Jeff Haanen

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Jeff Haanen

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Theology

Why serving the common good isn’t enough

 

In past years there has been a renewed interest among evangelicals in “the common good.” Several years ago Gabe Lyons started a traveling conference called “Q,” which chose the tagline “ideas for the common good.” Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today, recently counseled evangelicals to restore the historic phrase to our shared lexicon. A conference in Virginia was recently entitled Common Good RVA. This Is Our City regularly features stories about Christians who are making “common good decisions” in their city. It’s as if evangelicals have self-consciously come out of their narrow religious enclaves and now are finally caring about elements of urban life we share with our non-believing neighbors.

But there’s something awry here. 

The problem doesn’t lay in the actual actions themselves. Cleaning a beach or planting a community garden is well and good. But what makes Christians unique in the world? Is it these types of “common good decisions?” Absolutely not. What makes Christians unique is the harmony between serving the common good and speaking the words of the gospel.

Secular people or people from other faiths make these kinds of “common good decisions” all the time. Take, for example, the Acumen Fund. The Acumen Fund is a non-profit that uses entrepreneurial ventures to address poverty throughout the word. According to their website, they’ve impacted over 100 million lives. They invest in social business, and have alleviated poverty through small business for people stretching from Cambodia to Peru. Health, water, housing, energy, and agricultural products. All accessible to millions because of their work. And at least from their website, it looks like God isn’t terribly important  to their organization. (The examples could go on and on, from TED presenters to the work of the Gates Foundation.)

Now, Christians would rightly say that this is an expression of “common grace” – God providing for the world even through non-believers. And I believe Christians should rejoice in any and every step toward justice and peace, whether at the hands of believers or non-believers. Christians are right to work alongside of anybody and everybody in bringing about relief for the poor. But I would still ask: What difference is there between this “common good decision” and that of a Christian?

What makes Christians unique is not their good deeds, but the message they bear of a man whose incarnation, life, death and resurrection has permanently altered human history and now demands the loyalty of every human being. Christians are indeed called to good works (Eph. 2:10), but they are called to do them “in the name of Jesus.”

This idea may be controversial, even for my fellow Christians, but if good deeds are not done “in the name of Jesus,” they can’t truly be called Christian. There is a deep tendency in the past several years among evangelicals to stress building community and engaging the broader world, but there hasn’t been a concurrent revival of interest in evangelism. But Christians who seek to live faithfully for God in the world must always marry their “common good decisions” with the words of the gospel. This doesn’t have to be annoying or necessarily happening every day, but we must give all men a reason for the hope we have (1 Pet. 3:15), whether we design residential homes or fix cars. The pendulum has swung the other way, and it’s time we brought it back to the center.

Consider the pattern of Jesus in the book of John.  When Jesus healed a paralyzed man in the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-14), he immediately explained his actions through teaching (5:16-47). The next chapter Jesus makes a “common good decision” by feeding 5,000, but then he also tells everybody that he is the bread of life. His miracles were meant to verify the truth of the gospel. Again in chapter 9, he heals a blinds man, and then talks about spiritual blindness. He always brought together his actions with his words.

In contemporary evangelicalism, many pastors have gone bonkers over “common grace” and “common good decisions”, but in the process some have forgotten the very public role of “special grace”, that message of God’s redemption in Jesus that is meant for the whole world.

We should not over-react again and then say that the fine people at the Acumen Fund, for example, aren’t important, or that Christians should only be evangelists and abandon the life the world. This would be a bad idea.  But what makes Christians unique in the world is the gospel. Our common good decisions should point to the gospel, and our words should make it explicit.   If we leave out the actions, the words of the gospel are empty. If we leave out the words, our actions are mute. Mission is built on the premise that social involvement and preaching are two sides of the same coin.

Serving the common good isn’t enough by itself. But when Christians illuminate the motivations for neighbor love with the Christian story, actions become rich symbols of the reign of God in the world.

