Your good work (never) goes unnoticed

your-hard-work-never-goes-unnoticed

Once upon a time, I worked at a small, family-owned car dealership that was run by a father and son.  Both the father and son were my bosses, and often they had different ideas about how I should be spending my time.

The son would call me and say something like, “I need you to wash the cars at the front of the lot ASAP.”  A few minutes later the father would say something like, “I need you to go to the title bureau right now.”  When I explained to him that the son told me washing cars was the top priority, the father told me to ignore the son’s commands.  Often, the son would tell me to do the same with the father’s.

This tug-of-war between the father and son created a constant state of stress within me.  I was eager to show that I was a hardworking, reliable employee, but I felt like my own bosses weren’t giving me a fair chance.  I was worried about being judged negatively by the son for obeying the father, and vice versa.

Here’s the truth I’m getting at: No matter how hard you work you can’t please everybody, which is why it’s so important to focus our attention on pleasing God in our work.  Here’s what Paul writes to slaves in Ephesians:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.” (Ephesians 6:5-8).

Notice he doesn’t say slaves (or employees, in my case) shouldn’t care at all about what their masters (or bosses) think.  He says we should “try to please them all the time,” serving them with sincerity and enthusiasm, as if we were serving Christ himself!  When we serve Christ well we serve others well too.

But we all know that even when we do good work, human bosses don’t always recognize it.  While some recognition would be nice every once in a while, just know that none of your work goes unnoticed, because not only does God recognize good work, he rewards it!

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Your willingness affects your usefulness

your-usefulness-depends-on-your-willingness

I’m a fan of mixed martial arts (and a former amateur mixed martial artist), and recently I’ve been watching a show on YouTube called Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight.  In the show the UFC President travels around the country looking for talented fighters, and along the way he and his companions go on all kinds of crazy adventures.

In the second episode Dana and his crew visit Alaska, where they meet up with Dallas Seavey, a four-time Iditarod champion, to learn how to race dog sleds.  At one point in the episode Dallas gives an insightful glimpse into what it takes to breed champion sled dogs:

“This is what they’re bred to do, I mean, this is their life. We’re selecting the parents based on their drive and their desire to run and pull, and then their athleticism, and how good they are at running 1,000 miles. But first criteria is always that desire to pull.”

I think it’s fascinating that willingness is the number one factor Dallas takes into consideration, and it got me thinking, isn’t that similar to how God looks at us, too?  When God is looking for someone he can use to make an impact, he doesn’t look at our strength or ability, but our desire. He can supply everything else we need.

This idea reminds me of Isaiah’s response when God asks,”Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” Isaiah doesn’t even know what the message is yet, but he knows he has a desire to serve the Lord, so he responds, “Here I am. Send me.”

I want to be a man known for his willingness–willingness to change, to try, to push through the pain for what is good and right–and for trusting God to provide the rest.

A new (and better) way to work

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It’s pretty audacious for me to proclaim I know of “a new way to work,” especially since Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, teaches us that “History merely repeats itself.  It has all been done before.  Nothing under the sun is truly new” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Yet just because something isn’t new to the world doesn’t mean it isn’t new to us.  I like to go shopping at a second-hand store located just outside a wealthy community.  Why?  Because it gives me a chance to glean gently used, high-quality clothing for a fraction of the original cost, and that which was deemed “old” by its original owner suddenly becomes “new” in my possession.

The same is true of wisdom.  The most valuable insights are of ancient origins, yet when applied to our condition they become fresh again in our lives.

How does this apply to work?  Well, let’s look to the wisdom of Solomon once again.  Ecclesiastes is a book he wrote about his search for meaning on this earth.  Early in the book, Solomon details how he “had everything a man could desire” (2:8), and how he had become greater than all his predecessors, yet at the end of it all he was still disappointed.

In Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, Solomon writes:

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere.

How tragic!  To spend so much precious time and energy, only to look back disappointed at the meaninglessness of the your work!

But later in the chapter (verses 24-25) Solomon the Wise comes to an interesting conclusion.  He states:

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?

Here’s what I’d like to draw out of this text: he says it is from the hand of God that we enjoy our work, not the product of our work.  It is a blessing to find pleasure while working, not just in our off time after our money has been earned.

In other words, it is a blessing to enjoy the process, not just the product, of your work.

As a writer, sometimes I just want my work to be finished.  My projects are becoming longer and longer, because I used to almost exclusively write articles and now I’m writing books.  But God has blessed me to do something that I enjoy, and it is crucial that I don’t overlook the process when writing longer works, because it is in the process that we grow, and it is in the process where he grants us joy.

The same is true of our lives in general.  Sometimes we just want to give up on ourselves, on who we’re becoming, because we just want God to transform us, to make us like him, instantaneously.  But I think he often keeps the destination out of reach, at least for a while, not because he’s cruel or unloving, but because it is the journey that prepares you for the destination.  And if you can find joy in the journey–with all of its hardships and struggles–then know that joy has been given to you by God.

