Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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A Comedy I Didn’t Take Seriously Enough

Sometimes you can fail to hear God’s voice because you’re being too serious.

In January 1996, I was doing graduate work in Philosophy at Saint Louis University. This involved taking graduate courses, teaching an undergraduate course, and doing research that would lead to my dissertation. I was a year and a half away from finishing the program, and I was very serious about it all. In fact, I was on fire with it. God had impressed certain things upon me that I wanted to get out to my people. I envisioned a larger audience than just a classroom full of students. I wanted to get the word out to people everywhere.

It was a message about God’s involvement in all of life. Taking that idea one step further, it was also a message about the mysterious ways in which our lives are intertwined, not only because we are all related to God (whether we acknowledge that fact or not) but also because there are connections between us that only God knows about. These were the days before social media, but what seems much more obvious to us now was already being shown to me back then — that our friends or our friends’ friends may be related to each other in ways that we don’t know about, because the subject never comes up. With social media, we now have the opportunity to see that our friend Sally Singleton knows our coworker Maurice Chillingworth — a fact of which we would never have guessed. But back in 1996, God was impressing upon me the lesson of Stanley Milgram’s “Small World” Experiment from the 1960s: that we are all interrelated in surprising ways that only God knows about. Not only was this fact being emphasized in my prayers and meditations, but also one of the spiritual implications of this fact: that God is (among other things) calling us to move in ever-wider circles and learn from the people God wants to bring into our lives.

As I said, I was on fire with this idea in January 1996, and I sensed that God was about to reveal to me a way to convey the idea to others. But the Spirit kept telling me that I was censoring the Spirit. Again and again it told me to lighten up. What God wanted to give me would be closer to a cartoon than a philosophical treatise.

Finally, I relented. I told God that I would accept the revelation in whatever form it would come.

The very day I prayed that prayer, I was given the idea for a comedy. It was about a super-serious professor and a wise-cracking journalist who had 10 days to find an alien operative or the world would be destroyed. I would get across the serious philosophical idea through the unfolding of the story itself, because these two would end up having to rely on a network of associates in order to find the alien operative. But there was also something important about Mr. X (the person they were looking for), and when they found him, his identity would change the meaning of everything that had led up to that moment.

It took me years to write this comic-strip novel, because I thought it was frivolous. My wife could always tell when I was working on it, because I’d be chuckling or (at the very least) smiling while I was typing. No other writing project I’ve ever done has given me such joy. But I sat on it for 21 years because I couldn’t justify spending my time on it. I had more important things to do, or so I thought. In the meantime, I wrote a book about my experiences with God in the work world (Customer Service and the Imitation of Christ) and another one about my philosophy of God in secular life (What Does God Do from 9 to 5?), and I still believe that those books were also inspired by God. But during the summer of 2016, the Spirit tried to get my attention again, and this time I listened. I stopped telling Him that the novel was too silly, too trivial, and too much fun. I sat down and wrote it. It was half done when I started, and I got the whole thing finished in time for my target date: April Fool’s Day, 2017.

Last week, Kirkus Reviews had this to say about the resulting novel, Small World:

They said that the author “has somehow taken the philosophy of Hegel and the experiments of Milgram that demonstrate there are only five or six degrees of separation between any two people; mixed in equal parts Marx Brothers, Watergate, Douglas Adams; tagged his characters with monikers straight out of Dickens, film noir, and Snow White; and wound up with a snide, witty, completely entertaining romp through human nature and all its foibles…. Johnson, a philosophy professor, has more up his sleeve than great writing and a funny, extremely readable story; readers will also have fun searching between the lines for deeper implications and references.”

Okay, Lord. I get it now. Thank you for your patience.


The Story of Life: The Dawn of Civilization

When I pray, I’m talking to the God who was there when primitive humans first started domesticating plants and animals, and using fire. I talk about that in this YouTube video.

The Lady or the Tiger?

I’ve been talking about my belief that God is involved in the ongoing Story of Life. In this YouTube video, I tell about an assignment I had in high school, shortly after I became a Christian, and what happened when I prayed about the assignment.

Click here to watch the video. It will open in a separate screen.

The Story of Life and My Testimony

As a fairly new Christian, I was surprised to discover that my testimony seemed like a different genre from the testimonies of other Christians. Mine seemed much more secular than theirs. That was how I started recognizing the importance of the Story of Life. I talk about that in this video.

Meditating on the Story of Life

This is the first of a series of videos on the practice of meditating on the Story of Life. For most of my life as a Christian, I have deliberately kept in mind the Story of Life when I’m praying. In this video, I use The Junior Wall Chart of History to explain what that means and why I find it helpful in my spiritual life.

Why Congregational Histories Aren’t Congregational

My article, “The Problem with Congregational Histories” is on pages 28-29 of the latest issue of The Congregationalist. I argue that “congregational histories are not written in a way that is even remotely ‘congregational.'”

Click here to find out why.

(It will take you to the September issue, then scroll down to page 28.)

First Review of Small World on Amazon (USA)

My book Small World has received its first review on Amazon (USA):

“This is a small book (less than 150 pages) that is a page turner but not one to read quickly. It includes philosophical, political, social and a bit of religious dilemmas. While it is a mystery it is very thought provoking.”