(Photo: Water Fountain, Andrew Brandon)

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PoliticsWorld

Disadvantage yourself to advantage others

 

The leader of Mexico’s powerful teacher’s union, Elba Esther Gordillo, was recently arrested on charges of embezzling millions of dollars. The details are still coming out, but apparently Gordillo used public money to fund houses in California, cosmetic surgery, and even a hefty Neiman Marcus account. The numbers vary widely, but authorities were recently tipped off when a suspicious transfer of $200 million dollars funded the personal accounts of 3 individuals in the teachers union.

Now, what’s astounding about this story is the sheer volume of money. Authorities believe that over Gordillo’s 20 years in Mexican politics, she may have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars. This is no single Rolex watch, or even the theft of $750,000 dollars for personal expenses (like Jesse Jackson Jr recently pleaded to). This is widespread, institutional corruption. Figures like Gordillo, one of Latin America’s most powerful women, are rarely if ever called out for their crimes. Gordillo was a “kingmaker” for her ability to turn out votes on election day; yet she was also the figure who systematically blocked education reform for nearly two decades.

For those who work in development, corruption is often the impossible barrier. My friend recently did a job creation project in Haiti. Having worked previously in other parts of Latin American, he had to ask why shipping a container to the US costs 5 times more in Haiti than in does from the much-farther Colombia. From Asia to Africa, the diverting of public funds for personal use is often the single biggest challenge to those working in economic development. Vibrant economies need roads, sewer lines, and electricity, as well as transparent rules for business. When corruption takes place, people suffer.

Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke points out that the very definition of righteous people is that they disadvantage themselves to advantage others, while “the wicked…are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.”

This definition of righteousness is useful. First, it is public in nature. Being righteous is not just about private morality (though that’s there as well); it involves a relationship to the community. Second, it is deeply Christian. On the cross, Jesus “disadvantaged himself” by sacrificing his life that others might be “advantaged” – eternally. The wicked (Ms. Gordillo would be a good example) take from the community to advantage themselves.

Last week I had breakfast with a man who could be Ms. Gordillo’s opposite. Mario Hernandez is the Director of Public Affairs for Western Union. He’s originally from Taxco, Mexico. He rose to prominence through education (his did his masters at the London School of Economics, and is ABD at the University of Denver in International Affairs). He’s worked tirelessly to promote economic opportunities for immigrants in the US. He also spearheaded Mexico’s innovative 4+1 Program. The 4+1 Program combines public money from the Mexican government with private money (primarily from Mexican immigrants who want to send money home to help their family) to build social infrastructure. Through this program, literally thousands of jobs have been created in Mexico, thus providing opportunities to those who otherwise would likely emigrate to find jobs. Mario Hernandez is a modern day Nehemiah, using his position of influence to go back and “rebuild the walls.”

What if the idea of “disadvantaging yourself to advantage others” became the simple code for political leaders, both abroad and in America? This would redefine public service. Self-glorifying campaigns would focus on the issues, much needed social welfare programs would become sustainable, and communities would flourish. Yet perhaps there’s a better question:

Discussion Question: In your company or organization, what would it look like to “disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others?”

 

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Culture

Daddy, what if there were no stores?

 

That was the question my 4-year-old daughter recently asked on the way home from church. Such random questions weren’t rare for her. As we cruised down South Santa Fe, perhaps the streetlights hit the German Auto Parts Dealer at the right angle, or perhaps she was concerned about the Old Saint Nicholas Christmas store that was closed for the season. Either way, it was an interesting question.

“Well, Sierra, just imagine. If there were no stores we wouldn’t have this car we are driving in. We wouldn’t be driving on roads, these streetlights wouldn’t be on, and we wouldn’t even have these clothes on our backs – maybe we’d be naked! We wouldn’t have any food in the grocery stores, our house would eventually fall apart, and we wouldn’t have any warm baths.”

“And daddy, there wouldn’t be any doctors!” she replied. This was of great concern to her, because playing doctor with her 2-year-old sister was her favorite game. “Nope, no doctors,” I said. “Wouldn’t that be terrible.”

My daughter’s question reminded me of a question asked by Lester DeKoster, the author of Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

“Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags.”

So what’s the difference between civilized life and barbarism?

“The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain people create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever the explanation, the power lays in work.”

