Vocation and the Serendipity of Exile

What if being out of the mainstream isn’t cool so much as serendipitous?

Hans Urs von Balthasar was an imaginative twentieth-century Catholic theologian.  Jean-Luc Marion notes that Balthasar:

  • Was ostracized by the Jesuits with whom he trained
  • Never became a university professor
  • Was ‘only’ a student chaplain at Basel
  • Was not invited to Vatican II
Image result for hans urs von balthasar

Icon Painting – Holy Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar 110 by William Hart McNichols

But Marion says that good was brought from evil. Balthasar was freed from the procedural and litigious dimensions of a church council. He was liberated from faculty meetings and committees. He did not have to grade essays. He wasn’t formed by one particular spirituality (the Jesuit way).

The result of his “exile”? Marion says that Balthasar:

  • “Remains without doubt the best Barthian”
  • Was a practitioner of “ecumenism in the highest sense”
  • Was freed to become a great writer
  • Became the only real rival of Karl Rahner
  • “Was anything but dogmatic”
  • Was “truly and deeply spiritual”
  • Exuded a “humble and almost timid authority which earned him any number of students [i.e., people who learned how to do spiritual theology and theological spirituality from him] but no disciples [i.e., people who were copycats of his theology and spirituality]”
  • “Had a learning so sweeping that it gave you goosebumps”
  • Is “the greatest Catholic theologian of modern times”

Sure, you can be a part of an “inner ring.” You can get invited to all the important meetings. Your name could be called whenever NPR or Le Monde or the BBC need a reaction to the day’s news from someone in your field. You could have young people aspiring to be just like you. Some of these things may even be gained without succumbing to soul-suffocating pride and the deadliest variety of ambition. You could certainly be a star. And not all stars are self-promoted idols.

But it could be that you’re not doing anything particularly sexy. You might be in some backwater place doing some low-profile thing for a living. It’s possible that no one will ever invite you onto their podcast or ask you to write a guest post on their blog. The phone might never ring, and you might only get 3 emails per day for the next 20 years.

But imagine what all that time could yield. Twenty years of not being interrupted by other people’s sense of urgency. Twenty years of focus on what you deem important, regardless of whether it happens to be urgent. Twenty years of quietly becoming one of the very best at whatever it is you’ve been called to do.

One indispensable key to maturity, I am learning, is the ability to emotionally adjust to being sidelined from the main event, exiled from the place where “everything” is “happening.” To adjust to the reality that margin and even a certain type of marginalization is not only serendipitous for one’s soul, but  also for one’s vocation.

And don’t the two go hand in hand? My soul is maturing, is growing up into the stature of Christ, insofar as I am emotionally content and volitionally diligent in my calling.

Flattening our reality, one share at a time

This past semester I taught our school’s senior class a unit on media studies. This was mostly an excuse to geek out on Marshall McLuhan and call it “work.”

But in the context of our course as a whole, I had another aim. We are spending the year studying the way in which we derive stories from various influences and then enact those stories in our own lives. When we live our lives, full of thought, passions, and actions in the world, we tell a story—what we’re calling (after Richard Rorty and Mark Edmundson) our ‘Final Narrative.’


I’m hoping to help students identify the sources (scriptures, rituals, works of literature and art, philosophies) from which they hope to consciously construct their Final Narratives. I am also hoping to make them aware of the ways in which their immersion in the structures of social media may inhibit their efforts to discern, adopt, and enact dimensions of the Final Narratives proposed by compelling authors, mystics, filmmakers, and artists.

In short, it’s hard to mine Homer, Hemingway, Hebrews, Heidegger, Herzog, or Handel for actionable glimpses of the good, true, and beautiful when most of our attention is captured by #hashtags, handles, and header images.

And, even if our minds and hearts are profoundly moved by an encounter with great Final Narrative proposals, the life-changing impact of such encounters may be significantly diminished by the way in which our social media supervenes upon our lived experience. We are brought crashing back down from our mountaintop experiences not by the demands and duties of our daily lives, but through the banality of living within social media’s world-flattening reality.

