The better question

Before I took writing, freelancing, and editing as seriously as I do now, I worked in the field of education. For 12 years my days were designed and scheduled to meet certain – very rigid and specific – goals. The progress of students in the general education classroom was recorded with a sharp pencil and held to a measure that included no grey.

Before that I was in higher education – not the same demographic, but still, results driven. For the students, it was the almighty grade report. For the university it was enrollment numbers and employed graduates. And, the better the positions, the better the reflection on the school.

I’ve worked in the field of law, where results are measured by cases won or deals closed, as well as the status of clientele.

As an entrepreneur in retail, I was anything but successful, but we did manage to keep the doors open for each one of the five years we didn’t make a dime.

In each situation, the goal was well-defined. And, not unlike most everything else in the world, success was described as a measurable accomplishment…

  • students who perform at or above the benchmark level
  • well-deserved and distinctive colored-roping on the otherwise rather bland graduation attire
  • appearing close to the top of the first page when best college for engineering is Googled
  • bragging rights at the yearly person-of-the-year award for beating the “other guy” and landing the richest customer in town

Every position, situation, organization, and industry has their own definition of winning. And, for the most part, we work hard and long, hoping for recognition.

Unfortunately, I believe, the American pursuit of success may have seriously warped our vision.

For instance, we outwardly admire those who work tirelessly for altruistic causes that seem fruitless, describing them with words like sacrificial, noble, and selfless. But, when introduced to those who work with the disenfranchised, marginalized, and different, we often assume a slumped-shoulder posture and a sorry little tilt of the head, as we applaud their efforts with our sing-song words. Kind of like the way we speak to someone whose marriage fell apart or who lost their job.

And just under that veneer of encouragement is a layer of sympathy mixed up with inexplicable embarrassment, seasoned with just the barest hint of oh thank goodness that’s not me.

I cringe as I realize I’ve just described myself – far too often.

But we are supposed to strive for the goal set before us, we say.
We are expected to do our best, exercise our gifts and talents, eschew laziness, and pursue success, we claim.
And the clincher: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, we quote
(Colossians 3:23).

About that last one… we put the emphasis on the first part, while we trail off on as working for the Lord. We commit to memory and write a life lesson for our children to work hard – but we overlook the fact that there is no mention of success. It doesn’t say work hard to be the best or to please your boss or get ahead or gain a ding-dang thing.

It says to work as if you were working for God himself.

But what if I’m called to the mission field, or to start a ministry of music, or write inspiration books, or plant churches in remote places?

And this is where I start to push back in the gentlest way with the firmest, gloved hand…

I have a real problem with the word calling (which I talked more about here). We hear it all the time and, in almost every case, meant with sincerity and the utmost respect for God’s word and work. Pastors, musicians, college graduates, mature 8th graders, and us regular old nobodys all speak of what God has called us to do – and, therefore, what we need to work at with all our hearts (i.e. Colossians 3:23) in an effort to find success.

But here is your Greek lesson for the day. According to Biblehub.com, the word is klésis, and means:

calling
used of God inviting all people to receive His gift of salvation –
with all His blessings that go with it 

So, the truth is, God has called us to spread the good news. He’s called us all.

I think the real question is what has God asked us to do? Maybe you feel the nudge to –

  • travel to a far-away mission field
  • start a ministry of music
  • write inspiration books
  • plant churches in remote places
  • hold a Bible study in your home

Maybe you are a fantastic lawyer and spokesman, or natural teacher, or you love to garden and landscape, or cleaning is your thing (really?), or you make things to sell, or you know that you were created to take care of your babies.

All of those jobs and positions are worthy of hard work and perseverance. All of them are important in the world, whether they promote justice, beauty, or simple humanity.

And we should work hard to do what God has asked us to accomplish on Earth.

But Mother Teresa once said, “We are called upon not to be successful, but faithful.”

We observe and evaluate the noble and selfless.

  • Perhaps they never do convince the woman who has been used up to leave the pimp or the lonely and forgotten man give up the bottle.
  • Perhaps it’s always the same ten ne’er-do-wells who show up at the service – but only for the hot meal served afterward.
  • Maybe they don’t achieve asylum for the young mother who fears for the life of her children if she returns home.
  • Maybe they bury more gang members than they rescue… or invest in every agonizing hour of his withdrawal only to see him return to that life of addiction.

Yes, in this out-come-based world we live in, it looks pretty sad and pitiful because those isolated success stories printed on shiny paper do not truly reflect the truth and failures of the work so faithfully performed.

And at the same time, those sad and pitiful results reflect little to none of the gold-standard level of devotion and commitment that shines from the sacrificial, noble, and selfless.

Do I object to success and wealth? I don’t think so. It’s true I have my own brand of envy for writers who have a steady stream of followers and book contracts. And I do have my own algorithms for what should be “enough” (although I admit it is based on a wildly inaccurate view of wealth and true poverty). But pictures of success are encouraging for people who are discouraged about what God asks them to do. We help each other’s earthly need for satisfaction by repeating stories with good endings.

Although I am quite sure I’d carry any real writing success with a significant limp and the entirely wrong wardrobe, I often wish (pray?) that I’d be more recognized for my words. I’d like to be considered wise, witty, thoughtful, even quotable.

But I’m having a serious change of heart and perspective. Oh, sure, I’ve said many times that if anything I have written or will write makes a significant difference in the life of even only one person, I would consider myself successful.

But I need to own that claim.

My lovelies, I need to remember that my calling – just like yours – is to invite people to the Kingdom. At the same time, I believe God has asked me to do that, in part, through the written words of a regular old nobody.

I just finished reading Tattoos on the Heart – the Power of Boundless Compassion, by Fr. Gregory Boyle. (I plan to read it again every year. And if you let me know, I’ll buy you a copy, too.) He speaks of success in a chapter I thought would entertain us with stories of his homies and how they rediscovered their true selves – imago dei – at Delores Mission and Homeboy Industries, in the rough streets of Los Angeles, California.

Instead I read, reread, underlined, tagged, and reread again this paragraph:

Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa’s take: “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.” … Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever’s sitting in front of you. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success become God’s business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful.

Tattoos on the Heart, pp. 167-168

Success becomes God’s business. Good golly, Miss Molly.

Not, I pray for success in God’s work.
Not, surely God will bless this because I felt called.
Not even All glory goes to God who gave me the strength. Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

No. Success is God’s business – not mine.

My business – which is not always easy, but definitely simple – is saying “Yes” when He asks.

And now until we write and read again, I pray for you …

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