Stepping Up

My beloved Steelers took the field tonight for Opening Night of the NFL season this evening. The Terrible Towels were waving, the Primanti sandwiches were sizzling on the grill and the Iron (pronounced "Arn") City Beer was flowing there at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers into the Ohio. I always get a little homesick when I see the ‘Burgh on TV…but then I look up at the mountains and the blue skies and remember that I can watch the Steelers from my couch and not have to put up with the perpetual cloud of doom-type weather that settles into western PA from November to April.

Tonight’s game was a big question mark because Big Ben, the Steeler quarterback, was out of the opener recovering from an emergency appendectomy. All the pre-game hype (which sometimes seems like it’s longer than the game) was about the need for the players to "step up" in the absence of their leader.

That’s a phrase that has always interested me. Is it that the other players don’t really do anything until there’s some adversity requiring extra effort, or is it the idea that adversity brings out the better nature of some people? Surely it’s the latter.

I’ve been working on some biblical commentary for The United Methodist Publishing House’s Daily Bible Study Series for the fall of 2007 and my assignment is focused on the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Here’s a guy whose whole life could have been destroyed by sibling rivalry, being sold into slavery, being falsely accused of adultery, languishing in prison, and more kinds of adversity. Having finished an installment of that today, I realized that it is those who "step up" and forge ahead despite the adversity that become successful. It’s not even about talent–it’s about faithfulness and confidence in God.

I don’t know if Charlie Batch, Big Ben’s replacement, was thinking about Joseph tonight. But he did step up. It wasn’t perfect, but he got the job done after being thrust into the spotlight. In coach-speak, "Big players make big plays in big games." That’s true in football and in our spiritual lives.

Oh, by the way…Steelers 28, Dolphins 17.

Spiritual Gifts Inventory

This Sunday at Park City Community Church we’ll be exploring the gifts that God bestows upon each of us to, as the Apostle Paul said, "work for the common good." Each of us is uniquely equipped to serve in ministry. We’ll talk about that and about how your gifts might be used. As I said last Sunday, remember that our primary vocation is to "glorify God and increase the abundance of life in this world!"

If you’re wondering about your spiritual gifts, I’d invite you to take this online gifts assessment put together by The United Methodist Church. Take a few minutes to work through the assessment, then print out the results and bring them with you on Sunday. You may discover another dimension of God’s call for you!

I hope that you’ll join us on Sunday for a great celebration of gifts. Think of it as Christmas in September!

Ode to the Croc Hunter

The tragic news of Animal Planet nature guy/crocodile hunter Steve Irwin’s death gave me some pause for reflection this weekend. My kids went through a serious Animal Planet phase awhile back, so I watched Irwin do his jump-on-the-alligator shtick many, many times.

It seemed to me that Steve was kind of like that guy you knew in college who was pretty smart but also just plain whacko when it came to a certain thing–like sports or recreation or whatever. This would be the guy who was also doing stuff that made you shake your head, but at the same time you admired him because he wasn’t afraid to live life to the fullest even if it involved some measure of risk.

Watching Irwin handle poisonous snakes, crocodiles, and other assorted creepy crawlies I used to wonder whether he’d meet his end someday doing what he did. At the same time, his life seemed to be about life itself. He didn’t do this stuff just because he was nuts…he was just hyper-passionate about sharing wildlife with us at home, especially the wildlife of which most of us are deathly afraid.

It’s sad to lose someone, but there is a measure of hope knowing that he lived his life rather than spectating someone else’s. I won’t be grabbing any crocodile tails anytime soon, but I will probably look at life a little more passionately.

Crikey–thanks, Crocodile Hunter! 

A Vision for Vocation – 9/3/06 Sermon

Well, it’s Labor Day weekend—summer’s last hurrah, so to speak. Many people are traveling or otherwise engaging in some last minute leisure time. I’ve always had kind of an ambivalent relationship with Labor Day, however…mostly because once school starts, summer’s over and I’d rather just get on with  fall already.

I also think that Labor Day is probably the most ironic holiday. Think about it—we celebrate labor, work, and workers by doing what? Not working. What’s the message here? To truly celebrate work we have to escape it? In order for us to truly appreciate work we should stop it for a day? According to the U.S. Department of Labor web site, Labor Day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” I’m sure that’s what everyone will be thinking about tomorrow as they grill out.

