Their Work Matters, Too

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“Thank you for working today.” I look her in the eye and smile. Genuinely, I’m thankful for her service. We’re all off work and gallivanting around town with family and friends, while she is there, scanning items over the check stand.

Boop, boop, boop… go my items as she finds each label and places the items in a bag.

My comment stops her in her tracks. She looks up and smiles, and almost laughs.

“You’re the first person to thank me for working today. I’ve been here working since midnight.” I look at my watch. She started at that check stand 10 hours ago. She must have checked out hundreds of people in the course of the Black Friday rush; no one noticing her, or at least acknowledging that she gave a day that most Americans have off of work- to work, serving the rest of us.

I leave clutching my bag, great deals at the bottom, but with a sense of frustrating wonder.

Why was I the first person to thank her?

Has our society become so commoditized that we expect people who check us out at the store to do so with no acknowledgement on our part of their dignity, their worth, and the fact that their work can be service to the Lord as well?

And even if they don’t know or acknowledge their work as such, we who are called by the Lord have a different vantage point. Maybe they are common grace to us. But we often don’t see it that way; even when we’re greeted with a smile, and a genuine ask of “How’s your day going?”

I don’t think we see other’s service and work this way often. I certainly didn’t see it this way for so long. There remains a hierarchy of vocation in our society. We aspire for our children and ourselves to go into certain industries and not others. We except certain service from those we pay- a person to clean the house or car, our barista who makes the coffee, the man or woman who drives our garbage truck.

There are those jobs, those industries, that remain almost invisible- and yet, even without our acknowledgment, their work remains dignified by the Lord. The custodians, the woman who cleans the bathroom at the mall, the man who works in the factory, placing the same part on the same product for 8, 9, 10 hours a day. Their work matters deeply to the Lord.

We who work in the world of words, or rhetoric, or arguments for justice and those who may work to keep others alive as doctors or nurses; those who watch the markets to see where our dollars may end up at the end of a given day, and those who pass on knowledge to others as teachers, or artists who work in their minds manipulating imagination to bring ideas to reality- For we who are called to these types of vocations, it’s easy to see those in other industries as there for our service.

I hate even seeing those words written- because while it’s reality, it’s the antithesis of everything that God has called good in work. Work as an offering of service, rather than a demand of it. Work as an offering back of worship, rather than a place where our egos are stroked and our successes racked up on a scoreboard.

Maybe it ‘s the conundrum of privilege- we don’t see, we don’t acknowledge certain types of work, because we don’t have to. We don’t see, we don’t acknowledge what another has done for us because we expect it, and are too busy in our own worlds, working on our more intellectual jobs on our smart phones, as we wait for another to finish their job working for us- making our coffee, checking us out at the grocery store, driving the bus we ride on to get to our ‘more worthy’ job- or so we think…

But if God is the author of work, ALL WORK, which He is, then we need to rethink the ways in which we, often unknowingly, brush off another’s vocation. In God’s economy, everyone has a place at the table.

In God’s economy all work is valid. All work is important. Whether you’re a landscaper, or a chef; a mathematician or a pastor. Whether your work is technical or creative, whether you work with numbers or paint, with people or chemicals. Whether you work with nature or work to enforce the law. Whether you are selling something or cooking something- your job, your vocation, your work is valid.

And I would venture to say, not just YOUR work, but THEIR work as well. The ‘other.’ The one who is so diametrically apposed to you and your life, THEIR WORK MATTERS, too.

You see it’s not just that our work is our melting pot and conduit of worship, but that theirs is too. And when we dismiss them or think they are lower than us because of their given vocation at a certain time, or gloss over when they ask us how our day is, we devalue that which God has given to them to do to contribute to the flourishing of our city.

Your work is valid because it’s through your work, that the work of God is manifested. Your work is valid because it’s through your work that you can participate in the work God is already doing in the world. Your work is valid because it’s through your work that you can reflect and reveal God. Your work is valid because it’s through your ordinary work that the power of God can be ushered into your life and the lives of those around you.

And that is just as much true for you as it is for those in service industries, retail industries, and as it is for those of us who work differently than we do. In God’s economy there IS NO HIERARCHY OF VOCATION.

The irony that I, a white middle-upper class female is writing this piece, is not lost on me. I do realize that I don’t know the struggle much of our city and country and world have as they work two and three jobs just to put food on the table and keep the lights on. But maybe, it’s precisely from this particular milieu that I can be transformed by God to see things differently, and speak to those in my similar situation.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about driving a bus for twenty five years- day in and day out like my next door neighbor, or what it’s like to keep a marriage together when both husband and wife are working seven days a week, ten hours a day- three service jobs between the two of them- with two little boys to care for in the in between times, like a woman I met yesterday. I don’t get that. And maybe that’s why God is waking me up to the fact that I have much to learn about the depth and breadth of his common grace through hard working people and vocations that are so far away from my experience.

It’s almost like God is saying, “But, please, oh, please…don’t forget. You too are dust, and the work I’ve given you is not better or worse than the work I’ve given to the next guy or gal… but it’s YOUR work to do. So do it well, and to the best of your ability. And don’t forget the other, the ones who are doing THEIR work well and to the best of their abilities.”

When we first moved to Bellevue, our garbage woman stopped and got off of her truck. She walked around it, and put her hand out to introduce herself to us. She pulled out a lollipop from her vest pocket and handed it to my very wide-eyed one and half year old. It was a two-minute interchange, before she was off and back on the job. But its impact has remained now, almost two years later in my mind.

We had more than just trashcans for her to pick up. We were more than just ‘one more house’ on her route. We were people, with dignity and worth. Value enough to stop and learn a name, and smile at a little boy whose house she would visit the outside of once a week. To her, work was about more than just doing a job. It was about PEOPLE and serving the people whose trash she took, well.

God has used this instance to teach me, again and again: Our work is for the blessing of the nations; our work is for the flourishing of the city. And when we don’t give another the opportunity to bless, to speak kindness, to serve well- we handicap their ability to live out their vocations as well as they can.

