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.” 

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Like a good wine

Last week started off with about a dozen key unresolved issues at work. By late Tuesday, I found myself getting more and more frustrated that resolutions seemed nowhere in sight. But as the week wore on, many of the issues that had been stressing me out seemed to get resolved, often in just the manner I had hoped they would.

My dad has a phrase he likes to use to in these situations – “Let it age.” Just like a barrel of good Bordeaux, some issues get better with time. Going crazy trying to solve them in the short-term is like rocking in the proverbial rocking chair – it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere. It takes a certain degree of discernment to figure out if an issue at work is truly a problem and needs immediate attention, or if a little patience will allow the issue to resolve itself. I think that sometimes we just need to give others in the office time to get up to speed on a matter before it can be settled. When we don’t, we risk acting rashly and unnecessarily upsetting the apple cart.

Proverbs 15:18 reads that, “A hot tempered person starts fights; a cool tempered person stops them.” As Christians, we know that if there’s a problem, we can present our requests to God and recieve his peace (Phil 4), wait on the Lord (Psalm 37) and that when we do, he’ll direct our paths (Prov 3). When there’s an issue that has the potential of working everyone into a lather, we should strive to be the cool-tempered teammates that put others at ease with a simple encouragement – “Let’s let this one age a bit.” 

Where’s the fruit?

Remember Clara, that old lady in the “Where’s the Beef?” commercials. I loved those commercials (I know that I’m dating myself here). Well today I had a Clara moment.

I was headed into a meeting that I really didn’t want to be in. I had some frustrations that I feared would inappropriately be visible to others and I took a couple of minutes beforehand to try and flush things out in my head. The question that popped into it was, “Where’s the fruit?” The fruit meaning, of course, the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul writes to the church at Galatia in Galatians 5:22 that there are certain behaviors that should be visible in those following Christ that are now commonly referred to as the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

As I refelected upon these qualities, I found myself asking the Lord for a little help. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s easy to say that you’re a Christian but it’s in these moments when that claim is either substantiated or proves to be just fluff (or just hamburger bun). I can’t say that I actually spent any time during the meeting specifically thinking about any of them, but giving them a moments worth of mediation and prayer certainly helped. The meeting went just fine and I think I managed to not appear immature or hostile despite my frustrations. Thanks Lord!

Sacrificial smiles

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We had some good news today – my mom got a great new job. We’d been praying for some time that God not only provide her with a job, but that it would be one that put her many talents to good use and that she would enjoy. He generously delivered on our requests – praise God!

Actually, we’ll probably not offer the Lord nearly as much praise as we should. Like most, I’m guilty of offering a lot more petitions in my prayers than praises. It shouldn’t be that way.  I once heard someone say that God takes his biggest risks with us when he gives us blessings. When we’re in need, most of us take the time to get closer with God in order to petition him for assistance. Then, when he generously says “Yes”, then WHAM – we’re outta there.  We’re too comfy living the good life to give many thoughts or thanks to the big guy.

There’s a guy named Asaph (actually Asaph may also refer to the name of an Israelite clan) who wrote a number of Psalms, including Psalm 50, which is about giving authentic thanks. It’s worth a read.  The Psalm provides great instruction – take the time to appreciate God’s generosity and “make thankfulness your sacrifice to God.” (Psalm 50:14) 

Offering a sincere “Thank you, my Lord” is a simple sacrifice that blesses God, and something tells me that if I rejoiced always, as 1Thes 5:16 suggests, my relationship with God and my quality of life would be blessed as well.

I’d better get started… praise God for Psalm 50!

Daydream(ing) Believer

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I suspect that our daydreams can tell us a lot about the condition of our hearts. They can reveal our motivations, our dissatisfactions, our hidden desires, our idealistic aspirations, and sometimes our corrupt nature.

Today I caught myself daydreaming about what it would be like to manage the brand of a small, creative company. I suspect that I was doing so simply because I work for a large, established organization. I’m quite sure that somewhere there was someone who works for a small company dreaming about working at a large company where he or she didn’t have to wear ten hats and could go home at 5 o’clock! It’s rarely sunnier on the other side of the street. But I digress…

Dreaming about the future can be a fun thing, but I often remind myself that not all daydreams are God’s dreams for us.  The Bible has some pretty interesting examples of people who followed their dreams either to God’s glory or to their peril.

On the upside would be Nehemiah who during the reign of the Persians led an extraordinary effort to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem. He left his day job (a very good one with the Persian government) and took a major risk. His efforts were successful, the people were brought closer to God, and their place of worship was protected. I really like the book of Nehemiah. It’s a really interesting read, plus I like saying  cool names like Nehemiah and Artaxerxes.

