The case for being on the back row, third from the left
‘Though famous speakers and evangelists today can reach thousands of people with one telecast, discipleship is done one relationship at a time by those we will never read about. Their legacy is seen in the lives of those they touched. Perhaps I will never find the spotlight. But my value to the kingdom of God is not determined by my ability to attract or hold the spotlight. Instead, it is determined by my willingness to listen, learn, and be used by Jesus, whenever and however he desires.’
(Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship after Epic Failure
By Daniel Hochhalter)
I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Cowpland for (reading this book and) digging out this quote.
Just read a lovely blog post by cartoonist Jessica Abel that adds a healthy corrective to the business of not-dying-with-your music-still-inside you.
Don’t get too hung up on the idea is possibly the take-home. Or maybe, don’t make an idol out of it.
It is wonderful, and energizing, and satisfying, to launch out to do the thing you’ve always really wanted to do. But, she counsels wisely:
allow yourself some wiggle-room: You need not feel trapped by whatever you think you “must” be doing creatively. Maybe you want to be a musician. That can play out in dozens of ways. Some more likely to pay the bills than others.
Vocation doesn’t have to be epic or worldchanging: look for what you can do that’s useful, that gives you pleasure, and do more of that.
It’s kind of basic to being a Christian. We want to know God’s will and follow it. You can’t call Christ ‘Lord, Lord’ and then go off and ignore what he says. We have to pursue obedience.
But for me the Christian life only works when we pursue joy as well.
My experience is that we try to do things faithfully and obediently but without joy we can manage to a certain extent—and we have to, because we all have to do stuff we don’t particularly like doing.
But if that’s all we do, and we do it for a long time, we start to run out of steam, get cynical, feel trapped. We may not know how it happened—we never wanted it to happen—but we know it has happened or is currently now happening. Externally we can look fine but internally, we know things are not so good.
(Of course the other side is true too. If we merely pursue pleasure and happiness, that too becomes rather empty.)
A kind of repentance
Somehow—it seems to me—the fruitful place is when we are under the influence of both faithfulness and joy. We obey Christ. But we lean towards, move into, preferentially choose, those tasks and roles that seem to answer a deep longing in our hearts, those things that nourish us, those things we love. ‘I have food’ said Jesus to the disciples, ‘of which you know nothing.’ He found joy and nourishment in his obedience.
Choosing joy as well is obedience is a kind of repentance. Why? Because it is turning away from a focus on jobs to be done and gaps to be filled and turning back to Christ himself. It is realizing, again, we have an audience of just One, and everything we do we do for him. It is seeking to have him re-create us again, a bit more in his image. It’s admitting our need and helplessness, not looking to him for a medal.
To make the maximum impact for good with your life:
keeping doing the simple things that you love and are good at.
It might be called the ‘horse chestnut principle’. If a conker can avoid being stolen by squirrels or collected by children, it can become a horse chestnut tree, huge and lovely.
Here’s an open letter, from a much-loved Sri Lankan Christian leader Ajith Fernando, to elderly theologian J I Packer. It’s a testimonial to Packer’s long lifetime, to Ajith Fernando’s consistent service, and to the compounding power of faithfulness.
My friend’s eyes lit up when he saw the chairs, so we asked him about them. These were chairs that had somehow tumbled down through the generations of my wife’s family and ended up with us. He picked one up.
‘Aw, this would have been made somewhere between 1860 and 1880. Mahogany? No: rosewood. Lovely. Balloon-back rosewood dining chair. Put a little bit of detergent in water and they’ll come up lovely. Very easy to take apart, reglue, beautiful job, last you another 100 years.’
He picked up another.
‘But this one, ugh, look, someone’s put some screws in here.’ (The screws too were probably antique). ‘See, here too. Goes right through the tenon joint and splits it. Bodged job, no wonder it’s unsteady. Probably was steady for about half an hour after they screwed it.’
‘Can you fix it?’
‘Oh yeah. But it’s a lot more difficult.’
The original job for which we’d called him in (fitting some doors) was forgotten as he lifted and turned and scrutinized the antique chairs with something like love in his eyes.
It’s not actually a Biblical idea; which is a problem.
I was galvanised when I first came across this phrase. Actually, since galvanised means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, I wasn’t literally galvanised, but you know what I mean. The electrodes sizzled and cracked and I sat up sharply. A burst of electricity, and I had a new resilience.
