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“Unless the Lord builds the house”

My wife gave me a “verse of the day” this morning — this isn’t habitual, and she had a slight grin on her face when she read it for me. But as she was reading Psalm 127:1-2, and as I was reflecting on it afterwards, this small act on her part was a beautiful picture of how God makes the husband-wife relationship one of necessary interdependence.

First, the passage: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain that you rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives to His beloved sleep.”

The revolutionary nature of this verse on where my heart has been cannot be overstated. It is good for us to labor–clearly, this verse supports that. However, it is fleeting, pointless, without lasting value, IF I do it apart from the simple belief that God, not me, will make the labor beneficial.

For example, when I sit down to grade a pile of essays, I am daunted. This is largely because I feel that my grading is the only factor that will impact my students’ writing. And, while I need to be ever pursuing a form of writing feedback that most benefits my students, I am not grading in a Christ-exalting way if I believe that my feedback effectiveness is the only factor that will impact my students. This is obvious in any school: some of the most technically sound writing feedback practices yield relatively small results, and some of the most technically unsound practices yield inordinately large results. There are factors at play in any classroom that are intangible; in my classroom, I must remind myself that that factor is and always has been God.

For the skeptic, this faith need not cause squirminess: what is the problem with a teacher who is dedicated to excellence, but who also does not suffer burn-out because he/she is not placing impossible pressure on him/herself? Such faith encourages the flourishing of both student and teacher.

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Book Review: The Integrated Life, by Ken Eldred

  • Manna Ventures
  • July 1997
  • 226 pp.

The idea that one’s faith should be fully lived out in all of life is, unfortunately, quite rare these days, yet we find it again and again in the Scriptures. But how does one really integrate faith and work? What can a Christ-follower offer a secular business? How can we go to work with God? In The Integrated Life, Ken Eldred sets out to answer these exact questions.

Ken Eldred is a man who has spent decades discerning the call of Christ in the realm of business. His book discusses the real life implications of this calling, and he makes the reader excited to go back to work on Monday with Jesus. Among other things, Eldred discusses profit (is it wrong? is it right?), spiritual capital, business goals, and ministry. On this lattermost point, I love that Eldred puts a voice to the false assumption that ministry and working outside of the church are mutually exclusive. Eldred draws on the biblical truth that we are all called to be ministers (servants).

And really, that’s what this book does best: it encourages and equips and empowers ministers of God to enter into the world of secular work. Though most of Eldred’s examples come from the business work, I found plenty of connections to my secular workplace (a public high school), and I’m sure you will as well. Definitely pick this one up!

Buy it at Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: Doing Virtuous Business, by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch

  • Thomas Nelson
  • March 2011
  • 176 pp.

Recommended. An intellectually stimulating treatment of the centrality of virtue in the workings of business.

If you’re interested in the intersections of faith and work, and if you enjoy a good romp through a business book every now and then, you’ll like Theodore Roosevelt Malloch’s Doing Virtuous Business: The Remarkable Success of Spiritual Enterprise.

First of all, however, you need to know that this isn’t a gospel-centered book. I love books that are explicit about how the gospel changes everything in life, from the way we live at home to the way we conduct ourselves in secular jobs. Yet, Malloch doesn’t spend time explicating the centrality of the gospel to the realms of business and economics. Instead, in the book’s introductory matter Malloch clarifies who he is and who he is writing for:

I write as a committed Christian, but what I say does not reflect a narrow or specifically sectarian Christian theology. Throughout the book I draw examples of virtue and spiritual enterprise from other faiths, and I heartily believe that spiritual enterprise is often conducted from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other perspectives, and that every religion and spiritual tradition offers blueprints for building spiritual capital in its own distinctive way.

While I do appreciate Malloch’s honesty–he abandons ambiguity and seeks to clarify his purpose and approach–the universal flavor of some sections of the book limits its effectiveness for Christians.

However, I still recommend Malloch’s book if one has a capacity for discernment and an eye for the goodness of God. Doing Virtuous Business is an intelligent testament to the biblical truth that God is the center and creator of all reality. Just as God made the physical world with governing principles like gravity, relativity, and atomic structure, there are principles that make up the fabric of moral reality. These principles, when applied to business, naturally create what Malloch calls spiritual capital. Upon developing this concept, Malloch spends the remainder of Doing Virtuous Business exemplifying how virtues like faith, honesty, gratitude, perseverance, compassion, and more create viable capitalistic enterprise.

