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Learning Curve

"When I was a child I read books," wrote the Pulitzer prizewinning novelist Marilynne Robinson in remembering with gratitude her own upbringing just down the road from us in Coeur d'Alene.  Settling later in Massachusetts after receiving an Ivy League education, Robinson went on to note that it often proved difficult if not impossible for her to convince Easterners that growing up in the West need not be considered intellectually crippling.  But apparently, few of the East Coast residents that she speaks to these days remain entirely convinced.  "On learning that I am from Idaho," she reports, "people have not infrequently asked, 'Then how were you able to write a book?'"

While I will not attempt to paraphrase the eloquent answer Robinson has provided in a recent collection of essays, what she has to say regarding her vocation as a disciple of Jesus will prod my thinking this Labor Day weekend when we gather to pray blessing over the faculty members and educational staff about to begin investing themselves in another academic year of painstaking effort throughout our metro community.  But despite the depressingly inevitable media coverage regarding our occasional failures in challenging and engaging the present generation of learners, some far more encouraging stories still manage to shine through.  For instance, I am now old enough to detect the sustained and rising tide of a very determined voluntarism among students who somehow seem to be thinking clearly about what might be a good life for everyone before they begin worrying too much about what will be most profitable for their own collection of leisure toys, bank accounts, and retirement portfolios.  In contrast to the naked ambition and outright greed that has often been characteristic of my own generation, what we now hear in the service-oriented dreams and aspirations of our current crop of high school and college students could not be more encouraging.  How this came to be, I am not entirely sure.  But it strikes me as unbelievably good news that our children and grandchildren often appear to be laser-focused on what Jesus always knew to be true: Authentic success can be enjoyed by anyone willing to invest a life in service for others, for true greatness will always be defined by our usefulness.  For once you finally stumble onto that crucial discovery, genuine joy remains forever within your reach no matter where the Dow Jones Industrial Average ends up at the conclusion of any given work day.  The important thing is simply to make the learning curve required for this particular life lesson as mercifully short and straightforward as possible.

Let me offer the story of one of our former parishioners as a case in point.  We first met her years ago as an international student laboring to complete a graduate degree in family therapy in the rather confusing foreign language which seemed at the time quite uncongenial to her native tongue.  Now that might have seemed challenging to someone of less fortitude and resilience in character, but after growing up in a Brazilian favela where her impoverished family of four scrambled daily for food while living in a 250 square foot home, I never did see her misplace her deep sense of joyful confidence that the Lord himself had called her to a vocation of ministry to others.  In those earlier years, we were simply privileged to offer her our support and encouragement in some very modest yet tangible ways.  But now it is we who are often humbled in taking courage from her example as she directs a vibrant compassionate ministry operating as a food-and-clothing cooperative serving the working class poor of her present community.  And just for good measure, she has also opened an extension ministry to give back to her native Brazil which requires her to shuttle back and forth between the global North and South to offer help and hope in the name of Jesus to people who want and need a hand-up rather than merely those well-intentioned hand-outs that can actually perpetuate the cycle of poverty.  Witnessing all that she has managed to do, we feel an almost parental sense of pride at heart for what she has learned, and we are deeply moved and humbled by what she is now teaching about the compassionate faithfulness of God to middle-class Believers like us. 

It is Labor Day weekend, the end of a summer and the beginning of a new programming year, and perhaps you already know the perennial question we will be addressing in the coming weeks: What are we going to do next?  Admittedly, I am prejudiced to think there are some significant answers that await our consideration as a congregation as we look ahead toward the beginning of our new Stephen Ministry as well as the preparations for a new Preschool ministry outreach that we intend to establish in 2017.  But this weekend as we wait to see how those answers will play out in time, will you join me in praying that the students entrusted to our care never make the soul-deadening mistake of settling for material success when Jesus is really calling all of us to lives of significance?

Jeff Crosno