As an undergraduate I had heard about the book Ordering Your Private World (1985) by Gordon MacDonald when a friend who knew my overtaxed schedule suggested I read it. Yet, the book did not make it into my task list. I knew how to organize and order things just fine, thank you. Still, several years later I picked up the book at a discount store and it has sat on my shelf ever since.
Just last month this book actually made it on my schedule as the first book in a year-long reading list I’m starting. It was time to take it off the shelf. I could have just assumed that I knew what it would say, along with the related articles about use of time in today’s world, but I decided to open it.
In one respect it met my expectations – a self-help book that breaks down a problem (in this case disordered internal lives that lead to external chaos) and seeks to provide answers. There are even pie charts and pithy sayings, ‘memos’, at the end of each chapter. Often I just gloss over these insets and wonder if they are trying to redirect the focus of the reader from the shallow content on the rest of the pages. But once I started reading I found that there is wisdom between these charts.
I was particularly struck with the distinction between living a driven or a called life. In other words, what motivates a person? As I was reading these passages I definitely put myself in the driven category. MacDonald’s description of a “public world, where things can be measured, admired, and used” meshes with the world I know. Often I choose my goals, at least those on which I focus, by looking to the expectations of others – teachers, friends, family, the church. I want to measure up to their standards. Or maybe I want to prove I can do something – whether that’s make a relationship work, organize more ministry projects, or plan the best trips. My physical body also reveals evidence of this drivenness. Not long into a day’s work my shoulders are raised, my breathing is shallow, and I’m racing to keep focused on where I’m going instead of where I am. When I take the time to slow down and think, I know that this life is tiring me out.
At the same time I was reading MacDonald’s book I was also working through Jeremiah and read the following verses.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. – Jeremiah 2:12-13
Immediately I recognized this image. Driven to hew out that cistern in spite of internal calls to drink from a living fountain already available, I yearn to prove that I can do it (whatever “it” is) myself. Not surprisingly, I come up dry. No wonder, I’ve been drinking from an empty cistern. Consumed with meeting these external expectations, I put on hold the callings from the living waters. Once I figure out this new job, then I can spend time on retreat. Once I finish this book, then I can work on relationships.
MacDonald refers to the same image when he describes the church, “Many churches are fountains gone dry. Rather than being springs of life-giving energy that cause people to grow and delight in God’s way, they become sources of stress.” Even in the places where we should find this life-giving fountain, we are driven to compare our spiritual practices with that of others – and we often don’t add up – so we pile more on. The latest Christian book, the latest prayer method. I know this is true of me.
It’s easy to describe a driven life, but what is a called life? This book and words from Jeremiah point to this other way. In a called life that quiet voice of God’s rises above the expectations of the world. The push and pull from outside no longer wears down the person. Even though some of the external drives may parallel the call, the person’s action will come from the quiet listening and conversation with God and trusted friends, not the frantic pace of the world. A called person is calm within. She can say yes and no to external events because her motivation comes from a centered place – God.
So, what will I do? One book isn’t going to change my life no matter how much I agree with it or even desire to implement its suggestions. Ironically, if I seek to be the one to order my world, I’m again being driven. But I can make space, and more importantly, pray for space for this to happen, allowing the Holy Spirit to work and to open my understanding to what God calls me. What might this look like? More in-depth and honest time in the morning with God. Quality time to write and study. Less and more productive time on administrative tasks. Furthermore, there is no need to wait, this life is available now. If only I can just stop building that cistern.