Biblical Texts: Genesis 28:10-22 and John 1:43-51
[Presented by Uli Chi at Seattle Pacific University's chapel service, April 13, 2010]
I was always a bit of geek growing up. I was the kid who read advanced math and physics books in junior high when others were doing more age-appropriate things. If you had met me in high school - sad to say - you might have seen me sporting a pocket protector with too many pens and a slide rule hanging from the belt of my too short jeans. The fact that I can appear before you dressed appropriately today is a tribute to the mercy and grace of God as it has been embodied in my wife, Gayle, to whom I owe a great deal, not least of which is being spared an appearance on the TV show "What Not to Wear."
Not surprisingly, I studied math and computer science at university. By then Christ had already brought me to himself, and I became not only an avid technophile but also a committed follower of Jesus. Like many who came to faith without a significant faith heritage, I was eager to live out my faith in the context of the vocation to which I was called - which in my case was the business of technology. Still, it was a struggle. While I was an eager student - instead of reading advanced math and physics books in my spare time, by then I was busy reading books on theology and the bible - I nevertheless found much of what I was learning remote to my budding career as a technologist and a business person.
But, there were moments that encouraged me along the way. One in particular that I remember was the wonder I felt when I wrote and saw the result of my first piece of computer software. That experience, it seemed to me, was the closest thing to participating in God's act of "ex nihilo" creation that I had ever experienced - what started as a mere idea in my mind had become an actual physically reality on my computer screen! It was quite remarkable and something I've never forgotten. Looking back, it seemed that for the first time, I saw the coming together - the intersection - of who God is and what he does and who I am and what I do. In other words, I finally saw the connection between God, as Creator of all things, and me, created in his image, a creator (with a little "c" of course!) in the work that he had assigned to me.
That moment of insight, I have come to believe, is a kind of foretaste of what is at the heart of God's ultimate purpose for the world in which we live. As the whole biblical narrative and our recent celebration of Jesus' resurrection reminds us, God's purpose and creation's destiny is the coming together - the uniting - of heaven and earth where we will recover our fully human identity and vocation, to use the biblical metaphor, of being priests and stewards of creation. In the meantime, we are called live in light of that future - to have our lives, in the present, become a place and time of intersection between heaven and earth.
So what does this mean and how do we live this out, particularly in my vocation of business? And, what do these ancient biblical texts from this morning have to say to us in the 21st Century? We don't have a lot of time this morning so I would make just a couple of observations from the texts followed by a few insights on how we might live this out.
First, each of these texts speaks of a place and a time of intersection between heaven and earth - whether Jacob's "ladder dream" describing a place where the traffic of heaven intersects (in a surprising and perhaps disturbing way) that of Jacob's "run for your life and go find a wife" journey to Haran, or Jesus' more cryptic reference to a similar place, except that Jesus himself becomes the focal point of that intersection. It is clear from each context that the place of intersection is neither easily recognizable nor plainly visible. To quote Jacob, "God was in this place and I knew it not!" And, while we don't have a record of Nathaniel's reaction to Jesus' comments, he, like many other students of the Bible after him, likely was scratching his head wondering exactly what Jesus was talking about. For our purposes this morning, it is enough to observe that both the Old Testament and the New Testament speak of a God who, sometimes despite appearances, is not "far off" or "absent" (or even worse "non-existent") but who is engaged in our everyday life and business in hidden ways that require revelation and wisdom to see. This is profoundly important to all of us who live in a culture (particularly in business) that - in a phrase and with due apologies to Brother Lawrence - "practices the absence of God."
My second observation from the texts is that neither Jacob nor Nathaniel exhibited any particular spiritual sensitivity or insight prior to the encounter. Even worse, neither were particularly admirable characters - Jacob on the run from stealing his brother's birthright and Nathaniel expressing some form of first century bigotry regarding people from Nazareth. I don't know how you react to this observation, but it always gives me great hope that God did not disqualify "people behaving badly" - even business people! - from experiencing their own "intersection of heaven and earth" as part of God's work of transformation in their lives. So if the thought of experiencing the intersection of heaven and earth seems a bit too intimidating to you this morning, you are in good company.
So how do these observations inform and help us today, particularly for those of us who are in business? To begin with, business is often viewed with suspicion as a "godly vocation". This is deeply unfortunate for it has lead to the alienation of many in business whose life in business is viewed as a "means to an end" in the context of God's work. "We have to do work in business so that we have money and time to give to the God's real work in ministry and mission." It is a wholesale abdication of our Christian responsibility and mission to reclaim all of life for God's kingdom. Thankfully, this is not a view shared here at SPU. The Business School's vision of "Another Way of Doing Business" is in the vanguard of a thoughtful recovery for this generation of what business as a biblical vocation looks like. Those of you who have had the privilege of studying business here have a wonderful start in living integrated lives in business.
