Don Follis: Listen for God's voice; answer his call
My little brother could get dirtier than any kid in the neighborhood. That guy loved to play in the dirt. In the mid-1960s our ranch-style home was the first house in a new subdivision. With lots of homes going up, there were piles of dirt everywhere for my brother to explore.
Well guess what? My brother still likes playing in the dirt. As a senior agronomist for an agriculture company in Iowa, he is most content when he climbs on his 4-wheeler and heads down a dirt road of some Iowa farmer hoping to try and figure the problem with the corn or beans out on the back 40 acres.
With the past being a good predictor of the future, it is no surprise that my brother says that driving his toy farm tractors around piles of dirt in our subdivision back in 1965 was when the door opened and began to let in his future.
Arthur Miller worked with companies for 40 years, trying to help them get their workers in the best jobs. In one of my favorite books of the last 30 years — "Why You Can't Be Anything You Want To Be" (Zondervan Publishing, 1999) — Miller explains "Every time people do something they experience as satisfying and as done well, they are in fact repeating part or all of a recurring pattern of specific competencies and motivations."
So your grandmother once may have said to you, "Honey, you can be anything you want to be." Miller would reply, "Of course you can't." That doesn't mean you are not gifted to do certain things. In fact, just the opposite is true. "Giftedness is universal," Miller says. "Every human being appears to be endowed with a unique design ... One's pattern of giftedness functions regardless of whether an individual is aware of it."
My own experience with people convinces to me that their giftedness — that is their specific competencies, their design, their motivations, their talents — generally, if not always, emerge in early childhood, especially if you help them explore their story and find the patterns.
To help people I counsel do this, I sometimes give them an exercise that Miller used in working with hundreds of company executives. I ask people to think back to their childhood and spend some time pondering and writing down times when they felt most successful, most satisfied — at age 5, 12 and 18. It's fascinating to help people see that their pattern of abilities often remains fundamentally the same throughout life — in its content, structure and dynamics.
When I asked my brother to do this, he instantly recalled at age 7 or 8 making roads and hills with his toy tractors on the dirt piles in our subdivision. Controlling the dirt made him feel powerful and successful. As a young man that didn't seem to change for him. I have a picture I took in the Jamaican Blue Mountains when he was in the Peace Corps working as a young agronomist. He is on his knees, smiling as he examines a row of coffee plants. Today you might find him on his knees in an Iowa bean field, still smiling.
Writer Os Guinness says, "Somehow we humans are never happier than when we are expressing the deepest gifts that are truly us." Indeed for some there seems to be a time in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
Usually when we meet people we ask, "What do you do?" And the answer follows: "I'm a teacher." "I'm a truck driver," or whatever. Work for most people determines, often to a great extent, their opportunity for significance. After all, it does take up much of the day.
One pastor said to me recently, "This congregation consumes me." As I prodded, I realized that the church he serves clearly gives him his identity. He even said he was becoming what he did.
God's calling actually reverses this thinking. Though work can be way overrated and so many people in the world have no choice in how they put bread on the table, writer Guinness believes, "A sense of calling should precede a choice of job and career, and the main way to discover calling is along the line of what we are each created and gifted to be."
Thus, instead of saying, "I am what I do," calling says, "Do what you are." That reminds me of another sibling, my younger sister. She trained as a hairdresser and now works as an esthetician, running her own very successful business, as she helps hundreds of clients improve their skin.
Seeing how much she loves her work, not to mention the handsome financial achievements, I once asked her, "What is your secret?"
"Oh my dear brother," she answered, "Isn't it obvious? I sell emotion. I smile and tell my clients they are beautiful. I've been doing that since I was 4. Don't you remember? Then I listen and say things like "That sounds really hard." "I'm so sorry." "I can only imagine." "And then I say again — 'You sure are beautiful.'"
My sister and brother are not what they do. No, they are doing, at least in part, what they were created to be. They realize that God called them along the lines of their giftedness, not for selfishness, but for or the purpose of stewardship and service. Doing what you were created to be never is a blank check for self-indulgence. We have nothing that was not given to us. Our special gifts always are to serve others.
Sadly, many never feel like they have gotten to do what they feel they were most created to do. Well, this is a new day. It's not over yet. Do you really want to love your neighbor as yourself?
Perhaps God is just waiting to link your most profound abilities with your neighbor's deep need. Listen for God's voice; answer his call.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.