Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Surprises 7: The Education of a Disciple

I’ve been telling you about a number of things that surprised me after I became a disciple of Jesus. There were lots of other surprises along the way, but I’m going to stop this particular series with this seventh surprise.

I was now nineteen years old (almost twenty), and a lot had happened since my conversion to Christ six years earlier. I was a lay minister in my church, preaching at my home congregation and elsewhere every chance I got. I had already studied for two years at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan (it would become Grand Valley State University shortly after my graduation), but I didn’t enjoy college very much. I wanted to be out serving God. I did speak up in all my discussion-oriented classes, telling my teachers and peers that I was a Christian and a lay minister, but I wanted to do more. I was majoring in Social Work, and I had even spent a semester as a Teacher’s Assistant in the “Intro to Social Work” course. I didn’t feel particularly led in that direction, but it was the only field I could think of that would allow me to “serve.” Most of all, I felt called to be a minister, but the church our family was affiliated with was comprised mostly of home-grown lay ministers just like me. We took turns preaching, and we all pitched in to visit the congregation’s shut-ins, people in the hospital, and so on. Our church did have full-time paid ministers, but they were employed by headquarters, assigned to particular regions where they were most needed, and tended to be bureaucrats, not preachers of the gospel. And I had no interest in becoming a bureaucrat. So I had to find something else to do with my life.

On one of the last days of my sophomore year, I decided to launch a prayer campaign, asking for direction for my life. I was halfway through my college career, and I was very concerned about what I would do after graduation. I prayed to understand what God was calling me to do with my life.

I spent the summer praying, and I felt very strongly that the answer would become clear to me if I read a novel by the American author Lloyd C. Douglas. The novel was Magnificent Obsession. I chafed at the thought; all I knew about the book was that it had been made into a movie starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and it was a schmaltzy chick flick. I had read Douglas’s novel The Robe a few years earlier and had loved it, but I had no interest in Magnificent Obsession. Nevertheless, I kept feeling the prompting throughout the summer, so I finally bought a copy of the book from a second-hand bookstore in September and sat down to read it in the last couple of weeks before my junior year began.

I was not at all impressed by the premise of the book. It was about a young medical student who experiments with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-2 and has his potential unleashed by “doing alms in secret.” I felt that Douglas’s thesis stretched the meaning and purpose of that biblical passage far beyond Christ’s original meaning. But as I prayed to understand why this book had been brought to my attention, I realized that it was the author, and not the book itself, that was important. Although Douglas was a Congregationalist minister, his novel was filled with insightful observations about everyday life, and those observations were not merely used to drive home his religious point. It was clear that he was a broadly-educated man. He wrote convincingly about the medical profession, sculptures, music, the automotive industry, banking and finance, literature, live theater, European travel, and a few other subjects. The farther I read into the novel, the more impressed I became with his awareness of the world around him. I myself had spent most of the last six years studying the Bible and listening to religious radio broadcasts and nothing more. Education was a means to an end for me, and not at all something I enjoyed. But Douglas reawakened within me – or perhaps awakened fully for the first time – a desire to learn as much as I could about everything.

This thought was in the back of my mind as I was reading, but on one particular afternoon – a day so important that I consider it one of my personal holy days – I put down the novel and prayed again for guidance. In that moment I was given a glimpse of what my life could be like. I realized that I was called to a life of learning, and that Jesus Christ would continue to be my Teacher. On that day, a vast interdisciplinary path stretched out before me, and it extended far beyond graduation day. I came to understand that I was called to more than a religious life; I was called to Life. On that day, I committed myself to the Life that Christ was showing me.

When fall semester started a couple of weeks later, lots of coincidental conversations and events reinforced this revelation. I began to love going to school again, just as I had loved it in my freshman year of high school. I loved learning about anything and everything, and I recognized God’s guidance at work in each new lesson. I continued to preach and teach and to share my witness publicly at the college, but I was now on a new and exciting adventure. Jesus Christ was teaching me not only about the Bible but also about secular subjects. And although this brought me full circle, back to my very first experiences as a new Christian, it also opened whole new vistas that I could not have envisioned at the age of 13.

There were many detours along the way, but through the intervening years God has led me to earn a masters degree in the field of Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I have a den crammed with books on a wide variety of subjects, and God has taught me so many things about the world around me that I don’t even know how to share them all. I changed my church affiliation over thirty-five years ago, but I continue to preach and teach even now. I still can’t keep quiet about what God has done in my life.

