In a world replete with success philosophy and prosperity preachers, how does one make sense of life when tragedy hits and one has no mental framework or faith construct to deal?
Man! February 2017 was one nasty month—humanly speaking. Tragedy upon tragedy. Within a week a friend and co-worker gets a stroke in Canada, a mentee loses her grandfather in France, another (a former international student in Belgium) loses her dad in Ghana… and then, as if these weren’t enough, the month wouldn’t end without the loss of a friend, a younger medical colleague in Ghana!
In fact, today is the ‘one-week celebration’ of the latter (picture above). Man! Akua was barely 31! I remember her beautiful countenance, not only from her internship days at the 37 Military Hospital when I was a medical officer there, but even only last November (2016) while I was in Ghana I had the joy of seeing her in her home. What had happened was that my bosom friend and brother Ben had urged me to come along with him to visit a school mate of his (and fellow church member) who had recently suffered a stroke. Prior to that I had no clue it was Akua’s home we were visiting—and that she was the young wife of Kofi. (As it turned out later, Kofi is actually the classmate of my wife, Anyele, from primary school).
My heart sank when I saw this hitherto strong young man, Kofi, wheelchair-bound and struggling to utter a few words from a seriously contorted face. This young man who was working in the insurance world had barely been married a few months when he suddenly had this stroke. Not even surgical interventions in the United Kingdom had salvaged the sad situation. Yet it was gratifying to observe his faith and how strongly supportive his young bride had been from the beginning up until the day I visited them, nursing him with love. The smart, pretty doctor now had a husband for a live-in patient.. O boy did I pray my heart and lungs out!
So imagine my shock last week. I had missed a phone call in the midst of busy travel. When I finally got to call back the conversation went something like this.
“Yaw, do you remember Kofi whom you prayed for?”
“Aha, of course.” (They say fear and faith don’t mix–well, at that moment I had both somehow.)
“Kofi’s wife just died!”
“Huh? Ben, what are you saying?”
“Yes oo, Yaw. Kofi’s wife, Akua, just died!”
“What?!!What’s going on?!” …
BRINGING IT HOME
Silence. Sadness. … Sometimes, life just doesn’t make sense and it would be interesting to hear what strictly-prosperity preachers have to say to these things. As for atheists and agnostics, I don’t know how they make it through life but for me, without God there is neither hope nor any sense to life. Yet then again, like David Bosch puts it in A Spirituality of the Road, “A god who provides all the answers becomes an explicable and comprehensible god, but also ceases to be God.” Bosch continues to share about an Albert Schweitzer (French-German physician and theologian) experience:
“Albert Schweitzer, in recollecting the ten years he taught catechism classes to boys in Strassbourg before the First World War, noted that after the war some of those young men thanked him that he had shown them so clearly that the Christian faith does not explain everything. This awareness enabled them to survive spiritually in the trenches, whereas many others, who were told that Christianity provided all the answers, lost their faith when faced with that which was inexplicable.”
But this was my shocker: the story of a piece of paper found among the ruins of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw after the Second World War. It is said to contain the last words of a certain Jew, Jessel Rakover, as he was preparing himself for an impending violent riot aimed at the persecution and massacre of his ethnic/religious group. The portion of Bosch quotes in A Spirituality of the Road gives me the chills. Here goes:
“I believe in you, God of Israel, even if you have tried your best to dissuade me to believe in you. I believe in your laws, even if I cannot approve of the way you manage things. … I bow my head before your majesty, but I will not kiss the rod with which you hit me. … I would like to say to you that at this moment, more even than in any previous period of our eternal struggle for survival, we, the tortured, the humiliated, buried alive, burnt alive, insulted, mocked, we, murdered by million, that we have the right to know: until when are you going to allow it to continue? …I say this to you because I believe in you, more than ever before, because I know now, with absolute certainty, that you are my God, because you cannot be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrendous expression of godlessness; … I die in peace, but not appeased; persecuted, but not enslaved; embittered, but not cynical; a believer, but not pleading; a man who loves God, but does not say amen to everything. I have followed God even when he had flung me down, tortured me, and made me an object of humiliation and derision. And these are my last words to you my angry God: all this will do you no good. You have done everything possible to destroy my faith, yet I am dying precisely as I have lived, saying: ‘Shma Yishrael, hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, one Lord.’ Into your hands, O God, I commit my spirit.”
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
Are there any more persons on earth who have such stubborn faith? Any of the Augustine stock who would say, “For it is better for them to find you and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you”?
