By Paul Koch –
“Never have people who talk and don’t do been more visible, and played a larger role, than in modern times.” -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile
For some time now, I have had a growing suspicion that we have bought into a lie. It is a subtle and pervasive lie. It is a lie that finds its strength in bureaucratic structures and stands proudly atop academic towers. It’s not shouted so much as it is whispered. It is a foundational sort of lie that is presupposed by most people. Therefore, it dictates how we engage in our vocations, what we value in our efforts and ideas, and even how we see the world around us.
What I’m suggesting is that we often operate under the lie in which we believe that clarity is found in the theoretical, in the academic, and in those who talk but don’t do. In fact, the lie continues that it is in the messiness of life, in the muck and grime of the daily battle, that makes everything muddled and unclear. And so we rush back to the heights of the theoretical to find our bearings again, to find what is good, true, and beautiful.
And so the doers are held captive by the talkers.
Our society values the talkers. We cheer on their predictions, and even when they are wrong, we allow them to change course as if it never happened and look forward to their next set of predictions. We do this because we believe that this is the way of clarity. The classroom and the board room are the places of certainty, so we hold them up to guide our endeavors. Not only do I think that this is backward, but I also think that, when it comes to the Church, it can be downright dangerous.
Many years ago, during my first few years of being a pastor, I found myself getting really caught up in the programs and bureaucracy of the Church. I was on the district outreach council, trying to help faithfully disperse the mission funds. I was also getting involved in our local mission board as well. Though I may often be a sarcastic SOB, I’ve always tried to help If I asked to, so I really tried to do those things well. And it was there that I began to see the huge disconnect between the talkers and doers. It was the perceived clarity of the talkers that would drive me to distraction. I would often leave meetings more confused and more upset than when I arrived. They could make anything look good on paper or in a PowerPoint presentation. It seemed so clear until you actually got to know the congregations they intended to impact. I would argue my points with passion and was regularly met with dismissive attitudes. After all, the theory and plan was flawless.
Fortunately, I had a good friend and mentor who would allow me to call him after such meetings. When I would call him and let flow a line of expletives and second guess what the hell I’m even doing there, he would usually say the same thing, “Go see a shut-in.” That’s it. That was his advice. Go and see one of my members, one of those who I was called to care for. Go and see one who can’t make it to church to receive the gifts of Christ. Go and bring the gifts to them. Now to be honest, it a took a few of these conversations before I actually took the advice seriously. On my drive home, I made it a point to stop by and see an ailing member of the flock.
Jan Ingram lived off a dirt road off a poorly maintained county road in the middle of nowhere just south of the Georgia/Florida boarder. She lived in a doublewide that her husband had added on to over the years when he was still alive. It was a massive piece of property but had fallen into disarray. Overgrown blueberry fields stretched off into the distance, and a few wild dogs roamed around. Jan would meet me at the door with her oxygen tank in tow and greet me with a big hug. Her list of physical struggles was too long to recall, and on top of that, she had gut wrenching family struggles as well as constantly battling loneliness of her isolation. Sitting in her dimly lit living room, she would talk and cry and ask questions for which I had no answer. And it was there, far away from the boardrooms and the clever theories, that I found clarity. Clarity was in the doing, in the practice of applying God’s Word, his Law and Gospel, to the lives of his children.
The thing is, this has always been so. Over and over again, as I attend lectures and go to conferences, I’m reminded that what is presented is not clarity but a cloudy picture of the tools of the trade. For the Word of God and the theology derived from it, apart from the people of God, are not decisive or clear. Apart from the lives of his children, the Word is dissected and scrutinized and discussed, but it remains uncertain until it drives to its purpose, until it is actually done to someone instead of just talked about.
I’ve always appreciated the way Gustaf Wingren spoke of this in The Living Word. He says, “The Word exists to be made known; only when it is preached is its objective content fully disclosed. Man was created in the by the creative Word, and destined to live by that which comes from the mouth of God. Men understand themselves aright and receive true human life in the hearing of God’s Word.” Clarity, assurance, and meaning are found when the Word and men meet.
A better way is to think of the talkers as not providing clarity but tools. All the classes that I’ve taken and books I’ve read serve me in my vocation not because they saw the situations of life before I encountered them but filled my quiver with arrows to be used in various ways at various times. They help to apply the Word to the situations of life in which my neighbor walks, but clarity is only found when the arrow hits its mark.
In this way, we go to the muddy and confusing words of the academics and “experts” to gain weapons and even wisdom in employing them, but their usefulness and benefit will be tested in the clarity of the battlefield, the clarity of doing, the clarity of the love of your neighbor.