Actions speak louder

Today I had the good fortune of bumping into an old Christian friend at work and spending a few minutes catching up with him. We talked a little about being men of faith at work and all that implies. In the course of the conversation, he said something that really resonated with me. He said that over the years, he’s gotten more conscious, yet less explicit, about expressing his faith at work. I knew what he meant. There were times when I was younger that I declared to others that I was a Christian but probably betrayed that pronouncement with my behaviors. I simply hadn’t spiritually matured enough yet. Charles Spurgeon talked pretty directly about this tendency in one of his many great sermons.

One of the greatest preachers of the modern era, Charles Spurgeon lived and preached in England in the nineteenth century. A stong Calvinist, his sermons never shied away from controversy and inspired a generation with his inspired, convicting rehetoric. He once said,

“It is well known that it is no guarantee of a man’s honesty that he is a member of the Church. The lives of too many of the men and women of the Church give the world cause to wonder if there is godliness in any of us. We reach after money, we covet, we follow the wicked ways of this world, we oppress, we oppress the poor and deny rights to the working class – and yet we profess to be people of God!”

Ouch. You go Charles. A not-so-subtle reminder that of all the sinners that Jesus hung around with, the folks that really upset him the most were the religious leaders that claimed holiness but ignored the important things – justice, mercy, and faith (Matt 23:23).  It’s not a bad thing to want to announce to others that we’re believers, but it’s far more powerful when they observe noticeable differences in our behavior and then we get the chance to tell them why.


Perfection, redefined.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:12-15)

I’m not a perfectionist (just ask my wife), but I’ve known people that are. Perfectionism within the Christian community is particularly puzzling to me given that it’s only through the acknowlegement of our imperfection that we accept our need for a savior. Whether you drift towards perfectionism or merely witness it around you, we can turn to Gregory of Nyssa for some perspective.

One of the early Eastern church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa lived in the fourth century in what is modern-day Turkey. In addition to being one of the first to explain the concept of the Trinity, Gregory encouraged others to use the Bible to grow closer to God, including the following excerpt from his work, The Life of Moses. In it, he answers an inquiry from a friend about achieving spiritual perfection.

“Since the goal of the virtuous way of life is the very thing we have been seeking, it is time for you, noble friend, to be known by God and to become his friend.  This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because like slaves we serviley fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by some business-like arrangement. On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This as I have said, is the perfection of life.”

There we have it. We can forgive ourselves of our own imperfections since we’ve already been forgiven by God, and focus on what is really perfect – becoming friends with our Lord as we pursue the virtuous life and work together to care for those around us.

A new development plan

I got chatting today with one of our sales managers who was telling me about her personal development plans. I love it when leaders in the organization are willing to talk about how they would like to grow! IOn addition to our development plans at work, there’s one arena in which all of us can grow that will help us develop into stonger Christian workplace leaders, brought to us (ironically) from Francis de Sales.

Francis de Sales is not, as you might imagine, the patron saint of salespersons. Rather, he was a French Jesuit priest that later became the bishop of Geneva. He lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and was a prolific writer who used metaphors to deliver important points. In the following writings, he wrote to Philothea, which actually refers to all of us (the term means “one who loves God”), about living a life of devotion to God.

“Another person thinks himself devout because he daily recites a vast number of prayers, but after saying them he utters the most disagreeable, arrogant, and harmful words at home and among the neighbors. Another gladly takes a coin out of his purse and gives it to the poor, but he cannot extract kindness from his heart to forgive his enemies. Another forgives his enemies but never pays his creditors unless compelled to do so by force of law. All of these individuals are usually considered to be devout, but they are by no means such.”

Frances de Sales pushes us – Philothea – to evaluate our devotion to God by our charitable behaviors. By “charitable”, he isn’t just referring to giving to the poor, but the degree to which we lovingly act as an agent of God and offer help to others when able to do so.

“Since devotion consists in a certain degree of eminent charity, it not only makes us prompt, active, and faithful in observance of God’s commands, but in addition it arouses us to do quickly and lovingly as many good works as possible, both those commanded and those merely counseled or inspired.”

