Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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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.)

The Light That Is In You

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The sun was shining today in Southwest Michigan. That doesn’t happen a lot this time of year, so everybody around here was very appreciative.

We all know how deeply we crave sunlight, especially when we’re deprived of it. We don’t just want to see it; we feel a need to get out into it. We want to make actual, physical contact with the sun’s rays. And when we don’t have a chance to do so for any significant length of time, we feel the loss.

Christ uses a number of powerful metaphors to describe the life that he offers, and here’s one of them. He promises that we can have the light inside us.

“Your eye is the lamp of the body,” he says. “If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light” (Luke 11:34; Matthew 6:22 NRSV).

When I was a young man, I embarked on a flight during a blinding snowstorm. The weather was bad, but apparently not bad enough to ground us. So we took off, and I couldn’t see a thing outside the window of the plane. But in a matter of minutes, we got above the clouds, and — up there — it was a bright, sunny day. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I always knew in theory that the sun was there above the storm clouds, but its reality meant very little when I was in the middle of a blizzard. From that day on, I’ve always tried to remind myself that the sun is still there in the midst of any storm, both figuratively and literally.

But this scripture promises much more than that. It’s not just telling us to believe that God’s light persists even in moments of darkness. Christ is promising us that we can experience that light within ourselves. And that light will shine even on the darkest of days.

We’ve been going through some pretty dark days lately. As citizens of a free country, we Americans have a responsibility to keep up on what our elected officials are doing, particularly if we believe that our freedoms are being endangered. But I’m seeing a lot of foot soldiers faltering spiritually the past few weeks. I know I have been. As the storm clouds gather, it’s so tempting to fixate on the darkness. And the more we do, the more we are tempted to feel anger… and even hatred… toward those whom we identify as the enemy.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility that far outweighs our need to keep up on the news. We are called to be the light of the world, but we cannot send forth those rays of light if they are not radiating from within us. It is our Number One task, through these dark days, to make sure that our souls are fed, and that the Light of Christ within us does not grow dim. Everyone around us needs us to keep stoking the flame of the Spirit within us. That’s the most important thing we can do now.

For it is not our light that the world needs, but His. We are the light of the world only because He is, if He lives within us. But if the light that is in us is darkness, then how great the darkness — both for ourselves and for those who are depending on us for strength and inspiration.

It was good to see the sun today. But I aspire, more than ever, to tend to the flame within, and to filter everything that happens through the light of the Son.

Long Before There Was Talk of “False News”…

I teach philosophy, and one of the subtopics that I have always emphasized in my teaching is epistemology — the study of knowledge. This is where we ask questions like, “How do you know that such-and-such is true?” “How reliable is this information?” “How can we tell the difference between truth and falsehood?”

I encourage my students to face epistemological questions before they go on to other issues, because I want them to be conscious about the criteria they use in forming judgments about things. It’s a tough sell. If they’re interested in philosophy, it’s usually because they want to dive right into the meat of it — they want to talk about the existence of God or the nature of Time and Space or the metaphysical foundations of ethics. And if they’re not interested in philosophy, they have even less patience for a professor who questions what they think they already know.

Over the years I’ve taught a course called “Theory of Knowledge” that’s designed to engage incoming freshmen who aren’t interested in philosophy. It’s divided up into sections that are meant to appeal to their interests. One part I’ve always enjoyed is the section on “How We Know What Happened When We Weren’t There.” Under this section I put historical knowledge, but also “The News.” I have them read newspaper clippings and discuss the questions, “What happened, and how do you know what happened, since you weren’t there?”

At first, it all seems cut and dried. They tell me “what happened” just as it’s described in the clipping they read. But when I ask them how they know, it’s not always easy for them to say. In some cases, sources are given by name and reference is made to that person’s claim to authority: “according to Officer Jones, who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards” or “said Jane Smith, an eyewitness.” In other cases, we have only a vague idea where the writer got his information: “according to sources close to the Governor” or “said a witness who refused to give her name.” There are even cases in which the writer simply says, “The Courier has learned that…”

Before long, my students are in the game. First we try to reconstruct where the journalist got his information, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. Then we ask ourselves, “How reliable are these sources? Are they in a position to know what they’re claiming to know, or are they speculating? Do we have any way of knowing whether they’re honest? Can we think of any ways in which they could benefit from convincing us that their version of the story is true?”

