Every year I go on a holiday trip to Hong Kong with my family – and almost every day we would eat in the same location. A simple foodcourt under a bridge, filled with cooks with questionable hygiene, and the clanging of unsanitary plates. My father has gone back to this location for over forty (that’s right – fourty!) years for one simple reason: he loves a good bowl of beef-ball noodle soup. The soup is steaming hot, its flavor savory and delicious, the beef-balls are crunchy yet soft, and the noodles delicate. Drop in a couple spoonfuls of the foodcourt’s signature chili sauce, and we are bound to have a good day. I haven’t tasted anything like this elsewhere yet, and all in a little hidden location amidst a bustling, often overcrowded, city.
Here is a picture – though, of course, the picture fails to do justice to the real thing.
There is a language barrier that keeps me from being able to strike a conversation with the cook behind the soup – he’s been at it, according to my father, for over twenty years. Before this, his father was the cook, and continued to run that little stall in that same foodcourt for basically the whole of his life. I sometimes do wonder: a whole life doing the same thing over and over and over again – getting up, cooking, boiling, washing, closing up, and repeat – isn’t there something else he would like to do?
My dad looks at me in response: what if he were perfectly fine doing just that?
But of course – that would be a completely fine response. Contentment could simply be contentment. Contentment and complacency are often conflated – one could be content in what one does without being complacent in that activity.
Perhaps its just me, but I get the sense that a lot of us in this generation have that sense of feeling that “my real life has not yet started – it is still out there somewhere. This mediocre, normal job (or degree, or whatever phase) that I have is just a small step towards a much bigger thing – I don’t know what it is yet – but my life has not yet really started.” This typical mindset causes a sense of dissatisfaction among us – the thought that my life is at its peak when a euphoric, mountain-top, experience is achieved, and it ceases to be what I am really about when such an experience ends. This sort of phenomenon is also seen in the lives of celebrities or those who proclaim that we can simply fall out of love when we have ceased to feel that warm fuzziness that we used to feel when we first met out spouse. The “magic” just doesn’t last, so Taylor Swift might say. Lost is the view that love really is about a commitment, which is at times contrary to the way we feel – an ordinary, day-to-day desire to serve the other – to eat together – to talk about the mundane to the majestic – to serve in the local church together and to take turns washing dishes and changing diapers. Romanticism in display, feeding false dreams.
It shows itself in ministry quite palpably in this, especially in our current conference-going, celebrity-pastor pathos: my week to week ministry (or church-going) is really not the real thing – where the “real” action begins is that time when I was in that conference (or speaking in that conference) or so and so – thus when we ask our youth who their “favorite” pastors are, we would rarely get the answer that it was their home, local pastors of their local churches. Instead we get the “big” names – the ones who are doing the “real” work, to the point of, at worst, neglecting to credit those who minister around us on a daily basis.
So we publish books with the word “radical” attached to it – of course we are supposed to be following Christ with all of our hearts and souls and minds – and of course at times that may look “radical.” But when I survey the commands from the letters of Paul, the big theological ideas of justification, sanctification, union with Christ, all seem to express itself in the ordinary, day to day, obedience of the individual Christian. What is a pastor supposed to do? Well, we read that he is supposed to preach, to teach, to take care of his family well, to meditate on the Word, to propel care for those in need. What is the Christian supposed to do? To daily pick up his cross, to be faithful in all that he does, and in everything that he is engaged. Sometimes being “radical” looks totally ordinary – as a “resurrection” looks like the ordinary man simply deciding to obey Christ (Eph. 2:1-10).
Not too long ago I took a course from Dr. Lane Tipton at Westminster – a course that is normally taken in one’s final semester. At the end of the course, the Professor reminded us that vocation, ministry, and the Christian life in general, is about faithfulness to the Lord. Thus we must ask ourselves: even if we were called to minister to a congregation of twenty instead of thousands, even if no one were to write about us, even if our names would never be published in academic journals or magazines, or if we were never really noticed for being “unique” or famous – would we remain faithful and content in union with Christ in that situation? That is what the Christian life is – there is great godliness in contentment. So perhaps the best thing to do one day is to stop day-dreaming or grumbling, and to get back in the cubicle, study, kitchen, desk, or pulpit, and to simply walk in glad obedience.
We walk in a transitory age that will one day come to an end. Christians are known throughout history to be those who remain indifferent to becoming the powers of the age – we have a different city to look forward to, and a glory of a different age.