Note that Francis de Sales sees these good works in the proper perspective – not a means to salvation but an outgrowth of those who truly love God and devote themselves to pleasing him. If we develop these devotional traits, we’ll certainly realize a level of personal development and life balance that no corporate training program could possibly produce.  

“Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the worker, the servant, the prince, the widow, the young girl, and the married woman. Not only is this true, but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, activities, and duties of each particular person.

So also every vocation becomes more agreeble when united with devotion. Care of ones family is rendered more peaceable, love of husband and wife more sincere, service of one’s prince (government) more faithful, and every type of employment more pleasant and agreeable.”

Occupations and preoccupations

Note: we’re continuing this week’s look at the writings of noteworthy theologians and applying their ideas to our work lives.

I took a walk tonight by myself, which being an only child with a few kids of my own, is a rare indulgence. As I walked by a beautiful pond, the song Long December by Counting Crows came on my iPod as I briskly passed some ducks and blooming trees. At that moment, I remembered a sermon that I once preached at a Congregational church in Chicago about the noise in our lives and our inabilty to do what Elijah did – to find God in the silence. The irony hit me. Here I was alone for forty minutes, dashing by God’s creation on a sunny spring day, while listening to some guy sing in my ears about enduring a long December. Maybe that’s why I never made it as a preacher.

Perhaps no one has written so eloquently about solitude (amongst other things) than Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, originally from Holland, who led a very full life – helping the mentally disabled, writing prolifically, and teaching at Yale, Notre Dame, and Harvard  – before dying from a heart attack in 1996. A great 20th century theologian, he is a favorite among his fellow Catholics and is equally popular amongst Protestants, a testament to his unifying theology.  

About silence, Nouwen once wrote,

“Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God, and him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and a space to give him our undivided attention. Jesus says, ‘Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to the Father who is in that secret place.’ (Matt 6:6)”

I don’t know about you, but solitude is non-existent in my crazy schedule, and when I do get some quiet time, I can sit still for about six seconds. Nouwen understood this and suggested that we use our highly scheduled workdays to our advantage. He suggested that we, “…write it in black and white in our daily calendars so that nobody else can take away this period of time.” He suggests starting with as little as five minutes each day. Five minutes of being alone, clearing our thoughts, and allowing God to speak into our lives. He suggests that after many attempts, even weeks or months of trying to do so, that we’ll begin to look forward to it, and when that happens, “…we come to know not only with our minds but with our heart that we were never really alone, that God’s Spirit was with us all along.” 

If we are able to find those five minutes alone during the workday in a private location (like the windowless project room I lock myself in to get through my e-mails) then we should try fostering a discipline of silence. As Nouwen wrote,

“The discipine of solitude… is one of the most powerful disciplines in developing a prayerful life. It is a simple, though not easy, way to free us from the slavery of our occupations and preoccupations and to begin to hear the voice that makes all things new.” 

Half-finished lives

I love to read history. I’m not big into reading fiction or other non-fiction books, but I love to learn a little about the past and the people from it. As such, one of my favorite books is a collection of classic devotional works by Christians from throughout history. This week (and maybe next – we’ll see how this goes), I thought I’d share a few ideas from Christians that have changed the world and apply them to the workplace.

I’d like to start with Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard lived in the nineteenth century and spent most of his life in Denmark during the height of the Enlightenment. During this era, when science and reason claimed to leave little room for “outdated” Christian thought, Kierkegaard’s bold writings were a light in the darkness. He understood the gulf that exists between man and our Creator, and knew Jesus to be the bridge that allowed us to be re-connected. Often interspersing prayers into his writings, he put our human accomplishments in perspective,

“Father in Heaven! What are we without You! What is all that we know, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if we do not know You! What is all our striving, could it ever encompass a world, but a half-finished work if we do not know You: You the One, who is one thing and who is all!

So may You give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may You grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing.”

As is so often the case in today’s corporate workplace, that which was deemed empirically concrete was assumed to be of superior importance to that which was spiritual, but Kierkegaard knew better. Our accomplishments at work, though vast accumulations they may be, will only result in half-finished lives. Our lives can be full when God brings our intellect, heart and will back to that “one thing” – knowing him.