I’ve always loved the beginning of the school year — the new teachers, the old friends, the prospect of fresh ideas. When I was a kid, I eagerly dusted off my backpack every fall and stuffed it afresh with sharpened pencils, blank notebooks, and a new Chandler’s planner for the coming year.
But the energy never lasted very long. Inevitably, my enthusiasm waned after a few weeks as I encountered unforeseen obstacles. The pencil tips would break, the notebook covers would get bent, and the relentless daily grind would begin to feel oppressive. I’d continue to study and work, but the shine of learning would rub off until all I could see was the pursuit of a grade — preferably with the least amount of effort possible.
As I matured into adulthood, I began to grow in awareness of some of my chronic pitfalls, leading me to enact some changes in the way I approach goals — for academic, professional, and personal work. But the questions still present themselves here at the start of the school year: How do I obtain clarity about my direction? And how best can I move forward into action?
Lately, my mind has turned to the story of the paralytic in Mark 2. It’s a familiar story: a paralyzed man is carried by his friends to see Jesus. When they can’t get through the front door, they decide to make a hole in the roof and lower the friend down in front of Jesus, who heals him. (Go ahead and take a moment to read it, if you’d like.)
There are two things about this story that I’m interested in highlighting: 1) The paralytic’s friends are crystal clear on their purpose: Get help for our paralyzed friend. And 2) they meet unexpected obstacles with creative problem-solving: Going in through the roof.
Although this story was not written with the intent of inspiring back-to-school goal-setting, I think it has a lot to say to us about living a faithful life in which we use our resources to bring more of God’s kingdom into the world. And isn’t that what we are after? It’s a countercultural idea, and for that reason it takes some extra work to explore. So let’s turn for a moment to the first item.
Clarify your purpose.
In my youth, I relied on a romantic vision of the learning process for my back-to-school inspiration — something that crumbled easily under the pressures of academic rigor. Age taught me that a clear and realistic purpose would serve me better than a mental image of studying hard, Hermione-style, with a pencil in my hair and a steaming cup of coffee beside me.
It's a hard truth: gaining clarity about our purpose in work is not always easy. Despite our best efforts, the pull of competing demands around us can cloud our perception and obscure the path forward. I really appreciated the way that Dr. Linda Hill contrasts “purpose” and “vision” in her interview with Brené Brown:
“A purpose is different [from] a vision. A purpose is … why we’re going and what we’re trying to do together, it’s not where we’re going. So, you’ve got to be clear about your purpose and who you’re trying to serve or the problem you’re trying to solve and that’s very different from having a vision.”
Dr. Hill goes on to explain that, when leading innovation and change, one often doesn’t have a vision — a clear destination of where the group will land or how the problem will be resolved. Instead, one must depend on a purpose — a problem to be solved or a need that must be addressed. The difference is subtle, but powerful.
When we look at the paralytic’s friends, they clearly had a purpose — get help for our paralyzed friend. Their purposes allowed them to explore new ideas (“Maybe this Jesus guy can help?”) and created the energy they needed to punt along the way regarding their transportation tactics.
(What about the vision of the friends? The text doesn’t say much about this, but I might guess that even if they had a clear vision — like “let’s heal our friend” — their mental image of how it would play out would not have matched reality, nor would they have had any power to bring about this miracle. Their only hope was to depend on their purpose of getting help for the friend and subsequently pursuing the goal of getting the friend as close to Jesus as possible.)
So as we walk toward the beginning of the school year, let me ask — what purpose energizes you? Perhaps it is not as concrete and miraculous as the purpose of the paralytic’s friends. (Or perhaps it is!) Perhaps your future hopes feel a little unformed right now and you need to take a little time to see it. Here are a few reflection questions to get you started:
- What hopes do you have for this school year?
- How is God inviting you to create, or learn, or teach, or lead, or serve?
- If you could ask Jesus for something extraordinary, what would it be?
Prepare for creative problem-solving.
Once you have a clear sense of your purpose, you’ll need to set a path — but you’ll almost certainly need to make some course adjustments along the way. Your journey will be most fruitful once you’ve acknowledged the potential bumps in the road and made accommodations for them rather than plowing full-speed ahead.
There is wisdom to be found in the practice of envisioning future problems and even preparing for them. A friend still recites a pithy bit of wisdom from a high school algebra teacher: “Proper prior planning prevents perplexing problems.” Twisted tongues aside, I often think of this little saying when I find myself in a jam and remember that the time spent building contingency plans for normal roadblocks can ultimately benefit the whole process.
Many of us have learned this lesson the hard way over the past two years. The pandemic has taught us to read the Covid numbers like we read the weather, and we’ve grown accustomed to carrying spare face masks and hand sanitizer in our bags along with an umbrella, knowing that plans might evaporate depending on the changing whims of the next variant. It was always true, of course — illness and hard luck have always been able to catch us unawares, but now we’ve just learned to be a bit more cautious and a bit more prepared. And although the scourge of the virus has not been eradicated, humans are proving ready to settle into this new ride and continue on the journey.
And so here we are, like the friends of the paralytic in Mark 2. We have a purpose and a hope, we see the obstacles, and perhaps we take some bold steps (“Did anyone bring a hacksaw for this roof?”) in order to continue toward our goals. What else can we do to prepare?
- What do I need to remember about my own needs — physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual?
- What do I need to remember about the needs of those around me, in my family or community?
- What roadblocks do I foresee? Are there ways to overcome them?
- How can I invite my community to support me?
As I think about these friends in Mark 2, I can’t help but be impressed by their faith. They believed that, if only they could get their friend in front of Jesus, he would act out of his power, love, and goodness to bring healing to his friend. But of course, these friends had no power themselves to heal the paralytic — all they could do was bring their friend close to Jesus.
It’s a good reminder for all of us that whatever our purpose is — teaching or researching or learning or leading — the outcome must always depend on the work of the Holy Spirit. We partner along with the Spirit, but we are just little humans participating in the fabric of God’s kingdom coming to earth.
- What spiritual disciplines might I practice in order to remember God’s presence and activity?
- Which friends will help me to remember to stay close to Jesus?
- How can I more fully integrate my faith into my work and study?
The open freshness of a new school year can feel so liberating, full of joy and possibility. My idealistic childhood self would have loved poet Mary Oliver’s poignant question:
What is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I love that question today — the way it encompasses the beauty of God’s kingdom and our invitation to be part of the building process. So let’s grab all the tools we need — pencils and hacksaws, prayers and the support of our friends — and follow our God-given purpose into this next year together.
Photo by Lisa Fotios on StockSnap