You see, our lives become deeply richer when we reach across vocations and get to know people who do work very different than ours. Because all work holds dignity and the power to reveal God in the world. When I keep with the value of society holding hierarchy in vocation, I miss out completely on the ways in which God is revealing himself to the world through my garbage truck driver. When I stay with the hierarchy of society I miss out on the diversity of God revealed through the barista and the PhD.

I know it’s hard to break down the barriers of the hierarchy of vocation, because that’s just not how the world works, but God has always been above the social moray of society. I know it’s easy to stay within our comfort zones of economic and educational status. But, life in the kingdom of God has a deeply rich education in the use of the poor, in the use of the day laborer, in the nannies and stay at home mom or dad. Life in the kingdom of God can be revealed in a wider and deeper way through the doctor and the software developer.

Because we need you, you who work in intellectual terms. And we also need them, who care for children. We need you, you who work with chemicals and steel. We also need them, you who design and craft. We need you, you who drive and build. And we need them, who cook and clean. Your work is revealing to us, the world, who God is, and man oh, man do we so deeply need to know God through the ways you, and they, work.

The Artist as Intercessor (revisited)

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***The following is a talk from the recent Transformation: Worship and the Arts Conference put on by Fuller Northwest.***

Good morning. I am not Bette Midler. However, if it amuses you to imagine her saying what I’m about to say, then feel free. Whatever it takes.

When my two nephews were young, we went to the first three Star Wars movies together. For each episode, we planned special days, we stood in a line that circled the block, watched the film and got back into the line—sometimes over and over again. For months, years, they pretended to be Jedi knights until they grew too old to do that, and then we talked about being Jedi knights instead. It was our thing.

And oh man, when we found out about Luke and Darth Vader? I still can’t talk about that.

A few years ago, there was a woman in my church who asked me to mentor her. A successful screenwriter, she quickly clarified it was not her film career but her spiritual life where she craved an older voice. Over the years since, her art and her spirituality intwined as, of course, they are meant to do. We weathered the cycles of success and failure in her filmmaking as they swirled in and around questions about church, marriage, infertility, pregnancy (God be praised), childbirth, childcare. And then there was the day she was offered the job at Lucasfilm. It was a hyperspace jump. Now she is responsible for story development for all things Star Wars. Last fall she asked me if I’d come to the Presidio in San Francisco for a visit, adding that if I was interested, she’d arrange a VIP tour. I asked if I could bring two guests.

My two new nephews are grown adults in grown adult businesses, are in their late thirties, married with five children between them. One flew from Oklahoma and the other from Los Angeles. We saw matte paintings of Tattooine, models of the Millineum Falcon, R2-D2, the cyrogenic frieze of Han Solo in carbonite, and—in their state-of-the-art-screening room we saw—well, I can’t say, now, can I. That’s what those non-disclosure agreements are probably for.

My nephews stopped workers in the hallways and thanked them, tears in their eyes. The employees kindly tolerated us; their expressions said, yea, this happens a lot. I had stopped at a thrift store in Haight-Ashbury and bought a jacket and a black scarf on our way there because I’d forgotten to take a coat. To San Francisco. (Don’t judge me.) Anyway, when my friend came out to meet us after her assistant dropped us off, she was wearing the same jacket and a black scarf. We found this amusing.

At the gift shop on their way out of town, the guys bought things for their wives and kids meant to try to contain all the enthusiasm that was awakened by that visit. I bought a patch for the arm of my jacket which I showed later to my friend as an “inside joke.” Then I forgot about it.

Our conversations about the trip since then have been rich with reflection on what it means to remember the passions of youth, lots of late night talks about their own children, about the future, about what it feels like to be fully alive. Are we living the lives we dreamed of, are we growing, are we part of the resistance or have we become part of the Empire without realizing. Because people, it happens. Oh Anakin! Months went by, and the weather grew a little colder back home in Pasadena, and I began to notice a strange phenomenon. My gravitational pull on a wide variety of people suddenly shifted. I was greeted with head tips, winks, thumbs up while on the street, in restaurants, pumping gas—from people I didn’t know. One discerning waiter realized I was not receiving the message he was throwing down, so he spoke slowly “love your jacket” and nodded to the patch. I figured I ought to google what the patch actually means. Turns out I am now a member of the rebel alliance. In a moment of colliding worlds, one guy said under his breath as he passed me on the sidewalk, “may the Force be with you,” and I replied, “and also with you.”

This has become more than an amusing story. It is a phenomenon. I imagine what an early Christian might have felt marking half an IXOYE in the sand: the response to this rebel patch is ubiquitous and serious. I no longer treat it as a joke: I try to see the person who comments, I try to hear what they asking for, craving. I imagine Yoda’s voice: “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.”

The artist who is also an intercessor has goals that are often in conflict with those of the Empire—by which I mean the world presided over by Darth Vader. We know a great deal about this Empire because the zeitgeist of the last 20 years or so has overplayed it to excess. “Edgy”—was there ever a more tired word—is no longer the sordid, shocking, existential angst of the human condition: the dark underbelly is so lustfully over investigated that it now merely perpetuates the dark underbelly. What is hidden to us now are the forgotten characteristics of the resistance—the power of patience, the sweeping transformative dynamism of kindness, a love so potent it is capable of believing, hoping, and enduring all things. A love that never fails. I mean, of course, a life abandoned to the Force.

I work at Fuller Seminary. My job is to be the corporate storyteller—that’s my title: “Storyteller.” Now, being a “storyteller” at an institution of very serious graduate theological study is like being a court jester. When my new role was announced, an exec in the Office of Finance and Accounting asked “was the title ‘Dreamweaver’ already taken?” There are some who find it hard to take me seriously, and I try to have mercy on them. On the other hand, it’s a senior leadership role. That speaks volumes about the commitment of the Executive Office to knowing Fuller’s narrative, to knowing who we are. My job partly entails being editor-in-chief of a magazine cleverly called FULLER. (I know, right? It’s meta.) Like the court jester, I have little authority except to say whatever I feel I should say, and only the President can kill me.

