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,
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
A couple years ago I had an awful day in the middle of a horrible week in the midst of a bad month. A sniffle turned into post-nasal drip which turned into bronchitis—for the third time in five months. When I inhaled, it felt like shards of glass shredding my lungs.
I canceled everything so I could have some recovery time. But, later, that same day, I ended up with six hours of unexpected, unscheduled, and exhausting meetings.
Now I was both sick and tired.
That same night an organization I belong to sent out its weekly email. Hidden in the email was the description of a decision that I considered a tactical blunder. So I dashed off a short email to the leaders asking them to reconsider.
Alas! I ended the email by shooting off a nasty, sarcastic barb:
“Why don’t we think first? For a change.”
The next morning several people emailed back, correcting me for my caustic comment.
My initial response was self-defense: I was sick. And their decision made little sense. And my day of recovery had been stolen. By one of those leaders. And besides, in their haste they had failed to consider a crucial element.
But that was just defensiveness. The truth was I had been a jerk. No one forced me to pen those final words. They were unnecessary and inflammatory. And no one had a gun pointed at me when I hit “send.” The gun was in my hand, pointed at others.
Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.
She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”
A few weeks ago, I wearily dragged myself home from a retreat. Exhausted. The retreat was terrific, but I had slept abysmally and felt utterly spent. Empty. Pathetically useless.
I despise that feeling of uselessness: I want to accomplish something, to make a contribution, to feel I did my part. I didn’t feel completely worthless, but I somehow sensed the sorrow of barrenness.
This morning I read the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. More than ever, I sympathized with Peter. His reaction seemed honest. Think of your best friends. If you could choose between washing their feet and letting them wash your feet, which would you prefer?
I would choose washing the feet of my friends ten times out of ten. A thousand out of a thousand. It’s not that my feet are especially disgusting (I do bath occasionally); it’s just that I can’t stand the idea of my friend bending before me and doing something so menial for me.
Ask me to climb Mt. Everest or to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Some great deed. Even washing their feet would be tolerable; just don’t let them wash my feet. That would be unbearable. Far worse to let Jesus wash my feet. Let me wash his.
I would far rather be helpful to God than be helped by him.
My twelve year old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my blasts of anger detonated at insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.
I remember once chasing my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I do remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.
I hated my uncontrollable anger, and I memorized over fifty verses about the angry man:
A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
When I felt an outburst rising, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.
When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my temper. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t once lost my temper since his prayer. I hadn’t even had to fight it. My explosive temper had been defused.
It was a miracle.
Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.