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Uncertain: Career Uncertainty

Uncertain: Career Uncertainty

Jan 19, 2020

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:9-15

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk

Series: Uncertain

Detail:

Today’s sermon begins with Les. Les was the name of the little zebra fish that became my first pet when I was about eight years old. Actually, the fish belonged to me and my sister; Les was our pet. We picked the name because determining the actual single sex of small zebra fish is beyond the ability of younger elementary students. So the fish presented a sort of blank slate for gender; and naturally I wanted a boy’s name and my sister wanted a girl’s name, and our parents just wanted us to agree on something. So, I kid you not, we got the baby name book that had recently been employed in the naming of my younger brother off the shelf, and we went through the book looking for names that were used for both boys and girls — so Les: short for Leslie, Lesley, or Lester fit the bill. The fish was Les; he was a boy. Unless you talked to my sister; in which case Les was a girl. And in any case, Les lasted about nine weeks, after which the point was mostly moot.

So Les.

Our Les is the hero, or the heroine, of our story today — about Les’s job uncertainty. Les’s story isn’t any one story, but over my years in ministry I’ve spoken with, empathized, prayed for, encouraged, and celebrated with many men and women who have worried about jobs, lost jobs, found jobs, and retired. So the story about Les I’m about to tell you is synthetic, but made up of real conversations, real feelings, real uncertainty.

This is the second sermon in our Uncertain series. Last week was the theological ground work sermon. There I laid out three foundational points about God’s certainty in our uncertain word; three things to remember as we seek to live a life of faith in a world that seems uncertain. Those are: (1) even if what happens isn’t God’s will, it’s not out of scope for God; it’s still within God’s project of saving the world; (2) God’s plan is an eternal plan — it’s really big; our life on earth is a mortal life, it’s short — and so our short life always fits into God’s eternal plan; (3) there is one power, one freedom that nothing and no one in all creation has, and that’s the power to stop God’s love. So whatever happens, God’s love will still be there.

And as I promised, today we’re going to talk about Les, and see how those three points apply to Les’s story.

After making several career moves in the decade after college, Les had been with the same company, a data analytics company that specialized in warehouse inventory management, for the last 14 years. First as sales manager. From sales manager, Les moved on to district sales manager, then regional sales manager (which meant a lot of travel and trade shows), before stepping into the position currently on the business card: associate vice president for sales in a new product line: real-time dynamic cloud-based analytics. Les had tried to point out that real-time and dynamic were basically the same thing; but Les’s boss’s boss had read a prominent business journal and determined both were important buzzwords.

This was, as our passage from Ecclesiastes calls it, Les’s “toil.” The “business that God had given him to be busy with.”

The problem began when Tracy, another associate vice president for sales in the same division, who happened to agree with Les about the buzzword issue and with whom Les had worked closely with for the last five years, wrapped up their weekly Tuesday morning meeting with a “Hey, I got one more thing. It’s probably nothing to worry about, so you know…but I heard that the board is thinking of selling our business unit.”

“What? To whom?”

“I’m not sure; I haven’t been told anything directly. And even if it happens, who knows what will mean for us. But you know how we’ve failed to hit our goals for the last few quarters, and maybe they’re just thinking that “real-time dynamic” isn’t a core competency.”

“Well,” Les said, “it’s not even a coherent phrase. But that’s not our fault. Are they just selling the product line or would they sell the whole unit?”

“I don’t know. Who knows, it might not even happen.”

All the sudden Les’s job felt uncertain. And so the rest of the afternoon Les spent catastrophizing. This is a word I picked up from Adam Hamilton, the great Methodist preacher. It what happens when we take the fear we have about something uncertain and turn it into a full on catastrophe. This takes imagination. Les was up to the challenge. Les’s mind crossed quickly over one bridge, the business being sold, and then rapidly began crossing other bridges: being laid of as redundant, the new company having no severance packages, being unable to find a new job because of age, the economy going into recession while looking for a job, applying anywhere and everywhere, getting rejected at Burger King for being over qualified, developing holes in one’s undergarments and being unable to afford new ones.

It got real bleak, real fast.

Catastrophizing is not logical. It’s the opposite of counting your chickens before they hatch; it’s counting your dead chickens before they die. But as you probably know, it’s desperately hard to fight the illogical with logic.

Instead, we have to fight the catastrophizing with faith. After all, to turn an uncertainty into a catastrophe is its own kind of faith — it’s faith as the assurance of things feared, the conviction of things undesirable.

But our Christian faith is about the assurance of things hoped for, rather than things feared. The steady confidence that God’s plan — that great big eternal plan for salvation — is much bigger than our earthly life and that our life is, whether we can see it each moment or not, going to fit into that plan. The writer of Ecclesiastes knows this — he’s trying to place our earthly work next to God’s eternal work and he’s saying — look, these are not the same size. Verse 15: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” It’s no accident that when the author starts writing about toil and business, he immediately thinks about God’s business. He knows, as well as we do, the way our work can dominate our hearts and minds. But God’s plan — oh, it’s so much bigger.

