Avoiding Clay Feet

When I decide to retire from my job, I wonder if some of my coworkers will hear the news and say, “It’s about time!” Who knows, some of them might think that I already checked out.

What brings this to mind is something that happened at my church recently. The pastor, near the beginning of his sermon, announced that a new addition was being made to the staff. What makes this hire different from pretty much any that we’ve ever had is that the lucky guy, Clay, has already worked at the church in the past, having departed about six years back. In fact, Clay grew up in our church

When the pastor made the announcement, there was an audible and very positive gasp. Obviously, a large number of people in the room remembered Clay and welcomed his return to the fold. Having been privy to the announcement ahead of time–because I’m just super important, you know–it gave me great pleasure to hear that positive response. I’m sure there’s somebody in the membership who thinks that Clay’s return is a disaster, but they did not make themselves known that Sunday.

This got me to thinking about the legacy that we leave behind. What will people think about me when I hang up my teaching hat for the last time? Will they be relieved or will they think that I should have done it earlier? When I shuttle off this mortal coil, will my children and grandchildren be relieved not to have to mess with me anymore or will they legitimately grieve?

In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon speaks to these questions, offering one proverb that seems obvious and another that causes confusion:

A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

It’s obvious that Clay has a good name. He left a good taste in the mouths of the people who knew him at our church on his previous stop. But what about this idea of the day of death being better than the day of birth? I think what this verse is trying to say is that on the day we die, we don’t have any more chances to mess things up, while on the day we’re born, our opportunities for foul-ups are virtually limitless.

To put this in the context of Clay, he, like many ministers, probably started well. People typically give the new guy the benefit of the doubt. They want him to succeed. The day of one’s occupational birth should be good, but if you’ve held things together until the day you leave, the day you retire, then you’ve really accomplished something. We don’t have to hang around churches very long to see people who did great things, sometimes for years, only to fail spectacularly at the end of their run.

I’d like to think that people will feel about me the way that they feel about Clay at the end of my course on this earth. I don’t really need their approval. I don’t need that audible response, but that sort of response would indicate that I’ve probably done something good along the way.

So when I choose to retire from Johnson County Community College, I pray people won’t respond by saying, “Finally!”

Good at This

“I am good at this!” That’s what I find myself saying sometimes when I finish a curriculum-writing project. It’s not vanity, really. God gave me a gift for this. When I get in the groove, it all hangs together really well. I can’t help myself from saying, “I am good at this!”

A couple of days ago, I finished a big project. This time, I didn’t feel inclined to speak those words.

This time, I let my deadline creep up on me. In fact, I let my deadline creep past me. Having written for this editor for a long time, I knew that she had a healthy buffer built into the schedule. It wouldn’t be a big deal. Still, I needed to get it done. At the top of the week, I set myself a series of sub-tasks: “Get 1/5 of the work written.” I spread the remaining work over the coming five days.

Day by day, I got my tasks accomplished, but it felt each time more like washing the dishes or mowing the grass than exercising my God-given gifts. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t turn in junk, but when, at the end of the fourth of those five days, I decided to press forward and proofread the whole package, having finished it a day early, I wasn’t overly impressed with what I found. Had I said anything, it would have been, “I am competent at this!”

Do I really want to be just competent at anything that I do? Doesn’t Paul tell us,

Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.–Colossians 3:23-24

Reviewing my now-submitted writing, should I feel ashamed, contact the editor and say, “Don’t start processing that yet. I need to make it better”? Let me just confess that I’m not going to do that, but is that my natural laziness talking or is it acceptable that my work this time is just competent?

Although I don’t really have a scriptural argument to support this, I am going to suggest that competent is okay some of the time. When I wash dishes or mow the grass, isn’t competent enough? I think it is.

Our problem in serving God comes when we allow the bar for competent to continue to drop. It’s when our vibrant prayer life turns into a perfunctory one and then into a mere nod in the direction of prayer. It’s when my teaching of children goes from enthusiastic excellence past a studied march through the materials and settling into a “good-enough” case of winging it.

I’m going to suggest that my competent curriculum this time is okay, but I pray that God will never allow me to miss having that sense of “I am good at this!”