I just got off the phone this morning with a young man who lost two of his sisters in a tragic car accident a few years ago—and their father is a world-renowned preacher who as at this very morning was still doing his Lord’s bidding in London, UK. That day, apart from the two teenage girls, four other church members lost this lives. I knew and loved those dainty girls, especially the 19-year old whom I had grown fond of since her high school days! Tell me, how many preachers have a theological framework that can contain such inexplicable tragedy?
It is easy to talk about tragic Job and weeping Jeremiah or even Jesus whose life was cut short at 33. But as the Japanese theologian Koyama challenges, “Jeremiah and Jesus place their trust in the forsaking God! There is no longer the faith built upon God’s obvious answer. They believed in God even though God did not answer! … Here we do not see an answer-theology. We see instead a relationship-theology.”
I ask again. In a world replete with success philosophy and prosperity theology, how does one make sense of life when tragedy hits and one has no mental framework or faith construct to deal with it? Who is willing to “place their trust in the forsaking God” in a ‘God-forsaken’ place? This is hard; but such is life.
An immediate advantage I perceive in all of us clearly seeing and understanding that the first and most important, albeit general, call is to love God and people is how that takes away the pressure (and guilt too) that many of us feel to not only find God’s specific will for us, but even to be “in the centre of God’s perfect will.” Phew! Labberton is spot on here, that “Without any special guidance from the Holy Spirit, with no anxiety or worry, and with utter confidence, we can daily pursue these first things as our primary vocation.” Amen!
We already started talking about why reversal of first things (primary, general purpose) and next things (specific, unique purpose) is suicidal. Here are the three reasons I enumerated. We:
- miss the point
- miss the priority
- miss the person
The first two were dealt with in my last blog; I saved the best for last.
MISSING THE PERSON (IDENTITY CRISIS)
When we get so focused on a specific calling to be a teacher or carpenter or whatever, we tend to lose our primary identity as beloved children of God and rather define ourselves by what we do. We are not our jobs; we are bigger than that. In other words, we set ourselves up for an identity crisis when don’t get our primary purpose going first—and going well, for that matter.
Labberton puts it this way: “This is a classic tangle and fails to give full weight to what really matters most. So we go to work and forget or neglect who we are, and what our life is really about, how we seek to love and serve. We enter the subculture of our activities, and soon that reality begins to define and shape us, rather than the other way around” (89).
THE THREAT AND STRUGGLE IS REAL
I remember both the crisis and promise of being a new immigrant in Canada and the constant temptation to prove myself, especially as a minority (black man) financial advisor in an Anglo-dominated arena and having to meet certain quotas in order to win recognition, awards and to be regarded as among the elite. One day, I was both inspired and compelled to augment my personal mission statement with the following: “I am who God says I am irrespective of what I do/don’t do; irrespective of what I have/don’t have.” I still have that as part of my personal mission statement.
Have you noticed that the first two of Jesus’ three temptations were go get him to “do something” to prove his identity? “If you are…then…” What a sharp contrast with the heavenly Father’s affirmation of him just a few verses earlier during his baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Up until then Jesus had done ‘nothing’ but obeyed his Father’s will. One would even wonder if he had yet ‘found his purpose.’ This was not God’s beloved preacher or teacher or carpenter… just His beloved Son. Period!
“Our first vocation is to be the beloved. The primacy of God’s unearned love alone makes this possible. We live as the beloved, the treasured. This vocation is pure gift….” says Labberton.
Why are we so concerned about what we do when everything first flows from who we are. It’s become cliché now that “after all, we’re human beings not human doings” but we still live like the latter, don’t we?
In Called, my seminary President is emphatic: “We start recovering our call when we learn which first things are first. The love of God in Jesus Christ is the supreme first thing; no one and nothing rivals or surpasses this. If we want to know ourselves and why our life matters, the Bible’s advice is to know our Maker, who knows and loves us fully.”
And then he beautifully continues thus, “We matter, and our calling matters, not because we’re the supreme test of anything but because we exist for the joy and satisfaction of our Maker, whose love alone enables us to flourish… Our vocation will involve work and labor, and that has its meaning and value. But we are “very good” in God’s sight because of bearing God’s image—not because we are fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28) but just because we are.”
TIME TO RECALIBRATE
When helping people to find their specific, God-given purpose a very useful tool (learnt from Rick Warren) has been to help them discover their SHAPE: Spiritual gifts, Heartfelt passions, Abilities (talents), Personality and Experiences. This is wonderful! However, again, the danger of reversal of first things is this: “If we try to settle the issues of calling through the lens of our strengths and weaknesses, our preferences and dreams, we will be prone to overreach (because we make ourselves and our desires the ultimate measure) or underreach (because we’re willing to allow ourselves or someone other than God to tell us who we are). Over the course of our lives, neither works well or leads us to the truth.” (Labberton) And that, my friend, is suicidal.
