Jeff Haanen

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Calling

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Work

How To Choose a Career: Advice From a Puritan Pastor

 

“What am I called to?” That’s the question it seems most of us are asking. My friend Nathan is a pastor of young adults, and without a doubt, nearly everybody he knows hates their jobs. The question “What am I called to?” is often followed by “It can’t be this!”

The fact that 70% of Americans are disengaged from their work should be cause for concern. But it should also cause us ask better questions – and seek better answers. History can help. Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan pastor, answered just such questions about calling from his flock. But he didn’t answer them the way we would. To wrestle down some answers, he first outlined what can’t be a calling, and then gave some plain advice on how to choose a career.

What Can’t Be a Calling

1. Sinful or unlawful work can’t be a calling.

“Think not that a calling can be lawful, when the work of it is sin; nor that you, or your labor, or your gain in an unlawful calling shall be blest.”

This may seem obvious, that any form of institutionalized cheating, stealing or oppressing can’t be a response to God’s call. But it’s worth mentioning. What about industries that are legal but morally questionable?  Gambling? For Coloradoans, selling pot? Tobacco? Or at what point have certain industries systematized greed – the accumulation of more – or consumerism – the desire not to have, but simply to purchase? However specific cultures answer these questions, when considering a calling, let’s try to avoid overt sin.

2. Just because a job is legal doesn’t mean it can be a calling.

“Think not that because a work is lawful, that therefore it is lawful to make a calling of it.”

Interestingly enough, Baxter illustrates this point by writing, “It is lawful to jest in time and measure, but not lawful to be a jester as a trade of life.” Well, I think I disagree about his view of comedians, but his point is well taken: just because there’s a market for a particular line of work doesn’t mean we should do it for a career. The question Baxter makes us ask is strange for modern ears: is this job honorable? More to be said about that below…

3. Don’t choose a job that drains your soul.

“It is not enough that the work of your calling be lawful, nor that it be necessary, but you must take special care also that it be safe, and not very dangerous to your souls.”

Baxter illustrates his point with beer sellers; he says their calling is “lawful and needful” yet depends on people drinking to excess to make significant profit. I live in Colorado, and I’m under 35, which means I’m more likely to agree with Benjamin Franklin most days: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But again, he’s got a point. Some industries have deep temptations embedded in their nature: high finance can be lured by greed, fashion by vanity, and politics, power. We shouldn’t necessarily avoid these lines of work, but we should ask, “Will the temptations in this job be more than I can handle?”

He's happier than he looks.

How To Choose a Career

1. Choose a career that contributes to the public good.

“The principal thing to be intended in the choice of a trade or calling for yourselves or children, is the service of God, and the public good, and therefore (other things being equal) that calling which most conduceth to the public good is to be preferred.”

Interesting first qualification, isn’t it? It’s not about your college major, your resume, your Meyers-Briggs, a personality profile, or even the hot job opportunities bubbling up on LinkedIn. Find a need, and meet it. Baxter is even willing to name names: pastors, teachers, layers, shepherds, graziers, ploughmen, clothiers, booksellers, tailors, and others employed in work “most necessary to mankind” are to be preferred. I think this list is rather narrow for folks living four hundred years later, but again, point taken. What, then, careers are to be avoided? “Lace-sellers, feather-makers, periwigmakers” and careers that are “a prison and constant calamity to be tied to spend one’s life in doing little good to others, though he should grow rich by it himself.” I take issue with his deprecation of lace-makers (especially those nice laces on doyles), but those dastardly periwigmakers – be rid of them!

But seriously, if you’re looking for a career, don’t first think about yourself or your personal dreams! Think about what the world needs and the good of your community. And most of all, think how you can best serve God, and so enjoy a life of great satisfaction employed in doing the greatest good you can with the time you’ve been given.

2. If two careers both contribute to the public good, pick spiritual benefit over cash bonuses.

“When two callings equally conduce to the public good, and one of them hath the advantage of riches, and the other more advantageous to your souls, the latter must be preferred, and next to the public good, the soul’s advantage must guide your choice.”

There’s nothing wrong with earning a good living, but at least first ask the question: which career choice has a better chance of restoring both body and soul in God’s kingdom? Different people will answer this differently, but ask deep, hard questions about the job before you: what does this do to your own soul? Others? And ultimately, which career can I do more good in?

3. Choose a career that won’t crush your Sabbath rest.

“If it be possible, choose a calling which so exercises the body as not to overwhelm you with cares and labors and deprive you of all leisure for the holy and noble employments of the mind, and which so exercises your mind as to allow you some exercise for the body also.”

You need to rest. You need to worship. You need to exercise. You may even need to read a book on a lawn chair with a cup of lemonade here and there. But certain careers by their very nature tend to crush Sabbath. Indeed, some professions make such outrageous claims of time and mental energy on their slaves (I mean, employees) that working 80,90 or 100 hours per week is normal. This just in: God did not design work to function like this! Six days work, one day rest. Choose a career where this rhythm can be observed – at a bare minimum.