For Christians who view wealth and capitalism as intrinsically against the gospel, Malloch will give you a healthy, biblical challenge. For those who work in the business world outside of the Christian bubble, you’ll find this book a refreshing and engaging look at why God’s ways work in the workplace. And for any public school teachers out there, there is plenty of useful food for thought in Doing Virtuous Business.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

How does the Gospel transform my professional life?

Here are some thoughts that came to me recently on how good the gospel is for those of us in secular workplaces, and in particular those of us working in public schools.

First, the gospel frees us to pursue excellence and fail, because God’s love for us is not based on our success–it is based on Christ’s success. For a success-driven man like me who loves being praised for my accomplishments, this is freeing. It means that I don’t need to take on solely the “safe” ideas or projects–I can take on whichever projects I know will have the most impact, even if they seem impossible. If I fail at an undertaking at work–let’s say, for example, that I plan a difficult unit or project, and my students totally don’t get it–the gospel means that I no longer am broken. Dave Stuart Jr. is no longer the sum of his successes; I no longer need to constantly prove myself through my aptitude at my job. Rather, I am the sum of Christ’s redeeming love for me on the cross; I am constantly and eternally and infinitely loved by God, due entirely to Christ’s death on my behalf.

And second, the gospel frees us to be honest on the job, even if such honesty will get us into trouble or cause us to lose our jobs. This type of self-forgetting honesty is possible because of our infinite security in the gospel. If Christ was willing to die for us–and remember, the death of Christ was an infinitely expensive death–then he really will care of us no matter what. God has poured all of his resources into us. Imagine the feeling of having your boss send you to a fancy conference across the country–it feels great to be invested in. It makes you feel secure. Infinitely moreso has God invested in us with the gospel.

What Do You Do When You Hear of Spectacular Student Sins?

Whether you teach on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or within the city limits of Baltimore or along a cornfield in Smallville, USA, you are bound to hear occasional reports of the self-destructive doings of your secondary students. I hate it when it happens, but, if you’re paying attention to your kids and seeking to know them better, you’re bound to come across reports of  students you love hacking away at their souls with pre-marital sex, substance abuse, or other foolish deeds. Yet, when we do, what should we do with this information?

One option is to ignore it. “I’m not a counselor,” we might rightly say, and then we move on with our instructional duties. This is true; we aren’t counselors. But, as Christians, we have the Wonderful Counselor residing within us; we have a constant communication link to the counselor who makes the most highly-paid counselors of our era seem like doddering fools. I don’t think that, as Christians, with access to the infinitely wise Creator of our students, we can simply ignore reports like these, though it surely may be a way to protect ourselves from emotionally draining information.

Another option is to laugh to ourselves or with a colleague. “These kids,” we might say. Using humor to cover up the intense hurt that our students are doing to themselves is just another form of self-protection.

A common option in these situations is to gossip about it. Gossip is the telling of unpleasant truths. Any time we share information about a student’s self-destructive exploits with someone besides the student or someone who can help the child, we gossip. Alarmingly, I find myself participating in this far too often. Just like the previous options, this is a form of self-protection. By telling someone, I get it off my chest.

Ultimately, this is a moral decision that cannot be joyfully made apart from the Gospel. Christ makes moral decisions both incredibly easy and infinitely challenging. He tells us that the first law is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We go to God with these disturbing tales; we seek and receive true comfort from our talks with Him, not the counterfeit comfort that comes with the thrill of sharing a dirty secret with a colleague. And the second command, Christ says, is similar: we are to love our neighbors just as we love ourselves.

But our students are not our neighbors… right? Asking “Who is my neighbor?” in response to Christ’s second command is as old as the command itself—and Christ responds with the parable of the good Samaritan, which effectively says, “The person right in front of you is your neighbor, whether they are of the same class, job, status, gender, or whathaveyou.” Our students are our neighbors, and we are to love them as we would want to be loved if we were them.

So, when we hear these secrets and are tempted to either ignore them or divulge them to colleagues, we can simply “put ourselves in their shoes.” If we were the student, making similarly terrible decisions, yet knowing deep down that these decisions were destroying us, what would we want done? First of all, I wouldn’t want someone to ignore or laugh about it; at least, deep down I wouldn’t. And second, I certainly wouldn’t want it spread around fruitlessly. What good would all of my teachers knowing my sin do for me? Nothing except do what I find teacher gossip most often does: create a tiny voice in the teacher’s head that says, “That student is unreachable. Move on to someone else.”

No, I wouldn’t want that. Instead, knowing what I know now, I’d want two things: first, for the teacher to pray for me; second, for the teacher to prayerfully pull me aside and ask me how things were going, perhaps even confronting me in a humble-bold manner.