There’s no way that anyone in Les’s shoes could go home that day without uncertainty about their job; uncertainty is not the enemy. The enemy is when we let uncertainty feed our faith in disaster. We don’t believe in disaster; we believe in salvation.

As it turns out, the real-time dynamic cloud-based analytics group was sold – 18 months after Les and Tracy had talked. But that was also 16 months after Les, one Friday afternoon in June, was called into a meeting with an HR rep sitting at the table and fired.

See, in order to make the business unit more attractive to potential buyers, they wanted to reduce costs, and as Les was relatively senior, Les was costly. The salary, annual bonus and vacation benefits were all pretty substantial. Sure, Les had the highest quarterly sales 3 of the last 5 quarters, but that just meant Les left behind a sizable revenue stream for the contracts negotiated. Keep the revenue; cut the expense; the unit looked better already.

The June was the June before Les’s middle daughter, Jessica, was to attend the University of California Los Angeles, the same June, in fact, that bulk of the first semester had to be paid for. And as Les didn’t find anything immediately; she deferred for a year and ended up enrolling at community college for the fall. This was actually what her parents wished she had chosen originally, and Jessica took it all pretty well, but the sting of the daughter’s unfulfilled dream swelled up big in Les’s heart.

Les, on the summer Sundays that year when the family made it to church, listened to a lot of sermons absentmindedly, thinking about God’s will. Jess had done the work, she’d gotten in…how could it be God’s will for her not to go to UCLA and follow her dreams?

The breakthrough came when Les was idly scribbling through a sermon the healing of some demoniacs. Les had written down on the bulletin, “God did not want me in this job” (more on that point in a minute) and then “God did not want Jess at UCLA” below that. And then, Les looked at it again, and crossed out the second “not” — so it read “God does not want me in this job” and “God does want Jess at UCLA” — and then, right there in the pew, a thought leapt to mind, “Is that possible?”

That was a freeing thought. Les still wrestled with why it had to work out precisely like this, but once free of the challenge of developing the conviction that God’s will was all those tears that were being cried upstairs in his daughter’s room, it became easier for Les to imagine that God could work good out of this. Maybe the college part of it, at least, wasn’t God’s will. But it wasn’t out of scope — Les could begin to hope and pray that line in the Lord’s Prayer again, “thy will be done” and not wince.

There’s one more thing you should know. Before Les was fired; before Les and Tracy even talked about the sale of the company, Les and Les’s spouse had been praying about the job. Les was terribly unhappy. Les didn’t trust the senior leadership; Les saw the way clients were treated and had to look the other way; but most of all Les didn’t believe in the real-time dynamic product on the brochures stuffed the backpack. Les no longer believed in Les and what Les was doing.

So as a couple, they prayed. For about a week. And then the conversation with Tracy happened. And then, two months after that, still praying — Les was fired.

Picked up the phone; dialed the contact in the “Favorites” list with a heart at the front of the name; breathing heavily, explained what happened. And the voice on the other end, the voice of the person Les loved most in the world, said quietly but firmly, “Thank God.”

And then, “I love you.”

Amen, amen I say to you: this happens a lot. People start praying about a job, and soon they don’t have one. We’ve done this several times around here at St. Andrew’s just in the last few months. I don’t think this is exactly what Jesus meant when he said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but it certainly lightens the load.

Start praying for God’s direction –> end up unemployed.

I suspect this happens because we are not good at getting their ourselves — as the writer of our passage this morning wrote, we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” So we tend to seek what certainty we can; the steady paycheck; we hold on to jobs that we do not like and are not good with us for the sake of seeking certainty. But if we open ourselves up to God’s will — BOOM! — God will jump in and act. As much as we seek certainty, our God works in uncertain situations.

It’s there, walking out of that meeting with the HR rep, that God suddenly had a chance to do something new in Les’s life. I think this is closer to what Jesus means about the “light yoke” thing; that when we give up the burdens of the world, or get fired from them, then Christ can work with us.

All of the sudden there wasn’t a sure thing. Well, there was one sure thing — God’s love for Les. There was nothing that could happen that would take that away, it’s just not possible.

It took a little time, but before even finding what was next, Les was telling people that God had been good to him. That he’d needed to get out, and that deep down that knowledge was there somewhere, but unactionable without that push from without. That this was hard and a struggle for the family, but that God’s love hadn’t failed. That God’s love — right now at least — just looked like this. Because God’s love isn’t always soft and comfortable; sometimes it pushes us; sometimes it’s hard-edged.

I could tell you how it all this ends; about the new job Les found, about Jessica’s college experience in LA. But the details of the ending don’t really matter; it’s a matter of living with the uncertainty along the way. Uncertain, except for God’s certainty. Uncertain, except that it’s never out of scope for God; that God’s plan is an eternal plan, and that nothing and no one can ever stop God’s love for us. Amen.