Where Does the World Need Me?
Where Does the World Need Me?

Where Does the World Need Me?

An invitation to consider your own pursuits of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Appears in Winter 2010

Comment recently received this request by email: "This summer I am . . . on the side trying to figure out what to do with my life, particularly regarding seminary and/or graduate school. One thing I am trying to take into serious consideration is not only gifts, but also where there is great need, inspired be an article you wrote ["Asking big questions" by Gideon Strauss, Comment, July 14, 2006].

"As I have been reflecting on where the greatest need is, I wondered where the actual needs and (when I think about graduate school & study) questions are? So, it seemed there might be a place for a forum for an issue of, say, Comment to seek out wisdom from various Christian leaders/scholars who might tackle the question, 'Where are the world's needs and hurts? Where do we need to focus the life-giving news of Christ as we think about our callings?'"

With that in mind, Comment put together this symposium to answer these questions on loose geographic and vocational lines.

The world needs me in... Business
by Hans Hess
Arlington, VA

I have the privilege of turning ideas into businesses. I take thoughts that are interesting and useful and transform them into organizations, products, and services that endeavour to be of real value to the people that use them and the people that work for me. My goal is that, in some way, people will experience God's grace through my businesses.

Up until I had the idea for Elevation Burger and enviroCAB, there was no idea in my head of becoming an entrepreneur or businessman. But the parables that Jesus tells in Matthew 25 and Luke 16 show how various managers handled their material resources, and what it said about their relationship with God was eye-opening. Those parables drew the connection between the realities of this life and concreteness of the life to come in a way I hadn't experienced before. This realization, in turn, led me to take the risky step of trying to turn ideas into functioning businesses.

God has given me a great family and friends to support, help, and work with in my businesses. And this is one of the most interesting things about attaining clarity in regard to your calling—it helps you see that a vocation isn't really about you. It's about the community of this life and the next one. It's about what God does in you for the benefit of the people around you. The relationships formed in the course of your vocation, and those affected by the service you are called to, are a foretaste of the Kingdom that's coming.

The world needs me in... Eastern Canada
by Calvin Seerveld
Toronto, ON

More help is needed to forge and implement policy that will help our cities flourish. Law-trained John Calvin already posited in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) that it is a highest calling for followers of Jesus to become magistrates, leaders trained to do merciful justice in society (IV,20,4). That insight would entail today in our location—to which many peoples of the world want to immigrate—that the older and younger generations develop an urban mind-set, putting money and a lifetime into making their gifts serviceable for centers of learning, culture, and commerce, and living in close proximity. Whether a person has gifts for teaching, healing, speaking, administering, or making artworks, it would be good to realize that dense habitation poses problems of housing, resource-sharing, transit, communication, anonymity, amusement, gangs, poverty, and heedless corrupting affluence, which need wise and focused attention. Education that prepares persons with the imaginative, long-range vision and patient working stamina to be faithfully redemptive somehow in city living—as workers in media, government, church and mosque, schools, business—would be a good source of blessing in God's world for one's living neighbours and those still to be born.

The world needs me in... Justice
by Jedd Medefind
Merced, CA

Creation groans, and myriad needs beckon creativity and vigour from compassionate believers. For me, one need invites special attention: orphans in their distress. The sheer weight of the need is itself compelling. More than fifteen million children have lost both parents, most of them living without defense between poverty and predators. It is the young girl, left with no protector or provider, traded into sexual slavery. It is the little boy, crying out in the night with no one to hear.

But even mightier than the raw need is a deeper motivation, one that possesses strength to carry us both into and through a lifetime of service to the orphan. We serve a God who sought us when we were destitute and alone. He adopted us as His children. He invites us to live as His sons and daughters. So we defend the fatherless because He has defended us. We care for the orphan in her destitution because God cared for us in ours.

As we act, our love for orphans effects transformation. It changes orphans who experience care and belonging they'd come to live without. It changes the individual Christian who comes face to face with Jesus in the least of these. It changes the Church, pulling us beyond self-focused religion to a vigorous faith of sacrifice and abandon. It changes the watching world also, as it sees the Gospel story embodied.

These great needs—not just one, but four—intertwine in the plight of the orphan. Their deep need. Ours. That of the Church. And the world's.