Don’t die with your music still inside you. This was a sustaining thought during the dark period that followed my month-long coma in 2013. I tried to get back to health, for two reasons. To enjoy time with my family again. And to write the stuff that had been going on in my heart all my life. That phrase about ‘my music’ and ‘not dying’ was a sword for the fight.
I did recover, and it’s wonderful, and the stream of books I wanted to write has started to dribble. (See the sites for my fiction and my non-fiction.) I encourage everyone everywhere to take that phrase to heart and do something about it, whenever they can.
But as an idea, it isn’t quite true. It chimes with many Biblical themes: gifting, vocation. Everyone serving each other by doing what they love to do most.But does it account for the obstacles and traps? For the stumbles in a broken world? For the person who gave themselves to caring for others rather than expressing the deep longings of their heart? For the child you lost or never had? For the fact that sometimes in our lives the night-time blinds are drawn in the middle of bright day?
Is it true that, for love’s sake, some people do ‘die with their music still inside them’? Or does the brokenness of the world sometimes prevent it?
In truth, I think, everything in this pre-death life is just a preliminary. It’s just the starter for the eternal meal, and we don’t always even finish the starter. Our ‘music’ is not just for this life, but for eternity. Let’s hope some will emerge now, but anyways it will emerge later. It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright now, that means it’s not the end.
Eternity isn’t just about marvelling over the unfolding creativity of God. We were built in his image. Through the unravelling ages we will be creating—letting out the music—alongside him.
My colleague Flora, from the mission where I work, wrote this:
Two years ago I took time out from ministry, having got near breaking point. This was the result of at least 8 years of trying to cover more than one leadership role. My time out enabled me to recognise that I also have an inbuilt tendency to fill gaps rather than let things fall apart. It has been hard to step away and see others struggle because I am no longer picking up pieces.
Five months of rest and reflection led me to realise I could not go back to team leadership. One of the problems when you are gifted in different areas and good at multi-tasking is discerning what God wants to do through you. In recent years I had come to recognise that at heart I am a mission mobiliser, encouraging people into the adventure of sharing the gospel cross-culturally. Part of my struggle was that I had become tied to a desk. Also, I knew that as a mission mobiliser with no time or opportunity to develop personal experience of cross-cultural evangelism I was at a severe disadvantage.
As I laid this before God I found Him opening up areas of ministry I would never have imagined. Eighteen months on I am in regular contact with refugees and asylum seekers of different nationalities in my city and have a number of Muslim friends. Through my church I am now involved in evangelism and discipleship, primarily with Iranians. Recently I had the joy of helping to baptise six new followers of Jesus!
At the same time God has opened up doors of opportunity and influence locally and nationally as a mission mobiliser.
Flora’s story echoed with me. Perhaps there are seasons when we have to fill gaps and serve our organisation. But it drains us, and it we know it. Unless gap-filling is our particular gift, there comes a time when we have to get out, rethink, and get into what we love and are good at. For Flora, it took a sabbatical; for me illness.
Vocation is about ‘where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.’1
It can seem like a luxury if you don’t have a minute to spare in the day. If you’re tired all the time. Or if you’re holding down job(s) just to pay the bills.
Vocation isn’t a luxury.
Especially if you’re tired, stressed, or overworked, it’s an essential. It’s daily bread for your soul.
What is vocation for you? What satisfies your heart? Painting? Hospitality? Intercessory prayer? Helping others? Seeing kids grow? Reading? Dance?
Find some time just for this. It might be only half an hour an month. It might mean going to bed late or setting the alarm early. You can manage that once a month.
I am in the happy position of having nearly died (three times). I have had my heart restarted after it stopped. I have spent a month in a coma. I’ve actually forgotten how many times I’ve been carried in an ambulance with the blue lights flashing.
One thing I learnt was this. Don’t die with your music still inside you. Do something about it, however small.
If you’re coming at this article from the background of a Christian faith, understand that your vocation is the best thing you can do for the Kingdom of God. It’s the best way of serving God and neighbour. Vocation, in these terms, has an audience of just One: the lover of your soul. Do it for him.
If that isn’t your background, pursue your deepest love anyway. Do it this month. Start somewhere. You will find you are not so stressed, not so overworked in the rest of your time. And you know that seasons change, kids grow up, the mortgage gets paid, space opens. Don’t miss the moments you can prise out, like diamonds, from a barren-feeling life.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?2. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’3.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’4.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.