What’s Your Next Move? Ingenuity, Faith, and Your Current Lot in Life (Sermon Notes)
This is the eighth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 1, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.
We’re inviting several of you off and on this fall to tell us a bit about what you do outside of the church, so we can pray that we’ll be able to find God and the inspiration God brings in all of life, and participate in our own way in what Jesus calls his kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.
And today I’ve invited _______ to join us to answer a few questions…
- So tell us just a little bit about yourself. (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact or two)
- And what have you chosen to tell us that you do you outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or if your primary work these days is a volunteer passion, or at home, or looking for work, etc., then that)
- Follow-up question from Steve – what is the best thing about this work?
- What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
- How can we pray for you?
Like many of you, I now and then attend little conferences and professional meetings to keep myself fresh and learning in my work. But unlike most of you, I’ve found myself surprisingly in this job as a pastor, so when I go to job alike meetings, it’s to spend a day or two with other pastors. And as you may imagine, this is occasionally a drag, as religious people can have some difficult hang-ups, some of which show up when pastors spend time together. But other times it’s just gold. I have so much to learn, and I find someone interesting to talk with, or I make a new friend, and that’s great.
Well, the other week I had one of these days when Dana, our worship pastor, and I, went to one of these meetings and were surprised to find we’d be spending a day with an older gentleman named Gordon MacDonald. Now this is a niche industry, this world of pastors, but Gordon’s kind of a big deal in that world. In the late twentieth century, he was the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in New England and pretty regularly a best-selling author as well. There was a time when Bill Clinton had one of his very publicly exposed affairs and he was trying to rebuild his marriage and his reputation, and Gordon MacDonald was one of the people that met regularly with the president to offer him counsel and prayer.
So here we are, with this legendary figure in our field, now 76 years old and out of the spotlight, and what he does is spend the day offering us some perspective on how to live a long life well and how to think about being an effective pastor. I wanted to be the cool kid who didn’t take any notes, but I found myself filling the little paper pad the conference hotel had given us.
And one of these nuggets that Gordon had to share I thought would set us up pretty well for a place I want to take you today. So I’m going to pass it on.
Gordon’s done a lot of mentoring over the past few decades, and he’s developed his own language around the various life stages people tend to go through. And I want to share these with you and see how they resonate. We’ve printed these on your program notes, so you can have them. Each stage has a name and a central question or two we tend to ask in that stage. These could be loosely correlated with a given decade in a lifespan, so that Gordon presents them with ages – the first being the teenage years and the last the 80-something years and beyond. But I’ve removed the ages because we can be in more than one of these stages at once, we hit them at different times, and sometimes we don’t move through them in any kind of linear manner.
But here they are.
One Person’s Take on Life Stages:
- Identity – Who am I? Who am I becoming?
- Goals, Place, Community – What will I do with my life, and with whom will I do it?
- Order and Responsibility – How do I manage my responsibilities and commitments and keep myself renewed?
- Uncertainty – How do I feel about the person I have become? How do I face my limitations?
- Change and Intentionality – What is my vision for the second half of my life? Will I continue to grow in depth and effectiveness, or have I reached a ceiling in life?
- Diminishing – Is there still a place for me? What does a person of my age and experience bring to the table?
- Grieving and Rearranging – How do I handle the inevitable sense of loss in my life?
- Legacy, Death, Remembrance – How do I face obscurity? What can I offer a world that seems to see me as obsolete? End of life issues.
I don’t know how these sound to you. If you felt like one of them described some of your current lot in life, maybe make a note of that. We’ll return to these. I know, though, that for Dana and me, we’re each in our very early 40s, and heard Gordon describing what for many becomes a decade of uncertainty, where in our 40s, we confront all that we haven’t achieved and who we have and haven’t become by this stage of life. And we were struck to the bone by this insight that people in their 40s often look at their strengths and weaknesses in their work and in their personal life management, in their parenting if they have kids, as I do, and they think really? This is all that I am? Maybe this is the best I can do. This is why Gordon – consistent with happiness research in the Western world – has said that it’s amazing just how many people, specifically men, hit a tremendous low at age 47. He says again and again, he’s talking to people who are pretty unhappy and trying to come to terms with their limitations, and he’ll ask them how old they are, and nine times out of ten they say, 48, or 46, 47. I can’t speak for Dana, but I thought, wow, here we are, the decade of facing our limitations, the decade of uncertainty.
Anyway, I thought of these stages and wanted to share with you in the context of this fall series we’re entering our final month in before we start gearing up for the Christmas season.