One final thought: There is a limit to how much we can enjoy the things of this earth, because we were not made for this earth but for the Kingdom of God.  If you find your work to be meaningless it is probably because you, like Solomon, have learned it will not last.  But those who serve God faithfully can know their lives are a ministry that is making an eternal impact.

Here is my word of encouragement to you, words Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:58:

 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Strength and Beauty Are Not Opposites

“Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with magic.”

-Herman Melville

untitled-designThe above quote from Moby Dick refers to a whale’s tail, of all things, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the same could be said of God.  He’s almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, the one who holds the universe in his hands.  We describe him as omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (everywhere at once), and omnipotent (all-powerful).  He has no equal, and there’s nothing within reason for us to compare him to.  Our minds simply cannot comprehend his wisdom, presence, and might.

But at the same time, Jesus showed us God is no power-crazed war-monger.  In Christ, God stepped down from his throne in heaven, taking the form of a servant, in order to extend his grace to us.  He showed his gentleness by not roaring in like a lion ready to devour us because of our sin, but by laying down his life as a lamb so as to take the hit for us.  His gentle gesture was the most beautiful the world has ever seen.

I love the way the wise woman from Tekoa put it for David in 2 Samuel 14:14.  “All of us must die eventually,” she said.  “Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God does not just sweep life away; instead, he devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.”

How much more gentle could he be?  Despite being able to easily “sweep life away,” he instead makes plans to gently reconcile us with him — now that’s beautiful.  Although we’re undeserving, he gives us a chance to be made right with him.

Like God, I aspire to be tough and tender too.  I enjoy training and competing in boxing and mixed martial arts.  I like movies like Gladiator and Ip Man.  I want to be strong and be able to protect my family from people who would try to harm them.

But I also want to be gentle in the way I speak and act toward my wife.  I want my son to know I’m not afraid to be affectionate, and that it’s okay for a man to show some emotion.  David was a vicious warrior who played the harp!  I think I’m in good company if I can both fight and enjoy a good sunrise.

So be strong and beautiful.  Be tough and tender.  They’re not the antithesis of each other.  In fact, as God has shown, there are few characteristics of a person that are more complementary!

Destiny, David, and Kung Fu Panda

Po_Kung_Fu_PandaWhen I think of the concept of destiny I think of Kung fu movies, and one of my favorite Kung fu movies is Kung Fu Panda (yes, I’m still a kid at heart). The movie’s main character, Po, is a fat and clumsy panda who dreams of being a Kung fu legend but is stuck working in a noodle restaurant with his father.  One day, through a series of funny and strange events, he is identified as the legendary Dragon Warrior by a Kung fu master named Oogway.

Once identified, the characters express three different beliefs about the situation:  Po seems to think he was chosen by accident.  The other Kung fu warriors seem to think he was chosen by mistake.  But Master Oogway, the wise, old tortoise of the bunch, believes that which looks like an accident or mistake is actually destiny intervening.

The rest of the story (spoiler alert) is a familiar one.  A great enemy — Tai Lung the snow leopard — escapes from prison and will surely destroy everything the other characters know and love, and Po the Dragon Warrior is expected to stop him.  But for the longest time it seems the panda will never amount to anything, and the situation seems so bleak that the other warriors try to stop the enemy before he can reach their town.  They’re defeated, of course, and Po becomes the town’s only hope.

Fortunately, he realizes just in time that the things he thought were holding him back (namely, his size and weight) are actually assets when used properly.  The things that make him different from the other fighters are actually to his advantage, and he eventually fulfills his destiny in dramatic fashion (don’t mess with the wuxi finger hold).

Destiny is a powerful idea because it is a guarantee on something that hasn’t yet been delivered.  In movies and literature a character who is fulfilling his destiny is one who is not only accomplishing the task he was created to accomplish, but he’s also becoming the person he was created to be.

But just as there was a period between when Po was announced as the Dragon Warrior and when he began to act like the Dragon Warrior, so there is often a period between when we learn of our destinies and we actually experience them.

For example, after King Saul disobeyed God a number of times, God finally rejected him as king of Israel and decided David should become king instead.  In fact, according to 1 Samuel 16, Saul was still on the throne when the prophet Samuel anointed David as king!  For a long time the newly anointed king of Israel lived like an exile, fleeing from place to place in order to avoid being killed by Saul.  But all the while he knew it was just a matter of time before he took the throne.

Here’s the principle: Often you’ll be anointed long before you’re appointed.  God calls things that are not as if they are, and in David’s case he called him king long before David actually took the reigns to the kingdom.

What is God saying about you?  What is he telling you to do?  What is he saying you should become?  If there seems like there’s a gap between you and where he wants you to be, maybe it’s because there is.  Just because he’s anointed you doesn’t mean he’s ready to appoint you just yet, probably because he wants to develop patience and trust within you.  The same is true of our salvation.  He calls us children long before we receive our promised heavenly inheritance, but we don’t have to worry about whether or not he’ll deliver on his promise, because it’s guaranteed thing.

