Our family has been raising chickens for the last few years, and I’ve noticed my daughter has a special concern for these little birds. A year ago we hatched baby chicks, and two of the chicks developed crooked legs and couldn’t walk.
One of those was the bird we called Hobbles, whose legs we taped with bandaids to help them grow straight. He ran around top speed with his little leg braces like Forrest Gump, then sadly fell into the waterer and drowned. My daughter cried and offered to bury him in a box in our yard, complete with a tombstone she made for “Hobbles, the nice little chick who never learned to walk.”
Another chick had crooked legs but managed to live longer, scooting around to food and water. We read that you could help a lame chicken’s legs heal by placing her in a sort of arm chair, so my daughter went to work making one. Now we had a little bird sitting in our basement in an armchair made of cardboard and fabric scraps.
Meanwhile one of our fully grown birds had the feathers on her back pecked off by the rooster, and the other birds would nip at her back, leaving it raw and red. Again on my daughter’s prompting, we read what to do about this, and came up with a design for a little coat to cover her back until the feathers grew back. We used an old pair of jeans.
Now we had a hen in a jean jacket running around our yard, a young hen in an armchair in the basement, and a chick in our little bird cemetery in the woods.
At some point in here I started asking myself this question:
Why are we wasting so much energy on this?
It’s a question I’ve asked a lot in the past few years. Getting a PhD or any kind of education will do that to you. Writing papers that no one will read except your professor, reading book after book and forgetting most of what’s in them, and looking ahead toward scarce jobs and scattered pay. Why am I wasting time, money, and years of my life on this education?
Development work is another pursuit that makes you ask, “Why am I wasting so much energy on this?” There are people you try to help whose lives never change. It’s hard to get people to participate, it’s hard to get changes made, it’s hard fighting against systems so big and so entrapping that no one, or two, or fifty lives are going to turn them around.
What is it in your life you ask this question about — why am I wasting so much? Where do you pour your life into some goal and then worry if it matters?
We try to prop up our hope with short-term answers to this question.
At some level, maybe money keeps us going. We might not be earning much now, but we tell ourselves eventually this will get us a better paying job, it’ll feed our family. But money won’t keep us going, and eventually it will drive us out of true learning and true concern for development.
Another answer we give ourselves is we do it for somebody’s gratitude. But it’s a fickle thing to base your efforts on. Sometimes it won’t be there, and in the end it drives you down a path of needing to be adored.
Then there’s the church answer that’s hard for us Christians to refute: it’s about seeing people saved. But I think even seeing people get saved rings pretty hollow and can head toward manipulation unless we put it in the perspective of a more holistic aim.
What do I consider wasted and not wasted?
I found that holistic answer I’ve come to rely on stated best in Philippians 3:7-11. Paul writes:
“Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
I want to know Christ, it says. There’s a surpassing greatness in knowing Christ Jesus. Everything else is waste, except that one thing, and that’s never a waste.
That’s why I waste so much of my life without pay or immediate rewards. I want to see what Christ looks like when he cries, what makes him smile, how he reaches out to help, what he looked like when he died, and what he looked like when he rose.
As we study development, we learn more about God.
I believe that getting a higher education degree in programs such as economic development and organizational leadership and working in development leadership leads to knowing Christ and God in at least four ways.
God loves runts.
I’ve been thinking recently about how much God loves runts. God has a heart like Fern in Charlotte's Web who refuses to let the littlest pig die, and somehow through a series of miracles of love, keeps him alive and grows him into the greatest pig in the county. God is like my daughter, making arm chairs, tomb stones, and jean jackets for chickens.
The Bible is full of runt heroes: Abel killed off by his brother. Jacob the younger brother scratching his way into God’s kingdom plan. Rahab the prostitute. David and Joseph, young little brothers that nobody believed would rule countries. Nehemiah the eunuch servant who got to rebuild a whole city. Most of the disciples — fishermen and corrupt government workers. Even Jesus, born to an unwed couple in a barn.
God loves to take the poorest of the poor, messy lives, broken lives, and runts, and turn them into unexpected heroes.
God governs the nations with justice.
Having a degree opens doors, sometimes into high conversations that affect hundreds and thousands of lives at a time. We become the people who aren’t just catching drips from a leaky faucet, but the people working to turn off the faucets.
That can be overwhelming. Who are we to have that kind of power?
The good news is we don’t have to figure this out alone. God is a leader, and he does it well. He offers proof it can be done well, even through the biggest of big problems. If you want to know how to guide peoples and nations justly and with joy, know God, because he does it already (Psalm 67:4).
Psalm 72 starts with the phrase, “A Psalm of Solomon.” I think it’s one of the coolest passages in the Bible about leadership. It starts out:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
In his days may the righteous flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more.”
The whole psalm is beautiful poetry. I emphasize the word your because it reminds us that good leadership isn’t about pushing ourselves up higher, it’s about knowing God, and knowing how he already leads with justice.
God listens and watches attentively and sees the significance of things.
God pays attention to tiny details and the very big picture. The Bible tells us he doesn’t sleep, he sees every sparrow and every earthquake and knows their significance.
Our job as students, or in whatever we do, is to learn to see the significance of things. Romans 13:11 says to understand the present time, to wake up. We should pray to have our eyes wide open, to be fully awake.
Seeing the significance of little and big things makes us story tellers. Education and development work should teach us to find good true stories and to articulate them well. Whether you write organization newsletters, letters to friends, Facebook posts, grad school papers, or published articles and books, seek out the good true stories and tell them for their full significance.
God redeems failures.
I can tell so many stories of failures. Our first year out of the country in Nicaragua we started gardens that died in drought. All we harvested were radishes, and nobody in the village liked radishes. My one little pumpkin plant that survived to the point of bearing fruit died when a drunk man fell on it. My husband got malaria, broke his ankle, and had diarrhea for a year. We demonstrated how not to do just about everything we tried.
In the years that followed I was part of a church that closed. I co-directed a microfinance project that closed. I worked for a seminary that closed. By the time I moved back to the US after all this I was afraid to join anything, because everything I touched closed.
But I could tell, and my books do tell, the stories of how every one of these failures was redeemed in small and big ways.
God is in the business of redeeming failures. He makes people, beautiful creative thinking people in his own image, and they reject him. Jesus comes to earth, grows into his thirties and starts getting famous, healing people, teaching people great lessons, and then in the prime of life he goes and gets killed.
It’s right in that big failure, though, that God tells the biggest story of redemption in all of history.
Whether you’re like Adam and Eve hiding ashamed in their fig leaves, or like Jesus’ best friends weeping because he’s dead in a tomb, that’s exactly where we start to know Christ best. Paul said, after all, that he wanted to know Christ not just as a great teacher, but “in his sufferings,” and “becoming like him in his death.” Because in these, he could “know the power of Christ’s resurrection.”
Start a development project, and you’ll make some mistakes for sure. You’ll see failures for sure. Start a graduate program and you’ll disappoint yourself for sure. You may get a B or a C and feel you’ve failed.
We don’t have to pretend. God already knows we fail and we sin. But that doesn’t mean our lives are a waste. Our value doesn’t depend on what we accomplish. Know of Christ that his love is unconditional, he died to give it to failing sinners, and his love is what makes us and everything else he redeems valuable.
What others may see as wasting your life just might be the only thing not wasted.