A few days ago, a co-worker forwarded me a copy of a document that I wrote about ten years that served as a kind of “manifesto” for what I thought could and should be accomplished at work on the level of culture. While I’ve thought of the document often over the last few years, I hadn’t really thought about any intentional revisit of it. I was a different person then, for sure. But as I looked through it, I found some stuff worth retooling and breathing back into life some.
I am entering a stage in my career where I’m having to define and defend things more and more. It’s a sobering experience. Some of the things I am (re)defining and defending are things that have been around for years, that almost touch on the systemic, that people are calling into question (and perhaps rightly so). Some of the things I am defending I do so by default because I stepped in because f need, which creates a different sense of responsibility.
So I’m preparing for a season of defense and defining that I don’t expect to enjoy all that much. As I reflect and (probably wrongly) attempt to predict what happens next, three things are worth keeping in mind (that can easily be forgotten, particularly if someone enters into the conversation for the first time).
- Context. We are often not trained to “think big.” By “think big,” I do not mean to think about the blowing up of a balloon to as large as it can be blown. I mean “think big” in the sense that what we assume are discrete things are actually parts of a larger system, a larger flow. And that system of flow can sometimes be hard to recognize. I spent the first few years of my job learning about some of the “on the ground” history of things, which isn’t quite the same as official institutional history. Both are vital, one even more so for how you interact with others. At what point, through, does context take a major paradigm shift? When you’ve been around for a good while, it’s possible for the paradigm to shift right under your feet without realizing it. Context is as important as it is tricky.
- Contingency. Context is closely tied to contingency. If context is holding the big picture, the interconnectedness of systems, in place, then contingency is how we move through the given context. “Because of x, I can do y but probably shouldn’t do z.” As I look back at the decisions I have made over time, they are all of them in some way contingent on what had gone before, who had done those things, and what was missing or needed augmentation. I never assumed that one thing could do everything or that one person could do everything (in that way lies madness). Contingency means you strive to do good and right with what you have, knowing that in a different context you might have done something completely differently.
- Commitment. If context is big picture, and contingency is movement in the picture, commitment is the through-line that directs the movement. If the commitment is health, the contingency involves what foods or exercise or emotional support options are available in a given context and how best to choose through your options. Whatever you choose, though, health is the underlying commitment. For the Christian, the underlying commitment is the kingdom of God revealed through Jesus. If that commitment is in play, it will preclude some directions and encourage others. And what it looks like will be determined by the context. Even if what is done is an entirely new thing, it is a thing instantly embedded in contingency and context.
How does one invest long-term in places and people and institutions and maneuver things like changes in broader culture and close-to-home leadership? On some level, you have no control over anything but the decisions right in front of you. I think often of Joseph and how God used him to save his family during the famine in the latter part of Genesis. It is an amazing story full of twists and turns that reveal God’s faithfulness. And then you turn the page to Exodus to find that there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. (The KJV says it so well.) The land is still the same. God is still the same. But so much else has changed. The same thing will be true when Moses passes and Joshua leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. And when Daniel finds himself in Babylon. And when Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his time. And when Paul preaches the Gospel to the Gentiles. And when John sees the context and contingencies of everything in his great Revelation.
May God grant us a good picture of the greater context of things. May we be able to discern the contingency between things. And may we hold fast to the right commitments.