I also received an email the other day from a young man who said that he “thoroughly loved it,” and added:

“I have never heard of a plot line anything like it before and loved the various twists and turns. I really felt like you were able to flesh out the characters very well in such a short time frame.”
If you’ve read the book (or either of my other books), I’d love to hear from you! You can either leave a comment here or click here to go to my new author site on WordPress.

A Story about How We’re All Connected

I haven’t contributed much to this blog lately, because I’ve been putting the final touches on my latest book, Small World. It’s a parable about the unseen connections between us all, and in the past year, I’ve felt that it speaks to the issues we’re facing as a people (at least here in America).

A journalist and a reclusive professor have 10 days to find someone named Basil or the world will be destroyed. They know nothing about him except his first name. They have, however, discovered a communication device that gives them clues, but only the Professor can read it, and the journalist has excellent reasons for doubting the professor’s sanity.

They soon realize that they are links in a chain, and that each person in that chain will bring them closer to their destination, but the stakes become higher with each new acquaintance. Along the way, they must kidnap a Reality TV star, trust a woman with a mysterious past, and get the cooperation of a dysfunctional family of clones, all while eluding competing journalists, gangsters, and soldiers.

It’s a comedy with a serious intent. And I hope my readers will come away with a new appreciation for the phrase, “We are not alone.”

Here are links to the main retailers:

Amazon (paperback and Kindle)

Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook)

Smashwords (multiple eBook formats)

Kobo (eBook)

(Apple iBooks has the book but I can’t locate the URL. If you have the iBooks app, you can search for it that way.)

How’s It SUPPOSED to Be with Our Souls?

You’ve probably heard the old question, “How is it with your soul?”

In most religious circles I’ve been in, we’re reminded from time to time that we should be asking each other this, but here’s what we do instead. Person A asks Person B, with a cock of the head, “How are you doing?” because Person A isn’t comfortable prying into Person B’s spiritual life. In response, Person B talks about her aches and pains and woes. Person A empathizes, commiserates, and promises to pray for Person B. And this is all fine, because we ought to care about each other and bear each other’s burdens.

But that’s not the same thing as asking each other about the state of our souls.

What we’re missing is the fact that we Christians are supposed to be caught up in the most exciting project ever, and we inquire about each other’s progress as a way of spurring each other on toward accomplishment of the seemingly-impossible goal that’s been set before us. That goal, in New Testament parlance, is to “go on toward perfection” (Hebrews 6:1 NRSV). But to put it in less grandiose terms, it is to become, as fully as possible, the people God created us to be.

In order to understand what sort of answer would be appropriate in response to the question, “How is it with your soul?” we should first ask ourselves, “How is it supposed to be with our souls?”

And here is just one answer. There are many, many others, but this one’s ambitious enough. Christ says, “[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14 NRSV).

That’s a metaphor, of course, but all metaphors refer to something. What is this one referring to, do you suppose? I interpret it as promising a spiritual life that is not only deeply satisfying but immediately available — an inexhaustible source of refreshment within oneself. You don’t have to stand in line at a drinking fountain. It’s within you.

But it’s more than that. It’s not just a form of self-satisfaction. What we’re enjoying is the presence of Jesus Christ. He’s the Living Water. The goal is for us to be imbibing him — in sips, if that’s all we can manage, or in great gulps if we can — and finding a refreshment and satisfaction that are available nowhere else.

Let’s take this one text as an example. If we have a prayer partner or good friend in the faith, and it seems too artificial to ask them, “How is it with your soul?” we could instead have a conversation about the progress each of us is making toward experiencing that gushing spring of water within us.

Have we asked Christ to give us this water? If not, why not? If we have, what’s been the outcome? If there hasn’t been any obvious response to that prayer, let’s talk about it (or better yet, pray about it together) and see if we can figure out what’s hindering us. If there has been a positive response, let’s encourage each other by talking about it, and let’s see what we can do to increase our ability to drink even more freely.

See what I’m saying? The whole point is for us to help each other get deeper into a relationship with the Living God.

Lately, I’ve been particularly impressed by the kinds of metaphors Christ used to describe the Christian life. They were some of the most enjoyable things in life: eating, drinking, partying (he used the party metaphor so often, his enemies ended up using it against him), basking in the sunlight, playing like children in the marketplace — indeed, even becoming like little children again. As enjoyable as each of these things are in human life, they’re metaphors of even greater spiritual possibilities. They’re glimpses of where we’re supposed to be going, both as individuals and as churches. They’re examples of how it’s supposed to be with our souls.

How is it with your soul?

An Unusual Setting for Worship

This blog is a place for me to share my meditations on the subject of workplace spirituality, and there is one piece of music in particular that I use to meditate on this theme. You may be surprised by what it is: it’s the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by Benjamin Britten. It was written in order to teach children about the various sections of the orchestra and how they all fit together, but I use it for something else: to meditate on how God’s purposes move forward even in the midst of all our busy-ness.

Click hear to listen to what I’m talking about. (It will take you to my other site, Mythic Adventures, because I have audio capability over there.)

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