Simply put, work is about creating human civilization.  Few go into the office on Monday and think that way, but the skyscrapers of Dubai and the sewage systems of Paris wouldn’t exist without work. Nor would this Mac I’m typing on right now. Work is the source of all the things that most intimately affect human life: organizations, products, and services. And apparently that fact is not lost on 4-year-olds. Work might be a burden sometimes. But can you imagine a world without work?

Why should Christians care about integrating their faith and their work? Perhaps a better question: does God care about civilization?

And the LORD said, “Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).

Discussion question: What would happen if, overnight, your business or organization closed? What would be lost? Who would it matter to?

(Photo: I Am Legend, Annie Wu)

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Theology

How pastors can inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide

 

I recently interviewed David Platt, the pastor of Brook Hills Church in Alabama, for  Christianity Today. We talked about his new book Follow Me: A Call to Die, A Call to Live – a theological follow-up to his bestselling Radical. Though the book had redeeming qualities, I found myself disagreeing with Platt on everything from his use of persecuted Christians in the Middle East as models for American discipleship to using hell as a motivator for evangelism. But perhaps my greatest concern was how he, and many pastors, can inadvertently exacerbate the sacred/secular divide.

At several points in the book Platt references persecuted Christians as models for “real discipleship.” At one point he says, “We have brothers and sisters around the world today who are imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, and killed today not because they smile as they serve people,” but because they tell people the gospel with the words. This is true – sharing the gospel is illegal in many countries. But I had to ask, Isn’t “smiling as you serve,” especially in one’s vocation, an equally valid calling as that of an evangelist?

I wanted to push him here because in several points of the book, Platt equated a radical discipleship to Jesus with separating yourself from your career for things like prayer and Bible study. He references Luke, a successful businessman, who grew in his faith and separated himself from learning about business:

“He [Luke] told me [Platt], ‘My insatiable desire for business books, seminars, and motivational speakers has completely gone away. God has replaced that desire with a hunger for his Word.’”

Again my question: is a desire for run a business well antithetical to being fully committed to God and His Word?

Katelyn Beaty, the Managing Editor of Christianity Today, must have picked up on this subtle sacred/secular divide as well. A portion of an earlier interview she did with Platt was merged with mine for the article, and she asked him: “What about, say, a factory worker who loves Jesus and wants to follow him, but works long hours because he needs to support his family? How would you counsel him?”. It’s a good question. Can’t factory workers please God, even if they’re not converting co-workers?

Although I don’t think there’s any malicious intent here, I think pastors can often exacerbate the sacred/sacred divide by equating real discipleship with more participation in church programs, service events, or Bible studies, often at the cost of doing their daily work with excellence and in the service of God and neighbor.

Skye Jethani, a former pastor and now the senior editor of Leadership Journal, realized how many times he had accidentally contributed to this problem:

“I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world. I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the ‘sacred’ calling of the church was pitted against their ‘secular’ callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.”

Nearly all the pastors I know want to dissolve the sacred/secular divide, but in the attempt to find ushers, children’s ministry volunteers, and others to staff church programs, bulletins are often filled with ways to serve ‘in here’ and not ‘out there’ in people’s vocations.

Pastor JR Vassar of Apostles Church in New York City said at a Work as Worship Conference that the real tragedy of this situation is that instead of sending Christians into the world to serve, pastors often take them out of the world – their secular work – to perpetuate church programming. He asks a simple question: What is more significant for the church’s mission: more church programs (and a bigger church), or equipping the Body of Christ to serve God out in the world, in their careers and the tensions of a modern, pluralistic society?

Theologically I think we need to understand two things. (1) God fills us with his Spirit to speak the word of God. The examples are numerous:

  • Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied… (Luke 1:67)
  • The Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said to them… (Acts 4:8)
  • And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word boldly (Acts 4:31)
  • As he spoke, the Spirit came into me…He said, “You must speak my words to them,” (Ezekiel 2:2,7)

Those who have been given the Spirit will speak his words boldly, and be engaged in activities like discipleship and evangelism. The Scriptures make this clear.

But (2) God also fills us with the Spirit to do work. The Bible’s first mention of the Holy Spirit is in Exodus, when two men are chosen by God to make the tabernacle.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts” (Exodus 31:2-5).