The world needs me in... Central America
by Ken Herfst
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Thinking about this question, I began a series of discussions with friends, youth, and church leaders. One thoughtful young man responded to my question "What is Guatemala's greatest need?" with another question: "Are you talking about the church or society?" That is precisely our problem, I realized. Guatemala—to limit the conversation to my area of experience—is reported to have the highest level of evangelicals in all of Latin America. However, Guatemala is also a country reeling under violence, corruption at all levels, gangs, organized crime, drugs, extortion, extreme poverty, and a host of other social ills. The burning question is "Where is the church in all of this?" Why is it that the church has had so little impact in our society?

I would suggest that the greatest need for Central America in general and Guatemala in particular is for the church, as a community of faith, to understand when to be in solidarity with our society, and when to be an alternative community to the wider society. We need to understand when to identify with the hurts and pains, the struggles and problems that are slowly sucking the life out of our society. We can't go on thinking about "us" and "them." It is us. We are part of the problem; we need to be part of the solution. Such solutions are found in dialogue, in working together, in being community.

At the same time it is curious to see that even though there is so much "us" and "them" in the way we talk about reality, there are too many ungodly standards, values and ethical practices that take place in the "world" that are also found in the "church." The church is also called to be an alternative community where we incarnate the message of God's Reign in every square inch of human existence. The church needs to be a community where justice, mercy, and love bring about a transformation that is rooted in the character of the very God who has called the community into existence. And of this triad of justice, mercy, and love, the theme of justice looms large. Without this foundation, our entire society will crumble.

The world needs me in... Storytelling
by Nate Barksdale
Portland, OR

I trust my fellow commenters will make the case for feeding the hungry, providing justice for the widow, and bringing the gospel to, you know, "people." But I'd like to put in a word for objects and images—two things that might seem lower on the chain of being, but are both something our North American culture does very well and can get very wrong. We gaze at high-tech screens that "just disappear" as we attend to the words and images on them, screens that—in and of themselves—have a physical wonder and a story to them, from the Silicon Valley designer to the Congolese mineral miner to the Chinese factory worker to the delivery guy who brings them to me when I call. The same goes for the "disappearing" commodities that we take for granted: the mass-produced, the so-called interchangeable. We can rarely know the real stories, but we can educate ourselves to guess, and be amazed: a wondering attitude toward thing-ness is well worth cultivating. People, "people," made all this! Images have their own equally intricate back stories. It's so easy to just treat all that screen-stuff as information to be downloaded or deleted—but it, too, comes from somewhere, has a far-more-human story (and thus a far-more-divine reflection, however clouded) than most people get around to realizing. We need wise, alert, thoughtful, wonder-filled people to help us and our neighbours be better users, makers, maintainers, appreciators, shapers, and sharers of the objects and images that fill our lives.

The world needs me on... The Redemptive Edge
by Dave Evans
Santa Cruz, CA

Many of my conversations with people about where to direct their energies feel like business meetings. We discuss needs, resources, outcomes, strategic fit, etc. In religious contexts, we don't use those words, but it's the same conversation, just spiritualized. In these conversations people say they want to "be on the cutting edge" or "push the edge of the envelope." Apparently we like edges. OK, how about a new edge—the redemptive edge.

What if we started not by asking ourselves a question about what to do but began with an attentive eye and the assumption that the prevenient God is already up to something within view. The redemptive edge is the place where God is currently most at work in your "world" (job, dept., organization, industry). To see this edge takes prayerful looking, not cognitive reasoning or assessment, and is very different from most approaches to planning. It takes listening deeply to what's going on and detecting the fragrance of God underneath the stories. I'm not saying God doesn't call people to go far away from where they are, but shouldn't we locate the local action first?

The world needs me in... The Lives of Young People
by Justin McGeary
Ithaca, NY

Father Zossima, a central hero in The Brothers Karamazov, blesses his young protégée Alyosha with a mission before he dies. He says, ". . . you will go forth from these walls . . . You will have many adversaries, but even your enemies will love you. Life will bring many misfortunes to you, but it is in them that you will find happiness and you will bless life and make others bless it—which is what matters most."

His words echo the commission of Christ and the father's teaching in Proverbs. But, it is not an isolated directive; it comes from one who modeled it.

I am convinced that more than a particular vocation, today we need vision and integrity to be lived out on the job before youth as they enter adulthood.

We need Zossimas, particularly in the church and university—institutions that usher youth into adulthood and shape hearts and minds. We need teachers, campus ministers, janitors and administrators who reintegrate church and university life with a lived and larger vision of the Good News, from the classroom to the dining hall. Then Alyoshas are invited to come and try. We need Zossimas to guide Alyoshas in the way of wisdom—to "bless life and make others bless it."

The world needs me in... Europe
by Kathryn Streeter
London, U.K.

