Tuesday, October 22, 2013

True Success

{This is a follow up to what I posted yesterday}

So what does true success look like? As a Christian, what is the goal at which I should be aiming? Most importantly, how does GOD define success?

The past two weeks, the teaching elder at my church has been especially “meddlesome” with his sermons. In a really really good way—it’s just convicting rather than comfortable! (As it should be J) He is doing a topical series in Proverbs, and the past two weeks have been about humility. Last week he looked at how God defines pride and humility, while this week focused on the application of humility in the Christian’s life—both towards God and towards our fellow men. Good, but hard, stuff!

One of the things he emphasized this Sunday was that Christ’s humility is to be our model—that is what God calls us to (see Philippians 2 if you need a refresher on what that looks like). To paraphrase a small section of his straight shooting sermon: The path Jesus paved for us means that the cross comes before the crown. In our culture, people are always racing to the top—trying to control things in their lives and trying to avoid pain. In Christianity, it should be a race to the bottom. God leaves us on earth, after He saves us, to suffer for the sake of Christ. He was despised by men and suffered grievous injustice – it is only sinful pride which makes us think we deserve better than that. We are called to have an audience of ONE – protecting my own reputation is not to be my goal or concern.

His last sentence there ties into something I had already been thinking about in the past week or two. As this topic of success—in culture’s eyes vs. what God calls us to—had been ruminating in my brain, I couldn’t help but think of Os Guinness’ book “Rising to the Call.” I first read it four years ago in Honors Orientation, one of my favorite college classes, and reviewed it twice more mentoring for the class. Having an audience of One (God) is one of the things which Guinness discusses.

Another of his points which is especially relevant in this discussion comes when he makes a distinction between the primary and secondary calling of a Christian. “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by Him, to Him, and for Him,” Guinness said (pg. 24). In other words, calling becomes a question of WHO I am called TO, not WHAT I am called to DO.

Even Guinness’ description of secondary calling does not exactly paint a picture of success which lines up with what I talked about in my previous post. Instead, Guinness wrote that “Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for Him” (pg. 25). Guinness’ definition of calling, and thus of what to aim for in our quest for success, is entirely God-centered rather than self-focused.

Guinness ends his book with this quote from his last paragraph: “Answering the call of Jesus is the greatest adventure, the deepest romance, and the most fascinating journey of our lives….In giving up everything for this one way, you will find yourself fulfilled in every way—until one day when the ‘last call’ will sound and you will see the Caller face to face…” (pg. 99).

But stepping out on that journey feels a whole lot scarier than the “safety” of pursuing a more typical American dream. Because it requires sacrificing a lot more that I would so much rather cling to. I should include the fact that Guinness is quick to point out this does not close off any field of work. It does not mean that every Christian must drop what they are doing and go translate the Bible. That is not what Guinness is saying at all.

If God’s calling leads me to a job where I am writing, I am to write in such a way that will bring glory to God rather than glorifying self. Over the past several weeks, though, I have been sensing His leading in a completely different direction. A direction asking me to lay down more of my wants and myself—a direction requiring absolute faith in God to continue guiding and providing. I don’t know yet exactly what that looks like. It remains to be seen how God will work. And in some ways, that is scary to me.

I’m not in control. I don’t know what my life will look like from one year to the next. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing (although I must confess that my flesh certainly wishes it were otherwise) because lacking that certainty forces me to be more in tune with God’s calling in my life.

Success is not really about what I do in an earthly sense. Success is knowing God (John 17:3). Success is being conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). Success is pressing on toward the upward call of Christ Jesus my Lord (Phil. 3:12-14). Success is being available for His service (Is. 6:8, Luke 1:38). Success is joining the long line of His humble servants (Luke 17:10) who serve for His glory and not their own.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Lure of Success

This post is one of those that has been rolling around in my head for a while. I think it will have two parts, but we’ll see how it actually ends up.

SUCCESS. What is it really? How does one achieve it? What is one’s purpose in life?

I guess it’s not too surprising that I’ve been thinking about this recently. I graduated from college five months ago, and as a result I’m greeted by my perception of all these expectations which the people I care about and the culture have of me. To get a great job in my career field. To make good on everything that got poured into me the past four years. To make my degree, with its $100,000+ sticker price, “worth it.” To hopefully get married and have a wonderful family life. Etc, etc.

And a good part of me would like nothing better than to land that job and to know where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing for a good long while. To feed my hunger to be able to identify myself by what I do—to be able to support myself and to be “in control” of my present. It would be so seemingly easy if God would just get on board and go along with my plan. Or, I would be well on the way to being married by now, and would have reached my view of “success” that way.

But it seems as though just as soon as I create a vision of what I think I want and what would work out well, something doesn’t go my way and I wind up back at square one all over again. Because ever since I graduated, nothing has truly gone the way I expected it too. That hunger I have to “succeed,” to somehow meet people’s (including my own) high expectations of me—it feels like I have failed at it.