If both of these statements are true, we must speak the words of God, and we also must show the majesty and goodness of God through our work.  No such sacred/secular divide needs to exist, either inside the church or out in the world

The simple lesson: let’s not remove people from the world in attempts for more build more church programs, but instead let’s equip them to be salt and light in the midst of the world, namely, at work .

Discussion question: Does your church inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide? If so, how can this change?

(Photo: Church, Lloyd Photography)

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Work

When work stops

 

The Bible sets a pattern of work and rest. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work,” (Exodus 20:9-10). Six days are for work. Produce, create, and make. Yet one day there is to be no work whatsoever. It is a day of rest, a day of worship. Work is good – but God limits our cultural production, lest it become our driving force and make us slaves once again, as we were in Egypt.

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from my step mother. There had been an accident. She and my dad were at a grocery store, weary from a long trip back to Minneapolis from the lake. My step mom went to the deli to get a small dinner, and my dad needed to use the bathroom. While in the bathroom, his gun (he regularly conceals and carries) slipped out of his hands, fell to the ground, and fired a round. It pierced a hole in his shin. My step mother had left her cell phone in her car; my dad called and received no answer. He cried for help, and finally she returned to see him reeling with pain, soaked in blood, on the bathroom floor.

My dad is okay. He needed immediate surgery, and now has an titanium tibia. Yet I was jarred by the news. The bullet could have strayed – and been deadly. In a moment, I might have lost my father. After I found out, I booked a flight on Southwest for that same evening to visit my dad at North Memorial Hospital.  I had several things planned for the next two days. But in a time like this, work stops.

It’s not quite right to say, as many do, “At the end of your days, will you really care whether you spent another day in the office?” Those who say this mean well, but it means work is ultimately meaningless. I would say to that person, “Perhaps you should have done different work.”

Yet we must say that work is not ultimate. God is ultimate. And we immortal creatures dance on the edge of eternity each day. There must come a time, ideally one day out of every seven, when we step back and consider the great expanse of lives, and what (and who) deserves our greatest attention. On January 24, that object of my attention was my father.

Discussion question: Do you practice Sabbath? If not, why? If so, how do you use your time of rest well?

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CultureTheology

Work and the Destiny of the World

 

Our view of the destiny of the world should deeply influence how we understand work.

In the renewed Jerusalem, there is a river flowing from “the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” (Rev. 22:2).  And on both sides of river is “the tree of life, bearing crops of fruit.” The tree of life, from which humanity was exiled after the Fall in Genesis, is now at the heart of the city.  The culmination of history includes both the divine (throne, river, and tree of life) and the human (the city). The great hope of the Christian faith is for a renewed human city, a day in which God will reign over human life, including our cultural production that comes from work.

This biblical vision of the future is radical, especially when we compared to other worldviews:

  • The traditional fundamentalist vision is that this world will be burned up in judgment and believers will live with God in a disembodied state in heaven.  The idea here is of a wholly other-worldly eternal state with little to no connection with this world. Yet the Bible states that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the heavenly city (Rev. 21:24), including their finest work (like the camels of Midian, the ships of Tarshish, and fir trees of Lebanon – see Isaiah 60). In God’s grace, he brings actual human culture, though purified by fire, into a renewed earthly city. There will be real overlap between our work here and its redeemed state in the new Jerusalem.
  • The liberal vision is of establishing God’s kingdom here and now through social and political action. Outlined masterfully in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, in the 1960s and 1970s accomodationists, both liberal Protestants and Catholics, emptied traditional theology of its other worldly elements and equated social justice and politics with God’s kingdom. However, the historic Christian faith teaches the heavenly city comes down out of heaven as a gift from God (Rev. 21:2). It cannot be built, nor can we transform this world into God’s kingdom. Each generation equates some social program with God’s kingdom – and in so doing is eventually disappointed as the reality of sin disappoints all our utopian ventures.
  • The secular vision is perhaps the most depressing. The generally accepted public philosophy of secular materialists sees a distant future in which humans will be long forgotten, the sun will continue its expansion and eventually burn up the earth. The great tension in the secular mind is how to balance the view of the scientific materialists with the myth of progress, still espoused by lovers of technology, despite the horrific events of the 20th century (and the stark suffering of places like Syria). Businesses and even government entities rally behind “mission statements” even though their universe has no mission other than extinction.
  • The Eastern vision of the future is cyclical. Humanity is caught in a never ending cycle of life, death and reincarnation. The world, as well as human culture, has no real ultimate purpose. This view leads to such desperation that Buddhism was born, and it’s great hope was placed in attaining nirvana – freedom from the wheel of samara and the ultimate extinguishing of each person’s light (the definition of nirvana). The statue of the Buddha, with his eyes turned inward, is the paradigm of this worldview. Free yourself from suffering through meditation –  let your light burn out in the darkness.

