“My commitment must be to truth, not to consistency.” — Ghandi
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14
It was the smell of smoke which alerted me to his presence. I had a long layover in Salt Lake City and I was taking the Trax downtown to sketch, tour the sights, and find a good coffee shop. The sun shone brightly into the impeccably clean and nearly empty car as I did my quick survey of my new fellow traveler. He was an over-weight latin-american with an unshaven and stressed out face. His shoes were worn out and he was talking on a cheap pre-paid cell phone with a friend to figure out how he was going to get $40 to pay for medicine his wife needed. Not excessively loudly, but definitely not softly he explained that his wife recently had a medically-induced accident that resulted in injuries to their infant. He talked about trusting God to provide the money and highlighted that their baby was fine, but that his wife was not.
I was feeling excessively penitent due to a Bishop Bienvenu encounter with a Las Vegas police officer the night before. He gave me a warning despite clocking me at nearly 40 mph over the speed limit in Red Rock Canyon after a run. I had also been upgraded to first class for both flights that day, and this new passenger made me very aware that we were two members of very different worlds whose lives were coming into contact. Additionally, I had just taken out $40 from an ATM in the airport and the money he was stressing over was sitting two feet from him in my pocket.
I reached into my pocket and fingered the bills, thinking of the words to use as I handed them to him. But then my left brain kicked in.
“Doesn’t this story sound too contrived.” “Isn’t this exactly what he would say to get our money.” “By his accent, English is not his native language, but he is speaking english.” “This train is empty, but he sat right next to me with this story.” “I should give this money to a real charity who can better discern the need.” “I don’t want to insult him.”
These thoughts rushed through my head as I felt what I would describe the Holy Spirit tug at my heart to give him the dollars. I thought of the joy that this could bring his day. I prayed to God to make things more clear to me, and was convicted that He had already done that. But then I thought about being used, about the risk of being played. Hadn’t I been working 12 hour days for the last month to take care of my family? I could use this money to buy a great gift for my kids. Or get closer to my church tithe . . .
As I carried on this internal dialogue, I arrived at my stop and quickly fled to the certainty of the doors which opened next to me. In near tears, I thought of how much I love being a recipient of grace, but how hard it is to activate my own ability to practice grace. I tried to catch a sight of him as the train drove on, but was denied the opportunity. I didn’t deserve it.
I walked across the street back into my familiar channel, bathed in sunshine and surrounded by mountains as I walked past the amazingly well groomed grounds of the Mormon temple and Salt Lake’s best shopping and restaurants. As I walked past Nordstrom, I watched an amazing fountain show as well-off kids danced in front of the dancing water. I thought of the fountain shows I had seen the night before at the Aria and the Bellagio. I thought of the discussions I had with my fellow engineers about how to create laminar flow, keep the pumps running and what computer models would be best to simulate the fountains; all stuffed from the Holstein’s burgers and shakes that were just settling in our bellies. I was hit with the pang of remorse a loving father feels when he is 1000s of miles from his wife and kids — who is constantly away because I want to succeed for them, for you, but mostly for me.
As I sat by an artificial creek that ran through the outdoor shopping mall to sketch a bronze pair of statues, I couldn’t shake the interconnectedness of three discussions I had lately that explored the interplay of motivation, focus, and grace.
The first was a Facebook “discussion” (mostly me ranting) regarding the endorsement a friend of mine gave to a disillusioned evangelical who was decrying the evil of those who threatened to withdraw their support from World Vision’s reversal on its employment/ethics policy regarding those in active homosexual relationships. I found the article to be an unfair screed which characterized evangelicals such as myself with being out of touch with science, culture and “on the wrong side of history”. My friend was particularly sympathetic to the article’s claim that conservative Christians were putting politics over children’s lives and made the claim that a dollar withheld of WorldVision was directly (and willfully) depriving a child of food. To me, who has never provided support to World Vision, this complaint definitely hit close to home.
The bigger issue that I couldn’t get out of my mind was the idea that there is constant death around us. Constant suffering, like that of my fellow traveler mentioned earlier. Though I put forward a passionate defense of my fellow evangelicals, I was convicted that are actions are never really defensible. I’m well aware that if we really felt, and knew, the true nature of need in the world, I would cry out like Oskar Schindler:
If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person.
Every day I make so many selfish decisions. I put my heart in my job, in my abilities and my pleasures. How defendable are any of us before a standard such as this? I remember the time in college when I was seized by the gravity of my selfishness and offered all my possessions to the fellow college students in my house. It was passionate, selfless and valiant — until someone took my chair. Optimizing one’s life is hard and we show our true colors when our values conflict.
This point was driven home as I read about Jim Kim’s efforts at the World Bank to punish african nations (and therefore their populace) who are not supportive of active homosexual lifestyles. Just like my friend, I found myself indignant that someone would withdraw aid where needed, just like cities in the US that withdrew support for Catholic charities to the homeless and children in need of adoption because of dissonance between their doctrinal stance on abortion and progressive politics.
The Economist states the importance of focus well:
The uncomfortable truth is that an economic institution like the bank has to pick its battles. There is a limit to how many conditions outsiders can attach to their aid. Its aim is to encourage economic development. Most of the evidence is that the bank is most effective when client countries see it as an economic partner, rather than a boss imposing a Western agenda.
It seems we are all trying to optimize the world in our own image per our own objectives. Which calls into question my most prized possessions: my motivation and drive. I see my life priorities summarized as (1) Worship, (2) Love and (3) Achieve. As a Christian, I believe I was created to bring God glory, to worship Him. To worship Him is to serve Him, and to serve him is to love others with the love we desire for ourselves: both our family and others. To love others is to love my country and my world, who I want to make a more secure and better place. Hence my desire to achieve — to make a difference.
This third priority was called into question by another discussion when a coworker told me that he worked to support his family. Period. He didn’t work for national security. He didn’t work to find fulfillment. He didn’t work to prove to the world that he was somebody and that his life has value. While I know this friend to do excellent work, he made it clear where his vocational heart was.
To me, this is an irreconcilable position. I take great pride in my long hours. I want to teach my children the value of hard work. I want to teach them to make a difference and love the feeling of getting something done. I want to be a net giver professionally — to be a contributor, not organizational dead weight. Yes, I want to support my family, but in line with Jim Collins’ Good to Great, that is only of the three necessary conditions for meaningful work. I also love what I do and believe that I have the desire, motivation and capability to be the best in the world in my field. Isn’t that how everyone should approach their job? Aren’t those good things to want and doesn’t wanting them make me a better citizen, father and man?
What concerns me is the false dichotomy that I know we can all fall prey to. These days, I’m well aware that the good is the enemy of the better and there are so many seemingly good choices which are inconsistent with my goals. I’m convinced that maturing professionally is making the hard choices and deciding not to do many good things. It is all about focus and focus is all about priorities.
I hope to figure all this out, but I’m not there yet. What I do know is that I’m commanded to love, be humble and have an open heart that is ready to serve — despite my own desire to always get in the way. As for me, I’m thankful that the Christian conception is of a prodigal, not efficient Father. After all, isn’t His message of grace the most inefficient message in history? In any case, it certainly didn’t lack focus.