I am an artist, specifically, a filmmaker. For the first decade at Fuller it was a mystery why God had me logging 10,000 hours getting better at something other than my calling, which is filmmaking—did I mention. Recently I have come to see that my outlier job as an artist at a graduate academy for the study of theology is not unlike the role required of me as an artist in the world. It is my job to be off the grid and to speak with candor about things that others will not or cannot say. This work, done in obedience to God is, I believe, a form of intercession.

I am not here just to talk about the rare and beautiful breed of artists who give their lives to their work the way you do, like monks who pray around the clock anonymously for the sake of the world. I am here to intercede, right now, for all of you. That is my work. I see you. I bring good news, that you are seen by your father in heaven—your deepest wounds and desires, your twitchy energetic passions and your bone-weariness, your paralyzing fears and your untapped capacities for joy. Here is the core message I bring today: you are loved.

First, let me define what I mean by “artist.” You have heard it said: “he’s a master of the deal, he’s an artist. She is a phenomenal preacher—she’s an artist. What that plumber can do with PVC—it’s an art.” This is exactly what I do not mean. I do not mean that someone is an artist merely by doing any work exceptionally well. I mean artist as maker of art. Someone on a lifelong continuum stretching from raw talent to apprentice to craftsman to—possibly but not necessarily—“artist.” Filmmaking is my discipline for bringing the story of the invisible into the light of the real: it is my role in the resistance.

Storytelling is how we become, how we take shape: as my friend Bobette Buster says, it has been ever thus. Contadoras around the campfire, Indian story dancers, Wayang shadow puppets, scapegoats, African tribal elders dressed as evil spirits—every culture tells its stories, enacts its plays, sings its songs, cultivates its legends, poems and metaphors. By story we re-member the past as a means of understanding the present. Story defines us because story is what we understand, what we retain, and what we repeat. Art is also the raw material from which archeologists and historians reconstruct the past: so much of what we understand about civilization comes from story—in the form of pictographs on a cave wall, papyrus texts hidden in earthenware pots, or tales that survive for centuries by word of mouth. Art is even the physical evidence of humanity that outlasts all others. Customs and mores, families and dynasties, laws and political movements emerge and disappear—but art endures to inform future generations, “this is who we were. Therefore, this is who you are.”

As our sister Nancy Beach reminded us last night, even God chose storytellers, poets, philosophers, dramatists and prophets to pen the Holy Scriptures, calling upon artists to articulate the mysteries where reason fails, calling upon artists to design and build the temple to hold his presence. King David sang when he was too vile to pray. In dialogue with the suffering Job, God spoke in poetry. If you are familiar with our good brother Mako Fujimura’s work, then you know that art is a means by which we are afforded access to the sacred—much as Moses was allowed to glimpse the glory of God without vaporizing. Art is the peripheral vision of faith.

So what does it mean to be an artist-intercessor? It means that your talent has not been given to you but rather to others through you. Scholar Jim Street writes, “the individual no more possesses the gift than a pipe possesses the water that moves through it.” What a paradigm shift from the way of the Empire! Your films are not about you being understood, admired, or known as someone who has meaningful things to say. It’s not about your identity at all.

This is the realization to which the artist-intercessor must come: that the work is not about or for you. Whether you are consumed with money or purpose, whether you are cool or dorky, whether you make a great living as an artist or whether you struggle through a day job to pay for your camera equipment—success is not judged by any of these things. Your purpose is to be the pipe through which the water moves.

“I cannot cause light;” author Annie Dillard says. “the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” In Holy the Firm Dillard writes of watching a candle flame consume a female moth. The moth’s abdomen caught in the wet wax and her wings “ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing.” Her antennae crackled, her legs disappeared and her body was reduced to a glowing shell. “And then,” relates Dillard, “this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick . . . She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.”

I first read that when I was 20 or so, and oh, I wanted nothing more than to be that wick, to burn and increase the circle of light in the clearing until I was blown out! What has happened that the world is so suspicious of us, that our art is so banal, our voices so faint? We are offering our lives just to increase the circle of light. If we found a recipe to relieve arthritis, or get red wine stains out of linen, we’d be heroes. So why has communicating the gospel, the good news, become so anathema? How did we become so universally mistrusted?

Some of the answer lies in the fact that we have become dis-acquainted with grief, using the Good News not as the undeserved grace that it is but rather as religious self-defense. Not attempts to alleviate another’s suffering. Not commitments to call all men brothers and all women sisters, but to prove ourselves not to blame.

No wonder people feel adrift in a dark sea when we offer such dim lights to illuminate them. When the Empire has succeeded in an epic misalliance of art and disbelief. Instead of risking ourselves to light a candle in that darkness, we criticize, we boycott, we grow powerless and afraid. We abdicate our leadership in the arts, or worse, we mimic the Empire’s lead. The bad art that is companion to this bad faith is more than sloppy craftsmanship. The church fearfully restricts artists from the exploration that is their divine calling. Consequently, the extreme borders of the Soul—from torment to ecstasy—are often without adventurers of faith.

It was not that long ago that faith and art were enemies, at least in many Western cultures. Many people did not even think to connect them. It was not always this way, and in some branches of the faith—such as Catholicism—art and the artist have not been anathema to the sacred environment. However, even as far back as the 18th century, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher said, “Religion and art stand beside each other like two friendly souls whose inner relationship…is still unknown to them.”

I grew up in a world where you had to make a decision between being a minister and being an artist. A very narrow definition of what it meant to be a minister prevailed: Ministers were men, who stood behind podiums, and gave Sunday morning sermons. Choosing was easy for me because, as a woman, I was not invited to be that minister anyway. It is hard to imagine now, but the first people who said that ministry could take other forms were viewed askance—to say the least. It was one of those weird territorial divides that a generation breaks its back over only for the next generation to wonder what the heck.

