Monday, March 16, 2009

With Sober Judgment

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3)

Lois Draegin understands that she has a lot to learn.

Lois is an intern at the web start-up, a site that targets accomplished women over 40. Certain technical skills are a necessity on the job, and Lois just doesn’t have some of those skills. So she hasn’t been shy about asking her colleagues’ help with, say, doing search engine optimization for a story she’s working on, or writing a URL, or using Google Trends, or doing a screen grab to get stills from a video into a story. She’s learning, but some of those skills still elude her.

Since she doesn’t already have those technical skills, you might be forgiven for asking how she got this internship. I suppose you’d say it was her real-world experience that got her the job.

Lois Draegin, who’s 55, came to this internship from TV Guide. She was an editor. With a six-figure salary.

Now she’s making…well, less. The internship is unpaid, three mornings a week.

Like a lot of people in the current economy, Lois was laid off from her job. But she’s chosen not to spend much time feeling sorry for herself. While some might consider it a career free-fall to trade a six-figure salary for an unpaid internship, Lois sees it as a chance to gain some skills that she lacks and position herself for a future job opportunity, while making a contribution to a project she believes in. Having to ask the help of colleagues young enough to be her daughters doesn’t seem to bother her.

But I can’t help but think how many laid-off workers would have missed the chance to do what Lois is doing simply because they would have considered an unpaid internship beneath them. In our world, where status is so often tied to salary, and job title, Lois’ bare cubicle and paycheck – or lack thereof – aren’t going to turn many heads. We value competence so highly that some would see Lois’ dependence on the help of her colleagues as a sign of weakness. We tend to take ourselves – and our positions relative to the positions of others around us – very seriously. And we don’t want to do anything that might be perceived as lowering our stations in life.

We can be so very self-conscious, so preoccupied with image and perceived position that we can miss amazing opportunities to widen our circle of friends, develop new abilities, take on new challenges, and grow personally.

I think that’s why Paul tells his readers in the church at Rome that they shouldn’t “think of [themselves] more highly than they ought.” Thinking too highly of ourselves is so limiting, so counterproductive to real growth, real community, and real life. Thinking too highly of ourselves forces us to dwell on our own perceived importance and downplay the value of others. It causes us to see the worth only in circumstances that serve our interests, and makes us blind to the ways in which we can serve another person. To think too highly of ourselves – and the corollary to that, to think too little of others, is isolating. It keeps us from the very things we were made for: living in relationship with other people, learning from them, considering their interests at least as much as we consider our own, and working with them to achieve in the world we share things that are impossible when we depend only on our own skill sets.

Paul seems to think that Christians should learn from Jesus how to take ourselves down a couple of pegs in our own regard. The driving metaphor he uses for human interconnectedness is the way a body depends upon all its parts in order to survive. He reminds us that we belong to each other – that we have responsibility for one another. And he reminds us that God has given us different gifts and skill sets so that we’ll learn that we only function as we’re supposed to when we do the things we do in concert with one another. Believers, who through Jesus are in the process of being transformed by learning to think in new ways, are to model this new way of thinking about ourselves and the people around us. Though it’s really not a new way of thinking. It goes back to creation, back to God saying, “It’s not good for the man to be alone.”

I’ve been confronted by this – and by some of my own tendencies to think too highly of myself – while working in the food pantry our church runs. We provide food to fifty to sixty families each week, and I have to admit that I’ve at times had a somewhat patronizing attitude toward some of the people who come in. I imagine those attitudes are in me because to some degree I still buy into the spurious and arbitrary ways our society – and even the church – assigns value to people. I tend to sort people into categories: folks who need help, and folks who provide it. And guess which of those categories is most important in my mind.

I’m learning, though. God is stretching me through the people who come through our pantry. I care more now about the problems and inequities that often contribute to people needing help to feed their families. As I get to know some of those folks better I see their nobility and their character as they try to make the best of difficult circumstances and take care of the people who depend on them. I’ve learned that they have dreams, and I’ve learned that they know things I don’t and can do things I can’t, and I’m becoming convinced that a lot of them give me much more than I can ever repay with a few bags of food.

Most of all, I’ve been reminded that they’re all, every one, God’s creatures. And though our status in a society preoccupied with wealth and position and competence might be different, our status in God’s eyes is not different at all. And though I have something to give them – something which, incidentally, comes from others as well – they have something to share with me, too.

Let’s not miss what God would teach us and show us and do in us and do with us though other people. Let’s not miss it by thinking so highly and so exclusively of ourselves that we have no room for the people God would bring across our paths. Through those people he’ll teach us the joy of sacrifice and the humility of receiving the sacrifice of someone else. He’ll show us what we lack, and show us how to remediate that lack. And he’ll give us the chance to be much more together than we could ever be alone: to fill our homes, offices, neighborhoods, schools, and churches with the community in which he created us to live.

We all have a lot to learn. And we all have a lot to give.

God give us the grace to think soberly of ourselves.


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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

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