We also want to pay attention to discrepancies among the sources, and if there are any, then we ask ourselves, “Why do these people offer differing accounts of what happened? Even if we assume that they’re all sincere, can we think of reasons why they might have viewed the event in different ways?”

And so on.

Of course, my cards are on the table. I teach my students to be cautious. “You weren’t there,” I tell them. “You’re relying on people you don’t know to tell you what happened, based on what other people you don’t know told them. The thing is, you’re forming judgments all the time — about big and little things — and those judgments inform you as you go about living your life. Much of what you think you ‘know,’ you received just like this… from ‘undisclosed sources’ and from people you’ve never met… and never will meet.”

We’re called to recognize the truth and be liberated by it (John 8:31-32). We’re not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The New Testament word translated “repent” (metanoeite) means to change our minds (Mark 1:15). The Apostle Paul challenges us to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5, NIV). And yet we take so much for granted. Much of what we consider “knowledge” has passed through our minds unfiltered.

So… are you wondering what I think about all this talk about “false news”? The truth is, I’m horrified.

Why? Because nobody’s talking about criteria. They’re all just hurling accusations at each other. And even when they’re trying to sound professional, they’re making claims they can’t back up.

There’s a chart making the rounds of social media right now, telling us which of the news outlets are trustworthy and which are not. But what is the chart based on? There seems to be an assumption that “Mainstream” news outlets are trustworthy and all others can be judged by how far “right” or “left” they are of the Mainstream. But by what criteria do we identify a media source as “Mainstream”? And even then, by what principle can we argue that the Mainstream represents the truth?

As I’ve been telling my students for over 20 years, you have got to be critical of what you hear, regardless of the source. As a consumer of “the news,” you’ve always got to ask yourself, “What actually happened, and how can we be sure, since we weren’t there?” We have no assurances. We never did. It’s up to us to filter, to question, to sift, and to place our beliefs before God, asking to have our eyes opened to the truth.

The people who are harping about “false news” seem to be trying to discredit all other sources of information so that we will listen exclusively to them. They want us to believe them — not somebody else. We are therefore in an extremely dangerous situation, in which our sources of information are being called into question, but no one is laying out clear guidelines for knowing who to trust.

If you’ve never given any thought to epistemology before, it’s time to bone up on it. In the School of Life, it’s a required course now… for all of us.

Knowing and Seeing

There is a wonderful passage in the first chapter of John’s Gospel in which John the Baptist points out Jesus to those around him. John had an important mission: he was calling the Children of Israel back to their fathers and preparing their hearts for the One who was to come. “I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes,” John had said, but he, more than anyone else, was preparing the way for him.

There was nobody else in all of Israel who knew more about the One who was coming than John the Baptist.

But in John 1:29-34, when John the Baptist points out Jesus and says, “He’s the One,” he also adds — not once, but twice — “And I myself did not know him” (John 1:31, 33).

In Koine Greek, it was not necessary to include the subject because the verb carried the subject within it. In cases like this, when the noun is included, it’s emphatic. He’s not just saying, “I didn’t know him.” He’s saying “I myself did not know him.”

He briefly describes how he came to know him, and he finishes his story by saying, “And I myself have seen him…” (v. 34). “Seeing” is very important in the Gospel of John. In fact, as two of John the Baptist’s hearers go and ask Jesus where he’s staying, Christ invites them to “Come and see” (v. 40). And shortly after this, when a prospective disciple questions whether any good thing can come out of Nazareth, he too is encouraged to “Come and see” (v. 47).

So John the Baptist tells whoever will listen, “And I myself have seen him…” But he also emphasizes, “And I myself did not know him.”

It seems to me that we who profess to follow Christ today have this exactly backwards. We haven’t seen him, but we’re quite certain that we know him. And we assure ourselves that anybody who doesn’t know him like we know him, doesn’t really know him.

Of course, there’s a lot more theology wrapped into the gospel writer’s use of the word “seeing” than just what’s apparent to the eye. Chapter 9 goes into this in detail when Christ heals a blind man and the religious rulers object. “Are you saying we’re blind?” they ask Jesus petulantly after a long discussion, and he tells them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but because you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:40-41).

