Saturday, February 19, 2005

Goal-Setting, A Christian Approach, Part 4

Joseph Sittler was a great theologian, celebrated around the world. But he never lost his simple faith or his simple touch.

He was one of first twentieth-century Christian thinkers to write about the relationship between faith and concern for the environment. But in a 1975 interview, a portion of which appears in a collection of Sittler’s thoughts and writings, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, he said that this hadn’t come about through deliberate forethought on his part. What he said in explaining this is worth quoting here in its entirety:
I have never found it possible to lay down a program regarding the apparitions of the providence of God. I look at my own life and I cannot be absolutely sure that the things that have happened to me, that seemed to be positive and useful, had a direct line to God’s providence. Some of these seemed to have been accidental. I was in the right place at the right time, and I happened to have been studying a subject just when somebody wanted something said about it. Maybe that’s the way the providence of God works, but I have no mathematics of providence. I feel that I have been providentially led, in that I had motivations I cannot fully understand.

For reasons that have nothing to do with Christian commitment, I have always been interested in nature and I just kept acting on that interest, not out of a service to God but because I enjoyed it. Then I found that what I did for enjoyment served well to help me relate theology to the environmental problem. That may be the way God gets his providential things done; and I hope it is. But I don’t want to stick him with it. You know, people often tell me, “Now I will make this decision, I will pray about it.” I must say (not with pride, because it’s nothing to be proud of) that I don’t pray about such things. When I was called to the University of Chicago, what I did was come down here for one brief quarter and try it out before making my answer to the invitation. Then I woke up one day to discover that inwardly I had already accepted the invitation. There was a thing to be done here; I felt competent to do it; it needed doing; it was worth doing.
Here is the testimony of one faithful follower of Jesus Christ whose notions about how to make decisions and set goals probably would strike some as being less than Christian. These folks believe, not without some warrant, that you first begin with an overall vision of your mission in life, then with dogged determination you pursue that vision through all your goals and decisions. They believe that one must wrest God's will for them out of God's reluctant hands.

I must confess that I have grown wary of such notions. Writer and blogger Rob Asghar agrees and mentioned a discovery he made after recently reading the autobiography of college basketball coach, John Wooden:
...Wooden didn't become the greatest college basketball coach in history by having a vision about being the best college basketball coach in history; he didn't win 10 titles by envisioning 10 titles; he didn't "focus" or "unleash" all his and others' energies on a specific goal.
John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, simply set out to build his team and program so that each time his players stepped onto the court, they could win. He took on his job in daily increments and put one foot in front of the other.

Life is composed of a succession of small moments, each one adding up to a lifetime. The goals embraced by some whose achievements are noteworthy or exemplary have been no more cosmic than to put their hands to the next worthy thing needing to be done. That’s what Sittler did. It’s what John Wooden did. The results in both cases were stunning.

This was the same approach to goal-setting taken by God-in-the-flesh, Jesus. Jesus knew full well what His overarching mission in life was. He was to go to Jerusalem where, as the perfect sacrifice for sin, He would die on a cross. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was so intent on that mission that “He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” [Luke 9:51]

While Jesus came to save the whole world from its sin [John 3:16], He practiced what I call the principle of the ripple. Jesus worked to have an impact on His own people, the Jews, never deliberately seeking out contact with non-Jews. (These are people described in our English translations of the Bible as gentiles, a word that translates the Greek term, ethnon, literally, the ethnics.) “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus once explained. [Matthew 15:24] Under this principle of the ripple, Jesus, Who had come for the whole world, seemed intent on first creating an impact through His life, death, and resurrection among the Jews, thereby unleashing the message of forgiveness and new life for all with faith in Him on the whole world. [Acts 1:8]

But Jesus also practiced what has been called a theology of interruptions. When a Roman soldier came with a request for the healing of his servant, Jesus paid heed [Matthew 8]. When a Samaritan woman of low repute asked Jesus for “living water,” He let her in on how she could have a new life [John 4].

When asked to depart from His normal modus operandi, Jesus laid aside His immediate agenda, to pursue His deeper goals. Jesus went to work on the next worthy thing at hand and clearly believed  that no matter whether it was part of His plan for the day, it was always the right time to do God’s will, loving God and loving neighbor. [Matthew 22:34-40] He even took this attitude when confronting arrest and execution. In the garden of Gethsemane, He prayed to God the Father, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup [His suffering and death] pass from Me; yet not what I want but what You want." [26:39]

In fact, Jesus told a celebrated story commending His theology of interruptions:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ [Luke 10:25-37]
You can't love others if you're not interruptible and you can't fulfill God's plan for your life if you don't love others.

A friend of mine once told me about a pastor who had gotten himself into so much trouble with his congregation that he felt compelled to resign his position.

“What was the problem?” I asked.

“He was a kook about efficiency,” my friend explained. “He made these pronouncements about his vision for the congregation and about his mission as the pastor. Then he’d spout things like, ‘Plan the work; work the plan.’ “

“So far,” I told my friend, “ with the exception of his being an annoying aper of cliches, he sounds like a good leader.”

“You’re right,” he said, “The problem was that he was so intent on his plan that he forgot about God’s plan. He ignored the needs of people that He could have helped, ignored things that in the long run, would have advanced his mission and vision. He was so focused on the minutiae of his plan that he forgot about the bigger plan of which he was a part.”

I wonder how many of us do that.

How many parents become so consumed with making the money they think is needed to give their children good lives that they become inaccessible and unknown to the kids?

How many managers become so involved in implementing a program they believe will make their company better that they forget to do the basics of leading people and maintaining good relations with their customers?

A good theology of interruption, with its openness to loving God and loving neighbor, even when it’s inconvenient and it’s not on that day’s to do list, serves God, our neighbors, our families, and all of us well.

Sometimes the shortest way to achieving our goals in life is to take a detour from them and put our hand to the next thing life throws our ways.

[Read the first three installments of this series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3]

[Note: An article on the 'theology of interruptions' appeared in a 1982 edition of the now-defunct, Lutheran Standard magazine. I can't find my copy. I'm sorry that I'm unable to give proper attribution at this time.]

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