It was more than a lack of imagination. It wasn’t that benign. It was fear. Fear—the enemy of perfect love. Persons of faith were scared to death of what persons of art might do, persons of art were scared to death of how persons of faith might judge. Gustave Flaubert is responsible for my favorite quote, which I first read carved into the doorway over the office of filmmaker David Puttnam when he was briefly the president of Columbia Pictures: be calm and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. Well, up until recently, persons of faith stood off as though they were the calm and orderly, and persons of art the violent and original. Neither is of much use without the other.

I began to believe that the church would suffer a great schism from the world unless we were able to reconcile these two estranged soul-callings, so I set out on what I realize now was really a personal pilgrimage. I talked first with artists in DC and New York. The next step in my journey took me to what was then Eastern Europe and on to the then USSR, and I interviewed artists who were totally confused when I asked about a possible relationship between faith and art. I encountered people who were angered by the question, and people who were surprised. I know this all sounds so historical now that everyone rolls their eyes about spirituality and art, but honestly, it was like trying to describe the internet to someone back in the 70s—like I was speaking in code.

I ended that series of conversations in Washington DC again with painter Ed Knippers. Ed paints monumental sized paintings, only biblical themes, and only nudes. He had one foot in the world and one in the church, where he has lived in limbo ever since. Even that long ago, he was resolved to being rejected by both sides. He has been told time and again by curators that his work would be in more museums if it just weren’t for the biblical themes. He has been told by clergy that his work would hang in churches if it just weren’t for the nudity.

Ed became for me the patron saint of intercession, or “standing in the gap.” I was in Russia with Ed and Bruce Herman when Leningrad had just become St. Petersburg again, and they went to visit the world famous Hermitage museum. They saw epic paintings of old masters never before seen by Westerners. Paintings, nevertheless, that were all biblical themes. The young docents were deeply educated in all ways except story—they had no idea what the paintings were about. Imagine Ed and Bruce standing there while their young docent Yulia (who happened to be a friend of mine) explained the painting process and technique and the life of the painter, while she had no idea why a man was standing calmly in the center of a golden pool of light surrounded by a drowsy pride of lions. When she realized that they knew the stories, one by one she called her colleagues over for Ed and Bruce to tell the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and David and Goliath, Salome dancing for the head of John the Baptist, and Ezekiel bringing the dry bones to life. Ed, who had been painting these themes all his artistic life and garnering the contempt of the art world for it, told these young men and women the Bible stories behind the paintings that they loved so much, and their good Russian faces were bathed in tears. Like my nephews in the halls of Industrial Light and Magic. Rembrandt AND Knippers, Titian AND Herman: they are the bearers of the story.

So, friends, not so long ago artists and ministers were not just unacquainted, they were hostile to one another. It is important for us to understand the deep history of division that still runs like a riptide under the surface of our lives as artists in the church.

Let me say a little more of what I mean by intercession. My mother, who took prayer very seriously, called intercession “standing in the gap,” by which she meant the one between earth and heaven. There is a story, probably apocryphal, of ancient Rhodes, and the statue of Colossus that stood at the entrance to the port. The story goes that the great Colossus spanned the mouth of the bay so that boats had to sail through his legs to enter port. Shakespeare referred to this idea in Julius Caesar. The statue did exist, though disappointingly on a single shore. Still it was one of the wonders of the ancient world.

We are tempted to imagine the artist-intercessor as the Colossus spanning the gap, towering grandly. But that’s not the right image at all, is it? That’s the Empire’s idea of being an artist. Look at Colossus, wonder of the world. Look upon him and marvel. But he did not stand in the gap for anyone. He, like so many, was simply a man on a pedestal.

Standing in the gap means to act on behalf of someone in difficulty or trouble; to attempt to reconcile differences between two people or groups; to mediate. In this way, the artist whose work is intercessory is analogous to Walter Brueggmann’s prophetic imagination. In his book on the subject he says, “The task of prophetic imagination is … to speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion.” Poet and writer Scott Cairns, in an issue of our good brother Gregory Wolfe’s IMAGE journal says “afflictions . . . get our attention. They wake us up. They help us to see more clearly than we saw before their occasion . . . the hard way is pretty much the only way we seem to learn anything.”

Here is my favorite poem—by Mizuta Masahide:

The barn burned down

Now I can see the moon

The Artist-intercessor stands in the gap between those two lines—in the ashes of “the barn burned down.” From there, she points to the moon. We are expected to live there, in that tension. Not to simply define the gap, or leave a warning sign, or fill it—but to bridge it so people can cross over. Brueggmann says that it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the Empire wants to urge as the only thinkable story. The poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge and conflict the dominant reality, he says. That is why every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.

He goes on to identify why we avoid all this lovely, noble-sounding work in the first place: “bringing hurt to public expression is an important first step in . . . permitting a new reality, theological and social, to emerge. . . . As long as the Empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.”

Here, again, the church follows right in line behind the Empire. We don’t like suffering either. We avoid violent, grief-filled psalms in our liturgies and stick to uplifting ones. Which aren’t so uplifting to people who are in pain or whose lives have been fractured by grief. Maybe that’s why the world doesn’t trust us. Maybe the world avoids hope because the church avoids suffering.

Romans 5:3–5 says, “but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

Listen to how this resonates with Yoda’s warning to Luke Skywalker: Fear, Yoda says, “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Romans gives us a path back from suffering again: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It’s not a list, it’s instructions: Plant your foot in suffering, plant it deep. Persevere. Build character, and then—one day—hope. Plant your other foot there, plant it deep. Then hold. Because your job is to bridge the gap between suffering and hope, and let the world cross over the bridge of you. Now we begin to see why it is so hard to live in the tension of intercession. Your work is not the bridge. You are.

Do you wonder or grieve over the idea that you are off the grid, as I did for so many years? That you don’t fit in—as I have felt for so long? What if that is our job? What if our greatest mistake is trying to fix what is actually our purpose in the world? To live in the tension?

Years ago, in pre-revolutionary Russia, a hermit lived on the outskirts of each village, and this hermit’s work was to pray, to help with the harvest, to listen and give counsel—but daily to pray. It was important that the hermit lived on the outskirts. It reminds me of Hebrews 13:11–13 “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” There is a reason we are supposed to be outside the gate. That’s where the suffering is.

