Friday, July 11, 2008

"Cure for the Common Life"

In "Cure for the common Life," Max Lucado, a great story teller argues that there is a 'sweet spot' in every one of us. According to him, 70% of workers find their jobs boring, and their talents wasted in doing things they do not enjoy. This is the 'common life' that affects a majority of people in the workplace. Life will only start to make sense when one discovers and obeys their sense of calling and purpose. His big idea is basically this:
Use your uniqueness (what you do)
to make a big deal out of God (why you do it)
every day of your life (where you do it)
When one discovers his/her 'sweet spot,' everything will then click into place. Neat. Problem is, is life neat? Is a fallen world able to fall neatly into place? Not if we depend on our own strength. One of the first things that caught my attention in Lucado's book is not the sweet-spot thesis but the story of asking God for things according to one's size. He relates the story of a professor George Washington Carver in 1915, where in trying to help farmers replace cotton growing with peanuts in order to tackle the boll weevil bug which are quickly destroying the cotton crops. The end result: Too much peanuts. What became an instant success becomes a liability overnight. Dejected, he prayed in the woods:

"Oh, Mister Creator," he cried out, "Why did you make this universe?"
And the Creator answered, "You want to know too much for that little mind of yours. Ask me something more your size."
So I said, "Dear Mister Creator, tell me what man was made for."
Again He spoke to me and said, "Little man, you are still asking for more than you can handle. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent."
Then I asked my last question. "Mister Creator, why did you make the peanut?"
"That's better," the Lord said. And he gave me a handful of peanuts and went back with me to the laboratory, and together we got down to work. (Lucado, pp. 1 1-12).
The results were astounding. More than 300 products were discovered from the humble peanut. The peanut industry in Alabama became one of the wealthiest sections of the state.

So began Lucado's journey to his sweet-spot treatise. It is Lucado's method of explaining calling and vocation in our ordinary lives.

(A) Our Uniqueness
Lucado believes that all of us are created for a certain specific purpose. That is a biblical truth. Chapter 3 of his book is entitled: "Read Your Life Backwards" reminds me of Kierkegaard's perceptive statement that life is lived forward and understood backwards. Too often, we try to find out all the possible reasons and meaning before doing something. Uncertainty frustrates us and impair our progress. Yet, isn't it also true that there are many things in life that can only be understood later on when we reflect back on what we have done? This is important. Only when we take time to sit back and ponder what are the things that really motivates us, we will be less vulnerable to complaining about the mundane activities we do each day. Lucado proposes that we study our own S.T.O.R.Y of our life.
  • S - Strengths (find out where our strengths are)
  • T - Topic (Find out what are the things we enjoy doing)
  • O - Optimal Conditions (Find out what factors surround our motivation)
  • R - Relationships (Find out how our satisfaction help others around us)
  • Y - Yes! (Find out how the earlier four integrates and energizes one)

He ends the first part of the book with a caution not to allow greed take over one's finding of the sweet spot. Good reminder. We can sometimes take a good thing too far and make it a bad thing to have. Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6:6). This alludes to my previous blog about what success entails.

(B) Making a Big Deal Out of God
Lucado continues his part 2 of 3 with a desire to glorify God with our discover of our sweet spot. In other words, the correct way of understanding our gifts is to see it in the light of God's glory and kingdom. Well done, Max Lucado! You hit the right spot. He starts to draw readers to the sweetest spot of all: Jesus. This is where I have a problem. God seems to be treated in a utilitarian manner. Look at how Lucado concludes chapter 7.
Lonely? God is with you.
Depleted? He funds the overdrawn.
Weary of an ordinary existence? Your spiritual adventure awaits.
The cure for the common life begins and ends with God.
(Lucado, 70)
Textually correct, but theologically did not quite cut deep enough I feel. The words represent a certain truth that we should begin and end with God. However, the motive to getting there stems overly from an individualistic mindset. Call it spiritual narcissism if you like. For an evangelistic outreach perspective, it whets one's appetite. For a quick-fix pick-me-up, it works like a spiritual pill. However, it is merely a pain reliever rather than a cure. I think part 2 of Lucado's book is the weakest of the three parts. However, I enjoyed the first part and the third.

(C) Every Day of your Life
As we practice the above two parts on a daily basis, we need to learn to pause. Purposeful pausing ourselves is a wonderful reminder that we should not work a 24x7 arrangement. We need to practice the Sabbatical rest. I appreciate Lucado's story of Eugene Peterson.
Monday is my sabbath. Nothing is scheduled for Mondays. If there are emergencies I respond, but there are surprisingly few. My wife joins me in observing the day. We make a lunch, put it in a daypack, take our binoculars and drive anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour away, to a trailhead along a river or into the mountains. Before we begin our hike my wife reads a psalm and prays. After that prayer there is no more talking - we enter into a silence that will continue for the next two or three hours, until we stop for lunch.

We walk leisurely, emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to what is there: fern shapes, flower fragrance, birdsong, granite outcropping, oaks and sycamores, rain, snow, sleet, wind... When the sun or our stomachs tell us it's lunch time, we break the silence with a prayer of blessing for the sandwiches and fruit, the river and the forest. We are free to talk now, sharing bird sightings, thoughts, observations, ideas - however much or little we are inclined. We return home in the middle or late afternoon, putter, do odd jobs, read. After supper I usually write family letters. That's it. No Sinai thunder. No Damascus Road illuminations. No Patmos visions. A day set apart for solitude and silence. Not-doing. Being-there. The sanctification of time.

-Eugene Peterson (from Cure for the Common Life by Max Lucado, 109)

This is the essence of building a relationship with God and fellow people. Time. We have so little time, that how we use it becomes very important.

Some Problems
However, there is a problem, and that is linked to the individualism article in my previous blog post: Too much individual sweetness can lead to diabetic conditions. Lucado's book will sell well. I will recommend it for light reading, and for people who desires a pick-me-up quick read on the bus/train ride. However, while it whets the appetite, it cannot substitute for the full meal. The book should be retitled as: "Relief for the Common Life." Just like there is no cure for the common cold, there is also no cure for the common life.

I remember a doctor-friend telling me one time, that when a person is said to have died of 'heart failure,' actually he does not really know what caused that person's death. Heart failure could mean many things. It could also mean ANY cardiac disorder. The trouble is, we do not know which one, or what combination. Likewise, life is too complex for anyone to easily identify their individual sweet spots. Some of us have more than one at different points of time. There is no cure for the common cold, only cold-reliefs. The only true Physician in the Universe is God. Hence, the cure for the common life is an interesting piece of work. However, while it encourages and appeal to popular Christian reading, it is too simple an idea for a complex world we live in.

Read the book, but do not take it as a substitute for the main course: The Bible.

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