Each of these visions of the destiny of the world ultimately influences our view of work:

  • Fundamentalist eschatology devalues work. Why build a house or start a business when all that matters is saving souls? This view leads to a stark division between spiritual work and secular work – a view all too common in conservative American churches.
  • The liberal view overvalues work. It equates human triumphs with God’s own kingdom, and both denies the reality of sin that has infected work, and tends to make human achievement an idol. This slippery slope of accommodation also tends to lead to empty churches, as people start question why they should attend a this-worldly congregation that is essentially no different from the rest of culture.
  • The secular view is so dark, people tend to look other places to find meaning in work, such as prestige, innovation, power, or wealth. Work here becomes a slave-driver as people put unrealistic expectations on creation rather than the Creator, and can slip into hopelessness.
  • Eastern religions have a similarly dim view of work. Not only is there no human city in the future, but each person must try to earn good karma on his or her own. Work may provide an income, but it is not connected with any objective goal for human history.  History, just like work, has no culmination. It’s an inescapable cycle.

The biblical view is that the heavenly Jerusalem is a gift, and it cannot be earned or built by men. Yet, in God’s grace, he includes elements of our work and cultural production in God’s new world.

If we truly embrace this view, we’ll be work with both tremendous hope as well as deep humility. Because God is making all things new, we won’t join the fundamentalists who undervalue the nature of God’s good creation, nor will we join the secularists who look into the future and only see a dark universe. Nor will we will join liberals who believe God’s kingdom can be built through only political action. (Nor will we join those who attempt to “transform culture” through their work and cultural engagement. Jesus clearly gives us a picture of the world growing in both good and evil as The Day approaches [Matt. 13:24-30]. For those who espouse of view that Christians should “transform culture”: can you point to a single culture in all of history that has been transformed by the gospel?)

The key way to view our work today – whether it be selling ads or teaching second graders – is as a sign, or a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.  Christians are called to be representatives of a new world, who are yet living in this age, and to tell the good news through both words and actions. The key creative task is this: how can I take my work and make it a banner that points people to the hope of a renewed heaven and earth?

Perhaps the key image here is not the developer who paves over the earthly city, nor hermit who retreats from the city’s confines, but instead the farmer, who plants the seeds of new life through the work of his hands. And perhaps some of those seeds will grow into strong trees, whose leaves will be for the healing of nations (Rev. 22:2).

Discussion question: What is your view of the destiny of the world? How do you think it influences your work?

(Photo: The Farmer)

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Work

What we’ve forgotten about vocation

 

There is a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo Baggins meets Lady Galadriel, an elf queen. She leads him to look in small bowl of water, called the mirror of Galadriel, that tells the future. After seeing the demise of the Shire in the mirror, the Lady says about his great task of destroying the Ring, “For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the enemy…For the fate of Lothlórien you are not answerable, but only for doing your own task.” The movie version of this scene adds her saying, “Frodo, if you do not do this, it will not happen.”

Frodo was called. He had an appointed task that was heavy with importance, and if he, the Ring Bearer, did not do it, it would never happen.