In conclusion, “This is, of course, why Christians believe that coming to faith in Jesus Christ matters so much—not because it’s like handing out a “get in heaven free” card, but because it’s like offering an invitation to know yourself through the love of God in Jesus Christ, a gift that will change how you understand your identity and therefore how you live both now and in eternity. Knowing ourselves and knowing God are inseparable” (Labberton).
I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of Ephesians 1:11: “It is in Christ we find out who we are and what we’re living for.” May I dare even rephrase this as, It is in Christ we find out we we are THEN what we’re living for? Not getting this first thing first messes up everything; E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G!
RESETTING THE STAGE
So Mark Labberton, author of Called, argues that Jesus’ two-word directive, “Follow me,” is the primary call that creates and defines our vocation (Labberton 2014, 9). While this seems basic it is quite revolutionary. This is not the approach or content I had anticipated from the title of the book. The heart of God’s call is this, Labberton seems to proclaim, that we receive and reciprocate the love of God for us—directly back to him first and indirectly to our neighbour. Indeed Jesus, quoting from to the Torah, made it clear that the greatest commandments are to love God and love people, period! This is our primary twin-call.
And I happily accept that. I also concur that whether or not we’ve discovered any specifics to our purpose in life we should live out this first thing. We even agree that this specific, unique God-given purpose should be “aspects of our call [that] assume first things but then move us in particular contexts of work or ministry, of friendship or marriage, of service or advocacy, of imagination or analysis. The next things may take the form of jobs (and often do), or they may be acts of volunteer service. This is where the convergence of gifts, talents, education, opportunity, passion and more draw us towards jobs or service that can seem deeply rewarding.”
When it comes to the specifics, however, I believe that Jeremiah was not an exception; that God saying of him that He knew him and fashioned him in the womb for a specific purpose applies to each of us too. Otherwise, for instance, why do each of us have unique fingerprints?
So yes, I grapple with my seminary president’s assertion that “Beyond these first things, God [only] sometimes has next things” because I still believe he always does for everyone. That notwithstanding, I immediately see the dangers he points out of not keeping first things first (pursuing our primary call of loving God and loving people) and rather seeking custom-made next things first. Reversal of first things and next things is not just counterproductive in the end; I dare say it is even suicidal. Here are three reasons why (which I’ve summarised and coined in my own typical alliteration fashion). We:
- miss the point
- miss the priority
- miss the person.
I will dwell only on the first two dangers here (in order to keep this blog short and sweet) and highlight the last one (potentially the worst; and the lengthiest) in the next installment, DV.
1. MISSING THE POINT
We are not here for us—we are here to please/glorify God and bless humankind. What is the point if we discover that we are uniquely shaped to, say make music, and yet end up using it in a way that offends our creator and/or exploits our fellow human beings? There are many celebrities who have obviously discovered their gifts and talents (specific God-given purpose, if you like) but who are still far away, so far away from their primary call to love God and people, or in the words of Jesus, “Follow me.” What if even our ‘calling’ or ‘career’ now rivals our primary love for God?
I think of many people who say they’ve discovered their calling, let’s say to be medical doctors, but whose attitudes stink—are they really living out their God-given purpose then? How about the one who is an obviously gifted public servant and yet is corrupt to the core? Does she not make a mockery of her primary purpose in the midst of executing her specific, secondary call? What’s the point?
On the other hand, “If we embrace and practice our primary calling to live as followers of Jesus,” Labberton posits, even “in the most practical and ordinary contexts of our lives, the meaning of our secondary call will more likely occupy its appropriate place and will bear the weight and priority that is formed by what matters most” (169).
Again, “If and when we come to a particular setting or work that especially suits the way we’ve been made or to work on the concerns or passions we want to give our strengths and energies to, we bring to those settings far more of what they need than just good talent or interest. We bring something of the kingdom” (170).
2. MISSING THE PRIORITY
First things trump everything. As Labberton puts it, “In Scripture, God seems far more passionate about first things—how we live and love and our neighbor—than about next things—what our set of daily tasks is. At the same time, it’s clear how we love him and our neighbour by how we demonstrate that in the context of our daily relationships and tasks. This is where the ordinary joy and rub of Christian discipleship are meant to be lived out. We live out the extraordinary call of following Jesus (first things) right in the midst of the ordinary actions of daily life (next things).”