In Italy on vacation, I was struck by how obvious it was that I wasn't Italian. For starters, if I were handcuffed I could still communicate; Italians need their hands as much as their tongues. They also use extraordinary facial contortions to deepen their point. They throw their whole body into communicating. As Americans living in London, we've run into a special kind of person who relishes the idea of being from nowhere because they are from everywhere. They are of an elite class known as citizens of the world, globetrotting from continent to continent. But reality doesn't square with this detached notion. Last summer's World Cup reminds us that we root for our country, regardless of the fact that our players have fat contracts with foreign teams. We grow crazy with clannishness because we like to belong. We are indeed part of a global world, but our passport is a starting point for who we are. It's easily one of the first exchanges in London: Where are you from? In a largely international crowd, identifying with and being a fair-minded apologist for your home country displays the value of place and a vote against sameness. Never will there be a Citizen of the World passport holder. It's a dangerous prescription that neutralizes the particular and helps assuage our guilt over a lack of familiarity, responsibility, ownership, and indebtedness to a place—belonging. Our Italian taxi driver reflected a sturdy understanding of this intersection between himself and where he was from by proudly waxing on about the enduring traditions of homemade limoncello and olive oil. Now if he could just keep his hands on the steering wheel.

The world needs me in... Asia
by Naomi Biesheuvel
Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan only very recently made the climb from a "developing" society to a competitive global exporter. As people began learning foreign languages and getting M.B.A.s, the economy began to improve. So, as a member of the still-successful English-education industry here, I address this perceived need.

But my status as a foreign teacher is just a jumping-off point to respond to what I believe to actually be Taiwan's greatest need. It's the same as every other society's: love. In a fear-based culture, no language can speak more clearly. Here, everything seems to be motivated by a fear of losing face. You never actually say the word "no" in Taiwan; you just say "maybe." Deception is commonplace and even expected so that no one has to be embarrassed about his or her shortcomings. The fear of disappointing, offending, or angering one's parents, teachers, and even friends is overwhelming.

The most powerful way to address this need for acceptance and affirmation is through unconditional love. I recently took a few hours to invite a friend for coffee. As I shared honestly about my imperfections and accepted my friend despite hers, her walls quickly came tumbling down. Both Johns were right: "Perfect love drives out fear" and "All you need is love."

The world needs me in... Culture
by Gideon Strauss
Pasadena, CA

I love Donald Schön's phrase "reflective practice." There is great need for people who don't just do stuff, but who practice, and reflect on their practice. Andy Crouch suggests trying to see what you can practice at for hours a day with the anticipation of delight rather than dread. I'd add: see if you can capture what you learn from the day's practice, or what you hope for from the next day's practice, in a haiku-concise note to yourself. In time you may begin to discern what part of the fabric of the world you are called to help repair.

The world needs me in... Politics
by Jennifer Marshall
Washington, DC

It's tempting to expect too much from politics. It's also common to think too little of it.

The challenge for Christian citizens is to avoid both utopianism and cynicism. The great needs are stewardship and sober judgment about the possibilities—and limits—of politics.

Christian theology reminds us that politics is not ultimate. An appreciation for the God-given institutions of family and church should also prevent Christians from looking to government to fill roles for which it is not designed. Meanwhile, a robust understanding of community helps avoid relegating all issues of public concern to the political sphere.

At the same time, the Bible describes government as an institution ordained by God to exercise appropriate authority. We should expect no less. That includes calling on government to respect the roles and responsibilities of other institutions while adhering to its proper—in our case, constitutionally prescribed—role.

Politics often challenges convictions about the created moral order and the persistence of human nature—capable of good and evil. In urging respect for these permanent things, Christians must appeal to that sense of the eternal that the writer of Ecclesiastes says God has placed in human hearts.

Finally, God's grace should cause us to be ever creative and energetic in our hope for restoration in the world around us—including politics.

The world needs me in... Africa
by James Woller
Bulembu, Swaziland

We live in a day and age where need is often "marketed" and can easily become a trend of society, making it a challenge to identify the greatest needs and hurts. Although there have been many positive developments raising awareness of the needs that exist all around the world, often our ambitious drive to "solve" has resulted in our efforts hurting more than helping.

Great need is in the world all around us, from the starving child in Africa, to the suicidal stockbroker. However, it is often the material needs of the world we focus on, rather than the emotional and spiritual needs. Mother Teresa captured this reality best stating, "It is easier to offer a dish of rice to meet the hunger of a needy person than to comfort the loneliness and the anguish of someone in our own home who does not feel loved."