The idea that people are called by God to do a task is deeply biblical. Some examples:

  • Moses was called by God to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 3:7-10)
  • David was pulled from tending sheep and anointed king of Israel by God’s special choosing (1 Samuel 16:8-30)
  • Jeremiah, even though only a boy, was called to be a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:4-10)
  • Isaiah, despite being a “man of unclean lips,” was sent to be a stern rebuke to Israel’s corrupt kings (Is. 6)
  • Jesus called his first disciples to leave their fishing nets and instead “fish for people” (Lk. 5:10)
  • Paul was called to “proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15)

Even though the concept of a divine calling is so pervasive in Scripture, today we have largely lost some of its key tenets. I think we’ve lost at least three things.

(1) We’ve lost the sense of having a singular life task that is given to us, and us alone. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sitting in a Nazi prison in WWII, he worked tirelessly on what he believed to be his great life’s work: his book Ethics. This task kept him exercising, eating, and working when many other prisoners lost all hope. He felt his death was coming soon, but continued to study and write, feeling deeply that he had to complete this work before his days were done. While in prison, he wrote to his friend Eberhard that this idea of being called to a life’s work had been all but lost in his day. He would not be among those who lost such an expansive perspective on their life’s work.

(2) We’ve lost the role of weaknesses in fulfilling our calling. A pastor, who I greatly admire, recently advised his congregants on how to find their calling. He gave a three-fold test for discerning a calling: affinity, ability and opportunity. That is, (1) Do you want to do it?, (2) Are you good at it, and (3) Do you have the opportunity? This is generally good advice – if you’re missing any of these, you’re not likely to be happy in your career.

Yet I believe he’s missing the role of weakness. Frodo was the least likely person to carry the Ring to Mordor, but he was ultimately selected. Bonhoeffer was in a freezing, bare Nazi prison, yet his writings endure to this day – including his unfinished Ethics. David was the youngest son, not the oldest, Moses stuttered (and was an ex-con), and Paul was a Christian-killer before conversion. Yet each was chosen by God. This is how God works. He chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Calling is just as often aligned with weaknesses submitted to God than finding your strengths.

(3) We’ve forgotten that most careers aren’t vocations. On the one hand, we often confuse our calling with being successful in our careers. Leah Labresco has written a great article in First Things that blasts the destruction of intimacy and relationship in a culture that prizes success at any cost. She writes:

“Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love. It’s possible to make a short-term decision to put life and relationships on hold, in order to make a high-intensity commitment to a cause (this is the model for the oft-touted national service draft), but it’s unhealthy to let these crisis-mode jobs give shape to your life.”

Our vocation may be to stay at home for a season, or to take a demotion for more meaningful work. To say you’re “called” to do something is not the same as saying “I will succeed at any cost. A calling is always from God, who may send us into a desert for 40 years before sending us to Pharaoh (or, like the desert fathers, he may just keep us there).

Yet, on the other hand, some completely lose touch of their vocation because of the pressures and challenges of a career. It’s one thing to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coming out of college, ready to conquer the world. It’s another to have experienced years of having your career not turn out as you thought, and being weighed down with a mortgage – and still to continually live out a calling.  This often takes courage – and a deep faith that this is indeed where God has called you (despite the world telling you otherwise).

We need to see our “work” as larger than our careers ( and our success in them) and yet still a central way in which we live out a commitment to Christ.

Paul writes, “For you are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which were prepared in advance for you to do, (Eph. 2:10). God has prepared tasks for all Christians to do. We are saved for a purpose. Like Frodo, we all have a Ring to bear – and a mission to fulfill.

Discussion question: What is your calling?

(Photo: “Sortie,” Keoki Seo)

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CultureTheology

Forming Social Imaginaries

 

What is the role of pastors and theologians in bringing about cultural and social change?

Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace, believes there is an important distinction between the role of pastors and the role of Christian laity, especially when trying to apply the gospel to our social world.

“Attending to social arrangements is essential. But it is Christian economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc. in cooperation with theologians, rather than theologians themselves, that out to address this issue because they are best equipped to do so….