The next time we hear of a stomach-churning, debaucherous deed done by one of our students, let’s put off the temptation to ignore it or laugh about it or gossip, instead turning to God with joy that we are able to be part of the redemptive work that Christ’s infinitely powerful blood and resurrection have made possible.

What do you do in these situations? What do you do when a colleague comes to you and begins gossiping about a student’s sin?

Three Passions all Teachers Must Possess

To teach well, three passions must exist in the heart of an educator:

  1. A passion for the content, be it English or Math or History or Science or Physical Education.
  2. A passion for students–one must enjoy and care about the people one aims to teach.
  3. A passion for the art of teaching–a perpetual researcher, a perpetual seeker of better and more effective ways to teach.

Problems arise when one of these is missing or out of order:

  1. When content is your sole passion, you tend to blame the students for not loving it. You become less and less able to comprehend why students aren’t excited the second they see Shakespeare or quadratic formulas or owl pellets. Sometimes, you may believe that you simply aren’t passionate enough about the particular unit you are teaching, so you may make changes to the unit that undermine the overall school’s goal of having a shared curriculum.
  2. When students are your sole passion, you become frustrated when they, who you care so much about, do not seem to care about the content you teach. They are happy to call you friend, but they merely bear with your insistence on teaching them. Slowly, you can begin to think that what is most important for the students is your relationship with them, not the content or thinking skills you have to teach them.
  3. When the art of teaching is your sole passion, you can become addicted to change. A hurricane of factors come together to tempt teachers and districts to worship innovation for innovation’s sake: the slew of research being done each year, the loads of money that publishers and educational consultants make each year by selling a new silver bullet, and the few teachers who yearly pull out the same worksheets and lesson plans with no desire whatsoever to  adapt to research-based strategies.

Obviously, I don’t hold this trinity of passions as the highest necessary loves of a teacher: above them all must be the Gospel. When Christ’s death on our behalf is the teacher’s central unifying principle, he is able to make his passion for his content subservient to the needs of his school; she is able to love students even when they are difficult to love; he is able to change his teaching when sound research supports such change.

What Does Jesus Do with our Biggest, Nastiest Work-Related Problems?

In Mark 5, a synagogue leader (Jairus) comes to Jesus desperate for the healing of his ailing daughter. The young girl is on the brink of death, and Jairus knows that Jesus is the last hope. Yet, on the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus apparently fails to see the urgency of Jairus’ daughter’s condition, because he stops and has a conversation with a healed woman. When they finally arrive at the house, Jesus claims that the girl is asleep (although everyone there knows that she is literally, physically dead). He goes into her and says what translates as, “Honey, get up.”

Tim Keller, while writing about the incident with Jairus’ daughter, says,

“Jesus is facing death, the most implacable, inexorable enemy of the human race and such is his power that he holds this child by the hand and gently lifts her right up through it. ‘Honey, get up.’ Jesus is saying by his actions, ‘If I have you by the hand, death itself is nothing but sleep.’

–Tim Keller, King’s Cross, p. 68

In this incident, we see several lessons to take with us to work:

1. If Jesus’ power so overwhelms death, it is our greatest resource on the job. As Christians, we are to strive toward excellence with every atom God has given us. Yet, problems will relentlessly arise in our tasks, our relationships, and our circumstances. We will have great idols to overthrow both within and outside of ourselves. No amount of human excellence will ever conquer death, and no amount of your excellence will ever conquer all of the problems you encounter in your job. In matters big and small, we must seek the master of death. Where we see death, he sees a mere nap. Where we see a mountain, he sees a pebble to be tossed into the sea. As Christians, we have access to the only infinite power in the universe.

2. God’s timetable isn’t our own. Jairus (and any of us who don’t know the end result of this event) could only have been mortified by Jesus’ lack of hurry. However, ultimately Jairus got much more than even he asked for–he got his daughter AND a deeper glimpse at the magnitude of Christ’s power. Jesus wasn’t just a healer–he was the killer of death.

3. The gospel is that Jesus makes death a mere nap for us by experiencing the fullness of its desolation and destruction in our place. This good news, if we repeat it to ourselves throughout our workday, if we pray that God will make it the beat of our heart, will utterly destroy the moralistic, legalistic, self-righteous, love-earning mentalities that Christians too often become infamous for in the secular workplace. Jesus Christ suffered every iota of death’s poisonous sting so that we don’t have to. Not a lick of our performance at work made his death any less bitter, any less toxic, any less complete. He died. He went to hell. For us. For our failures. For our weaknesses.

Now we can go to work alive. Successful through the redemption of our failures. Strong through the awareness and acknowledgement of our weakness.