The other day as I was leaving a restaurant, the waiter said loudly enough for me to hear, “is that a rebel alliance patch?” I stopped and turned around. Yes, it is, I replied. Are you loyal to the resistance? I asked him smiling and not smiling, are you living up to the Jedi code? And quite respectfully he replied, I’m trying.

If you are called as an artist to be an intercessor, you must be willing to be a living sacrifice, to go all in and you will be deeply miserable if you do not. I am not certain this applies to everyone, I’m just saying if it’s true for you, then you must join the alliance. Ever so gently and lovingly I say to you: Do or do not do, there is no try.

Thank you.

The Question of Calling

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What is God “calling” you to do?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear someone ask this question to me, I get a big lump in my throat and immediately go into panic mode.

 

“I don’t know what God wants me to do.”

“What exactly are you asking me to ‘discern’?”

“What if I get it wrong?

“What if I miss the ‘calling’?”

“What if I am not equipped?”

“What if He expects me to do something, I don’t want to do….like go overseas?”

“What if__________________ (you fill in the blank)?”

 

When we are honest with ourselves, many of us can resonate with these questions.

So how do we find our callings? Do we ignore the calling and it comes to us out of blue? Is calling something we seek out? Or does calling come to us, somehow, someway?

To be honest…I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

I mean, where are the 5 steps to follow to discern your calling in life? (long pause…)

I wish I knew…really, and I am still on the journey to figure it out.

I woke up the other morning and decided to read a devotional called Jesus Calling. Each devotional of the day is written as if Jesus was talking directly to you on each page. Something that was said in the devotional that morning really struck me, and got me thinking about the whole idea “calling.” The devotional stated (as if Jesus were saying this to me) “Heaviness is not of my Kingdom.”

Interesting.

I always thought of my calling in life as something that I had to work hard to achieve and seek out and reach. I’d say to myself, “Ok, time to get your act together, clean yourself up and get going to what you were really called to do.”

Ugh, it weighed heavy upon me; my calling…what it is?

Then fear and doubt immediately entered my mind. But, in his great grace, God met me in my place of fear and anxiety, he calmed the storm within me. In those moments, God had me consider the idea of my calling as something close and not far away. It was not a heavy burden I had to search for, in hopes that one day I would bump into it and just ‘know.’

What if my calling is what I am doing now, what if He is at work right in front of me? I don’t believe God says, “Hurry up and get it figured out by tomorrow.”

I believe God asks us to love Him first with all our heart, soul and mind, and out of this love for Him we draw closer into relationship with Him. By living this way we find ourselves living into our calling. Our particular vocation today may not be our vocation tomorrow or 5 years from now. That is why our first call is always the call to love Jesus and embody that love in the places we’re living in today. It is also in this love that we can learn to discern our particular vocations.

Sometimes we think that what we’re doing right now is not what we’re called to, and someday we will find the magical combination to finally know what we’re called to do. But, in loving God first, we find that we may just be in the right place…now.

When I experience hardship in my life or have bad days, I immediately look at myself and ask, “what am I doing wrong and how can I fix this? But, what if we looked at our frustrations and struggles differently? Maybe it is through these bumps in the road or hardships, that we find our calling. In fact, it’s often through struggle that we get to place where we can hear God in a new way, illuminating where we are called.

Maybe it is through our weakness that God is calling us.

So the question awaits: Do we have the courage to show ourselves to Him and come to Him just as we are, bringing an honest assessment of the questions we have surrounding our calling?

God’s commands and his callings are not heavy, Jesus reminds us that his burden (to love him and love others) are light. It’s in this love that we can discern and hear in clearer way.

So, may we have the faith to come to Him just as we are and know that through loving Him first we will be able to hear His voice and know his peace in our lives.

God bless you all as you grow in Him and His calling for you in your life. Praise be to God!

Lord, I am scared. I want to do your will and follow your calling in my life. But I am not sure what that looks like. What if I miss it? Help me to know that in your love, when I’m listening for your call, I won’t miss what you have for me. Lord, wherever I go, either near or far, please hold onto me and show me the way.   When I am in the place you want me to be, give me a peace, that surpasses my understanding, that I will know I’m living out the vocations you have called me to. I trust you to show me my calling. Help me to follow you.

-Amen

Matter Matters

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A friend of mine at Regent College is regularly quoted as saying, “Matter matters to God.”

Is that really true? If so, what might that mean for our work?

I have to admit, most of my spiritual journey would suggest otherwise. What seems to be important to God are matters of the Spirit, not physical matter. The soul’s development and destiny are God’s focus- not the external, physical world.

Yes, God cares about human beings. After all, we are created in the image of God. We are creatures of infinite value. But, the physical creation? Not really. Not much, anyway.

So, how does that affect how we think about our work? Noted theologian, Miroslav Volf, says this: “The significance of secular work depends on the value of creation, and the value of creation depends on its final destiny,” (p.93, Work in the Spirit).

Much of my evangelical upbringing suggested that God will consign the physical creation to the ash heap of gospel history. Those who trust in Jesus will be saved. But, not much else. At least, that’s how I heard it. If that’s so, how do we take seriously work that ultimately will be tossed away? Why should anyone care about work that has no lasting consequence?

Not surprisingly, this vision had consequences of its own. People prioritize spiritual development – Bible studies, prayer meetings, personal evangelism – over their secular work. Nothing is wrong with spiritual development, of course. But, this vision of creation’s destiny can easily result in the abandonment of the physical world of work. Or, it can generate the opposite reaction. As the writer, Dorothy Sayers, put it: “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of (their) life?” (from Why Work?)

Disillusionment with a spirituality that is divorced from ordinary life causes many of us to wonder if something is wrong. Is what we believe misguided, when so much of life is excluded from meaning? The good news of the gospel is this. God became a physical, flesh and blood, human being in Jesus. Not only that, Jesus was raised physically from the dead and is, forever, a transformed, embodied human being. That means God is interested in our physical – as well as our spiritual – life. All of it. God creates, loves and has a good destiny for the physical world.