This was the surprise: that discipleship involved more than just studying the Bible, praying, and serving others in Jesus’ name. The path of discipleship that Christ was calling me to, at least, was a detailed education about the Story of Life and a commitment to add something of value to that Story as a speaker and writer. This experience drove home the point that God doesn’t ask us to become religious; He asks us to enter into Life. And although I found that Life right away when I became a Christian, I got sidetracked by religion. It took me years to find my way back. Nor was it I who made the discovery; it was God who finally got me to see the value of learning secular subjects, with Him as my Lord and Teacher as well as my Savior.

There have been many more surprises in my relationship with God, but I’ll talk about them some other time. The main thing I want to emphasize, though, is that God doesn’t fit neatly into our expectations. Anyone following Jesus can expect to be surprised many times along the way, as I have.

Surprises 4: Prayer in the Schools

I’ve been telling you about specific things that surprised me when I became a disciple of Christ the summer before I began high school. Here’s something else: after spending the summer reading the New Testament gospels and learning to pray, I found God to be a very real presence in the classroom when I went back to school in the fall. I say this is surprising because I thought my new commitment would change my thinking and behavior; I didn’t expect it to change the way I experienced school. I had gone to school for nine years now (counting kindergarten) and thought I knew what it was like. As for starting high school, even that in itself wasn’t a change from the previous school year because, in our little school system, 8th grade classes were held in the same facility as high school classes. So even though I expected to approach the new school year with a brand-new attitude, I didn’t really expect to experience school in an all-new way.

But I did. When I entered the doors of that school, I sensed the presence of God with me. And that was especially interesting because, so far, I had only been experiencing it in the peace and quiet of home; this was the first time I became aware of God’s presence in public. And since prayer had become a natural part of my everyday life, that meant that I was praying in school. This was the very thing that people remarked about so much in the early 1970s because of a recent Supreme Court ruling against compulsory prayer in the public schools. My praying wasn’t compulsory, of course, nor was it public. But everybody kept saying what a disgrace it was that our poor children couldn’t pray in school – and here I was, not only praying but also sensing God’s presence with me. And the experience was so vivid, I couldn’t help but be surprised.

It was also surprising for me to find God apparently so interested in my activities, both curricular and extra-curricular. I mentioned in an earlier post that God gave me creative ideas; now I found Him showing me how to study more effectively, how to participate more proactively in class, and even how to do better in marching band. On this last point, I found it impossible to both play the music and perform all the marching steps at the same time. For me, this was harder than rubbing my belly and patting my head simultaneously. So I prayed about it and decided to memorize all my music. This may seem like a drastic solution, but I found that I was able to memorize the music very quickly, and that freed me to perform the steps without the distraction of having to read the sheet music.

Homework became an entirely new experience for me. Walking home after school (or rather, after cross-country practice), I would talk with God about the things I had learned that day and I’d say, “What did you think about such-and-such?” or “What’s your take on X?” Theologically, I suppose I was very naïve, talking with God as if He were my companion and asking Him for His “opinion.” But I knew He was God and I didn’t rank His point of view on an even plane with mine or anyone else’s. This was just my amateurish way of opening myself up to Him in every avenue of my life. I knew that the teachers and the writers of the textbooks were limited in their understanding, and I wanted God to fill me in on some of what they were missing. I believe that happened sometimes. No, I didn’t get direct answers to my questions, but I did find that something like this would happen: I would tell God what I thought, and then questions would come to my mind, challenging me to go deeper or to rethink what I had said. I didn’t experience it as the Voice of God saying things to me, but it was mind-expanding. And that, for me, was something new.

I also found myself speaking up in class. In some cases this was due to the exciting new insights I had gained in my prayers about my homework: I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned. But it was also due to the fact that, as I said a moment ago, I sensed God’s presence with me in my classes. And since His presence was very real to me and I was praying under my breath (so to speak) even while the lecture or discussion was going on, there were times when I felt prompted to ask a question or make a comment, and it felt like the prompting was coming from God. Bear in mind that these were not religious topics, nor did I feel prompted to veer them off into a religious direction. I felt God inviting me to enter more deeply into lectures and discussions about the world – about history, literature, and even mathematics.

All of this was surprising because, quite frankly, I had never heard a Christian talk about these kinds of things, nor had anyone ever told me that these things ought to happen in the life of a Christian. Christianity had always seemed like a Sunday affair, not something that would make a difference Monday-Friday and even Saturday. This also gave me a whole new outlook on what it meant to be Christ’s disciple. A “disciple,” after all, is a student, and I knew that Jesus had been teaching me about His way of life all summer; I just hadn’t realized that He would oversee my high school education as well.

All of this came as a great surprise and incredibly good news. But there were more surprises to come…

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.

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.

A Farewell to Students

Commencement 04-30-16 015

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.

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