I agree that at times jobs will make big demands on people. Fair enough. But if careers regularly run people into the ground, then we need to step back and ask ourselves: What really is the vision of a good life I’m pursuing? Some John Coltrane, walks by the river and a slow, home-cooked evening meal ought to be a part of such a vision.

Before accepting a job, ask yourself the question: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but lose his very own soul?

4. It’s fine to make a decent salary; choose a job with a reasonable wage.

“It is lawful and meet to look at the commodity of your calling in the third place (that is, after the public good, and after your personal good of soul and bodily health).”

There’s no sense in getting paid well below market rates or claiming you’re more noble than others because you work for a nonprofit. It’s fine to make a profit, and it’s fine to choose a career where you can support your family and even righteous to have something to share with others. And if we believe the parable of the talents in any literal sense, then we ought to double our money by the time our master returns. Of course, if you make riches your chief goal, you’ve made it an idol. But if they’re #3 on the list or lower, you’re probably on the right track.

5. Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final decision.

“Choose no calling (especially if it be of public consequence) without the advice of some judicious, faithful persons of that calling.”

Good, commonsense advice. Check the temperature of the water before jumping in by asking somebody who’s already in the pool.

So, if you’re looking to make a career change in 2014, take this list to heart as you choose how to spend your most precious resource: your time.

 

A Summary of Richard Baxter’s Advice on Choosing a Career

What Can’t Be a Calling

1. Sinful or unlawful work can’t be a calling.

2. Just because a job is legal doesn’t mean it can be a calling.

3. Don’t choose a job that drains your soul.

How To Choose a Career

1. Choose a career that contributes to the public good.

2. If two careers both contribute to the public good, pick spiritual benefit over cash bonuses.

3. Choose a career that won’t crush your Sabbath rest.

4. Yes, it’s fine to make a decent salary. Choose a job with a reasonable wage.

5. Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final decision.

This post first appeared on the Denver Institute blog.

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Work

Blessing the Status Quo

 

In an article  Gene Edward Veith wrote for The Gospel Coalition this past Fall, he concluded:

“Our very work becomes transformed not in its substance—Christian workers mostly perform the same tasks as non-Christian workers—but in its meaning and in its value.”

I’m generally a fan of Veith’s work, but this claim is truly astounding. Veith is claiming that when we truly understand the gospel’s influence on work, we will do the same tasks (and work) as non-Christians, but just feel better about it. That is, if we properly understand the idea vocation, our motivation and attitude will change, but the work itself will be no different. Astounding.

With all due respect for my brother in Christ, let me ask some honest questions: Is this not a high priestly blessing of the status quo? Is this perspective not simply baptizing the ways of the world with thinly veiled language of “calling” and “all work is spiritual work?” Should Christians really not be engaged in different kinds of work, and not just in become more emotionally psyched up to do the same job but with a rosier outlook? Here’s my real question: How on earth did we end up here?

Mr. Veith outlines in his article just how we got here: Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Luther lived in an age where “calling” (vocatio) meant to enter the priesthood or to become a monk. Thus, his response was to say that God calls people to all sorts of work – farmers, magistrates, bakers, mothers and pastors. No need to make one kind of work (ministry) holier than others (business, art, etc.).

Luther based his doctrine of vocation in the doctrine of divine providence. It’s through work that God provides for the needs of the world. He uses the farmer to feed us, the tailor to cloth us, and the carpenter to house us. Luther’s classic quote is, “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” That is, God is using the milkmaid to provide milk for the needs of others. The logical conclusion: stay where you’re at in life, and acknowledge that God is using your vocation to serve your neighbor’s needs.

One of Luther’s favorite Scriptures to prove this point is 1 Corinthians 7:17, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” Luther’s conclusion: “calling” is connected with staying in your current job, because God has providentially put you there. Essentially, Veith follows Luther’s line of thought here: change your attitude and motivation for your work, but don’t change the work itself. Work harder (a la the Puritans), work happier, but stay put. If you’re suffering in your work, acknowledge that Christ suffered too – and keep working.

Now, 1 Corinthians 7 doesn’t have anything to do with work. It’s about men, women and marriage. But that’s beside the point. Luther’s view of work doesn’t take into account several critical factors. First, Luther assumed a static social sphere (as did most medieval people), and that one’s current work was one’s calling. But this just isn’t the case. Indeed for some, their current job is their calling for God, but not for most. The call to remain, be satisfied, and just recognize that your job is a “calling” is comforting to some – but to many it is suffocating. As Miroslav Volf has pointed out in Work in the Spirit, this view led to an eventual merger of the idea of “vocation” and “occupation.” Your job iss your vocation – you just don’t realize it yet.

However, second, and most importantly, Luther’s view focuses on the individual’s attitude, not on the work itself. Reflection on work for nearly 500 years, under Luther’s influence, has tended to focus on how a person feels about his or her work, and not on whether some kinds of work are essentially good and humanizing or bad and dehumanizing. Thus, the recent revival in interest in vocation has parroted the phrase “all work is spiritual” or “all work is God’s work,” without even a second thought to what types of work we might be baptizing.

