A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.
My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:
He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
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.
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.]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Last weekend my wife and I attended two weddings. Both couples used traditional vows:
To have and to hold, from this day forward, For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, Forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live.
My wife and I got married thirty-three years ago, but our church met in the YMCA, so we asked another local church to rent their building. They required, however, that we receive premarital counseling from one of their staff.
The pastor they provided encouraged us to write our own vows, but he disliked our traditional ending. He suggested we change the last clause to read,
Eight years ago, my niece Amy married Nathan, a great guy. They moved into a starter home in the country. Over time, and with the addition of a son and daughter, the small house felt smaller. With a third child on the way, they decided to sell their house and find a larger home, a place closer to town with neighbors for the kids and a garage for the cars.
They put their house on the market late last October, and within four days they had signed agreement. Which meant they’d better start looking for their replacement home.
Two weeks later they fell in love with a house in their preferred neighborhood, at the right price in the perfect size, and with an attached garage. (It usually takes only one Michigan winter to make the most frugal-minded puritan lust for a garage. They endured seven winters.)
Their bid was accepted. But the inspection uncovered rotted roofing, siding, and windows, and substandard plumbing. All of which was going to cost them more than $40,000. The owners wouldn’t budge on the pricing, so Amy and Nathan reluctantly released the house. They moved in with Nathan’s family a few weeks before Christmas.
Imagine an extended time of suitcase-life with two kids, living in someone else’s home, and pregnancy. (I can imagine all but the pregnancy myself.) Their family-host was gracious, but weeks of this lifestyle took its toll, as though they were imposing on friends. They searched, and searched desperately, for their next home.
They soon found another house that thrilled neither of them (except for the hope of living on their own again); they made a bid that was accepted; the inspection turned up arsenic in the water; the owners refused to re-negotiate; and Amy and Nathan decided again to wait.
And they waited and waited, and weeks turned into months.
Is modern business wisdom destroying Christian spirituality? Oswald Chambers once asked, “[Do we consider ourselves] so amazingly important that we really wonder what God Almighty does before we wake up in the morning?”
Contemporary sages tell us to apply business models to our spiritual work. They admonish us to make S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They teach us that the closer we follow these instructions, the more effective our lives will be.
But natural insight doesn’t translate into spiritual wisdom. It’s not even a dialect.
The author Oswald Chambers was mostly unknown during his lifetime. Before he died (at the age of forty-three) only the tiniest circles of believers had even heard of him. And at the time of his death, he had only glimpsed a proof of the manuscript of his first book. If he leaned on S.M.A.R.T goals, how would he have evaluated his life on the day of his death?
But since his death, his words have influenced tens of millions, and his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, is one of top selling books of all time. Instead of leaning into worldly wisdom, Paul encourages us:
“Judge nothing before its time; wait for the Lord. He will bring to light what is hidden and he will expose the motives of the heart.
“At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5 emphasis added).
The world tells us to measure our results. God says the only result that matters is found in a personal connection with him. In that connection, he takes the broken bread-crumbs of our lives and feeds thousands.
How many of our S.M.A.R.T. goals are measured to make ourselves the hero of our own little mini-series?