But make no mistake - the challenge of living out that vision will be neither simple nor easy. I think the primary reason for this can be found in the biblical texts with the imagery of God (in the Old Testament text) and Jesus (in the New Testament) being on the earth rather than in heaven, i.e., they are at the bottom of the "angelic ladder" rather than at the top. Already hinted at in the Old Testament and fully realized in the New, the radical nature of the Incarnation means that those of us who have business as a vocation are called not only to enter fully into the messiness that is the reality of life in the business world (that of course is in itself an important insight from the Incarnation), but to also enter that messy life with a radically different vision of what (to mix the biblical metaphor with a contemporary one) the "ladder of success" looks like. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said (although he could have hardly imagined the extent to which Jesus would demonstrate its truth) "the way up and the way down are one and the same". Living out this embrace of our vocation in a way that goes against almost all the assumptions of our culture is, I think, the great challenge in front of all of us who seek to live in the intersection of heaven and earth in our generation and will require all the creative thought, mature discernment and passionate love that we can muster, individually and collectively.
A second insight from my observations of the texts is, as all our wise spiritual guides would reminds us, the importance of the virtue of humility. Given who Jacob and Nathaniel were, the conclusion that neither had much to boast about should be quite self-evident. But, Jacob became one of The Patriarchs, and Nathaniel became one of The Twelve, so we as we become successful in our business vocation easily lose sight of how to, simultaneously "live at the bottom" as we "reach the top" of our profession From personal experience, I know that actual business success creates innumerable possibilities for pride - living in an economically luxurious and isolated world without meaningful connection to human needs and suffering; having the world revolve around our needs, wants and desires; the almost "godlike" ability to tell people and whole organizations what to do and have them go do it; the list goes on... A good friend of mine who is a New Testament scholar reminds me that there are more biblical texts on money and humility than there are on sex and alcohol. Those texts all remind us of the importance of staying rooted in a life of humility - to remain at "the bottom of the ladder" (where, remember, God and Jesus are in today's texts!) no matter where success in our vocation takes us.
I want to say one more thing on humility, particularly to those of you who are, or aspire to be, in leadership in business, academia or elsewhere. Speaking from personal observation and experience, the practice of humility in leadership as one of the radical Christian virtues - even among those of us who are Christian leaders in business, academic and other institutions - is quite rare and difficult. We have a need to be right and to have our own way that runs surprisingly deep and is remarkably pervasive in each of us. And, only the grace and virtue of humility can save us and those whom we lead from ourselves. Perhaps the most difficult lesson of humility is discovering - as the apostle Paul once did on the road to Damascus - that the way in which we are carrying out what we think is our God-given vocation can be, in fact, deeply misguided. I have had some experience with this myself and with other friends in leadership where we have discovered much to our sorrow - in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot -
... the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to other's harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honor stains.
I think one of the distinctively Christian characteristics of leadership - whether in business, academia or elsewhere - is this willingness to go to the dark place in ourselves which we once thought was light. Or, the willingness to see and hear, in the words of the poet, "of things ill done and done to other's harm which once you took for exercise of virtue". This willingness to face our own sins squarely without flinching - the acknowledgement that the praise and honor we thought we were due was in fact the "approval of fools" and a stain of dishonor - is, in some ways, one of the highest price of humility for those of us in leadership. And, as Jesus' beatitude reminds us - particularly those of us who have the stewardship of leading communities and organizations - it is the poor in spirit who will inherit the kingdom of God.
The third and last insight from my observations from the text is that we need to cultivate an attentiveness to these places and times of intersection between heaven and earth. Like Jacob and Nathaniel, we are not very good at this. However, these places of intersection, when recognized, invariably lead to a flourishing of creativity. Creativity, as I discovered early in my Christian journey, is one of the great gifts of our being made in the image of God. It is also the singular most important quality to any thriving business or organization. We need to cultivate in ourselves and in the organizational cultures we are building a renewed appreciation for and recognition of those places and times where we experience this kind of intersection. In my experience, this is slow but rewarding work. And, it can be discouraging and painful work, for it requires us to enter into the messiness of life with a radically different view of success and with the personally costly virtue of humility. But, in the end, this is what we've been called to do.
I close with the words of T.S. Eliot:
... to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time is an occupation for the saint -
As Jacob discovered long ago, this "point of intersection of the timeless with time" changes peoples' lives and can radically re-form their vocation. To "apprehend" that place of intersection is worthy of our life's attention. But, to fulfill that occupation of the saint doesn't mean necessarily becoming a missionary, a pastor, or even a doctor or a nurse. As admirable as those vocations are, I am deeply persuaded that the occupation of business, perhaps particularly in this century, is an equally worthy occupation for the saint. May God grant that many of you hear God's call in that direction.
© 2010 Uli Chi
About the Speaker: Uli Chi serves on the Executive Committee for the Center for Integrity in Business. Uli's professional interest is in the field of computer science and mathematics. Uli, who holds a doctorate in computer science, is currently founder and chair of Computer Human Interaction, a software company that develops 3-D, virtual reality software that is both comprehensive and intuitive to the consumer.
Chi serves as chair of Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., as well as a board member for The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena and Highline Medical Center in the Seattle area. Chi was born in Asia, spent a few years in Europe as a child, and then settled in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. He is married to Gayle, and they have two adult children, Peter and Chrissa.