So, what does that mean practically for us?

The most obvious implication is to take our work seriously as the “theater of God’s glory”, to borrow John Calvin’s phrase about the creation.

God takes our work seriously and that work will have consequences – forever. That last part is hard to believe and even harder to imagine. Still, that is the profound implication of the gospel of Jesus. To quote Miroslav Volf again, “The noble products of human ingenuity, ‘whatever is beautiful, true and good in human cultures,’ will be cleansed from impurity, perfected, and transfigured to become a part of God’s new creation. They will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made,” (p.91, Work in the Spirit).

What an astonishing claim, and one that should invigorate all of our work, even the most mundane.

A second and less obvious implication for us is to work at living a fully integrated spiritual and physical life.

Just as the spiritual life should not dominate the physical, neither should our concerns for the merely physical dominate the spiritual. We must take the discipline of developing the spiritual and physical dimensions of our life and work with equal seriousness. And, we must think of our life as an integrated whole, rather than as two separate and distinct spheres. In an age where both the secular world around us and some of our own religious traditions lead to a bifurcated life, this takes intentionality and perseverance.

Our whole human life is destined for transformation, including “whatever is beautiful, true and good” of our work. If that is true, then our work is worth doing well. To quote the Apostle Paul, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” (1 Corinthians 15:58 NRSV).

 

A Vision for the New Heaven and New Earth: At Work

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***This is the third in our series of Psalms written on the Winter Retreat. Like the others, this has been posted anonymously.

I saw a vision of the new created heaven and earth. And the large and successful company, that I spent my day hours of work, was led by Jesus. He reminded us daily of His values, and how he built convictions and purpose into our existence. He prompted us with His Holy Spirit daily, hourly, immediately. We ached inside to honor our leader in all that we did.

We measured our success by the warmth and joy that He poured into us. We petitioned for new projects based on parts of the observable creation that we had been gifted to improve. We pooled the resources around us and honestly and openly committed to building things that were our mission to build.

Jesus made sure that our personal and corporate drive wasn’t motivated by capitalistic competition and the possibility of failure; but rather, it was motivated by a perfect fit to our gifts.  The needs we met were honorable by God’s economy. There was no fear of unfairness, of litigation, or of operational inefficiency.

In God’s economy, God’s character shined and His greatness was our reward. We had no fear of second-to-market or lack of creative interpretation.  Everyone’s skills and talents contributed to the success of our work. Differences could be experimented on without fear of “losing” and without fear of scarce resources being completely spent to discover success.

Instead, Jesus redefined success to what we’ve always known in our hearts and have always longed for – a world driven by God’s perfect justice, His abundant provision, and our corporate enjoyment of all His gifts. No divisive or selfish distribution of God’s wonderful resources drove us, but rather a wholesome appreciation and use of his limitless creation. God was the final voice for all decisions, and we humbly, gladly and praisefully submitted to His ultimate wisdom. His perfect leadership and perfect love embraced us all in endless worship and endless joy. In timeless eternity, we all worked together and enjoyed, like children, the bounty of our family, together.

A Psalm of Lament: For Work

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***This is a part of our series of Psalms written by the Fellows on the Winter Retreat. Like the others in the series, it has been posted anonymously. 

Oh Lord, God of my salvation.

How long must I labor in vain?

How long before You make the path clear?

I run like a cheetah on a circular path.

Round and round while my enemies taunt my progress.

When will I see the end?

 

A great shadow has come upon me.

And I know not which way to turn.

Where is my light? Where is my God?

Why have You forsaken me to struggle endlessly with broken systems?

Why is there no one to guide me through the labyrinth of tax preparations?

 

The mountains are growing, Lord.

And I have not the time to traverse them.

I struggle in the thistles while my coworkers pass by.

Why must I stay full of ignorance and doubt?

Fear guides my days, while restlessness haunts the night.

 

Come my Comforter, my Shelter.

Come hear Your servant’s plea.

Light Your way before me and give me strength to journey on.

Be not far from Your servant, for it is You whom I serve.

A Psalm of Hope: For Work

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*** This is the first of the Psalms in a series, which were written by the Fellows, on our Winter Retreat. This, and the others in the series are published on the blog anonymously. 

God I trust you to be near to me.

I wait for You in the silent shadows of the night.

I know your song by heart, and I keep it on my lips at all times.

I proclaim your goodness in every circumstance and breathe hope, when I am surrounded by toxic fumes.

My eyes are fixed on your bright promises in front of me.

I have resolved to claim them for your servant.

Guard me from shame, do not let it overtake me while I am following your good path.

I love you Lord. Remember me when I am stumbling.

Weary and harboring great joy, my feet draw me nearer, to you, my God.

About a Boy: Island Life vs. Life Together

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“In my opinion, all men are islands. And what’s more, now’s the time to be one. This is an island age… You can make yourself a little island paradise. With the right supplies – and more importantly, the right attitude – you can be sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists. And I like to think, perhaps, I’m that kind of island.” – Will, About A Boy

 

About a Boy is a rich dialogue partner for Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Let’s look at three key points of connection between them.

A Primer on Human Love

The “island life” manifesto is our introduction to the shallow, but firm philosophy of Will Freeman, the 38-year-old bachelor who literally, does nothing. His “nothing,” of course, consists of anything that fits his criteria of being self-serving, fun, commitment-free and satisfying to him. From fast cars, to trendy flats and sexual conquests, Marcus interacts with the world on his terms, to his advantage.

Watching him, it seems plausible that Nick Hornby, the British author who first created Will, looked to Bonhoeffer’s description of human love for inspiration. In his chapter, “Community,” Bonhoeffer writes:

“Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake…has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person…but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it desires even when it appears to be serving,” (p. 34).

Will’s world is soon interrupted by the boy, Marcus Brewer. Marcus is equally a victim of human love, though it’s more emotional and outside his control. He’s the son of Fiona – a depressed, suicidal hippie who leans on Marcus for emotional support, which he of course strives to provide. This causes Marcus a fair amount of anxiety, insecurity and social ostracization from his peers.

