I Sold My Soul to Work: A response to Blackhawk’s sermon “Success”

One of the strongest messages I received from my father was don’t be a slackerFairly regularly he communicated to me that he was fearful that I just might be one.  It was subtle, but I got the message that I needed to work harder. He was always pushing.

He was very driven.  I thought being driven was a positive quality growing up.  And Dad’s motives were good I believe.  Dad and Mom were doing the Lord’s work and how could we not give the Lord 120%?  I suppose that is why I was so afraid to quit my job to stay home with my children.  I was afraid that deep down I was the slacker he saw in me.  What would happen to me if I didn’t have fear of failure, or good-natured competition, or general-freaking-out-all-the-time-to-get-things-done pushing me? For those were the things motivating me at the time.

As I sought God’s direction for my life in the decision to stay or leave InterVarsity, I had no idea how much I needed to learn.  And that began a decade long journey.  Ironically, this simple message was taught on Sunday at church about the idol of Success.  I sat there wishing that I had heard the sermon fifteen years ago, perhaps it would have saved me a lot of grief.  But truthfully I likely would not have “heard” it.  I needed to go through what I did, to learn a difficult lesson.  I hope the younger people listening yesterday can learn this earth shattering lesson without living it out painfully like I did.

I grew up believing that I WAS what I accomplished.  My worth was in what I could DO.   I don’t think my parents knew they were teaching me that, but I got the message that the harder you worked, the better you could and should feel about your contribution.  The more degrees you got, the better you could feel about your brilliance.  The more areas of responsibility you were given, obviously, the more of a Star you were and the more respect and affirmation I received from Dad.  I sat at the master’s feet, my father, who was a doer.  He was an extremely talented, hard-working person that motivated others to do great things.   He was always coming up with new ideas.  He was generally a big shot in the mission world, quite important and well-respected.   I learned my ideas about work from him.

I went to work for my father soon out of college mostly because I wanted him to like me.  When he gave me my first promotion I heard angels singing and the sun came out a little brighter.  I had finally arrived in his good graces.  And then I quickly became scared to death, because even though I knew what was expected of me – DO NOT FAIL – I didn’t believe I was capable, or talented, or smart enough.

That began my decade of perfecting the life of a workaholic.  I would not fail, because I worked longer and harder than everyone around me.  (This is what I thought at the time anyway.  There were many workaholics at my side as well as balanced people who worked smarter than I did.)

I sold my soul to the god of success.  The truth was more painful.  My identity was completely wrapped up in what I did and accomplished.  Tim Mackie said on Sunday, “Our culture worships at the altar of success and achievement.”  And how!  He also said, “A counterfeit god is anything that is so central to your life that should you lose it your life would not be worth living.”

That was my job.   I completely lost my way.  I lost my faith, kneeling at the idols of work, perfectionism, achievement and power.  I was ironically doing many good things for all wrong reasons.  Every day at work I attempted to prove to everyone, but especially my dad, but also the doubters and haters who (quite rightly) worried about Dad hiring two of his children for major roles in the Urbana convention.   Every day I thought I had to prove that I was good enough and deserved to have my job.  Deeply insecure, I didn’t know my value as a child of Yahweh. I finally burned out and then I quit—mostly out of a need to get away from all that, from the person that I had become, who I didn’t like at all—to be at home with my children.  I had three under the age of four and a pre-teen step daughter.

Right about now you are thinking, those poor kids.  Yeah, in some ways it is true that you could feel sorry for them but the lessons God taught me have made me who I am today and I wouldn’t trade them even knowing my children had to live with me through several struggles with major depression and my alcoholism.

This breakdown of Ecclesiastes 4 was so beautiful in its simplicity.

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.  Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh.  Better is a handful of quietness than two handfuls of toil and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6)

The same word hand in English means three different things in Hebrew. (And people wonder why we don’t trust the translators?)  Hand is used three times here to mean three different things.

  • “Folding your hand (yad)” in Hebrew is forearm, visualize folding your arms on your chest.  That is the slacker or lazy person I spoke of. The person taking it easy dishonors themselves and God, and is a fool.  It is good to use your time and talents to honor the Lord.
  •  “A handful (kaph)” is a word that helps you visualizes an open hand, palm up.
  • “Rather than two handfuls (khophen).”  This  is grabbing a fistful of something.

When I worked, I was grabbing for everything—the next project, the next department.  I was constantly dwelling on what I didn’t have and could not appreciate the honor and responsibility of what was before me.  I couldn’t enjoy my own successes.  I trampled on people in my department blindly so that I could grab at more responsibility and power.  I was never satisfied with my own work.  I was never content with my accomplishments.  I look back now, ashamed.  I was too young and more importantly without the spiritual maturity to know what I was doing.  Being raised to believe that I was what I accomplished, well, I was doomed — destined to fail.