So let’s just say that, in the Gospel of John, seeing is an important part of knowing, but seeing isn’t always just with the eye. It seems to me that the gospel writer is emphasizing a personal experience of Christ that goes beyond the intellectual kind of knowing. And we are indeed entitled to say that we know Christ or have seen him in a metaphorical sense if we’ve experienced him in certain ways. But because our experience of him is so heavily metaphorical — for we have not actually seen him — we should always strive for the kind of humility John the Baptist displays in this passage.

“I myself did not know him.”

The point of being a disciple is to increase our knowledge of him through firsthand experience, and that happens through the Holy Spirit as we make ourselves available through prayer and scripture study. But as I look back over the story of my own life, I am constantly prompted to confess to God, “I did not know you.” With each new revelation, I discover how little I knew, and how incompletely I saw — until now. Then, later on, it happens all over again.

“I myself did not know him.” That might make a good mantra for all of us who follow Christ today. It might do us some good to remind ourselves how little we still know him. And we never know what experiences he might bring into our lives next, that will help us to see him — and know him — a little more clearly than we do now.

How to Read History Responsibly

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This may seem like a strange choice of reading for January, but it’s actually quite relevant. I just finished Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. McKenzie is chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, and he has important things to say to us at this moment in our life as a people.

Although the main theme is “The First Thanksgiving,” the book is actually a case study in reading history responsibly, or as he says, “Christianly.” Here are a few of his main points:

1. McKenzie warns us not to treat history as “ammunition” — as mere proof-texts to bolster our own political or religious views. He urges us to learn from history — to let it speak to us, teach us, and even question us. We should approach historical characters as human beings, treating them with love and respect (and yes, he uses the word “love”). We should try to understand them as they were, within the context of their own lives, rather than trying to remold them in our own image or use them for our own purposes.

2. We should neither worship nor condemn our forefathers and mothers. They were human beings, and therefore they were fallen, fallible creatures like we are. We must not follow a particular path just because we think it’s what they would’ve wanted. We can have great respect for them and still follow a different path from theirs. But we must also resist the temptation to condemn them. If we think they were racist, for example, because they held slaves, Christian love should encourage us to probe deeper to understand why they tolerated what we now consider intolerable. The study of history will do us no good if we dismiss those who came before us. It can only help us if we seek to learn from it.

3. We should always remember that recorded history is only the tiniest fraction of all that has actually happened (or is happening), and that the vast majority of our story as a people is hidden from us. Therefore, any conclusions we draw from history should be put forward humbly, recognizing that what we don’t know — and indeed, cannot know — far outweighs what we do know.

Now…

Why are these such important lessons for us at this moment? Because we, at least here in America, are at each other’s throats right now over the issue of our last presidential election. There really weren’t any good options for us this time around, and there are a lot of quite prominent people saying (on social media and elsewhere) that the wrong choice was made. And there are lots of other people who disagree. More to the point, this is all being said with raised voices and with even higher elevations of blood pressure on all sides.

How can you and I navigate through this crisis responsibly — or as McKenzie would say, “Christianly”? Here’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been reading history. In particular, I’ve been reading the memoirs of people from the other side, over the past thirty or forty years. I’ve been especially careful to read their spouse’s memoirs, because I know I need help understanding these people, and if their spouses can show me what these historical figures look like through the eyes of love, then that may help me to love them, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ignoring the huge political issues at stake right now. I just realize that I’m so caught up in them that I need to step back. I don’t understand why so many of my fellow countrymen and women see the situation differently. So, appealing to the grace of God, I’m stepping back. I’m listening. I’m trying to understand.

And here’s what I’ve learned so far. This isn’t about who’s president. It’s about us as a people. And it didn’t just happen in 2016; it’s been building for a long, long time. We’ve stopped listening to each other. We watch the cable stations and follow the social media channels that tell us what we want to hear. Or if we do tune in to the other side, we only stay long enough to get ammunition. We don’t listen with the intention of learning from them, or of being challenged by them.

It’s time for all of us to make the effort to listen to the other side — not for ammunition, but to understand. No, we don’t need to agree with them any more than we need to agree with historical figures like the Pilgrims. We should neither worship nor condemn them. (For that matter, we must be open to the faults of leaders on our own side of the spectrum.) And we must always stand up for what we believe is right.

But we must also remember that we see only the tiniest fraction of what is actually going on. Right now, the spotlight is on the president-elect. We must turn away from the spotlight and see one another. We’re coming apart as a people because we’ve stopped listening to one another with compassion.