Perhaps the way we celebrate Labor Day speaks more to our actual relationship with work rather than our veneration of it. For many people, work is seen as a necessary evil—something one has to do in order to earn a “living.” Work is the thing one must endure to get to the “real” part of life—family time, leisure time, etc.

The economic realities of 21st century life have a lot to do with our attitudes. I was reading a column on MSN this week that talked about the fact that in 1970, more than half of all college students were pursuing degrees in the liberal arts. This year, more than 60% of students are majoring in business or technical professions. As college costs rise, students see the reality of having to pay those bills and are opting for work that can pay them enough to satisfy their financial obligations. It makes you wonder how many would-be poets, writers, artists, and historians have become accountants or computer programmers because they’ve been afraid to take the liberal arts vow of poverty!

The result is some real ambivalence about work in our culture. A recent Harris poll says that 45% of American workers are satisfied with their jobs—less than half. Only 20% of American workers say that they are passionate about their jobs, and 33% believe they have reached a dead end in their careers. 21% are eager to change careers altogether. But maybe our ambivalence about work is less about current economic realities and more about how we’ve been trained to see work in general. As many people focus their education and experience on preparing to perform a particular job or function to make money and provide some standard of living, fewer people seem to be focused on the deeper issue of vocation—a life calling.

The word “vocation” comes from the Middle English word “vocacious’ which implies a kind of religious calling. It’s a word that has little to do with function and more to do with philosophy. If the word “job” implies a functional, task-oriented, time dependent means of employment, then “vocation” implies a broader worldview where one’s life is important because of purpose and call. To put it another way, a “job” is something you “do” from 9 to 5, but a “vocation” is something you are 24-7.

The whole issue of vocation is what’s at stake in this morning’s scriptures. In Exodus we see Moses wrestling with God over his call, issued spectacularly from a burning bush. As God converses with Moses in this sequence (which goes on for a couple of chapters), Moses hears God as giving him a task…a job to do—lead the people out of Egypt. Moses grew up in Egypt, ran away from Egypt, knew what an impossible task it would be for him to challenge Pharoah. Moses is pretty happy where he is, living there in obscurity in the desert with his wife and children shepherding the flocks. His current job satisfaction was probably only 50%, but it was a comfortable life and, more importantly, it didn’t really involve the possibility of a violent death at the hands of a king.

But while Moses is pushing back against the job, he also fails to see the bigger picture—that his life has been claimed and called by God to be God’s representative in saving a whole people and creating a nation through which the whole world might be saved. This was Moses’ vocation!Notice the exchange in Exodus 3:11-12. Moses reviews his resume and realizes that he’s not qualified for the job that God is asking him to do. “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God, however, is not interested in Moses’ resume. God does not always call the qualified, but God always qualifies the called. In response to Moses’ plea “Who am I…,” God says, “I AM” and “I will be with you.” In effect, God is saying to Moses, “It’s not about what you do, but what I do through you that matters.”

The tasks, jobs, and functions we perform are not necessarily our vocation. Our primary vocation is to reflect God’s presence with us and through us no matter what it is we are doing at the moment. As the first question in the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it succinctly: What is the purpose of humanity? To glorify God and enjoy God forever! Our vocation is to glorify God wherever we are.

Paul takes a similar tack in I Corinthians 3 when he writes about the work of those who follow Christ. A disciple’s life is built on the “foundation” of Christ, and all other tasks find their purpose in that foundation. All that we are, says Paul, will be tested by the fire of God’s judgment. If we have maintained this solid foundation, our work—no matter what it is—will “survive” us because we have seen our vocation as reflecting God’s grace through Christ. If we have focused too much on ourselves, that same fire will render our efforts as ashes. In the end it won’t matter how much we’ve accumulated, how successful we’ve become by the world’s standards, or how much recognition we receive…what matters and what lasts is whether we have reflected our primary relationship with Christ. It is to that relationship—that vocation—that we are called.

When we focus on tasks, on jobs, we get shortsighted about God’s call on our lives. There has to be something more, something better, some burning bush to tell us exactly what we’re supposed to do with our lives. I read an article by Barbara Brown Taylor in The Christian Century awhile back that I think speaks to this whole issue very well. She writes:

“Right this minute I cannot think of half a dozen people who believe that they are doing exactly what God has called them to do. Instead, they are waiting to find out what their true purpose is, or else they are waiting until circumstances improve enough for them to do a better job of fulfilling it. Things will be different once school is over, once there has been time to get more experience, once the right job comes along, once the children are grown and the house is paid off. Until then, one thing is for sure: this is not it–this present life, under these present circumstances–this cannot possibly be what God had in mind.