We called the series Inspired: the whole of life with God in the picture. And last month, Will Messenger and I both talked about the work we do in life, how we can find purpose and pleasure in that work, how we can even become an inspiration to others in what we do. And then last week, our founding pastor Dave was in town and he spoke about abundance, about how we can discover gratitude and traction, or movement, in our lives, regardless of whatever limitations our current circumstances present.
And this week, I want to take that idea of traction that Dave left us with and go a step further with it, asking what it is that we can do when we notice the fundamental questions and dilemmas of the moment of life we sit in. Do we need to resist these stages and questions, distracting ourselves from their challenges? Do we grit our teeth and make the best of things, pushing off the inevitable emotional funk? Or can faith unlock a particular form of ingenuity, so we become bold and creative with our next steps, making the most of our current lot in life?
Let’s get to these questions by way of a story we’ve been exploring this fall, the old Hebrew domestic story called the book of Ruth. Ruth again, is a young widow, whose husband died before they had any children. And her mother-in-law Naomi is also an impoverished widow. Ruth is a Moabite, but Naomi is a Jew, and together they’re settling in as refugees in Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, where Ruth has joined her as an immigrant. They’ve discovered that Naomi has a cousin by marriage, this guy named Boaz, who owns a farm, and he’s been generous to them, giving Ruth employment, safe working conditions, and the opportunity to provide for herself and her mother in law. And we’ll pick up the story with what happens next, in the third chapter of the book.
The passage is printed on your program, but I’ll be commenting a fair bit as we go along.
Ruth 3 (NLT)
One day Naomi said to Ruth, “My daughter, it’s time that I found a permanent home for you, so that you will be provided for. Boaz is a close relative of ours, and he’s been very kind by letting you gather grain with his young women. Tonight he will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. Now do as I tell you—take a bath and put on perfume and dress in your nicest clothes. Then go to the threshing floor, but don’t let Boaz see you until he has finished eating and drinking. Be sure to notice where he lies down; then go and uncover his feet and lie down there. He will tell you what to do.”
“I will do everything you say,” Ruth replied. So she went down to the threshing floor that night and followed the instructions of her mother-in-law.
So I should have warned you, this is one strange scene. Naomi’s like, you, Ruth need a home. And that wouldn’t hurt Naomi either, since that would get her a home as well. And in this culture, where single women couldn’t buy property, that means a husband. Naomi points out that Boaz is a close relative which in their context is a good thing; he’s marriageable, and he’s generous with his grain, so maybe there’s more where that came from.
So Naomi says, how about getting all clean and dressed up and sneaking into his bed in the middle of the night. There’s a plan. What could go wrong?
Now the commentaries on this passage are confused. They point out that other than this book, there are very few written records of domestic Jewish life from 3000 years ago, and so they don’t really know very much about marriage and family relationships and courting and sex in this culture. They do know that the foot is likely a euphemism for male genitals in this culture, so there’s a pretty good shot that Naomi is telling Ruth to take sneak up on the semi-drunken Boaz, take the man’s sheet off of him, lie down against his lap and see what happens. Which is a pretty interesting plan for a mother-in-law to give to her daughter in law, but Ruth says, OK, and off she goes.
After Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he lay down at the far end of the pile of grain and went to sleep. Then Ruth came quietly, uncovered his feet, and lay down. Around midnight Boaz suddenly woke up and turned over. He was surprised to find a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked.
So we might forget that 3000 years ago, there were no lights in Boaz’ barn where he lay down or actually anywhere else in the world, so nights indoors were really, really dark, but Boaz turns over, and there’s a woman lying at his “feet”, and he says, “Woah! Who is this?”
“I am your servant Ruth,” she replied. “Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer.”
Lots of code language here. “Spread the corner of your covering over me” isn’t just wrap the sheet around us, Boaz. It’s a metaphor. Ruth is proposing to Boaz, saying bring me into your household, marry me. Why? Well, because he’s her family redeemer.
We’ll talk next week much more about this concept of redemption, but the basic idea was that if you were a man, and one of your married male relatives died, you were in a position to take his widow into your household, to marry her, and provide for her. This was called buying her back from the brink, or redeeming her. And Boaz, as a relative of Naomi, is – Ruth thinks at least – the guy in the position to take her in. But Boaz gives her kind of a yes and no response…
“The Lord bless you, my daughter!” Boaz exclaimed. “You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor. Now don’t worry about a thing, my daughter. I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you are a virtuous woman. But while it’s true that I am one of your family redeemers, there is another man who is more closely related to you than I am. Stay here tonight, and in the morning I will talk to him. If he is willing to redeem you, very well. Let him marry you. But if he is not willing, then as surely as the Lord lives, I will redeem you myself! Now lie down here until morning.”
So Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet until the morning, but she got up before it was light enough for people to recognize each other. For Boaz had said, “No one must know that a woman was here at the threshing floor.” Then Boaz said to her, “Bring your cloak and spread it out.” He measured six scoops of barley into the cloak and placed it on her back. Then he returned to the town.
When Ruth went back to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “What happened, my daughter?”
Ruth told Naomi everything Boaz had done for her, and she added, “He gave me these six scoops of barley and said, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”
Then Naomi said to her, “Just be patient, my daughter, until we hear what happens. The man won’t rest until he has settled things today.”
So Boaz tells Ruth, there’s this one other guy who technically has the right to marry you first, so he’s got to go talk to that guy before he has an answer to her proposal. But meanwhile, she spends the night in Boaz’ bed, probably without any further intimacy, since Boaz thinks it’s really important to do things properly.
But still, there’s a whiff of scandal here, as Boaz hustles her out before daylight so no one will see, and sends her off with a gift.
And home Ruth goes to tell her mother-in-law about her adventures in Boaz’ bedroom.
Now if nothing else, you have got to say these are some bold women! There’s none of this, “I would really love it if that guy would notice me and get his stuff together and ask me out.” Forget that, she hops into his bed in the middle of the night and asks him to marry her!
Now there’s a caveat to be said, I suppose. She lived in a culture that had this family redeemer system, where Boaz had potentially an obligation to take her into his household. And while they lived in a patriarchal culture, where men could often have their way, they also lived in a communal culture, where if Boaz took advantage of Ruth, everyone would find out and there’d be consequences for him as well. And Ruth and Naomi had plenty of evidence that Boaz was a good man, and a trustworthy man. But still, the boldness!
I think one way of seeing what’s going on is that Ruth and Naomi are really owning their life stages and deciding to do something about their questions.
Ruth is in the goals, place, community phase. She’s asking what she’s going to do with her life, and particularly with whom is she going to do it? She doesn’t want to be alone. She wants a partner.
And Naomi is in the change and intentionality phase, trying to figure out what the second half of her life is going to look like, when so much from the first half is lost. But she’s also dealing with legacy and remembrance, just ahead of schedule. Because Jews in her era didn’t really believe in a concrete afterlife. Their main concept of life after death was through their descendants. But Naomi doesn’t have any. So she’s asking how will my memory live on? What will our legacy be?
And what they’re doing is owning their lot in life and their questions, and they’re letting their questions spur them to action!
The former CEO Jack Welch had this famous bit of advice, which is to face reality as it is, not as it was or you wish it to be. And I see Naomi and Ruth doing just that – facing their lot in life, finding trustworthy people to involve, and jumping into action.
I’ve been around some other people lately who were doing this. One was that pastor Gordon MacDonald, who identified as being in the stages of diminishment, and of grieving and remembering. He said he has less influence than he used to have, and every week he gets the news that someone he knows has died, and when he meets up with his longtime friends, they talk about their latest doctors’ visits and diagnoses. And this has its own sadnesses, of course.
So what he does is he takes every opportunity he can to mentor younger people, to find his contribution in encouraging the next generation. To not just give in to diminishment, to ensure his legacy really. And he takes long walks where he argues with God about the things that bother him and asks God to do the things he can’t do anymore.
He’s taking that question, What does a person of my age and experience bring to the table? And he’s finding people who want his perspective and wisdom, even if they no longer want his leadership. And with the question, “How do I handle the inevitable sense of loss in my life?” Well, he talks with God about that every day.
I’m also spending time around a number of friends who are single and past the point when they really want to be single anymore. And so they can find these stages and questions stacking up on them a little. They’re not kids, so they have the “order and responsibility” phase, figuring out all the grown up questions about jobs and bills and all that. But they’re single, and live in an area like Cambridge that has some transience of people and in an economy where jobs change, so they’re still facing these goals, place, and community questions about life direction and partnership. Meanwhile, sometimes they’re getting along in life, and are facing these questions about uncertainty and limitations as well.
And frankly, it can be kind of overwhelming to have these life stages and questions stack up like that. It’s stressful. And they’re wondering, “What can I do about this?” But in a couple of cases, they’ve been saying, Steve, you know what, I’m giving online dating a try again. It feels risky, it feels like it might not net me anyone, but I want to try. So I’m going for it.” And I so admire their courage and their action.