In other words, in the grand scheme of things, someone who hasn’t discovered their specific, unique God-given purpose but is loving God and neighbor in whatever ‘mundane’ tasks in life is making the mark in God’s eyes while the one with the perfect skill set in the most fulfilling profession but missing first things may end up with the short end of the stick like the scenario Jesus describes at the final judgment when many will come and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Remember the Lord’s response to such who missed first things even though they did next things? “Then I will tell them plainly,” he says, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers, you law breakers, you workers of lawlessness!’
Does anyone need any further convincing that missing the point of purpose and missing God’s priority in the chase after next things are suicidal? The third danger, why reversal is suicidal, I find even more fundamental than these other two but tell me what you think so far.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Of course ‘everyone’ wants to know, “why on earth am I here?” Why else would authors sell a tonne of books on that! But as I discover more about this valid existential question, some of my strong views and approaches to the whole issue of purpose/calling are being challenged and changed. This is a series of reflections and confessions of such.
“MR. KNOWS IT ALL”
Yes, I’m headstrong and very passionate about the things I’ve come to know, understand and believe. Yet my inner circle will also tell you that I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know;” neither am I ashamed to say “I was wrong.”
In fact, long before the term “paradigm shift” became cliché, I remember running seminars for young people, even 15 years ago, and challenging them thus: “if you come into contact with new information which makes you realize that a particular way you’ve been thinking and living has been making you ineffective, SHIFT YOUR PARADIGM!” Up to this day, my wife, Anyele, reminds me that at that moment, I will characteristically jump from one spot of the room to another, to illustrate my point.
Come on, after all, “we live and learn.” Did not some wise Greek philosopher once say something like “I know one thing; that I know nothing”? Even Albert Einstein is quoted as stating, “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know,” an obvious remix of Aristotle’s “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” So congratulations if you know it all 🙂
In the next few weeks, I want to humbly acknowledge a few mistakes and missteps of mine regarding the whole idea of calling or vocation. In a series I’m calling “Confessions of the Called” I will basically share some further enlightenment I’ve received, particularly based on the work of my seminary president, Mark Labberton, in his book Called: the Crises and Promise of Following Jesus Today (2014).
In this book, Mark Labberton attempts to paint two pictures. First, a dull one of the current states of the world and the church and then a brighter picture of the ideal—what could and should be. The first third of the book summarises well “the crises and the promise of following Jesus today” and then for the next three chapters reboots paradigms about where, how and to whom/what we’re called, finally showing the way forward in the last chapters.
Having been a student and teacher of purpose/calling for the last 15 years I seem to think I’ve learnt almost all I need to know about the subject. I was curious to know if Labberton had anything ‘out of this world’ to add to my knowledge and experience. Thus the question I had in mind when I started reading this book proactively was, will I really learn anything totally new about calling than I already do?
BACKGROUND TO CONFESSION
A decade-and-a-half ago, when a bunch of us set out to start the WannaBe Institute, which later metamorphosed into The HuD Group, we were bent on “inspiring and empowering young people to discover their God-given purpose and reach their full potential.” That still remains the core of what we do although the mission has expanded beautifully into God’s grander purpose for leadership and mission in over a dozen countries.
I was personally sick and tired of young people sitting around purposelessly not realising that they were not a mere accident but an intentional creation of a very personal God who had a very specific purpose for their lives. We’ve since taught thousands of people how to find their specific God-given purpose in life, and write personal mission statements, especially by looking through the lens of the manufacturer’s manual (the Bible) and how they’re wired.
NOW, TO CONFESSION #1
I am sad to say that in my overdrive to help many emerging leaders quickly find their specific God-given purposes for their lives—to become “meaningful specifics” rather than merely “wandering generalities”—I inadvertently got blindsided from adequately pointing them to and thoroughly addressing their primary call. I have been too eager to move to “next things” (as Labberton puts it in his book), even putting “next things first” sometimes. I remember saying to my wife, Anyele, a couple of mornings ago, “Honey, I think we’ve overdone it.”
As I read Labberton’s book, it became obvious that my paradigm of calling is exactly the opposite of Labberton’s (and we just might both be coming from two extremes and need a “radical middle” as my Vineyard friends oxymoronically put it). This is how Mark states his perspective of calling: “Beyond these first things, God sometimes has next things” (emphasis mine). “Only sometimes?” I thought in bewilderment.
This is a radical thought for me. I sure do affirm the general purposes of God for our lives, the primary purpose of loving Him and our neighbour, but quickly move on to what I consider the ‘main thing’, which Labberton calls a temptation, finding God’s specific purpose for one’s life assuming everyone has this, always. I am considering writing to the author about my struggle.
Let me tell you why Mark Labberton thinks my specific approach hitherto is dangerous. TO BE CONTINUED…
Will you share your thoughts so far with me?