“When not acting as helpmates of economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc.—and it is part of their responsibility to act this way—theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

His point is well made: the gospel does influence how we see culture and society, but the ones best suited for making statements about politics or economics (or, by way of extension, technology, education, and business) are Christian laity. Theologians are accurately described as “helpmates” of economists and politicians, and should not cross the line in trying to trade vocations. Instead, theologians should focus on shaping “social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

At bare minimum, this means two things for pastors:

(1) Pastors have a responsibility to disciple those in their congregations who serve in the public sphere. Our public activity, namely, our work, is a matter of Christian discipleship. Work is not neutral – it is loaded with temptations, idols and opportunity for kingdom service. To never speak to the issues that affect the majority of our waking hours is irresponsible.

(2) Pastors should not confuse their distinct calling as a minister of the gospel and so try to become politicians, economists, or even philosophy professors.  This is not a call to be aloof from the matters of the world. Far from it. It is a call be faithful to telling the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of the Son of God, and to walk alongside laity and shape their imaginations so thoroughly that the gospel will transform parishioners who can therefore shape society through their work.

Takeaway: if you’re a pastor, go and visit somebody at work and so hear about their high priestly ministry (1 Peter 2:9). If you’re not a pastor, go and invite your pastor to lunch and start “envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies.”

(Photo: Conversation at the Coffee Shop, Steve Hammond)

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Work

Working, Pt. 1: Sharon Atkins, Receptionist

 

For the next several posts, I’m going to highlight individual stories of people talking about their work. The interviews are from Studs Terkel’s masterful book Working, a compendium of first-hand accounts of people at work: steel workers, cab drivers, farmers, policemen. As I’ve read their stories, I’ve been moved to hushed silence. The cry for dignity, the frustration, the crafting of meaning through work – this is one of the most human books I’ve ever read.

What I will do in each post is introduce the individual and his/her work, and then share a lengthy direct quotation from the interviewee. From there, I will offer some brief theological reflections on their experience.

Sharon Atkins, 24, works as a receptionist for a large company in the Midwest. As an English major, she originally looked for copy writing jobs, but employers wanted a journalism major instead. So she took a job answering phones.

“I changed my opinion of receptionists because now I’m one. It wasn’t the dumb broad at the front desk who took telephone messages. She had to be something else because I thought I was something else.  I was fine until there was a press party. We were having a fairly intelligent conversation. Then they asked what I did. When I told them they turned around to find other people with name tags. I wasn’t worth bothering with. I wasn’t being rejected because of what I said or the way I talked, but simply because of my function

“I don’t think they’d ever hire a male receptionist. They’d have to pay him more, for one thing. You can’t pay someone who does what I do very much. It isn’t economically feasible. (Laughs.) You’re there just to filter people and filter telephone calls. You’re there just to handle the equipment. You’re treated like a piece of equipment, like the telephone.

“You come in at nine, you open the door, you look at the piece of machinery, you plug in the headpiece. That’s how my day begins. You tremble when you hear the first ring. After that, it’s sort of downhill – unless there’s somebody on the phone who is either kind or nasty. The rest of the people are just non, they don’t exist. They’re just voices. You answer calls, you connect them to others, and that’s it…

“I don’t have much contact with people…You don’t know if they’re laughing, if they’re being satirical or being kind. So your conversations become very abrupt. I notice that in talking to people. My conversations would be very short and clipped, in short sentences, the way I talk to people all day on the telephone…When I talk to someone at work, the telephone rings, and the conversation is interrupted. So I never bother finishing sentences or thoughts. I always have this feeling of interruption…

“You try to fill up your time with trying to think about other things: what you’re going to do on the weekend or about your family. You have to use your imagination. If you don’t have a very good one and you bore easily, you’re in trouble. Just to fill in time, I write real bad poetry or letters to myself and to other people and never mail them. The letters are fantasies, sort of rambling, how I fell, how depressed I am…I always dream I’m alone and things are quiet. I call it the land of no-phone, where there isn’t any machine telling me where I have to be every minute…

“Until recently I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs…I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out…

“My father’s in watch repair. That’s always interested me, working with my hands, and independent. I don’t think I’d mind going back and learning something, taking a piece of furniture and refinishing it. The type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function. At the switchboard, you don’t do much of anything.”