The open hands of tranquility!  Even now, there are still areas where I push myself out of insecurity and fear and out of a desire to “be somebody.”  And a big one for me is being a feminist.  Let me explain.  I fret continuously about the lack of power and influence that women have – not only in the Church, but that is a large part of what I think about.  The role of women and being a feminist has been  at times an idol in my life in that I have made it the ultimate thing.  I am afraid of personally giving up whatever bit of power or influence i have as a women and think about this for all women in the Church.  I am afraid of women being perceived as lightweights, that men (who already have power) might think we take up needless space in the universe and really only have one significant purpose.  I know!  I have been totally two-fisted toward God about this, distrusting the leadership of the church as well as individuals I interact with on this subject. 

I come to my role as a feminist woman in the evangelical church often suspicious, fearful and distrusting.  I have not been tranquil or at peace about this for a long time.  And here’s an earth shattering realization for me.  I feel like I am letting “womankind” down by being a stay-at-home mom.  As if somehow I should have a career that shows that women can make money, contribute ideas, and make a significant difference in the world just as well as men, and I should be doing that for womankind.  I know how silly and pathetic that sounds.  I care so much more about my own reputation as a woman and I deeply care what others think of me still.  I worry that I am not doing enough or not proving my worth with my choice to be at home.

This remains unresolved in my and all I can do today is admit it, confess it and pray that I can do this work that God has put before me from a place of trust that my life is a gift from God. I must trust that He gave me my mind and heart; he gave me the things that make my heart ache or my soul sing.  All these are from Yahweh!   Pray for the peace found in doing the things He put before me – in raising my children which is profoundly challenging, daunting, and an incredible honor.   I want to approach motherhood openhandedly while bringing my screwed up, sinful, dysfunctional ideas about my value to the Cross every day.  I want to breathe in the peace of knowing I am beloved and that I am forgiven for those years of fretting and striving for significance and meaning in things that would never satisfy.  I am forgiven for the years of trying to earn my earthly father’s and Yahweh’s love.   My task is to wake up every day remembering that I have nothing to prove — not to my father, not to myself, not to men or women, not to anyone.



Here is a poem I wrote in response to last week’s sermon, about the greatest of idols self-identity – allowing our meaning and purpose to come from anything but Yahweh.   The sermon  kicked off a series titled American Idols.  The premise is that anything in your life, even a good thing, that becomes more important than God is an idol.  In an age of psychology and self-healing, through medicines and talk therapy, self-worth can all too quickly become an idol.  For me, the journey of finding my way back to faith and belief was so huge in my development of a healthy identity.  Still, many days, as I search, as I long for, need, wander, hope and fear — the process becomes an idol.  The process becomes this thing that distracts me from who God is, what it means to be his beloved child, and the few things that he calls me to each day.

Here is what I wrote the week before in response to the sermon Stop.

These are a series I am writing called: Be Real.  One of the ways I’m going to do that– be real — is by writing a response to the sermons I hear at my church, Blackhawk. These responses are not from the church, just my reflections.  I am always challenged by teachers at Blackhawk, sometimes profoundly, but I don’t — to be honest — always take the time needed to apply them to my life. But, if life is too busy to apply what you’re learning about your faith and if you don’t change and grow, what’s the point? So here goes.  Many people are busier than I, including my husband, and I just hope that this helps reinforce in some small way what God was already saying to you.


I searched hard for an image from Urbana 96 or Urbana 2000 because those are the events that I did the promotion for, but the website seems to be stripped of the historic images. The image above was taken after I left.  I suppose I should say for the record that I by no means failed at filling the Urbana conventions that I worked on.  They were both more than full, bursting.  If that is what you are measuring as success.

Am I called to be comfortable or to be changed? (as a white Christian)

When I read an article in TIME Magazine Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide? about the diversity journey of Willow Creek Church, I was left feeling surprised and unsettled.  Surprised by the influence that one person can have, a pastor in this case (Bill Hybels) who changed the face of that church – quite literally.  Willow Creek has gone from being  a lily white church to having diversity rates around 20% in about fifteen years.  It is a good story that’s worth reading.  (And quite unlike a lot of what you find in TIME; at least I find TIME Magazine is sanctimonious and moralizing about neoconservative ideas.)

Taking it a step further, Edward Gilbreath interviewed the Time religion writer David Van Biema who wrote the original piece about Willow Creek Church.  That interview was even more compelling, and as usual for me, unsettling. (If you have any interest in these topics this website, www.UrbanFaith.com, authored by Mr. Gilbreath, is thoughtful, challenging and informative.)  But the interview stirred up in me all the same feelings I have had for years, of dissatisfaction, doubt, and a strange wish for more diversity in my world.