If this nation comes undone in the weeks and months ahead, it will not be one man’s doing. We’re all in this together. We’ve come to this crisis as a result of all the things we’ve said and done as a people — all of us — even you and me. As a follower of Jesus, I am renewing my efforts at living “Christianly.” And for the sake of this nation, I am saying, in complete honesty, “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

Smashwords Interview

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my life and work on the Smashwords website (click here to go to that site). Here is the text of that interview.

We’re talking with Dr. Ron Johnson from Spring Arbor University, and we’re asking him how he started writing about finding God in the workplace.

When I was in high school, I was surprised to discover that God was interested in more than just religion. I prayed about my homework, and God helped me in concrete ways. I prayed about my extracurricular activities and ended up flourishing in them. At first I didn’t want to talk about it because I was afraid of being branded “religious,” but some of my experiences were so extraordinary, I just had to tell people. “Listen!” I said, “Did you know that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life wondering whether God exists? You can find out. Pray about everything… and watch what happens!”

I went to a state college (Grand Valley State University) and was quite vocal about it there. I know I turned some people off, but I couldn’t keep quiet about it. Day after day I found God guiding me in my studies and leading me to people I could help in some way. It was an amazing experience.

After graduation, my denomination sent me out to the Pacific Northwest, and I spent two years telling my stories to congregations in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia. Although I was mostly appealing to high school and college students, I also reached out to adults. I said that God could be found not only in the classroom but also in our factories, our high-rise office complexes, our government agencies, and anyplace where people worked. People of all ages found that message compelling. A number of them reported that they tried the experiment and received concrete answers to their prayers. But some adults told me they had tried to pray about their jobs but had not had as much success as I had had. “What am I doing wrong?” they asked. “How can I find what you’ve found?”

I didn’t know how to answer their questions. I prayed for them, and I told them things that should have been obvious (make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, don’t ask for anything that contradicts scripture, watch carefully for unexpected answers), but I found I was unequipped to help most of them. It took me years to figure out why.
What did you discover?

I already knew that this was not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Each individual had his or her own obstacles to overcome in their approach to God in secular life. I also knew that these obstacles could vary greatly. Some people might have to change their attitudes, while others might have to change the way they think. I realized right from the start that I would have to know a lot more about each person in order to help them.

But over the years, I became convinced that there are also some general obstacles that we all face. Contemporary life is structured in certain ways that make it very difficult for people to see what God is doing from day to day. Our upbringing trains us to view the world in certain ways that rarely intersect with religious or theological concerns.

Can you give an example?
Certainly. As I scanned the literature on workplace spirituality, I found that a lot of it talked about how to win our coworkers to Christ. Now, while sharing our witness is part of being a Christian, this approach to workplace spirituality filters out the most important questions. What is God doing in my place of employment? How is God seeking to make the world better through me as I perform the job I’ve been hired to do? Those are the questions that will help people to have a vital experience of the Living God in their workplace. And yes, part of the answer will be to share our witness with our coworkers. But that’s only a small part.
In the mid-1980s, you were a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, studying to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. Why did you leave seminary?
I realized that I was never going to find the answers to the questions my people were asking unless I went out into the work world and experienced God there for myself. So I left the path to pastoral ministry and did a number of other things instead. I was a platemaker in a printing company, acting as the middleman between the people in the darkroom and those out in the pressroom. I worked in the produce department of a supermarket. I was a professional storyteller. I joined a writers’ group. I was a substitute teacher. I sold advertising for a suburban newspaper. I was a computer software trainer. I worked for Western Union, first as an operator (taking telegrams and money transfer orders over the phone), then working my way up to Operations Manager.

In each of these places, I had vivid experiences of the presence of God, teaching me and helping others through me.

During these years, I also earned a masters degree in Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I began to believe that God was guiding me in a certain direction — that, as a professor, I would share the things I had learned in both academic and popular writing.

But things didn’t work out quite like you expected…
No, they didn’t. I was unable to obtain a tenure track position in Philosophy. In order to support my family, I went back to the field I had been in before graduate school: I took an entry-level position in a customer service call center. It was the lowest point of my life. But as I prayed and tried to make sense out of it all, I found God even there — even in this nightmare job. And then I began to see a larger plan. I wrote about my experiences as a call center representative, and that became my book, CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST.
Is that book just for Customer Service representatives?
No, it’s for working people in all walks of life. A number of readers have told me that they found it deeply meaningful even though they aren’t CSRs (Customer Service Representatives). Here’s what I was trying to do. Through all those years, I had never forgotten the people in the Pacific Northwest who had tried unsuccessfully to experience God in their workplaces. I wrote CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST as just one detailed example of how I had found God in my place of employment. Although I intended it to be useful for CSRs, I also hoped that people in a wide variety of jobs could use it as a springboard for their own spiritual lives in the workplace.
Why did you write WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5?