We put down a great novel and pick up our phones. The Old Man and the Sea was trying to convince us that doing what we were made for, and doing it with heroic perseverance, is intrinsically valuable. But now Twitter is trying to convince us, by the very structure of its ‘world,’ that the latest nuclear provocation by Kim Jong Un is worthy of the same amount of concern as a snarky comment by Stephen Colbert.

We come home from church, where the liturgy was attempting to en-world us in the life of the world to come. We sit on the sofa and amputate that far off world in order to save the World of Facebook, within which a historically private moment like a marriage proposal is photodocumented alongside the also historically private (but for opposite reasons) event of my high school buddy’s afternoon snack.

When we bookend our reading experiences, however immersive they are, with immersion in social media, however brief, we tell our souls that the worlds of those books are fantasy, and these selfies and cat videos are reality. When we enfold our corporate worship within a life more fundamentally framed by Facebook, in a subtle but undeniable fashion, it is Facebook that corporate worship becomes about. 

Our technology has enabled us to see the world from the vantage point of distant planets. But our technology has also given us lifelong memberships in the Flat Earth Society. And, when our lives are through, it will be difficult for people to discern from their movements story arcs other than, perhaps, “they were born, they posted, they died.” Our Final Narratives, our supposed visions of the life well lived, are telling the story not of deep conviction and persistent action, but of things liked, things shared, things retweeted.

Are there some of us who manage to utilize social media in ways that do not allow its structures and its ‘world’ to supervene upon the ‘real world’? Are there some of us who primarily live within a world wherein duty, heroism, conviction, love, and sacrifice are treasured and enacted, rather than a world of mere likes and retweets? Certainly.

Do we have the reflective capacity to recognize when we’ve swapped the enchanted world of the great texts, great films, great artworks, great religions and real-life heroes for the flattened earth of Facebook? Do we have the will power to make a substantial change if we recognize that we’re living in the wrong world? I’m not sure.

Grace and Effort

I don’t do anything halfway. So when I was a Lutheran (sometimes ecclesially, sometimes theologically, sometimes both) as a young man, I was really Lutheran. Probably more Lutheran than Luther. So, probably not really Lutheran, actually.

What that means, of course, is that I didn’t like good works. Or trying hard. Or any sort of effort at all. It was an attractive spirituality, because I’ve never been attracted to workaholism. The Protestant Ethic missed me.

By the time I encountered Dallas Willard in my early thirties, I had changed enough to be ready to hear what is, in my estimation, the best line in all his writings:

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

I both hated and loved this. I hated it because it meant that I couldn’t be the champion of spiritual sloth in order to elevate grace. I loved it because I finally sensed the liberty to try.

Not to try to impress God, but to “make it my aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Not to try to impress others, but to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).

The notion that keeping a list and checking tasks off of it is a form of works righteousness? Yeah, I couldn’t fail people any longer under the cover of grace.

The notion that the meaning of life was to receive grace and live a passive existence rather than trying to glorifying God through the exercise a certain amount of holy ambition? I couldn’t fool myself in that respect any longer either.

Jean-Luc Marion, in reflecting on a long career as a Christian and a philosopher, articulates what a lifelong application of Willard’s dictum looks like. Tolle, lege:

At several points, indisputably, I had the impression of being taken from the herd and put where I did not even know one could go. In those moments, I did not realize projects or ambitions coming from myself, but I received what happened to me. Often, my life as a whole seems to me like some of the years when I trained as a runner:

During long and exhausting training sessions, one suffers enough to know oneself to be the one who makes the effort, but, once one is in form, on the day of competition, in the sun of spring or the overhead light of an autumn evening, when suddenly a state of grace causes one to accomplish the impossible (a victory, a personal record), one wonders who has done all that, or, rather, I wonder whether I have done it or even whether this has happened to me.

From there stems this strange feeling that has never left me, of living with someone bearing (in all the senses of the word) my name, who does things without warning me and whom I had to accompany. At times I would almost have preferred that he leave me alone, but I have always lived with someone who is stronger than me and whom I follow. Yes, and I cannot do otherwise. I hope so, all the way to the end.