God calls out our potential long before we ever see it achieved.  Has God called you to something?  Don’t be discouraged; be patient.  He will see you through in his own timing, and the wait will cause you to praise him even more when he delivers.

Pithy is powerful

hway8According to legend, Ernest Hemingway was once eating a meal with some fellow writers when he bet all of them $10 that he could write an entire novel in six words.  Six words!  It seems ridiculous at first, which is why the other writers were probably pretty quick to take up his offer.  Hemingway then took his pen to a napkin and wrote these chilling words:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

He then passed the napkin around the table and, one at a time, each of the writers payed up.

This story about Hemingway, it turns out, is nothing more than a legend, but it proves an important point: pithy can be powerful.  You don’t have to be long-winded to make an impact with your speech or writing.  Preachers don’t have to spend hours and hours drawing out every little detail of a story, because the human imagination is powerful.  Allowing it to fill in the blanks actually adds more color to a story than a communicator could ever add on his own.

In the economy of words, less is more.

Jesus seems to have understood this.  Some of the sermons we consider the most powerful ever spoken are just a few sentences long.  Like Hemingway, Jesus got to the heart of the issue in a quick and memorable way.  His use of parables and short imagery allowed him to paint a broader picture without wasting his breath.

If you are a communicator by trade this kind of thing might really interest you, but what if you’re more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person?  Well, in Matthew 6, Jesus also told us the word count on our prayers doesn’t affect whether or not they’ll be answered:

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!”

The Bible also encourages us to be better listeners than orators, and seems to suggest those that fail to listen well are more likely to be angry people too.  James writes, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”

Proverbs 17 suggests the same, saying, “A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered.”  It also goes on to say even fools seem intelligent when their mouths are shut!

So be wise and learn to do the same.  Listen well, allowing your thoughts be well-formed before they leave your mouth, your keyboard, or whatever.  And when you do speak, remember an entire novel can be written in six words!

Living in the Moment – A Lesson from Leo Tolstoy

Good stories are more than just entertainment; they have the power to be life-changing. Jesus understood this, and at times chose to let his illustrations be the sermon rather than just a part of it. In his parables he spoke of what were most likely some fictional characters and events, yet his works of fiction conveyed more truth than the combined contents of stacks of autobiographies.

From now on that will be the focus of Faith Nerd Blog: keeping an eye out for God’s truth in stories, especially works of literature. It’s a blog at the intersection of reality and make believe, reading everything through the lens of the Gospel.

Tolstoy’s Tale

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy wrote a great little story called “The Three Questions” in which a king theorizes he can avoid failure if he knows three things: the right time to begin everything, the right people to listen to, and the most important thing to do at any given moment.  

He surrounds himself with wise men who try to answer the three questions, but they have conflicting ideas so he decides to consult a hermit who is known far and wide for his wisdom.

The king disguises himself in order to talk to the hermit because the wise man will only receive “common folk.”  The hermit is digging in the ground in front of his hut when the king approaches to ask his questions, but when the hermit doesn’t answer, the king takes the spade and offers to dig a while so the hermit can rest.  

After hours of working the king becomes impatient.  He demands the hermit answer his questions, but just as he does so a man runs out of the woods bleeding from his abdomen.  The king washes and bandages the wound as best he can, but the blood keeps flowing.  So again and again he washes and bandages the wound, until finally the blood stops and the man’s life is saved.

By this time the sun has set and the wounded man is thirsty, so the king brings him some water and, with the help of the hermit, carries the man to the hermit’s bed to let him rest.  Afterward the king is so exhausted from his hard day’s work that he falls asleep.

When he awakes in the morning, the king finds the wounded man already awake.  The man apologizes to the king, not because he had been an inconvenience, but because he had actually come into the woods to avenge his brother’s death (and the loss of some property) by killing the king!  He had been wounded by the king’s bodyguard while on his mission, but is both grateful and astonished that his enemy would take such good care of him.  

The king not only forgives the wounded man, but says he will send his own servants and physician to care for him and will restore the lost property.

The king is happy to have made peace with his enemy, but still has some unanswered questions.  He asks the wise man one last time to answer his questions, and the man responds, “You have already been answered!”  The king, still confused, seeks more clarity, so the old man explains:

“Do you not see…If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business.

“Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!

Learning from Leo

I love the message this short story delivers: one of the most important things you can do is live in the moment.  Even believers, who have the hope of eternal life in them, have to keep in mind that while heaven and perfection are our future we still live in the now, so we can’t neglect it or the people in front of us.

The most important time for you is right now.  One of my personal mantras is, “You only have today.”  It’s a constant reminder that you can plan ahead and reflect on the past, but you can’t possess any moment but the present.  So go out and carpe the crap out of your diem!  Don’t rest on the laurels of your faith by over-reflecting on what God did yesterday or get stuck waiting on what He’ll do in the future.  Today is the only opportunity you have to act.  Right now is the only time you have any power.  Use your now wisely!