As I said earlier, those of us who live in the contemporary world, at least here in the West, are trained to view the world around us in certain ways. Most of us are quite unreflective about it. We do it without even knowing we’re doing it. But those ways of thinking act like blinders, keeping us from seeing how God is active in our lives… or is at least trying to be.

In WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5? I encourage the reader to view daily life as a vast web of interrelated stories. Both as individuals and as social groups, we are who we are because of all the things we’ve said and done in all the stories we’ve lived through so far. But the truth is, we don’t think about most of those episodes even while we’re living through them. In this book, I ask you to step back and look at what we’re doing, and to locate the ways in which God is trying to get us to grow and develop through those stories. And God is doing that everywhere and always, both while we’re working and when we’re doing other things. I hope this book will help readers think differently about their daily lives so that they can begin to see how God is already trying to interact with them right now.

Although this is a philosophical book, there are some great concrete examples in it, too.
Yes. The entire last chapter presents a number of cases in which people pray about their jobs and get concrete answers like the ones I’ve received over the years. A badly-divided department comes together when a woman is led to write a clear set of procedures, in answer to prayer. A salesman learns how to listen to his customers. A bill collector widens his repertoire of strategies. A manager finds ways to get along with union representatives.
None of your examples are about people getting rich or being promoted. You don’t preach a Gospel of Success, do you?
No. After all these years, I still work in a call center by day and teach college courses at night. I think my own career path speaks for itself. You can find out to your own satisfaction that God is real, and you can discover God actively engaged in your daily life even if you’re stuck in a dead-end job. But don’t base all your hopes on a promotion or on a path to riches. God wants to give you an adventure right where you are, by working through you to make the world a better place. You may not get all that you want in life, but you can have HIM for the asking, if you’re willing to turn over the wheel. What’s stopping you?
Published 2016-08-20.

Radio Interview

On Thursday, June 9, 2016, I was once again a guest on iWork4Him with host Jim Brangenberg. We talked about my book, What Does God Do from 9 to 5?

To listen to the hour-long broadcast from Tampa Bay, Florida, click here.

For more about Jim and his show, here is a link.

A Farewell to Students

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As a faculty member, I’ve listened to lots of commencement addresses, but here’s what I wish I could say to my students as they prepare to leave us…

To hear an audio version of this post, click here.

To our graduates:

We congratulate you on finishing a challenging course of study.  We hope that you have learned much and learned it well, and that you will become productive members of your communities and of this nation.  But now, after all that you have learned, there is one question that remains to be answered—and it must be answered by each of you individually:

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you can afford to ignore this question.  If all you’re interested in is making money, be on your way, then, and have joy of it.  If all you want is fame, good luck.  If you really just want to settle down and work at a job and earn a good living, we wish you the best.

But if you want your life to be more than that—more than grubbing for money or fame, more than the routine of going to work day after day after day and then you die—if you want your life to make a difference, so that people will know, long after you’re gone, that you lived, and that your life mattered… if that is your choice… then this is the one question you must not ignore.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

You have completed the courses which we believe to be of the most use to you at this early stage of your career.  You have been given basic information on a number of subjects.  We hope that you have gained proficiency in thinking for yourself about those subjects and in expressing your thought clearly in writing and speaking.  You have learned a great deal about one particular field.  In short, you have been equipped to address certain live issues—issues which are of importance to our society or to some segment of society.  This has all been preparation.  Now the story begins, and the shape that your story takes—the quality of life that you will live—depends primarily on your answer to this question.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Did you notice, once you cleared away your required courses, how your classes started to become more open-ended, and how you were invited to see, from the inside, the current issues in your field?  Did any of those issues reach out and beckon to you?  Were there any questions or problems which quickened your pulse, or which made you stay behind to talk to your professor or your classmates after the hour was over?  Did you ever hear anything at this school that made you realize—even if only for a moment—that there might be something worthwhile left to do in this old world, and that it might be something for you to do?