Bonhoeffer writes of “human absorption” where, “the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul,” (p. 33). Though well intentioned, the relational fusion of Fiona is crushing Marcus and distorting who he should be as a young person. We cringe as Fiona calls to Marcus across the crowded schoolyard, “Marcus, I love you!” Which of course is met by the snickers and jeers of his schoolmates.

We may not be living the vapid lifestyle of Will, or reliving the trauma of adolescence like Marcus, but we can see ourselves in them. In your work have you experienced or witnessed relationships that appear to serve others, but in fact are the opposite? Have you used your influence to “draw into your spell” others for your own benefit, or had that done to you only to have it backfire? How has that affected your work community?

 

The Power of Proclaiming

The influence, abuse and eventual redemptive use of words play a major role in About a Boy. Early on, lies, assumptions, accusations, insults and misrepresentations from the characters break down community. However, as Will and Marcus’ unlikely friendship begins, moments of empathy and truth occur. Will makes the effort to ask Marcus how it’s going at home with his mom following her suicide attempt:

Will: It still bothers you then?

Marcus: “Does it bother me…” [Voice over: Every single day. That’s why I come here instead of going home.] “Yeah, when I think about.”

Will: …F#!%ing hell.

Marcus: [Voice over: I didn’t know why he swore like that, but it made me feel better. It made me feel like it wasn’t being pathetic to get so scared.]

Bonhoeffer describes “The Ministry of Proclaiming” as, “that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another.” He warns though that, “The speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils. If it is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person? …If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force acceptance, how can it be the liberating and healing word?” (p. 104)

For Marcus and Will, this marks the beginning of many liberating and healing conversations. At times it’s contentious – similar to what Bonhoeffer calls “admonition” and “ “the severity of God,” (p. 104). Eventually though, they both experience the ministry of proclamation that leads to healing and liberation from their mutual isolation.

Have you been a part of conversations of “infinite peril” that have brought liberation or healing? What were they like? Conversely, have you experienced a feeling of “forced acceptance” that lacked a “spirit of bearing and forbearing” in how someone spoke to you?

 

A Vision for the Other

Bonhoeffer writes that we must meet people only as they already are in Christ’s eyes; that we “must release them from every attempt…to regulate, coerce and dominate,” them with our love (p. 36). “Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; that image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.” (p. 36). This kind of love breeds freedom in the life of a community.

Marcus and Will help one another discover the “true image” of who they can be in relationship with others. Even as Will works to change and use Marcus for his own benefit, he suddenly realizes that Marcus was the one changing him. He reflects at one point, “For a moment, I loved him, really loved him.”

Will finally crosses over to the realization that what matters is a vision of another free from his own needs. He experiences a sacrificial love based on a vision for what is best for Marcus, not what Marcus can do for him. This culminates in the talent show scene where Marcus, again, in an attempt to make his mother feel better, is about to drive off the social cliff. Incredibly, Will does the last thing he ever imagined: he puts on his guitar and joins Marcus onstage to sing in public. Not only does Will save Marcus from making a complete fool of himself, he deflects and absorbs the ridicule headed towards the boy.

The movie ends at Christmas at Will’s place – this time- full of his new community, and a new vision of his island philosophy: “Every man is an island. But clearly, some men are part of island chains. Below the surface of the ocean they’re actually connected.”

How would your relationships change (in your personal life, and at work) if they were freed from any degree of coercion? What would it look like to attempt to meet people as they are in Christ’s eyes? How would your relationships change if your priority became to help co-workers discover the vision Christ has for them vs. a vision for how they can serve you or the employer’s needs alone? Do you think this is possible?

 

What’s God’s vision of success for us?

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One of the most significant events in my life was working in Australia at the World’s Fair.

It was incredible working and living Down Under for 7+ months. Being a mini-celebrity. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. Dancing with Aborigines in north Queensland.

But what made it one of the most significant events in my life was not actually the World’s Fair, but the journey getting there. Out of 20,000 applications, I ended up being one of 40 tour guides for the US pavilion. When I applied there were many roadblocks. My application had been rejected 3 times. I wasn’t old enough for the job. But, it was something I knew I just had to do. So, I called the American Embassy in Australia. I called the Australian Embassy in the United States. I reached out to the 2 senators for the State of Washington, as well as Bobby Kennedy in Massachusetts. I shared my vision with everyone. And then one day a sorority sister said to me, “I think my boyfriend’s father might have something to do with the World’s Fair.”

That was a giant understatement. Her boyfriend’s father was the VP of the company that built 1/3 of all of the pavilions at the World’s Fair. Through her connection, I was offered an opportunity to send him directly my cover letter and resume. Knowing this was my in, I carefully crafted the documents. After 4 days and 40 drafts, I gave them to the boyfriend to send on overseas. One month later, I got the phone call. A voice said I was now 1 of 200 candidates and was invited to interview in Australia for the position…at my own expense. During finals week. In less than 2 weeks- which required full-fare air, through Hawaii, at Christmas time. (I was on standby for 2 days for one of the legs.) But that was the offer. Was I in or out? I had to ask for money and support from my parents. It was very rough, but I determined I had to do it or let the dream die forever.

I landed in Australia. I was hot (as it was high Summer there), exhausted from flight and finals, and second guessing whether this huge expense had been the right thing to do. I was feeling very young and far, far from home. I tugged my suitcases by their leashes down the road to the nearest hostel, checked in, and then called my friend’s boyfriend’s mother, who had suggested that I come over for lemonade, when I arrived. The offer for lemonade with a ‘mother’ was a comfort and a lifeline back to home.

But it was my friend’s boyfriend’s father who picked me up at the hostel, enraged. The other 199 candidates had been interviewed in the United States. The HR manager had resented that his boss’ boss’ boss had told him to interview me, and tried to bluff me into turning down the opportunity by requiring me to fly to Australia. To his dismay, I had called his bluff and he got caught.

