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What Do You Want to Solve?

One of the most rewarding things about traveling and giving speeches is the people you meet and the things you learn.  Earlier this spring I was down in Jasper and this man, he was an older man, maybe in his upper 70’s, told me how last fall, just before Thanksgiving, he was driving past a turkey farm and apparently a turkey had made a break for it and bolted across the road in front of him.  He swerved, trying not to hit it, but was unsuccessful.  There was a thud, turkey feathers went flying, and there was the turkey, sprawled on the road, down for the count.  The man looked around, no one had seen him hit the turkey, and it was close to Thanksgiving, and a shame to let that perfectly good turkey go to waste, so he got a blanket from his trunk, laid it on the back seat of his car, and placed the turkey on the blanket.  A mile or so down the road, he realized the turkey wasn’t dead, just stunned, and was now revived and flinging itself around inside his car.  I don’t know what happened after that, someone interrupted us, but I’ve thought of little else since, that man and turkey out for a drive.

Or sometimes someone will say something, just one line, and it will work its way into my head, hang on, and I can’t shake it.  I was at a retreat for the Plainfield schools the week before last and the superintendent said something that struck me as deeply Quakerish.  He said, “Let’s not ask our kids what they want to do when they grow up, let’s ask them what they want to solve.”

It made me think about the emphasis we put on what others do, attach such meaning and value to that, so are always asking kids, “What are you going to be when you grow up?  What are you going to do when you grow up?”   I did that to our granddaughter just the other day, apparently to the point of obsessing about it.  Joan said, “Geez, Phil, lighten up.  She’s only two and a half.”  But we’re all the time doing this.  Then if the child says doctor or lawyer, we get all excited, and pat them on the head and think how proud their parents must be.  But if they say trash collector, we say, “Oh, you can do better than that,” even though trash collectors are of immeasurable value and probably do more to eradicate disease and blight than doctors.

But when we ask a child, “What are you going to solve when you grow up?”  Well, that changes the whole equation, doesn’t it?  Because then we’re asking them to pay attention, to observe the world, and to set their sights on solving a problem we’ve not yet managed to fix.

What are you going to solve?  This just isn’t for kids.  This is for all of us, because isn’t it true that once we became what we wanted to become, once we realized our vocational goal, we often became complacent and lost our determination, our resolve.  Once we became what we wanted to become.  I’ve met so many pastors who, once they graduated from seminary, never read another book, never had another serious thought about faith, or what it meant to be human.  They had met their goal, and that was sufficient.

So let’s not think about what we want to be.  Let’s focus on what we want to solve.

If you’re a lawyer, don’t just help adversarial people sue one another.  Help solve the problem of injustice in our judicial system.

If you’re a teacher, don’t just collect a paycheck and look forward to the summer break.  Help solve the problem of a culture that values conformity over creativity.

If you sell cars or houses, don’t just rack up sales.  Help people understand that their worth and value aren’t related to the car they drive or the house they live in.

If you own your own business, don’t just try to make as much money as you can as quickly as you can.  Provide meaningful work and opportunity for others.

Care less about what you’ll be, and more about what you’ll solve.

This would require that we look at our vocations not as the means by which we earn our living, but as the means by which we solve the problems inherent in our vocation.  Isn’t this what we admired about Jesus?  Think about it for a moment.  If you are passionate about matters of faith, you can direct your energies in one of two ways—you can become a theoretician, or in this instance a theologian.  And that’s okay.  Theologians certainly have their place, but thank God there aren’t a lot of them.

You remember what the French philosopher Denis Diderot said about theologians, don’t you?  “I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest.  Along comes a theologian and blows it out.”

So if you’re passionate about matters of faith, you can become a theologian.  But it’s a tricky business, and of questionable value.  Take it from someone who has a degree in theology.

Or if you are passionate about matters of faith, you can let your faith inform and inspire your efforts to solve great problems.  And this is what Jesus did, and that is why we remember him.  Not because of his theology, but because he paid attention, he observed the world, and set his sights on solving problems we’d not yet managed to fix.  Now did he succeed?  No, not always. He healed the sick, but people still get sick.  He remedied injustice, but there is still injustice.  He befriended the outcast, but there are still outcasts.  But wasn’t his life richer, and our lives better, for his trying, for Jesus doing what he could to solve some great challenge.

And don’t we want to be like that?  Will we be theoreticians or practitioners?   Isn’t it far better to commit ourselves to a life of practice than a life of theory?

What do you want to solve?  What great challenge will you address?