As someone who is pushing toward a 500-mile running goal for the year, with one month left to go, I resonate deeply. I have no idea how my joints are holding up under my heavy frame, how the Pop Tarts I had for breakfast are converted into energy for my run after work (or even if it works that way), and I don’t know how I haven’t tripped and broken half the bones in my body by now.


But I definitely feel as though it has been me running those 445 miles. I’ve had to decide on 128 different occasions in 2017 to get off my couch and go for a run. I’ve exerted more sheer will power in the past 11 months than at any time in my life.

It kind of feels like a cliché when you hear someone say “by God’s grace I was able to _______ [win the gold metal; finish an ultra-marathon; win the spelling bee; publish 20 books].” But it’s no cliché. We put ourselves to a task, and open ourselves to the ‘haunting’ of God’s gracious presence. And often, good things happen. Things we can celebrate—whether feats of strength or increases of moral fortitude.

It was hard work. And it’s all of grace.

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

“There’s an Opening …”

You can fill an opening. Or you can go through an opening. These are actually two very different openings. I have experience with both.

When I realized there was a position open at a school in Seoul, I imagined the prospects of both excitement and relief. The thought of finally getting a chance to live in a big city thrilled me. The notion of getting rid of most of our belongings tempted me with the beauty of the simplicity it would yield.

From The Guardian, 2011: "Volunteers make kimchi to donate to needy people in front of Seoul City Hall, South Korea. About 2,000 women made 270 tons of kimchi. A pungent dish made with cabbage, other vegetables and chili sauce, kimchi is the most popular traditional food in Korea."

From The Telegraph, 2011: “Volunteers make kimchi to donate to needy people in front of Seoul City Hall, South Korea. About 2,000 women made 270 tons of kimchi. A pungent dish made with cabbage, other vegetables and chili sauce, kimchi is the most popular traditional food in Korea.”

Life itself had gotten really complicated. Relationships, planting a church, homeschooling kids, running a small business: none of these things by themselves were simple to navigate, and navigating them simultaneously was less simple still for me and my wife.

A job opening in Korea meant less complication.

A job opening initially meant, in our case, a chance to earn enough money doing mostly enjoyable work with enough time away from that work to explore an exciting city, country, and region. It meant a chance to send the kids to a great school, which de-complicated my wife’s life, especially.

And that is what the past 5 months has indeed been. Less complicated by far.

“Look! There’s an opening! We’ll fill that slot. We’ll swap this crazy life for that really attractive and simple life.”

This opening has been filled.

But there’s a second sort of opening.

This sort of opening isn’t filled. It is not applied for. It can’t be plugged into. It’s not a job-plus-time-off.

Rather, it’s an opening the other side of which yields a new, unforeseen, and perhaps complicated life. This opening presents itself as a summons to walk the long and hard road with a promise attached that there’s a good end. It’s fraught with danger, not from the surroundings, but from the souls one finds on the other side, volatile souls that will look your soul in the eye and dare you to not turn away from them.

We are just about to head to Thailand for vacation. Though I’ve been working for 5 months, I see this coming vacation as the vacation to cap off the vacation I’ve been on since arriving in Seoul. A vacation, in a way, to end all vacations.

Five months after filling an opening, I’m being called in through an opening. Double-dog-dared to start looking souls in the eye and to allow the eyes of souls to look mine in the eye. Summoned back to a way of being-in-the-world that would please good ‘ole Heidegger because it reckons with death by living in light of it.

A job opening attracted me to vacate a complex life and manage a new rhythm balancing work and leisure. A summons calls me to vacate vacation and enter, once again, but really for the first time, through an opening into a world of souls. The first opening allows me to be either on or off. The second opening challenges me to be either in or out. 

I want in.

I think.

The Churched Disciple: When ‘Going to Church’ feels like a Distraction

In my last post, I suggested that many of the Donald Millers of the Christian world would be re-engaged with the local church if our churches gave them a compelling story about why their particular church exists.