The executives were very upset and promised me some type of position, such as, a waitress in the U.S. Pavilion restaurant. Later, when a tour guide dropped out at the last moment, I was offered the job 2 weeks before the World’s Fair opened. Because I had said yes to interviewing in Australia. Because I had said yes to the waitress job, when I really wanted to be a tour guide (I had figured it was close enough to my dream). Because I had kept asking people, over and over, until someone else said, “Yes.”

Living in Australia at 20 was incredible but it didn’t have the ongoing rippling, life-altering impact as the journey trying to get the job.

When I started the Cascade Fellows in September, I spent the first month praying, asking God whether I should continue working on a huge project, a movie, that I had started a couple years back. I had started it on my own, never asking God if He wanted me to do it, never sharing it with Him. It had stalled for most of 2014. I was inspired to start it, but was the inspiration from God? Did He want me to do this? But, I realized, if the answer was yes, I wouldn’t continue on this journey alone.

Then, God spoke to me in the waiting room of Lynnwood Honda. “Do it. Give it to me and let’s do it.”

I won’t lie; I was thrilled. Not about the answer, but that God had actually answered my prayer! I would go forward with my work of getting a movie made.

God wasn’t done, “I want you to know that just because you surrendered the movie to me, doesn’t guarantee that the movie will be a big success. I just guarantee that it will be an incredible journey.”

Fair enough, God. Sign me up!

Recently, one of the Cascade Senior Fellows posed the question, “At what point were the 2014 Seattle Seahawks successful? Was it when they won the 2014 Super Bowl? Was it every game they won? Or was it when they learned from the plays – and games they lost? When they were successful in bonding as a team? When they successfully drafted Russell Wilson in the third round as a backup quarterback? When they hired Pete Carroll?”

And so it made me think, are we successful when we achieve our dreams and goals – sell the screenplay? Get promoted? Sell the company for a fortune? Open a shelter for teenagers on the street? Make a break-through for the cure for cancer?

Or, are we successful in the series of mini-successes and perseverance along the entire journey? Staying true to the goal and faith during the long and sometimes discouraging journey?

Perhaps we need to be asking: What’s God’s vision of success for us? Because often, success from God’s point of view is the journey itself. Working with us, our hand in His hand. God applauds when our relationship with him is deepened through the journey. God takes great pleasure when our understanding, dependency on, and servitude towards Him grows.

It wasn’t successfully landing the job in Australia that forever changed my life. It was getting there. I am excited to work together with God, my new partner, to see how my life – and perhaps the lives of others – will be changed on getting this movie made. To persevere through all the “No’s” and closed doors. Through the obstacles and roadblocks. I have been told by entertainment professionals that getting a movie made is a minor miracle. Minor miracle? That’s right up God’s alley.

I’m strapped in and ready for the ride, Lord.

Core Identity: A New and Redeemed View of Brand

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Brand is a bad word. Or is it?

For many Christians, the people working in the world of brand have the task of putting lipstick on a pig. Brand is the process behind dressing up an inadequate good or service for the public’s consumption. Mad Men possesses its cultural cache for this very reason. People behaving badly, trying to convince you to buy things you don’t really need.

As a result of these beliefs, many Christians find branding and all things marketing and advertising to be at odds with ethics, good character, and truth. But, is there a way for branding to be redeemed?

What If?

What if brand was instead built from the inside out? Is it possible that such an approach could redeem brand in the eyes of many? Is it possible that an inside-out brand could transform your team to work more efficiently and more productively toward a shared purpose?

What if brand was more about asking the hard questions about the world, so that you look at your company’s response to what’s happening in the world in different ways? There’s a classic advertisement for The Guardian that challenges the assumptions of its viewers. In this commercial, a rough, edgy, young person runs toward an older man in a suit. The immediate inference, especially when the young man lays hands on the older man, is that we’re observing a mugging.

However, when the camera switches perspectives, the viewer learns that the edgy young person is actually trying to save the old man, considering that above this scuffle, a shipment on a crane is about to fall on the old man, unbeknownst to him.

As this commercial exhibits, there is great wisdom to looking at things from various perspectives. What if branding was viewed from a different vantage point? Would we find redemption in it?

A Theology of Brand

Theology can redeem brand. We see throughout scripture messaging written with the clear intent of persuasion. The New Testament was written so that we might believe. In many ways, the New Testament presents a clear brand and messaging strategy for building a new organization of gospel “consumers.” How is that different from a marketing manager branding a new product to influence its purchase in the open market?

The difference, it seems, comes from the idea of core identity. The gospel writers wrote persuasively so that others might believe because they themselves believed and had experienced the whole of their identities changed by God. They had an internal understanding about the transformational power of the gospel and they wanted everyone else to share in that power.

In a redemptive view, the process of unearthing a brand is about asking the hard questions, much like Jesus did, as the ultimate questioner.

Brand is about observing people and observing how they interact with experiences. In doing so, we can participate in connecting people in new and fresh ways that can be redemptive. Within the creative process of developing a brand, you can be empowering people to do creative work they were called to do.

The world thinks of brands in the terms of positioning and promotion. But an authentic brand is built from within and represents the motivations and beliefs of people within the organization and outside the company’s walls. Instead of being perceived as self-serving, brands built from the right motivations can, should, and will serve others.

For Something More

Branding, then, is good when it connects to this sense of identity. If you can believe that what you’re selling has the power to transform the world for the better, then brand it in such a way that it embodies an authentic connection to the core truth of what it is. If you lie about it, people are going to find out.

What if brand could help people inside a company, and the potential customer outside of a company, to see society in a new way? What if brand was more about unearthing ideas? What if it sought to educate rather than sell? What if its purpose was in empowering others to live better? What if brand was a relationship instead of a perception?

Theologically rooted branding creates the foundation for a company to be the change they desire to make in the world. Brand is the connectivity to culture that allows teams to collaborate and find solutions to the world’s problems. Brand gives an organization a picture of what the world can be; provided your team works together to meet the tangible needs of the community around them.

What if brand wasn’t called brand? Why not call it identity? And use brand as an opportunity to practice what you promise.

 

Author’s note: I’m grateful for my colleague, Donovan Richards’, editing and contributions to this article.