Now that is sad, but it is also useful, since it is all the permission most of us need to postpone full immersion in our lives. If this life is not yet your real life, then why give it all you have? Stay in the baby pool, where no one expects too much of you. If anyone asks what you are up to these days, say that you are still practicing. Keep dismissing what you do every day–keep discounting who you are–because it does not match your fantasy of what you, dedicated to your life’s true purpose, are supposed to look like.

The discovery of true purpose is not any one person’s job. It is the job of the gathered community–God’s called-out ones–who exist, among other things, to remind one another that the lives God is calling us to are the ones that we are living right here, right now, under these present circumstances. Whether you are a sophomore trying to decide on a major or a brain surgeon at the top of your profession, you have everything you need to respond to your divine call. You have what each of us has: one whole life to live on this earth, with tasks in it that we may choose to do well or poorly, and with people in it whom we may lift up by our presence with them or put down by our absence from them, even though we are standing right in front of them.Every night when we lie down to sleep, there is either more life in the world because of us or there is less life in the world because of us, and this remains true whether or not we have ever seen a burning bush.

Our purpose, for God’s sake, is to increase the abundance of life in this world. Who knows? Maybe God really does have something else in mind for you, but if you won’t live this life to the full, then why should God think up something more challenging for you? You can still abandon the baby pool. You can still put out into the deep water, let down your nets for a catch, and see what happens next. Whatever it is, you can bet that you have already been caught. You have already been called, both to live and to magnify, the abundant life of God.”

Perhaps the labor we should be celebrating this weekend is the labor of love—love for God, for neighbor, even for self. Regardless of whether you are a highly successful businessman or a struggling middle manager, your calling—your vocation—is to glorify God and increase the abundance of life in this world.

Some business people have caught this idea. A senior vice-president of a large utility company says that one of the roles of companies in the future will be to help employees discover their life purpose and to make sure that their work is consistent with and demanding of that purpose. "Imagine what would happen," he said, "if you had a company in which all the people were doing their life’s work. You would have more loyalty, more resilience, more creativity, more innovation, and a deeper sense of self-reliance, self-renewal and self-generation."

If you would receive that call from God imagine what it would do. Instead of wanting to just escape that life-choking cube farm you call your office, you might find ways to bring God’s life and love into that place. Instead of just showing up for work and watching the clock until its over, you might instead look at every moment as a gift and opportunity to represent God to your boss, your co-workers, your customers. If you’re looking for work, look for an opportunity to expand God’s call on your life in a new setting…that’s more important than even the benefits plan! Wherever you may be employed, remember that your vocation is to be a disciple of Christ!

You Think Your Job is Tough?

Imagine, if you will, that you perform your job every week in front of thousands of people who are critiquing your every move. Imagine, also, that they can vent their spleens anonymously about your job performance publicly.

Well, there’s no imagining it. Fox News has a story this morning about the proliferation of "Fire the Coach" web sites, created by fans who want a particular college or pro coach fired for their perceived incompetence. Doesn’t matter whether the coach is successful or not…someone who is sitting at home just watching the game always thinks they could do it better. Check out the article for the details.

As we start the Labor Day weekend and think about work (after all, isn’t that what you’ll be thinking about when you’re grilling those burgers?) it’s important to remember that no matter what you do you’ll never please everybody. In fact, sometimes if you are doing your job right you won’t please many people at all (ask any biblical prophet). Pleasing others isn’t the goal…pleasing God is.

I heard a coach once say, "If you let the fans manage your team, you will soon become one of them." That’s a pretty good observation and a good thing to remember when doing important work. I just got a copy of this week’s Sports Illustrated, where Rick Reilly describes a minor league baseball team in Schaumberg, IL, whose owner has decided to let the fans manage the team via internet on FanClub Reality Baseball. Fans of the Schaumberg Flyers (independent Northern League) can decide who plays where, who bats where in the order, the pitching rotation, the whole nine innings so to speak. The result? The Flyers have lost 13 of their last 14 games and many of the players are ready to quit.

What’s that other old saying? Oh, yes…"For God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee."

The truth is that no matter what you do for a living, you are never as good or as bad as others say you are. But you are always valued by God, who always roots for you like no other.