On the downside would be King David daydreaming about the beautiful woman he saw atop a nearby building. His preoccupation with Bathsheba led him to do the unthinkable – murder her husband and claim her for himself. It’s a remarkable story (not the least of which being how David restores himself with God) found in 2 Samuel, but a sad example of how a seemingly innocent fantasy can become the downfall of a family. Insert your own Elliot Spitzer reference here.

These are extreme examples, I know. But the point is this – before letting our dreams take over our lives we need to do our best to discern if they are God’s dreams for us.  This hasn’t always been easy for me, but thankfully God gives us the ability to seek his will through prayer, scripture and other Christians. Bruce K. Waltke in Finding the Will of God writes,

God guides us first through his Word, then through our heartfelt desires, then the wise counsel of others, and then our circumstances. At that point we must rely on our own sound judgment… God gave each of us a brain, and he expects us to put it to good use.”

Well said.

Abby’s thoughts

There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.” – Brother Lawrence

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This weekend my wife and I went back to Chicago for a memorial service. A friend of ours, Abby-Jill Brauhn, passed away after a long fight with cancer. Abby led a very interesting life, leaving a lucrative career in pharma sales to work full time at our church directing outreach and later led a Mexican orphanage. But more importantly, she was an exceptional person.

As I sat in the service I kept thinking about what made her so unique, and I kept coming back to the same point – she never let it bother her.  It… meaning the next career move, the annoying coworker, the workplace politics, the unappreciative friend… whatever kinds of daily crud tend to get in my way most days. She transcended it and always brought an amazingly positive energy and a great sense of humor to whatever person, conversation or project with whom she was currently engaged.

Now I’ve seen these new age books claiming that just “thinking positive” will transform your life. I don’t give them a second thought. But we can’t afford to not reflect upon what Paul tells us to do in Phillipians 4:8 when he says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

I love that verse, but I must admit that I find it difficult to put into practice when the tyranny of it keeps me focused on lesser things. I know of only one way to become more like Abby-Jill was, and that’s to pray a lot (as I believe she did). The verses preceeding the above Phillipians verse are key – they tell us to pray to God about anything on our mind and he’ll give us peace.  Paul also tells us in 1 Thes 5 that we should pray continually to be joyful in the Lord. Like the 17th-century monk Brother Lawrence, who wrote about constanly being in God’s presence during his mundane work life, we should recognize prayer for what it could be – an ongoing dialogue throughout our day versus something we do before meals or bedtime.

I prayed on the way home that somehow I grow less concerned with whatever it is going to be this week and fix my mind on what is good.  I hope that starting my dialogue with God at the beginning of each morning will lead me to it, and maybe someday a little bit of that transcendent joy will please someone around me as much as I was delighted when I was with Abby-Jill. 

The gift of time

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Has anyone noticed how longmy blog posts have been this week? Sorry. My hope was to keep these pretty concise so as not to eat up too much of your time, which happens to be a perfect transition into today’s post…

This week’s posts have been dedicated to times of job insecurity and job transitions, and I made a big claim yesterday – that these trying periods could become the best period of our lives. It happened to me. When I found myself out of work about five years ago, I had a pastor tell me that I’d received a rare gift – the gift of time.

I know, it sounds like an empty boost of encouragement, but he was right. When we’re out of work we need to spend time job hunting, but that tends to not require every hour of the work day. If we’re in jobs we hate, we’ll likely turn to distractions in our free time to escape work. In either case, these times can be spent getting closer with God.

How? There are lots of ways. My pastor suggested that I start with the book of James and follow the footnotes. What did he mean? If you’ve got a study bible, have you noticed those references on the inside of the pages close to the spine? Those highlight other references that can be found on similar topics. If you read a line that catches your eye, follow the footnotes and see where the Bible takes you. As an example, James 1:12, which says that “God blesses the people who patiently endure testing” has a footnote next to it near the spine referencing 2 Tim 4:8, which is about prize awaiting those following Jesus, which references 1 Cor 9:25, which is about the discipline required to run the race of life. It’s amazing how much you can learn that way. Consider it kind of a Biblical scavenger hunt!

I also spent more time praying (usually while taking walks outdoors) and meditating on pieces of scripture that I felt God was using to speak to me.  There are, of course, other spiritual “disciplines” other than prayer and Bible study – fasting, periods of silence, taking a pilgrimage, etc. – and those are also worth exploring if you’ve got the opportunity.

Once I found my next job, I was thrilled and thankful for the new opportunity, but also for the time I spent getting closer to my creator. Within a month, I was complaining that I couldn’t find enough time for God since I was spending so much time working! But that’s probably a good topic for another post.

When the Israelites were stuck in the desert, in-between slavery and the promised land, they were told this (in Deut 4:29):

From there you will search again for the LORD your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.”

If we’re stuck in a period of transition and use our gift of time to search for him, we will find him too. 

Tomorrow, one more thought about how a period of job insecurity can become a blessing…