For Luther, the only kind of work that shouldn’t be done was directly immortal – prostitution, etc. But the question remains: are there some kinds of work that make us more human, and some that make us less human? Or, to pick up on our initial question, should Christians do different kinds of work, or just bless “all work” equally?

I’ve been too theoretical. Let me give you an example. Mike Lefevre is a steel worker. Studs Terkel interviews him in Working:

“I put on my hard hat, change into my safety shoes, put on my safety glasses, get to the bonderizer. It’s the thing I work on. They rake the metal, they wash it off, they dip it in a paint solution, and we take it off. Put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off…

“I say hello to everybody but my boss. At seven it starts. My arms get tired about the first half-hour. After that, they don’t get tired any more until maybe the last half-hour at the end of the day. I work from seven to three thirty. My arms are tied at seven thirty and they’re tired at three o’clock. I hope to God I never get broke in…Cause that’s when I know there’s an end. That I’m not brainwashed. In between, I don’t even try to think.”

Mr. Lefevre does back breaking work day in and day out. But that’s not the problem. His work is so repetitive he feels like he’s getting brainwashed – tired arms are the only things that make him snap back into reality. For most of the day, he tries not to think at all.

A simple question: how many jobs today, whether white collar or blue collar (however we define them) partition doing from thinking? How many jobs have been reduced to the simplest possible task, and have left tired arms (or lower backs and wrists for the computer age) and empty minds? Can any job that does this regularly to God’s image bearers be a vocation with simply a right attitude change? What about the work itself?

Peter Drucker once said,

“Machines work best if they do only one task, if they do it repetitively, and if they do the simplest possible task…[But] the human being…is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses and mind is engaged in the work.”

Another question: do some types of work better facilitate coordination of the entire human being – muscles, senses, and mind – than others? We would all have to say yes. Then why has so much Christian theology focused on the individual’s attitude toward work (Luther, and recently Mr. Veith), and not on actual hard reflection about the different kinds of work itself, and what different kinds of work do to people themselves?

I have a theory. There is a trinity to good work. Thought, activity, and interaction with others, akin to the Father, Son and Spirit (clearly the topic for another article). The last 500 years focused on the theme of calling for a framework for human work; perhaps the next 500 years will focus on the work of the Triune God himself.

Even if they don’t, let’s not say that the only difference between Christians and non-Christians at work is that Christians see meaning and value where others don’t. Indeed, there is too much suffering, too much hardship, and too much of human life bent out of shape like a warped steel rod to settle for such a capitulation to the status quo.

Photo: Steel Works

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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

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)

Work

Your work matters to me

 

 Today is December 1, 2012. Today something happened that I’ll never forget.

After the 6pm service at Colorado Community Church, Terri Powell, wife of Pastor Richard Powell, made eye contact. From across the hallway adjacent to the sanctuary, she pointed to me, as if she needed my attention.

I proceeded to make small talk: “How are the Powells doing?” A brief, polite, “Good,” was all she gave me. She had another purpose in mind.

“I have a word from God for you,” Terri told me. I didn’t know what to say. I just paused, and stared at her. I didn’t know whether to be “weirded out” by charismatic Christians or to pay rapt attention. My Lutheran upbringing didn’t prepare me for this. Since I was so unprepared, I may have given her a strange vibe – all that staring. But despite my awkwardness, she proceeded.

“God says to you, ‘Your work matters to me.’ He sees what you are doing. What you are doing matters to him.”

I began to break down in tears.

It was hours earlier my wife and I had a money melt-down. Budget time, and not enough to go around. I was once again wracked with vocational doubt, and a tinge of anger. How did I get here? Why am I spending all my extra time trying to build this new faith and work organization? Will it even work, or is it just dream? I was defenseless, and I once again crumbled to pieces in my office.

But now, this lady in her late fifties had a “word from God” for me. She was sent to tell me, “Your work matters to God.” God sees my nights in this office; he sees my plans. He sees my writing. He sees all of this, and he says, “This is for me. Keep going.” What as serene joy. He knows my name, sees my labor, and he says, “This is precious in my sight.”

Terri prayed for me – as I wept in the hallway, filled with confirmation, and hope.

I’ve only had one other experience like this in my lifetime. At a conference in Quito for pastors and missionaries, several pastors laid hands on me and I had a vision. I saw a vision of the heavenly city, and a great expanse of darkness between here and there, with only a lamp at my feet. It was my call to Christian ministry and a reminder to keep my eyes focused on his kingdom…and only the next step. That day, I knew God had called me into ministry. (Little did I know the odd paths I would take from that day.)

And now God speaks to me through Terri Powell, and says that I’m on the right path, that my labors are not unnoticed, and that this is important to Him, the great Creator God. Today I heard God speak to me.

What do we do when work is difficult, confusing, and fruitless? What do we do with vocational uncertainty? The Psalmist says, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” (27:14). He will speak when he’s ready. Just wait.

Discussion question: At what point in your career has God spoken to you?

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