Now I’ve been married for what feels like forever, so please forgive me if say anything tone deaf about being single here. I really do care. And I find that at one point or another, pretty much every single person I know thinks to themselves, It just isn’t good for me to be alone.
And I see people make moves to resolve this question in different ways. They give online dating a shot. Or they ask people out on dates, or say yes to a first date with people who ask them. They let go of the fantasy of the soulmate and realize that almost every person who is partnered has discovered that there’s no perfect person for me, there’s just the possibility of a person that I would love enough to choose to partner with together.
And then there are other friends who aren’t really pursuing a romantic or a marriage solution to this “It’s not good to be alone” situation, but they’re making friends and they’re looking at the friends in their life and saying, “Hey, can we talk about this being friends in life together – and thinking about their moves and their housing and their weekends in the context of letting these friendships have a partnership quality to them.
Regardless of what to do about being alone, I so respect all my friends who with this question or with any other are disposed toward action, risk, and faith. Because we don’t choose the setting of our lives, and we don’t choose the previous chapters in our story. All that is our lot in life at the moment. It is what it is. But we do get to write the next chapter. We do get the awesome freedom of improvising the next act in our story!
This ingenuity and this bent toward making the most of circumstances, though, isn’t actually all that common in my experience. Because it’s hard!
I find myself at least, that it’s much more common to simply be afraid. And to end up stressed and paralyzed in our fear.
I find myself these days, as I mentioned, in the “uncertainty” phase of life. How do I feel about the person I have become? And how do I face my limitations? And for lots of folks I know in their 40s, they’re hitting this phase hard in their careers. As they stop getting promoted, or they’re unemployed or otherwise feel misplaced or have lost passion and impact at work.
For me, though, I have this joy and privilege of pastoring the most remarkable church in a really exciting time, and you all are just so good and affirming of me. So work is pretty darn great in my world.
But I do have the rest of my life. To be fair to my family and friends, I’m not going to get in a lot of detail, but suffice it to say that there have been five or six times in the past two weeks where one way or another, I have said to a friend, I am so limited as a friend or a brother or a son or a father. They’ve all come up. Just facing some real distance between the kind of person I wish I was, and the kind of person life is teaching me that I am right now.
And that’s been emotional for me, and it’s been kind of overwhelming to not really have an answer to this question of how I face my limitations.
And I find in that being overwhelmed, I do the same thing that almost everyone I know does when they are overwhelmed. I do nothing. I cave to fear and paralysis.
Because who wants to take on the seemingly unsolvable questions of our life! Doing nothing doesn’t get us anywhere, but it’s easy to be stuck in that space.
So easy, so common, in fact, that Jesus tells us a story about this, that will round out our insights from Ruth, I think.
This will be the second scripture on your program. Jesus says this:
Matthew 25:14-30 (NLT)
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. He gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last—dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip.
“The servant who received the five bags of silver began to invest the money and earned five more. The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more. But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money.
“After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money. The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, ‘Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more.’
“The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’
“The servant who had received the two bags of silver came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two bags of silver to invest, and I have earned two more.’
“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’
“Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate. I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.’
“But the master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! If you knew I harvested crops I didn’t plant and gathered crops I didn’t cultivate, why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.’
“Then he ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
So if we can assume that in Jesus’ story, told shortly before his death, he’s kind of like this guy about to go on a long trip, then we have this:
We all have different lots in life. It can look like some of us have one bag of silver, some two, some five, and so on. Life’s not fair, but there it is.
Jesus seems to be hoping we’ll do something with whatever we have. That we’ll invest and trade it, and make a return. That we’ll be part of the good things Jesus cares about seeing done on earth, stuff we’ve been talking about now and then this fall.
And it looks like some of these investments in this story are going great. People are doubling what they got! Jesus tells a version of this story another time, and some people are earning 1000% return on their investments. And we think, wow, to get that kind of return requires some serious ingenuity, it requires risk. Not unlike the bold move Ruth and Naomi made to find Ruth a partner and find Naomi a legacy. It was risky, it was ingenious.
And the master in this story – let’s call him God – says, “Way to go! I trust you. Let’s celebrate.”
But there’s this one person who’s nervous. He’s overwhelmed by the responsibility of silver. And he’s paralyzed by the big question of what to do when other people have a head start on him. They have more, so he thinks at least, I’ll try not to lose what I’ve got, and he buries it in the ground. After all, he thinks this master is capricious and harsh, and doesn’t want to screw up. So he digs up the silver and says, here’s your money back.
But the master doesn’t want it. He’s furious.