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

Now, I’d like to suggest that a church’s broadened, compelling why calls for a integral and tightly-aligned, but diverse, multi-faceted, and sprawling how. If “going to church on Sunday” provokes a blasé response from passionate Christians, then it may be that the church has abandoned some key dimensions of its corporate calling.

Why leads to how

If your church believes most deeply that Jesus wants more than anything else to assemble his people for worship and instruction, and that its corporate calling is therefore to gather people to worship God and instruct them in Christian doctrine, then Sunday for 120 minutes or so will probably do the trick. That will be its how. 

On the other hand, if your church has a more expansive belief about spiritual reality, and a corporate calling as expansive as “the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus for the flourishing of Rock Hill”, for example, then your church is going to have to gather, bless, challenge, equip, and deploy its people across a number of different spheres of kingdom reality.

Worship, or ‘every good work’?

In our case, that means Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over all, and because we believe that he has entrusted the mystery and power of the gospel to the church, we know that we’ve got a much larger job than providing worship and Sunday School. We need to gather the people of God so that we can open the word of God, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training one another in righteousness so that every one of us will be fully equipped for every good work. Every good work. That’s what the church is responsible to help the people of God with.

And that’s partly what Donald Miller is grieving over as he looks at the ecclesiastical landscape, and at his local options. He has learned to worship God through his work! He gets something that many Christians never get. And yet he isn’t graced, challenged, or equipped by the church for what he is called to do with roughly half of his waking hours.

We need grace and truth, warm invitation and robust challenge, not just for the good work we’re called to do on Sundays “at church”, but for the pursuit of our neighbors and our networks, and for faithfulness in our spiritual, spousal, familial, educational, and occupational callings.

When ‘going to church’ is a distraction

What I’m suggesting here is this: If our beliefs are too narrow and our ecclesiastical missions are too truncated, our Donald Millers may end up becoming too ‘distracted’ by the glorious expansiveness of their personal kingdom callings to take even 2 hours a week to “go to church on Sunday.”

And I find it difficult to blame them.

In the next few posts, I’ll outline what I believe what a more expansive approach ministry looks like. I’ll discuss what I mean by Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation, and how these or similar ecclesiastical hows can more fully equip God’s people for every good work.

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Know Your Role

Just as a snowpocalypse is heading for the Southeast, I’m heading into a new work week. (I take Mondays off.) I want this work week to be apocalyptic. I’m realizing that I let The Mundane have an uncontested victory too many weeks.


What I’m going to do to try and make this week apocalyptic will itself seem ironically mundane. I am going to spend 45 minutes in the morning reviewing my roles and establishing my goals. Sheesh. Even typing that last sentence feels boring.

My biggest takeaway from my most formative personal development book (Stephen Covey’s First Things First) was exactly this. I want to quit floating through my work week looking for the next least-boring thing that I can still justify as ‘work’ to do. I want to move the needle on my life’s work in a significant way by the time the week is out. And so I will sit down with my roles and goals.

Know Your Roles

What are they?

In more-or-less their order of importance, my seven personal roles are:

1. Husband.

2. Father.

3. Pastor-Church Planter.

4. Disciple-Maker.

5. Gospel Neighbor.

6. Community Group Leader.

7. Entrepreneur.

A couple of things to notice:

  • I’m entering a “work week”, but only one of these 7 roles—number 3—is actually my paid vocation. All 7 are my vocations, but only “Pastor-Church Planter” generates income.
  • My callings are life-specific. There may be 5,000 other Americans with the exact same vocational breakdown. That’s not many out of 315,000,000 Americans. Yours is probably different.
  • My callings are overwhelmingly relational. Most people’s probably are too, even if they don’t recognize them as such.
  • Most of my roles don’t immediately suggest obvious key actions that would move the needle in each calling. Most don’t seem to set me up for an apocalyptic week.

Know Your Goals

The only person who can discern what key actions in each of your roles will make for a well-worked work week is you. Ask yourself: “What’s next? What one action in each role, if tackled with zeal and followed through to completion, would enable me to say, at the end of this week, that I was faithful and fruitful across all my callings?”

The answers to this question are your goals for the week. Simple as that.