For if you have learned only facts… only theories… only skills… then you have missed the most important part of your education.  You needed to learn facts and theories and skills so that you could build on them to wrestle with the problems in your field—for it is those problems to which you will be expected to contribute at least some small part of a solution.

Are you entering the field of education?  The main problem is still a live one: What is the best way to teach a person something?  As an educator, you are going to devote the next years of your life to solving that problem.  Are you committed to it?  Is that the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you are headed for law enforcement. The community in which you are employed could either turn against you or work together with you to maintain peace. It’s up to you how you will approach them. Is that the great problem to you which you will devote your life?

We could list each major course of study and look for the open-ended problems that are just waiting for you to solve them. Is there something in your field that has reached out and claimed you? Something that keeps you awake nights, thinking about it?

Everything up to this moment has merely been a prelude.  Your education was supposed to awaken you to what needs to be done, and to equip you to do it. Over the past few years we have pushed your poor tired brain almost beyond its capacity for this reason: because you are now being entrusted with the great problems of the human race, and we are looking to you to help us solve them.

As a result of the time you spent here, you now know a little about history, about science, about the arts… but can you identify the great problems that are facing your society?  Did you pay attention to what needs doing?  Are you ready to pitch in, ready to make the world a better place in some way?  Are you full of ideas about how you will improve on our past mistakes?

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Answer that… and the path will open before you.

The Commute

You decide to take your Christian discipleship seriously, starting today. Today you will be a Christian in everything you do and say. Today you will stop talking about it and do it.

Then you get behind the wheel of your car, and the deal’s off.

Bob's personal journey of spiritual growth gets bogged down behind some idiot going half the speed limit.

Bob’s personal journey of spiritual growth gets bogged down behind some idiot going half the speed limit.

For many of us, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as the daily commute. Driving itself isn’t so bad; it’s the other people. If it weren’t for the others on the road, it wouldn’t be so maddening. It’s the fact that there are so many others getting in the way, and that some of them are so inconsiderate. That’s the problem.

Have you ever stopped to consider how long this problem has been going on? If you will read some of the diaries of American settlers who traveled westward, you’ll find the same frustration expressed, only they were stuck in a rut (literally) and couldn’t go around the slow guy in the front. They just had to trudge along. Did they complain about it? Absolutely.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner give another interesting example in their novel, The Gilded Age. They talk about one steamboat trying to go around another one on the Mississippi River in the late 1800s. The slow one in the front tries to speed up to keep the one in the back from passing, and the passengers on both boats are screaming and cheering. Then the boiler blows up on one of them. Did that really happen? Mark Twain should know.

We could go back and back. (Reread the Oedipus story in ancient Greek mythology. Why did Oedipus kill the father he never knew? It sounds to me like an early example of road rage.)

My point is that this problem has been going on for as long as people have been traveling and getting in each other’s way. Who knows? Maybe someday…

Air Traffic Control

But here’s what I try to think about. We’re all part of a massive story: the unfolding story of the human race living out its life upon this earth. Naturally, each one of us has someplace to go, and we get impatient when others detain us. But all of us together are going someplace, too, and a traffic jam can be a visual representation of that fact, if we are willing to think of it that way. During the morning commute, for example, we’re all trying to get to jobs that must be done, for all of our sakes—jobs that our society needs to have done in order to function. In that sense, I need all the others on the road to get where they’re going, just as much as I need to get where I’m going. I know it’s hard to remember that, especially when some of them act like jerks; but it’s true. We’re all in this together. I need those people to get where they’re going, and even if they don’t know it, they need me to get where I’m going, too. Whenever possible, we should make room for each other and help one another. If we can only bear in mind our mutual dependence on one another, it might make the drive a little easier.

But there’s also a metaphor playing itself out on these roads, and I find that useful to think about, too. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass includes a poem entitled, “Song of the Open Road.” I’ve posted some short reflections on that piece in my audio blog, Mythic Adventures, but “The Profound Lesson of Reception” is especially relevant. Roads can be a metaphor for The Road of Life, and as Whitman points out, both roads and The Road of Life receive everybody. So does God. So when I pray, I’m praying to a God who accepts everyone else around me, both on this particular road and on The Road of Life—even that jerk who just cut me off.

That’s something to think about, the next time our pulse starts to race while we’re driving down the road.

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