Here or There

Like most people, I wanted to be a number of things when I grew up.  I remember wanting to be an architect, a writer, a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, and a geographer.  As it turned out, I became none of those things, but in growing up one of the difficulties I faced was in knowing what God wanted me to do with my life.  My belief was that God had a specific will in mind for my life and that, if I failed to discover what that was, I would miss out on God’s best and be miserable.  Since then my understanding of God’s will has undergone some transformation.

For one thing, I have come to the conclusion that God’s will is more about living in relationship with Him.  Regardless of our circumstances, God’s will is that we daily abide in Him.  Out of that relationship, our responses to what we encounter in life will more naturally be in line what that of Christ’s.  The late Dallas Willard shaped my thinking in this area when he wrote, “Generally we are in God’s will whenever we are leading the kind of life he wants for us. And that leaves a lot of room for initiative on our part, which is essential: our individual initiatives are central to his will for us.” 1  Here, the case is made that God is not trying to dictate every decision we make in life, but trying to form us spiritually.  Willard expands on this concept by clarifying to what end God is forming us.  “God must guide us in a way that will develop spontaneity in us. The development of character, rather than direction in this, that, and the other matter, must be the primary purpose of the Father. He will guide us, but he won’t override us.” 2 God is more concerned with forming us into a people who reflect the very character of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But how does knowing this help us in our journey through life and deciding what to do?  I find the poet T.S. Eliot to be of some assistance here.  In his Four Quartets, he writes in “East Coker” that “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living…Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter. / Old men ought to be explorers / Here or there does not matter”. 3  T.S. Eliot is not merely describing a physical exploration, although that may be implied.  Rather, life itself forces us to be on a journey.  I am not an old man, but I do believe that we all ought to be explorers, and that we have to move outward from where we are starting at, whether physically or relationally.  On some level it does not matter where we are as long as we are in the process of exploring.

Stepping out in faith and leaving home, or the place one is starting from, is risky and there are some people who, like I was, fear making a mistake and falling outside of God’s plan and purpose for them.  Regardless, we we are called to act.  In Revelation 3:15-16, Jesus is dictating a letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea when he proclaims, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.”  I have often heard this interpreted as Jesus wants people to be either for God or against God, rather than be a person who is lukewarm in their commitment to Christ.  However, scholarship has placed this passage more firmly in it’s first-century context and the meaning of this passage had subsequently changed.

Laodicea was located in modern-day Turkey near two other Roman cities, Hierapolis and Colossae.  Hierapolis received warm water from nearby hot springs, which was used for healing.  Colossae, on the other hand, received refreshing, cold water from nearby mountains.  Due to Roman aqueducts Laodicea received the lukewarm mix of hot and cold water, which was not very useful for either healing or refreshing drinking.  Jesus would not want us to be against Him. 4  Rather, this passage is saying that whether we live a life of warm healing or cool refreshment, we are to act for God.  Or as Scripture makes more plain elsewhere, “Therefore…whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

I’ve drawn upon the wisdom of Scripture, Dallas Willard, and T.S. Eliot, because I firmly believe that where we are at and what happens to us in life is far less important than how we choose to respond.  Before ending, I am going to draw upon the wisdom of one other individual.  I always experience a sense of excitement and possibility from the following scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo is in despair at all that has gone wrong in Middle-Earth.  After learning of Sauron and leaving the idyllic Shire, being pursued and injured by Ringwraiths, and pressing onward from the haven of Rivendell toward a perilous journey, Frodo bemoans, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”.  And Gandalf responds with, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 5 There is wisdom and simplicity in this perspective.  We can’t control what comes to us in life, but we can decide how we want to respond and choose to act accordingly.

Who we are and who we are choosing to become is more important than where we are physically located or what we are doing.  My life has taken me to places and given me experiences I never would have expected when I was a kid trying to puzzle what I should do with my life.  I’ve been an explorer, whether I’ve wanted to be or not.  And I’m all the better for it.  May you go and explore likewise.

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1 Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 13. eBook.

2 Ibid., 31.

3 “Four Quartets” Wikiquote. Accessed on 27 January 2018. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Four_Quartets&gt;

4 Although my first exposure to this way of interpreting this passage came from a Ray Vander Laan video, one can also read about it at the following blog: “A Lukewarm Interpretation of Hot and Cold: Revelation 3:15-16” Andy Unedited. Accessed on 12 May 2018. <http://andyunedited.ivpress.com/2014/01/a_lukewarm_interpretation_of_h.php&gt;

5 “J.R.R. Tolkien Quotes” GoodReads. Accessed on 20 May 2018. <https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/656983.J_R_R_Tolkien&gt;

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A Beholding that Ascends

When I decided to write a review of Nancy J. Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, the first word that came to mind was “impressionist”.  And indeed, her book on calling and vocation does not so much state her perspective directly as it leaves the reader, through vignettes of her own life and through other illustrations, with a distinct impression of what she is conveying.  So subtle can the distinctions between her stories be, often interweaving two or more in a chapter, that it can be easy to miss the point she is trying to make.  In this sense, her work is distinctly artistic.