You will still have all your tasks, which are pressing and urgent. These aren’t your goals themselves. Your goals are the non-urgent, super-important things that will get lost—if you’re not vigilant—among the next-least-boring tasks and the distractions. Commit to these goals.  Schedule them. What block of time are you going to be working on it?


Before you start the next week, sit down with your list of roles and the prior week’s goals. Evaluate yourself ruthlessly, and honestly. What kept you from moving the ball in the way you intended to? Were you faithful? Were you vigilant to schedule your goals and stick to your schedule?


Here’s where the work week gets apocalyptic. Working on the goals in each of your roles reveals what the next goal really ought to be. The apocalyptic boon of charting a clear course is in the fresh view afforded you as you arrive at the end of the charted course.

Adjust. Regroup. Make your goals more realistic, more achievable, more concrete, more measurable. Build on the momentum of what was achieved the prior week. Set aside this 45 minutes at the beginning of every week and make sure the prior week’s work reveals where you really are, and what’s really next.


Look. I’m not speaking as an expert. I’m speaking as a church planter who floats and seeks distractions, who feels too often that his energy is not being channeled into the things that matter most. I post this not to lecture you. Mostly, I post it to keep myself accountable.

I’ll follow up in the days to come with some insights I gain as I actually commit myself to the task of seeking an apocalyptic work week.

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Who Needs ‘Leaders’ in an Organic Church?

Our church’s culture exists within the tension between organism and organization, just like every church should.

Of course, we tend to put the stress on the organismic. We live among and serve a generation that is suspicious of institutions. At the same time, even those who have grown weary of the evangelical subculture’s hyper-institutionalism aren’t fond of being all at sea, especially when it comes to gospel, community, and mission.


How do you make sure that in the organism of your church, you’re still organized enough to stay alive? You need ensure that you’re doing what all living things need: having an identity, having unity within diversity, and playing your role successfully within your host community.

We’ve gravitated toward the language of Up / In / Out. (We stole it from 3dm.)

Up is about our identity in fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit.

In is about our unity within diversity as we fulfill the “one anotherings” of the New Testament.

Out is about our calling to our host community, those we serve in word and deed in Jesus’ name.

What is a leader? One way we look at it in our context is this: a leader is someone who advocates for one of these trajectories (Up, In, Out), and who organizes opportunities for the organism to move deliberately along that trajectory. 

So, does a gospel community on mission have a single leader, or shared leadership? Does it veer toward the organismic or organizational? Does it flow freely or does it have structure?

Hopefully you can see that these are not well-framed questions.

The most important thing for me as a leader is not which trajectory I’m predisposed toward. The mark of a community group leader is not whether they are balanced balanced across these trajectories or skewed toward one of them.

Rather, the mark of a healthy gospel community on mission is that all three of these trajectories are progressively pursued, one way or another. 

If you happen to have a leader who is incredibly balanced, perhaps they could lead the community along all three trajectories. More often than not, the unity of the the body and the balance of its pursuits, even in the body’s smallest expressions, is accomplished as different champions of Up, In, and Out arise from within the group.

When such champions are able to successfully advocate for their respective trajectory, they are leaders. And when the organism is led and organized in each of the three trajectories,  beautiful, powerful things happen.

Why do we need leaders in an organic church? Every organism that wants to be survive and thrive must be organized. Leaders organize the organism for life-sustaining and life-giving action.

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Be The Grown-Up

I’ve always resonated with the cry of the Toys R Us kid. I don’t want to grow up.

386719_2805399182138_1473404158_32953718_697594335_nThis renunciation of my faithful parents’ work toward my maturity didn’t just effect my learning (I wanted to be ‘well-rounded’, and so I raced toward popularity through jock-dom at the expense of doing things like reading).

This renunciation didn’t just effect my college major choices (I rejected my dad’s insistence that I would be very good in the business world, and in sales and marketing in particular, and opted instead for a dream of loafing around while teaching high school social studies and coaching football).

This renunciation has ultimately effected my pursuit of church planting.