As I have spent the past two months waiting to hear back from SP, then trying to figure my life out after that door closed……..I’ve been thinking about what I see as “success” for my life. And I begin to see the trap I’ve fallen into. I yearn for the apparent stability of either my own “real” job that I can identify myself by, or of a family of my own that I can pour myself into. But thus far, neither has worked out. Instead, I’m still “bumming” off my parents, five months after graduation. I definitely didn’t think it would come to this. I didn’t want it to.

At any rate, I had this picture of success in which my identity was bound up in WHAT I did. Thinking about what success is, I’ve been reminded it goes much deeper than that. My next post will look at what I’m relearning about that. But it is so much harder than the “easy” way that our American culture seems to tantalize me with, settling down into a good career and staying there for forever (though I know that’s becoming less common anyway).

Ever since high school, though, I’ve said I don’t really want to have a career like that. I had my reasons for that, but I’m beginning to see something different. Last month—even before I heard back from SP—I had a sense that God was asking me to lay down my desire for certainty about where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing five years from now – or two, or one. For a long time—as I’ve written about before—He’s been calling me to trust Him and to give up my hunger for control. But it is hard—because for me, at least, the lure of success is strong.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Beyond This Moment

Tonight, going through some old files, I came across one of my Word document rambles, written on March 3, 2012. I had never posted it, for some reason, though it had run in the campus newspaper as a column. Reading it, it was as though the Esther from 18 months ago--how much farther back that seems--was preaching to the Esther in the present. And it was a message I needed to hear.

For a bit of context, this older post came just a couple weeks before. Some things don't really change.... {sigh}

I’m glad our college campus is located near a graveyard.  I don’t typically think about that fact, but this morning (March 2) I wanted to get out for a walk…a desire which ended up with me wandering through the cemetery on the roads.  It got me thinking (which really is a dangerous thing).

God has been working in my life a lot over the past 12-14 months – teaching/reminding me of many things about Him and about myself.  As I was meandering through the headstones spotted throughout the plot of land to our south, I couldn’t help but consider the question “What does my life really count for?”

Surrounded by stone monuments bearing the names of people who have lived and died—some more than a hundred years ago—it’s a relevant question.  There are probably few people who could tell you anything about some of the folks the older markers commemorate.  But they, like me, had hopes, plans, ambitions.  They, like me, probably had lives which they hoped to use to benefit the world somehow.

But for many of them, their only memorial is a slab of rock with some words chiseled into it.  So many people – so many stories – where does mine fit in the grand scheme of things?  My head knows the answer easily, and my heart echoes it with conviction: my life, as with each person’s, has some role to play in God’s grand plan.

I may not see it right now.  I may never understand it fully here on earth.  I will most likely end up someday like one of the people buried down the street – an unremembered name carved into stone which cannot even endure 200 years of weathering.  Nevertheless, my life does have a purpose.

But what is that purpose, I wondered as I walked, the cold wind blowing my face.  Life can seem so fleeting.  It comes and goes so fast – what am I doing that matters?  Throughout my walk, I noticed patches of small wildflowers which have sprung up with the wondrous coming of spring.  They too made me consider my life.

Those little flowers spend their whole existence trying to poke through the dead grass, searching for some sunlight.  Or they slowly develop from budded branches of trees.  They open up their small flower faces, for what purpose?  They may fall off of the tree and land on the ground, as the flowers I wore in my ponytail did.  Often, they get stepped on and trampled by beings much larger than themselves.  They may be eaten or simply shrivel up and die when their time is done.

And yet they bloom.  Their beauty is on display for those who take the time to see it.  And even if no person ever recognizes it, these small treasures serve a purpose: they carry on a gift to the next generation.  The Bible compares our lives to the lifecycle of flowers.  Isaiah 40:6-8 contrasts the transient nature of the plants with the everlasting Word of God.  In 1 Peter 1:22-25, Peter references the Isaiah passage and urges his readers to be incorruptible.

How?  What is it that I am called to do that will last beyond the short days of my life?

The answer is love.  And, surprisingly, this can be expressed using the lyrics of two pop songs, one old and one new.  Frequently when I listen to secular music, I find myself discovering a potential deeper, spiritual meaning.  Such is the case with these two.  Both were written to refer to sexual love (I would assume), but today they offered a broader lesson.

The first was “Who Wants to Live Forever?”, a 1986 song by the rock band Queen.  The lyrics remind the listener that people don’t live forever.  “Who dares to live forever?” the song asks, as it informs that “love must die.”  In the writer’s world view, that may be true.  But I believe that there is more to my existence than this brief life.  The love I have been given, I am to share with all people I come in contact with.  It then becomes like the little flowers – a gift that keeps on giving even when my short spring is over.

The second song that came to mind as I walked back to my last class of the week was Justin Bieber’s “I Just Need Somebody to Love.”  And there is some extent to which that is true.  I have been entrusted with a treasure, a gift.  To keep it to myself would be selfish and wasteful.  A self-preserving life is the epitome of a useless life.  I am called to follow in my Savior’s footsteps – to share the love which I have been given.

I don’t have to go out and change the world to make my life have meaning.  I do need simply to show individuals their importance and worth.  I am called to share God’s gift with others.  The rest is up to Him.