But on other, I would have to say that her book is also iconic.  Not only does her book, through the use of personal stories and reflections on art and literature, reflect the way in which the Divine shines through and is mediated by the natural world, as icons do, but she also at one point quotes from Russian Orthodox thinker and priest, Pavel Florensky, when she borrows the phrase, “a beholding that ascends”.  Florensky was specifically describing the religious impact of icons in that phrase.

There is another sense in which her theology of vocation is iconic.  It comes through in the way in which she perceives and writes about one’s calling.  Where it has become popular in certain evangelical circles to cite Frederick Buechner’s “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”, Nancy Nordenson takes a different approach or, at the very least, a different emphasis.  Buechner’s quote is one I have often found inspiring myself, but I have to admit it can be a tad idealistic, being actualized very seldomly in a reality tainted by sin and the effects of the Fall.  Thus, Nordenson takes the tack that much of our calling is lived out in places of necessity and pragmatism.  She writes that “work, even good work for which we are grateful and love, has a shadow side.”  And her own life illustrates this.  Much of the book, especially later on, is taken up with reflections during her time having to work after her husband lost his job.  She had planned to reduce her work schedule while going through graduate school, but found herself adjusting to the reality of what was.

The book itself is presented in three “acts”.  The first act reflects on the limitations of life, “where we encounter ground level and metaphysical realities…idealistic work experts and criteria for ‘good work’; hiddenness and exhaustion; and a longing for meaning and a will to be satisfied.”  The second act is primarily on learning to rest and paying attention to what is unfolding before us in our life and work.  It is in this act that one reads Florensky’s quote and sees how she applies the concept of beholding to one’s vocation.  It is also at the end of this part that she writes the chapter about her husband coming home after losing his job.  Prior to this, her reflections were based on earlier memories of past work experiences, but with the last chapter of Act II, the readers is segued into Act III, “where we encounter love, devotion, and guidance; the sacrament of the present moment and every moment;…patience and transformation; and a blessing of countenance.”

For me, one of the joys of this book was her interaction with other writers and thinkers that I am fond of.  These include quotes from Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing, T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  But as one might guess from the quote above regarding Act III, she quotes from that French mystic, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book The Sacrament of the Present Moment.  And this reinforces the iconographic nature of her writing.  For, in attending to the moments of her life and her work as present realities which mediate God’s grace, she is able to write, “On one level we make our livelihood; on another level we keep our eyes open and find it.”  Nancy Nordenson’s book is a testament to what revelations can result when we open our eyes to what is in front of us and receive it as grace.  Truly, in the reading of this book one is engaging in a beholding that ascends.

Cubicle as Crucible

After Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church lost its distinctive counter-cultural and missional focus.  Many saw the church as being too accommodating of the surrounding culture, with many converting to the faith in name only.  As a result, “dissatisfied Christians began to flee the church in search of a purer form of Christianity untainted by collusion with empire.” 1  Those who fled into the wilderness went into the deserts surrounding the Roman Empire where they lived in caves, which became places of prayer or “cells”, to practice a more solitary and ascetic form of faith.  This monastic lifestyle grew such that “By the end of the fourth century, thousands of these hermits had settled along the length of the Nile River, and nearly 5,000 had established themselves in the desert on the outskirts of Alexandria.” 2  Eventually, their extreme devotion led others from the Empire to seek out these desert fathers and mothers, at they came to be known, in order to learn how to grow in discipleship.

Margaret Guenther, in her classic book on prayer, The Practice of Prayer, draws on the wisdom of the desert fathers when she quotes Abba (Father) Moses, “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”. 3  Guenther applies the idea of the cell to our everyday lives, whether that be cooking in the kitchen, driving in a car, or working in a cubicle.  Our modern-day “cell” is whatever happens to be our place of encounter with God.  But often, we yearn for a life that seems more “spiritual”, more transcendent, and so our cell is also that which tempts us to boredom or dissatisfaction with the life we have.  Just as the noonday heat and the monotony of the desert created a condition of acedia, or sloth, which the desert fathers sought to fight against while praying, so we also must fight against our own “noonday demons”.  Her insight into our contemporary interior struggles and how it impacts our daily work is worth citing at length:

The noonday devil is gray and shabby, nothing like Milton’s splendid Lucifer.  He is thoroughly at home in the ordinary and quite expert in the unspectacular, tacky sins of the everyday…The noonday devil can tempt us to little acts of meanness and impatience.  He can encourage our ugly little spurts of envy and persuade us that only the uptight pay much attention to the sins of gluttony and lust.  Perhaps most insidious of all, the noonday devil can insinuate himself into our thoughts, suggesting that God is not very interested in us and that consequently what we do is not important. 4

I don’t know about you, but I struggle from time to time with feelings of being appreciated and acknowledged.  It’s not so much that I need others to praise me, since I tend to be the sort of personality a little suspicious of too much praise, as it is that by not being appreciated I worry that what I do is not that important or that it’s not making much of a difference.  Even worse, I might begin to fear that my efforts are perceived as hindrances or that I’m not pulling my own weight.  This can lead me to a place of discontentment and dissatisfaction, where my motivations become based on the praise of others rather than the desire to serve God alone.  In fact, so great has been this struggle for me recently, that I decided to journal about it on a retreat.  The organizer of the retreat had brought a book, and as I was journaling, I decided to “take and read”. 5

It’s a children’s book called The Right House for Rabbit.  The story begins with a rabbit who has grown tired of the view from his house of a brown hill and a crooked tree.  So he goes to Mr. Fox, something of a real estate agent, in search of a new home.  Mr. Fox sends him to Mrs. Robin’s house, but that house, while having a great view, is a nest in a tree and has no roof and no walls.  Then Fox sends Rabbit to Mr. Beaver’s house, but while his house has walls and a roof, the only way in is to go underwater.  Finally, Mr. Fox takes Rabbit to a third house which is, unbeknownst to Rabbit, Mr. Fox’s own home.  Mr. Fox tries to capture Rabbit to make stew, but Rabbit slips out the window and races all the way back to his own home.  Once in his own home, Rabbit realizes that with a little shift in position and perspective, he has a different view from his house and learns to be content with where he is. 6

After reading that story, I bean to realize how small my perspective had become.  Interestingly enough, I had also opened to Scripture while journaling to one of the Old Testament prophetic books.  The prophet Isaiah records the following scene:

A voice was saying, “Cry out!”  Another said, “What should I cry out?”  “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word our God remains forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8

At the time, I could not understand how that passage connected with my motivations and my struggle for why I do what I do.  But as I have since reflected, it is clear that we should strive for and ground our sense of worth on what is lasting, which is God and His Word, not on worrying about what is here one moment and gone the next.  All that I do, and even my own self, will not last.  Even though I believe I will continue to exist beyond death, my life and accomplishments on this earth is but a blink in the eye of eternity.

Rather, I believe God’s priority is about forming His children into a community that lives joyfully and contentedly, rather than anxiously worrying about the opinion of others.  In a conversation that is reminiscent of the passage above from Isaiah, Jesus tells his disciples, “Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these!  If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you – you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).  Jesus then proceeds to exhort his disciples to seek first God and His kingdom.  All that we need comes from God, including affirmation and acceptance.

At the end of all my journal writing and reflections, I penned the following prayer:

Dear Lord,

Teach me to be content and to not be distracted by the noonday demon.  Enable me to go to my cell, my workplace crucible, with a gladness and joyfulness of heart, knowing that through it You are forming me into the person You are calling me to be.  May the sacrifices of my time and effort be pleasing and acceptable to You.  And may my presence, like that of incense which is here one moment and gone the next, be a fragrant offering that brings You glory and honor.

Lord Jesus, In Your Name, Amen.

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1 Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2010), 12, ebook.

2 Ibid., 13.

3 Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998), 108.

4 Ibid., 110.

5 The great Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, was converted to the Christian faith after hearing a child in a garden in Milan speak those words.  The child was speaking the Latin words, “tolle lege”, which translates to “take and read”.  He picked up Scripture, which he had with him.  He had been struggling with his inability to live a Christian life, and the words from Scripture which were from the apostle Paul on living a licentious lifestyle, convicted him of the truth of God’s Word.  For those who worry about not hearing from God when reading Scripture, all I can say is that learning to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit through Scripture is a practice that takes time, effort and discipline.  I won’t guarantee that you will always sense God’s presence when reading the Word of God.  In fact, I don’t always sense God’s presence.  But one thing I know: you surely never will if you don’t “take and read” for yourself.  We all have to begin somewhere.

6 Susan Saunders, illustrations by Jody Lee, The Right House for Rabbit (New York, NY:  Merrigold Press, 1986).