While I proclaimed the evangelistic advantages of planting new churches, I was more-than-just-a-little-bit interested in escaping what I perceived to be a rather stuffy, adult ecclesiastical environment. In some ways, I wanted to have a license to not grow up. To not be the adult my age was trying to make me.

What have I learned in church planting? What is the one big piece of counsel I might give to prospective church planters?

Be the Grown-up in the room.

You can only play cool for so long. You can only ‘contextualize’ your philosophy of ministry toward young and/or less mature people in your community to a certain degree before it becomes plain to your wife, to the actual adults there might be in your church plant, and, finally, to you, that you’re really just trying to not grow up.

Church planting is not nearly as hard, in my experience, as people said it would be. So much of the great stuff that’s happened has seemingly just happened.

But what the experience has done to me is exactly what I hoped to avoid by entering into it. Church planting has forced me to be the adult in the room. To say the tough thing that needs to be said. To say something “spiritual” when everyone else might be content to just go on chewing the fat. To stop trying to be everybody’s buddy and to start being who I’ve actually be called to be: their pastor

To a great extent, church planting has pressed forward the task that marriage began and children carried on. It has made me reckon with the fact that the most selfless, loving thing I can do in many instances is to simply play the part of the grown man.

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

Impostor Syndrome is the Real Impostor

On 3 separate occasions today my wife found herself unmasking the self-doubt of good friends. Each of these ladies felt that they had no business standing up and saying “I’m a woman. I am good at this. I am pursing that. I plan to make these.”


Seth Godin has elaborated on an ailment that plagues otherwise ambitious entrepreneurs. He calls it the “Impostor Syndrome”.

Everyone from a blogger to a brand new small business owner to President Obama has to deal with it. You ask yourself what the heck you’re doing doing what you’re doing when others have much more business doing the doing than you do.

(Still with me?)

The reality is, the Kingdom of God doesn’t need impostors. But neither does it need valuable players sitting on the sidelines because they can’t shake their Impostor Syndrome.

Don’t take yourself so seriously that you manifestly become an impostor. But take Jesus and the good works he’s called you to walk in very seriously. He’s prepared them from before the foundation of the world. Take these things so seriously that you recognize and unmask Impostor’s Syndrome when its symptoms—fear and pussyfooting—present themselves.

Your Impostor Syndrome is the real impostor.

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A Labor Day Resolution

Show up where you said you’d be, when you said you’d be there, having done what you said you’d do. 

– John Carlton, legendary freelance copywriter


Being a people-pleaser, proficient procrastinator, and pathetic pushover, Mr Carlton’s professional code of conduct is a punch in my gut. He makes me look like a Cretan: always lying, a cruel beast, a lazy glutton (Titus 1:12).

It’s supposed to be the church ministering to a messed-up world of Cretans. But Mr Carlton the (for all I can tell) pagan rebukes Pastor Andy. Ouch.

Today is Labor Day. Today I make a resolution about my work.

I will commit to Carlton’s professional code.  To hope for any progress, I will have to dismantle the 3 aforementioned temperamental bits of vocational wickedness one at a time. I’ll start with the first one.


It has to stop.

What’s the number one reason that I don’t show up where I say I’d be, when I said I’d be there, having done what I said I’d do?

I over-promise. I promise people the moon when the moon’s not mine to give. I say “yes” to 80% of things. Of those things I say “yes” to, I very quickly regret saying yes to 80% of them. Out of those things I regret saying “yes” to, I fail to deliver on 80% of them.

Meanwhile, I am unable to spend the required time, energy, and attention on the 20% of things that I’m really supposed to be doing—the big, important, usually non-urgent things that are in my sweet spot and that would produce long-term awesomeness.

I can’t get more than 24 hours in a day. So if I am going to deliver on time 100% of the time, I must stop complaining and start saying NO to 80% of the things that come my way.

God has all the time in the world, and he says “no” or “not now” to tons of things asked in good faith by devoted followers. Why should I be ungodly?

So, there’s the remedy for my people-pleaserosity. Stay tuned as I examine my proficient procrastinatorship and my pathetic pushoverness in the next several days. 

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