The greatest impact love has in addressing the needs in the world is when it is through relationship and committed over time. We must try to see the poor in our own situation, because only if we enter into relationship with others will we be able to identify true need and make a difference.

The world needs me on... University Campuses
by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
Vancouver, BC

Leaders and scholars know about the world's needs and hurts through at least three important media: the study of large-scale phenomena, the expertise of those on the front lines of shalom-making, and the testimonies of those in need. Clearly our access to these three media will vary, sometimes a lot. But if our viewpoint is restricted to one or two, we certainly will fail to see the whole picture and may well understand things wrongly.

A particular way we will understand things wrongly is to come to general, obvious conclusions (e.g., we should help the poor) that do not enable us at all to know what to do to help the poor. To pick a less obvious example, I think that university students are generally badly served by the church— both Christian students and inquirers. I think they have few places to go to air serious questions (intellectual, relational, vocational, moral) and receive answers commensurate with the complexity of the question and the intelligence of the student. To help them means first to consider (and perhaps to conduct) large-scale analyses of university campuses, students at such places, and the various modes of the church available to serve them (with sensitivity to different types, locations, cultures, etc.). It also means discussing the matter with staff of Christian groups, chaplains, church staff assigned to students, Christian professors, and so on. And it means actually listening to students themselves—in a way that will deliver useful information.

Where do we need, then, to focus the gospel? Pretty much any place, I should think. But we need to do so with much more awareness of the question "What are the needs in this place among this group of people?" That will take research, formal and informal, properly done. Perhaps Cardus—and perhaps Regent College—can equip us to do that better.

The world needs me....
by Denise Frame Harlan
Gloucester, MA

The question offered was, "Where are the world's needs and hurts? Where do we need to focus the life-giving news of Christ as we think about our callings?"

You write this question as if every option in the world were open to you, and I recall with wistfulness that sort of openness to life. Rejoice in this moment. Later adult life holds other pleasures, but not the pleasure of wondering what to do with this good world.

I return to Frederick Buechner's quote, "The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Since the world's deep hunger is present everywhere, why not focus on finding your great gladness? By this I don't mean "why not just live for pleasure," but what do you already know about what you love? Can you make beauty? Then be an artist. Do you love to read? Then study literature. Figure out how to survive financially while you do these things. It's kind of a beautiful thing that the economy may not allow new workers to expect much money. In some ways you may be spared the idolatrous pull of "a good-paying job." Travel if you have the opportunity, and if you can afford to volunteer in a needy part of the world, do it while you are unencumbered by job and family needs. If travel doesn't appeal to you, return to a place you love, or a place that brings out the best in you. If you do not have a sense of your Calling with a Capital C, then find small callings that challenge and satisfy you. Trust that you will figure out what's next when you need to.

In my own life, I took a job with the CCO campus ministry group after college, even though I'd never heard of the organization. I could see the organizational ethic of playfulness-tempered-by-intellectual-rigour in each of the recruiters I met, and that impression remained true. Although my work life since then looks nothing like "a career path," I've worked in education for most of my adult life. I still feel very lucky and blessed when I consider that first career move.

Go someplace you love, find work you can tolerate, and invest yourself. Anywhere will do, as long as it gives you life.

If you truly have no place to go, apply to work at the YMCA of the Rockies, outside of Estes Park, Colorado, and if anyone asks you why, tell them it's because Denise Frame Harlan always wished she could work there, in that small hospitality center in the mountains, and in a life free from worries about food and housing.

Wherever you go, the world needs good friendships, good neighbours, good lay-people in the pews of churches, and kindness and steadfastness. Buechner suggests that you choose neither the hair shirt of difficulty nor the soft bed of luxurious life. Anywhere in the middle will do.

Nate Barksdale
Nate Barksdale

Nate Barksdale is a writer and graphic designer based in Portland, Oregon. He is curator and a regular contributor to Culture-Making.com, bringing together inspiring and arresting words, images, and artifacts that highlight the goodness and challenges of creation and cultivation. In the past he's edited theology and travel guides, taken buses and trains from Cape Town to Kampala, and circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee on a bicycle. He studied the history of science at Harvard, where he wrote his honors thesis about Swahili technical dictionaries, a surprisingly useful topic. His essays for Comment have been linked by blogs like LanguageHat, The Browser, and the New York Times Idea of the Day.

Naomi Biesheuvel
Naomi Biesheuvel

Naomi Biesheuvel is an editor, writer, teacher, and producer who specializes in social media. View Naomi's profile on LinkedIn


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