
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.
Sometime God speaks through a careful choreography of life events: conversations, readings, observations, and even the occasional media clip. Suddenly, all the pieces snap together, and we sigh (internally so no one hears us), “Aha!”
This morning, I had one of those moments of clarity. Over the past couple weeks:
I pondered with friends why some people and ministries are wildly successful while other people and ministries—equally gifted—struggle for survival;
I heard a quote by Oswald Chambers: “Is He going to help Himself to your life, or are you taken up with your own conception of what you are doing?”
I read a passage using the Scripture Meditation Plan: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)
These three events were preceded by a video I watched that smelled … funny. And the odor lingered. The creator of the video is a famous Christian writer who has morphed his verbal skills into marketing skills, and he wanted to help churches sell themselves.
In his video, a pastor shared the key to his own wildly successful church. I forget the exact words but he essentially said:
“I realized that too many churches make the pastor the hero. I decided to make the congregation the hero, and my church’s attendance exploded.” (Name withheld)
It reminded me of a conversation early in The Lost World movie. Repentant Jurassic Park creator John Hammond cries: “Don’t worry. I’m not making the same mistakes again.”
To which Ian Malcom retorts: “No, you’re making all new ones.”
When I was a teenager, family and friends used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Now they just ask me when I will grow up). I always wanted to be a missionary.
Immediately after college I began mission work in Europe. But one day, during a “normal” (that is, non-exciting) prayer time, I heard God speak two words: “Not now.” I sensed him say that if I did mission work “now” I would be creating an Ishmael not an Isaac; I would be birthing mission service out of my natural flesh and not out of God’s spiritual promise.
The sense was puzzling (I was serving God in the mission, wasn’t I?), but it was also compelling; so I left the mission field and entered the business world at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I eventually became an executive and owner of a software company.
Twenty-five years later, in another non-exciting prayer time, I sensed God say, “Now is the time.” I asked friends for discernment, and together we agreed that God was calling me away from my job. But none of us knew what God was calling me to.
That was why eight years ago, January 1st, 2008, I woke up with no job, no client calls, no meetings, no paycheck, and no clue about what I should do with my life. When people asked me what I do, I always answered,