I was in the fifth grade the first time I remember being asked, “What do you want to do with your life?” It was my band director who was asking, and I presented him with my real-life, 10-year-old quandary. I couldn’t decide between playing flute in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, becoming a lawyer, or winning Wimbledon. I’m sure he was thinking, Well, I’ve heard you play flute, kid, so you can safely check that one off your list. A generally kind man and trained educator, he opted not to crush my dreams immediately.
The reality check Mr. Byman graciously spared me, life provided in short order — with all its good and bad curve balls. Being an academic kid with a penchant for a good argument, lawyer hung in there longest. So it was a little ironic when not long ago I found myself doing some volunteer office work for a nonprofit that offers legal services for refugees. And by “office work,” I mean pulling staples from scads of documents. This nonprofit was paying a separate company to digitize their archive of files, the cost of which would double if staple removal were included. That is I how I came to find myself, along with a smattering of other volunteers, in a nondescript office for several mornings, beside towering piles of manila folders, staple-remover in hand. Each file represented a life that needed saving — to one degree or another — and for each case a lawyer had fought for that person, offered counsel, tried to secure a safe place in this world. And me? I was plucking staples. I became keenly aware that despite a generally good life, it is possible to wake up on any number of mornings in your forties and feel markedly less than.
The career I did land in after grad school was academic publishing, which was full of its own satisfactions — not the least of which was positively participating in the advancement of others’ research and careers in an arena where publication can mean more grants, tenure, or even the culmination of a life’s work. My income, while not lawyer-level, made a significant contribution to our household finances (and “editor” is a nifty answer to that perennial “what do you do?” question). So when I shifted to freelance work at the birth of our first daughter, there definitely was some trepidation, though the eventual return to a full-time career was both the plan and a constant, reassuring thought. However, when our second daughter was diagnosed at age four with a rare, progressive, and incurable heart and lung disease, career took more than a backseat — it pretty much exited the vehicle. I shifted course gladly and without regret, but the question of who I was and where I fit in the world certainly (and repeatedly) reared its head.
1 Corinthians 12 comes to mind — those verses where feet are told they can’t pretend they’re not a part of the body because they’re not hands, and eyes can’t say they don’t need hands. In our culture, we give lots of lip service to everyone playing equal and valuable parts — the doctor needs her garbage picked up to cure disease, the pastor can’t be writing sermons and cleaning the church toilets, the sports star is nothing without his fans — while simultaneously demonstrating with our money and admiration who we really think is special. There’s a reason this metaphorical admonition had to be given to the Corinthians and to us — and that I hear it speaking directly to me. Truth be told, even though I willingly laid down a career for a time (a really long time) for the sake of my family, I still have often felt very “foot-ish” in a world where even volunteerism can be subject to a pecking order.
There are moments where God’s economy throws our true selves into sharp relief in ways that are both enlightening and humbling. This is where I love Paul’s own retelling of his conversion to the angry mob in Jerusalem (found in Acts 22). Even as he starts (undoubtedly for the sake of this crowd) with the credentials of his pedigree, his zeal, and his education, he moves quickly to that divine moment when all of that is blindingly realigned, ending with Jesus’s words to him: “‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do’” (v 10). I love that “assigned to do,” or even the ESV’s “appointed for you.” Clearly Paul’s education and rhetorical prowess were put to use when he addressed the masses or defended himself and the gospel before Roman and Jewish leaders. Those skills were definitely not needed when he was locked up in a jail. Or flogged. Or shipwrecked. Yet all of these were assignments from the Lord.
It is true that staple-removal does not require a super-sophisticated skill set or a graduate degree. Nor does it especially tap into my particular “giftedness” — as I imagine it did not for any of the other volunteers working through the alphabet of files along with me. But this simple activity did, in fact, represent thousands of dollars saved, money that could then be diverted to helping more people. It represented hours of labor saved for an already spread-thin staff. It represented quiet acceptance of a somewhat thwarted career, which in turn allowed me to be available on a given weekday morning to do this task.
But even more so, in God’s economy, all our acts (I am resisting the urge even here to label them “small” or “big”) derive their real value from the One who calls us to them as he ordains the minutes of our days. The level of “specialness” we bring to these is commensurate only to the faithfulness and obedience — and even gratitude — with which we respond to those calls. Feeling weirdly “less than,” or worse, jealous of lawyers who worked on a stack of freebie cases lays bare a part of my nature I would rather not admit. Succumbing to feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction with the tasks to which I have been called reveals two problematic beliefs that I’ve unwittingly adopted; 1) that there somehow might be merit to the world’s economy as it hierarchically values people based on skills, smarts, accomplishments, and looks; and 2) that I somehow deserve to spend my time doing what I deem valuable and worthy of me and my time. It brings into question to what extent I really value the God-created humans represented by each manila folder. And I am left to question my own desire to feel spectacular or heroic even in my attempts to help others. What does this communicate out into the world about the worth of these people — these fellow humans who, regardless of their status or vocation in a previous country or life, now find themselves in the humblest position of need, called this day to open their hands and just receive?
Clearly, there is nothing wrong or sinful with wanting to be a human rights lawyer — or a doctor for that matter, or pastor, sports star, or editor. (Thank goodness someone is advocating for asylum seekers and refugees!) But one can almost hear the hypocritical trumpets of Matthew 6:2 praising “big gifts” to the needy when one believes heading to The Hague is a worthy endeavor and plucking the staples from the paperwork a “small” thing. If I believe in this anemic worldly economy, then I am looking for the small change of human admiration as my reward rather than the deep satisfaction of being called into the very work of God through simple obedience. God has been exceedingly gentle in his repeated lessons to me on this front. That day, sitting there at mismatched desks, sandwiched between linoleum floor and fluorescent light, free coffee and donut holes my current reward, I was given again an opportunity for which I truly am not worthy — a chance to enter into the work of the one whose shoestrings John the Baptist did not feel fit to untie. Laying hands on the files, whispering these names before God, advocating for them in a silent space that does not offer or require known outcomes or praise or credit, pulling staples became a sacred act.
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