And I’ve found myself thinking, why is the reaction so over the top? And here’s my thought this week:
Jesus doesn’t want us to be paralyzed by fear.
We think that with the most precious things in life – our careers, our kids, our dreams, our hopes to be partnered, our legacy, whatever – that the most important thing is that we hold on to what we have and that we don’t screw it up.
But Jesus tells this story and flips that assumption on its head. He says, that’s the worst. And maybe he gives the master such an over the top reaction to shock us out of our assumptions here. The most important thing isn’t not screwing up, the most important thing is faith, is movement, is courage.
Every person who tries in these stories wins. Every person. It’s like you can’t lose when you try in faith, or if you lose, it just doesn’t matter. The Gerald May quotation on the slide says, “I would prefer a thousand mistakes in extravagance of love to any paralysis in wariness of fear.” And I think that’s truly what God thinks, whatever life stage we’re in, whatever questions we’re facing.
Looking for people we can trust, hatching our most ingenious plan, and giving it a shot makes God happy. It makes God say, “I’m proud of you for trusting me. In fact, that makes me kind of trust you back. And it makes me want to celebrate.”
I see this in Ruth and Naomi with their ingenious action when facing loneliness and a lack of heirs. What Ruth does, however strange it looks to us, is done in faith and love and good will, so it’s not sketchy, or shameful. It gets the Bible’s tacit approval.
I see this in my friends who are single in a really funky 21st century urban landscape for single folks, and they’re giving it a shot to not be alone, best as they know how. And I think, God is proud of them for trusting God and acting.
I see a mentor in his 70s, taking his morning walks to argue with God and then going out to find young people to mentor, and I think, wow, God is proud of that man. And I’m fortunate to have spent a day with him.
And that gives me the courage to approach my children or my brothers or my parents and friends and to say, I’d like to figure out a way to do better in our relationship, even though I don’t know how. And to take that small step forward I know how to take, knowing God’s like, “You go, Steve. Good on you for not giving up!”
And it sounds silly to say, but it feels so good to know that God sees my little efforts to not be stuck, to not be paralyzed, and to act in faith, and that God is proud of me. Man, that feels light, and it feels good.
I want to wrap up with a few quick thoughts on trying this stuff out.
- Own your lot in life – with all the questions and needs it has.
We may or may not be where we wish we’d be in our lives. But reality is our friend, because reality is God’s friend. It’s the only place where he does anything. Today is the only day we’re alive in. So if one of those life stages on your program resonates, well, think about it. Ask the questions that you need to ask in that season. Don’t run away from your life’s most pressing questions, because they aren’t going anywhere. Acknowledge them, own them. Hold them in your hands, and give them a look. And then try this…
- Tell Jesus your fears, since he is not a “harsh man.”
The “harsh man” is what that bury-the-silver in the ground person thought of God. And don’t so many of us have this picture of God that makes us think we need to really be afraid of screwing up. And with that one guy, Jesus sort of says, if you expect me to be so harsh, then fine, I guess.
But Jesus is not like this. Jesus is gentle. Jesus makes sure that alongside the wars and all the other things ancient people felt the need to see in their religious texts, that there’s this story honoring two widows and their bold, ingenious faith. Jesus was not up worrying last night about whether or not you’ll screw things up today. Jesus just wants you to trust that God is good, and to have courage and to move forward today, to give life a try.
And so, I ask…
- What action would you take if a generous God would help and you weren’t afraid you’d fail?
This line of thinking is a way of unlocking ingenuity.
- Ask God for guidance and confirmation.
Ruth and Naomi did this when trying risky things.
- Involve trustworthy people in your action.
- Each risk you take in faith, know that God is enormously proud of you, regardless of results.
I think this is the subtext of the story of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz. It’s why it makes the cut into the Bible. Look at these three people, and their attempt to have courage and faith that a good God is there. This book is in the Bible, I think, because it makes God smile.
And that’s the upshot of this story Jesus tells as well. Take a risk in faith, take your lot in life, however good or bad or mixed it seems to be, and take the next step to make the most of your days. Put aside the fear, and make the next move to trust that God is good.
And when it goes great, hear Jesus saying, Way to go. I’m so proud of you.
And when it just turns into a big hot mess, or a pool of disappointment, then hear Jesus saying there too, Way to go. I love your courage. This makes me trust you now. I am so proud of you.
Next week, we talk more about broken and lost things, about needy people, which is all of us, and about redemption.
But this week, let me pray that we become convinced we’re living our life stage with a good God with us, and that we can find our grit, find our courage, and make our next bold move.