On  being “networked”: Sharon had the experience of being “networked” as a press party; as soon as somebody found out her job, they deemed her unimportant. The Christians teach that all people have value not because of their work or social status, but simply because they’re made in the image of God. How often do we “network” people to advance ourselves, or simply treat people as tools to be used? Do we really talk “to” the clerk at the grocery store or the insurance representative on the phone, or do we talk “through” them, to simply get what we need and then be on our way?

On interruptions: Sharon observed that her job was affecting her ability to think. Her thoughts and her sentences became truncated because her work forced her to say something quickly and then move on to the next caller. A recent book has noted that the internet is also affecting our brains. How do the rhythms of your job – whether serving customers or replying to mountains of email – affect you ability to have a full thought?  Sharon’s mind was altered by her work, and she experienced a deep boredom through automated repetition.

On fear: Sharon was afraid to leave her job because she wasn’t even sure of what she was good at anymore. She dreaded Monday (even Fridays too), and her dreams were melting away. It’s clear that her work was the locus of a deep sadness, and she yearned for an even deeper hope.

On satisfying work: Sharon longed for another kind of work, one “type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function.” I’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but Sharon is expressing a deeply embedded desire to reflect the image of the Creator. She was born to create, to leave a physical imprint on the world as one who is herself the physical imprint of Another.

Discussion question: If you were to meet Sharon tomorrow, what hope would you offer her? What advice would you give?

(Photo: Telephone Switchboard, Robert Niles)

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Economy

Dishing Up Dignity

 

Today Christianity Today published my essay on two Denver-based restaurants: Café 180 and SAME (So All May Eat) Café. These restaurants, however, are not your typical lunch cafes. They both run on a pay-what-you-can model. That means customers are asked to donate either money or volunteer time for a meal. The effect of this model is, I believe, nothing short of revolutionary.

Several months ago I ate lunch with both Libby Burky, the Director of SAME Café, and Cathy Mathews, the Co-Founder of Café 180. Libby opened SAME Café in 2006 after working several years at a food shelf. She became frustrated by the poor quality of food at the food kitchen, and came to the conclusion that poor food, as well as simple hand- outs, rob people of their dignity. So she opened SAME Café off of historic Colfax Avenue on a new model. Serve organic food, cooked using clean energy, and make it available to all regardless of ability to pay. If they can’t pay, then customers are asked to volunteer one hour for a meal. Working for your meals restores to the unemployed or homeless the dignity of earning your keep.

Cathy Mathews, who I focused on for the article, has a similar story. With some help from Libby, she opened Café 180 in Englewood in 2010. Cathy’s story, however, flows out of the desire for community. She lives in Cherry Hills Village, and realized she knew very few of her poorer neighbors in Englewood. She desired a solution that would go beyond charity – a way to share not just money or food, but our lives with one another. And Café 180 has become just that – a community of rich and poor, secular and Christian, Republican and Democrat, all eating around a common table.

As I spent time with Libby and Cathy, what began to impress me was the way these restaurants can bring together people from drastically different walks of life. Both those who believe in the mission (the wealthy) and those who need a meal (the poor) volunteer in the kitchen. In doing so, they share their lives. Also, because the food is amazing, those who can pay full price arrive come faithfully for lunch. And those who haven’t had a great meal in a while, they too can each Mediterranean pizza or French Dip sandwiches.

The past two decades have led to the drastic gentrification – wealthy people moving into historically poor neighborhoods – of cities across the US. This can often cause class and racial tensions because when property values rise through redevelopment, the poor often must leave their neighborhoods for the cheaper suburbs. But pay-what-you-can restaurants have the potential to bring together these two wary neighbors around a good meal and a mission based on justice and hope.

Cathy Mathews shared with me that the desire to open Café 18o came from an extended time of prayer and silence. She felt “prompted” to see if she could assume the lease. Although Cathy is extremely humble about her faith, Cafe 180 is a great example how an individual put her faith into action at work.

So, I have a host of questions for discussion:

(1) What do you think about pay-what-you-can restaurants? Do you think this business model could work in other sectors?

(2) How can businesses make social good the primary bottom line? Do products and services you offer lend themselves toward building community and bringing people from different walks of life together?

(3) Could a pay-what-you-can restaurant work in your neighborhood? Why or why not?

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