Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Thought of the day: ambitious service: an oxymoron or a duty?
I've been talking with various mentors lately about the fine line between a healthy ambition for positions of influence and a humble rejection of corporate culture's norms of ego and success. On the one hand, the defining narrative of our hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumptive society is to work hard, get ahead, get rich, and then enjoy the high life, and all the power and luxuries that come with it. (How we get off calling ourselves a Christian nation with these kind of national values will forever elude me.) On the other hand, I'm a believer in Christians being broad-minded and socially engaged--not reducing the gospel to a matter of "having Christ in your heart" and keeping a Bible by your bedside, but embodying Christ's transforming power in every area of life--including business and politics. Here's the rub: How is a Christian to go into politics, or business, or in my case, the establishment media--as good people must do if these structures are to ever get any better--and nurture a healthy desire to attain a position of influence to work for justice and goodness rather than prideful folly? And since we are all broken creatures, how is it possible to enter such contexts and defy all the elements that feed the ego--the power, the money, the recognition? In the case of journalism, I imagine someone rising to the stature and influential voice of a Bob Greene at the Tribune--only having something useful to say. (And not being hypocritical about it, as Greene was by romanticizing so-called traditional values and but actually living at a certain distance from them.) But look at how large Bob Greene's perception of himself and his place in the universe grew to be on his way to where he was. One of my mentors advises me to look for opportunities to rise within the structures of the media and work for change. But in just three months at the Tribune Tower this summer I sensed what a numbing, corporate, ego-engined place it is, and I wonder how I would reach the point where I was altering the subculture more than the subculture was altering me.

And yet, small-mindedness is not an option for the Christian servant. It's hard for me to see classmates who have interesting potential for kingdom service lackadaisically settle for less. Some people could actually use an infusion of ambition. To whom much has been given, the biblical adage goes, much will be required. (Or was that a line from Spiderman? "With great power comes great responsibility.") I remember the parable of the person by the river who sees someone drowning and wades in to save them. Five minutes later, another drowning person comes by and is rescued, and then another. Finally the person walks away from the riverbank. Where are you going? someone asks. Are you turning your back on these drowning people? No, the person says, I'm going to go upstream to see who's pushing them in. That's exactly it: going upstream to work for a larger good. I'm advised that this all boils down to how you define success: in American terms, in which success is how much money and power you can hoarde, and how quickly? Or is success a question of how much redemptive good you can bring about while embodying the person of Christ--his humility, love, and wisdom--and how faithful you are to Christ's lordship wherever life takes you? This idea is so familiar and almost trite that it is easy to forget how radical a vision it is for serving in God's world (heck, Ken Lay, a Southern evangelical, did and still would agree with this, before and after the evil he enacted at Enron). To try to balance humility with courage, to retain an bold imagination for a just society in a broken world where our ambitions are loftier than sobering reality, to fulfill our duty to rescue the drowning and the need to change the structure upstream--is to understand how complicated it is to be a human being.

Footnote: By all accounts (including this one) the late Congressman Paul Henry, from my hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., was someone who was respected for having a feel for this balance of humility and boldness in the corridors of power better than most. Meanwhile, this Fortune article tackles the question of the dueling motives of faith and fortune in the corporate world.

Related earlier thought: Save the world? Start by making up your mind
Previous thought: God's will and self-amplification

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