I attend a 5,000+ church here in Madison, WI.  I have no idea of the diversity stats, though we have a lot of international students and college students.  I always see black faces in the crowd, but they stick out.  We seem to have tons of Asians.  Diversity is not talked about that I can tell as important in the Kingdom of God and the staff is Caucasian (the platform speakers are always male and always Caucasian, with very few exceptions.)

This was a strong theme of the Gilbreath interview  — the lack of people of color on staff and in crucial teaching roles, etc.

At times I become discouraged about all this, because after working on a convention like Urbana I have seen, experienced and participated in worship and leadership that is diverse.  Beautifully diverse, challenging, incredible, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, worship at Urbana is a transformational experience.  Heavenly.

My church is very white.

There is an ethnically diverse church here in town.  It is Pentecostal with a black pastor that I know and respect, Alex Gee.  I grew up Lutheran, United Methodist, Evangelical Free, and Presbyterian.  I am open.  Though I find the pentecostal experience is genuine and exciting, it also challenges this awkward extremely white person!  Let’s just say I want to like it.  I want a groove.  I want rhythm.  I want the holy spirit of the Pentecostal experience.  But it isn’t happening yet.

One thing I learned from my friends who are not white is that people with power (white like me) need to be willing to ‘risk and ‘get uncomfortable’ and be the minority presence sometimes. Willing to give up their power.  In my heart-of-hearts I feel compelled to do this.  And at other times the ‘worship with your own kind’ argument resonates with the part of me that just wants church to be comfortable.  Is that sin?  Should I reject those thoughts and desires for what is known and familiar?

Jesus seemed to constantly be in situations with people very different from him.  Is that what he calls us to?  The author of First John says that to love is to lay down your life.

“We know love because Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What he did, the greatest act of love, seems like an impossible thing to do for another person.  But just perhaps in a regular persons’ day-to-day life, our acts should be ordinary acts of love.  To live our lives based on that simple truth means our lives are built on self-sacrifice.  Every time we respond in love to someone else, we are laying down our lives for them.

“This is my commandment,that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”

Strange how he did not say “these are my commandments.”  He said one commandment.  To believe and love is one idea.  Believing in Christ means that we love one another.  Looking at it that way, there is a lot that I can do as a person with my affluence & power &  a voice for the cause of reconciliation in my city.  Things that have nothing to do with where I worship on Sunday.

  • I could take a job in a community development organization, forgoing salary to do a job that made a difference.
  • I could send my daughter (and sons) to Wright Middle School, a school named after one of Madison’s civil rights pioneers, which offers a multi-cultural curriculum.
  • I could volunteer my talents to Madison Times the only minority-owned newspaper here in Madison.

And I am considering all of these things.

I’d like to hear what you think. Do white or black churches need to change? Do people, white people for the most part with the power and resources  need to be humbling themselves to be a minority somewhere in their lives?  What can we do to help change this story in our white churches?  What are the questions I am not thinking of?  What’s left unsaid?  Ultimately how do we love our community as Jesus would have?  Are we willing to change?

UPDATE: I wrote  this in response to Kathy Khang’s post on the subject on Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog.

It’s always disconcerting to read believers ranting at one another. So much emotion. So often so ugly. The danger of the medium I suppose.  I appreciate the intensity of Kathy’s post and the questions she is posing. Things were written that need to be said. Often. In a variety of places. I blogged about the TIME article as well, Kathy, not knowing you had written too. My perspective as a white woman of course being entirely different. I read the White/Asian thing and wondered about it, but it didn’t hurt to read it. That pain is why this is all so important.

The question “are liberals ever happy” though posed in jest, is to me (ironically) the important question here. And my answer is a resounding no, of course not. Not in the way you think.

  • No, as long as our children are growing up to fear one another, and hesitate, and wonder about each others culture. To consider certain cultures suspect, simply because they are different.
  • No, as long as a white child believes somehow they are more deserving than a Black or Korean or Japanese kid born next door.
  • No, as long as white people believe they are the givers and POC are the takers, the needy.
  • No, as long as there is poverty, and hunger, and homelessness in our country.
  • No, as long as kids are not being educated well because they weren’t born into the right neighborhood or family.
  • And no, we’re not going to be happy as long as women and people of color are kept out of opportunities to minister alongside white men.
  • NO, liberals are not going to be happy as long as there is institutionalized discrimination and racism and sexism.

I could go on. But will say a final no. Inborn in a “liberal” as you call us, is a broken heart.  A heart that actually feels pain when they hear someone else talk about their pain.

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”- Isaiah 1:17