Monthly Archives: March 2013

God at Work: Nunc Dimittus

“There are two great days in our lives- The day we are born and the day we discover why.” -William Barclay

“The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”- Frederick Buechner

Jesus at the office

In 1957, John Coltrane’s life was unraveling fast. Because of an escalating alcohol and drug addiction, the famous jazz musician lost one of the best jobs in jazz. He had hit rock bottom, when he had a spiritual experienced that changed everything.

It was the beginning of a whole new way of life. He had a profound encounter with Jesus, that changed him deeply. He was still a Jazz musician.  but he began to play the same music, in a very different way.

On the dedication page of his record A Love Supreme Coltrane writes,

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. All praise to God..This album is a humble offering to him. An attempt to say ‘Thank You God’ through our work.

The Pursuit of (Others) Happiness

Did you notice exactly what Coltrane said? He asked for God to help him make others happy through music.

Which is pretty counter-cultural for most of us. We are saturated with the idea of pursuing happiness, heck, it’s written in the charter of the American government. So we work and chase after some elusive happiness, only to find it’s always a step ahead.

And we do the exact same thing with our work.

For over half my life now, I’ve consistently asked people I meet who serve at restaurants or airports or retail stores the question, “Do you like your job?” And I consistently hear people saying “no.” Sometimes it’s because of the pay, or because of the people they have to deal with. And to be sure, there is something to that, but every now and then I run across someone who tells me they love their job. And the reason is never because of the pay, it’s almost always because they’ve found themselves to be truly helpful to the world.

One of the most liberating things about the Biblical idea of vocation is the realization that we work for the sake of the other. God calls us, through another person, to serve other persons….not primarily for our own sake.

We’re called for the sake of the world.

The Joy of Work

So about that Fredrick Buechner quote above. Buechner was a famous Christian author and speaker, and at one point he was addressing a graduating class. They were about to leave the safety of formal education for the unknown certainty of a future career. And Fredrick Buechner told them this:

“The Voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.  What can we do that makes us the gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north….? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint or canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.

In other words, happiness isn’t a bad thing for work…It’s just not the only thing for work. And if it becomes that, then it will be unattainable. A job is only a vocation, a calling, if you do it for the sake of the other. And where your joy and the world’s need meet…that is where God is calling you.

So back to John Coltrane. John Coltrane

The album he wrote that dedication for is one of the most famous works of Jazz in the history of the genre. In an article by NPR, they said that this is an album can’t be just measured by the sales, it is, in the NPR reporter’s words “A cherished, holy object.”

In his incredible book, Every Good EndeavorTim Keller tells about how, toward the end of his life, John Coltrane was performing a set from his album A Love Supreme. And everything was going well, the audience was into it, the music was coming naturally. It was an exceptional night of Jazz, and as Coltrane stepped off the stage someone heard him say, “Nunc Dimittus.”

Which is Latin.

It’s the words that the elderly Simon said after waiting his entire life to see the Messiah, It’s the words he said when he first held the baby Jesus. “Dismiss your servant in peace.”

In other words, Coltrane could die happy now.

He had made music, not for fame or money (although he achieved both), but for the sake of the music, to serve others and for the joy of God.

His gladness had met the hunger of the world.

May we all be so lucky to find a calling like that.

Nunc Dimmitus.

Everyday Idolatry: My God

“You can safely assume you’ve made God into your own image, when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” -Anne Lammott

Temple in Chennai, India

It was June 7th, 1964. They had all gathered at the local Methodist church like always. They were having another one of their get-togethers, and as usual they started with a prayer.

Of course, they prayed, they were God’s chosen people, after all, saved by Jesus to bless the world. But on this particular night, someone wrote down their opening prayer. Sam Bowers, their “preacher and leader” opened them with prayer.

Here’s what he said:

Oh God, our Heavenly Guide, as finite creatures of time and as dependent creature of Thine, we acknowledge Thee as our sovereign Lord. Permit freedom and the joys thereof to forever reign throughout our land…May the sweet cup of brotherly fraternity ever be ours to enjoy and build within us that kindred spirit which will keep us unified and tong. Engender within us that wisdom kindred to honorable decisions and the Godly work. By the power of Thy infinite spirit and the energizing virtue therein, ever keep before us our…pledges of righteousness. Bless us now in this assembly that we may honor Thee in all things, we pray in the name of Christ, our blessed Savior. Amen

And then the members of the Klu Klux Klan said Amen, got up, and started planning how to carry out “God’s goal” for white supremacy.

Taking Sides

A few years ago I was talking with a man who was a professional conflict mediator who had worked with Presidents and international government officials. He had helped nations resolve international conflicts bordering on war, but if you asked him who was the hardest assignment, he wouldn’t blink an eye before he told you,

“That’s easy…Churches”

There’s a bizarre little story in the book of Joshua where Joshua is leading the people of Israel into the land of Canaan, and he is suddenly visited by an Angel of the LORD, and Joshua has such tunnel vision that he immediately asks the angel, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

And the angel says, “No. I’m not on either, as the Commander for the LORD I have come.”

I love this little story, because it’s exactly what we religious people do.

There are days when I wonder if church is really good for the world. In out better moments, God’s done some incredible stuff through the church, but often church just gives religious people language to be more mad than they would normally be.

Now they’re not just angry, God is angry too. Now their not just indignant they are filled with a “righteous” indignation. All because we never question the idea that God is on our side.

We approach the Divine like Joshua, “Are you for us or for our enemy?”KKK Worship service

And I think God’s answer is still “No.”

The Faces of Jesus

A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon. What’s interesting is that the book doesn’t talk about the popularity of Jesus, but the diversity of Jesus. Turns out, there are lots of different Jesus’ out there. There’s Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, Hot Air Balloon racing Jesus, Nascar Jesus, Moralistic Jesus, Buddy Jesus, and Sweet baby Jesus among others.

Each one gives us a picture of a Jesus who knows how to take sides.

So after the KKK dismissed they left armed to the teeth with shotguns and rope, to fight the civil rights movement that was “invading their Mississippi” and within a few days 3 civil rights workers were killed….In Jesus name.

It’s easy to see, looking back how far this group was from the heart of God, how they had made Jesus into a god of their own image. But I think we do this exact same thing all the time.  At least I do.

I’ve noticed that Jesus tends to vote the same way I do. He’s never against a war that I’m for, and he’s rarely interested into calling me toward self-sacrifice or mercy to people different than me. That’s the Jesus that I am most comfortable with, and it’s most certainly an idol.

I like the way N.T. Wright talks about how to deal with letting Jesus stand on his own:

“My proposal is not that we know what the word ‘god’ means, and manage to somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest, that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross–and we somehow allow our meaning for the word “god” to be re-centered around that point.”

In other words, the scandal is not that Jesus is like God. The scandal is that God is like Jesus. He’s a God who picked a certain place and time, and entered into it. He came to show us who he really was…and who he really wasn’t.

He came as a Jewish carpenter, in a particular time and place, not to speak about every little agenda we have, but for the redemption of the entire world.

I understand why in conversation or worship lyrics we sometime refer to God as “My God” but never mistake that as meaning God belongs to you.

Because God’s not on your side.You can pray in his name all you want to but you’re enemies are not his enemies.

He’s bigger than your problems, because he’s more than just your God.

Just ask Joshua.