The following is a conversational, written version of Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd’s chapel message on April 11, 2018. The talk was a reflection on Ephesians 2:1-10.
How many times have you been asked this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Or how about: “What are you going to do when you graduate?”
When I was a kid, I was asked some variation of that first question on a regular basis, especially as high school graduation grew nearer. I got so sick of answering “I have no idea” that I finally started making up an answer that I thought would sound acceptable: I told people I wanted to be a police officer. (Anyone who knows me now knows how ridiculous that is!)
Ephesians 2 tells a story that helps us understand how to answer both of these questions. It talks about what we were — “As for you, you were dead in your sins.” It describes what we are — “But God made us alive…. For we are God’s handiwork.” And finally it offers a picture of what we will be doing — “Created to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
God is right now preparing work for each of us to do, verse 10 tells us, even when we don’t know yet what it is. Can this be true? How do we know? And, couldn’t He just make it easier by telling me right now what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?
Allow me to tell you a bit about my own experience with how God has done this in my life. There are two things to keep in mind: first, what God does in my life provides no specific guarantees about what he’s doing in your life. Second, I could only understand what God was up to by looking backward long afterwards. At the time these things happened, I had no idea where God was leading me or what he was preparing me for.
So, I offer my first example, which is also a confession of sorts: I am a college dropout. After two years at a Christian college, and one miserable failed semester at a public university (more about that in a minute), I decided to quit studying and look for a job, because I didn’t really have enough focus to make school seem worthwhile. Having a vague notion of “wanting to work with people,” I got the “blue book,” which was a directory of social services agencies, borrowed a friend’s beater and started dropping off resumes all over the city.
I didn’t have a clue what some of these agencies even did, which was painfully clear when I knocked on the door of what turned out to be a halfway house for hardened criminals reintegrating into society after serving long sentences for violent crimes. The worker took one look at me — fresh-faced, naïve, and young — and said, “You don’t want to work here, kid. But, wait, I know this guy. Hang on a second, let me try and call him.”
“Hello, Leo. Yeah, I got this kid here…. No, I don’t know him…. But you’re free now? Okay, great, I’ll send him over.”
The short story is that I went to see Leo, interviewed on the spot, filled out an application, interviewed again and, within two weeks, I started a full-time job in residential youth care that lasted four years and launched my career path in social services.
It wasn’t until two years later, when I was transferred to Leo’s unit, that I realized how rare it was for Leo, who was the supervisor, to even answer the phone, since he was usually out “on the floor” with the residents. It was equally rare for Leo to actually be available right at that moment to talk to me — someone he didn’t even know.
How did that happen? Was it just a fluke? I don’t think so. Looking back, I realized that God was preparing in advance for the work I ended up doing with dozens of troubled kids by providing some semblance of stability in their lives of turmoil, abuse and neglect.
Six years after that failed semester at a public university, I had completed my undergraduate degree and decided to apply for a masters in social work. So, maybe you’re wondering why I keep describing this as a “failed semester?” What else would you call it when you enroll in five courses, drop three, fail one, and end up passing only one course? But, to get into that MSW program, I needed a course in research methods. Guess which one of those five courses was the only one I passed? Yep, God was preparing things in advance, even when I thought that semester was a failure.
Here’s one more example: After my MSW I worked on a variety of limited term contracts. After five years, my wife and I had three children, a house, a mortgage and no idea what the future held. One week after the birth of our third child, I saw an ad for a position that I recall went something like this: “Jim Vanderwoerd, apply for this job right now!” It was ridiculously arrogant, really. It was an academic job, in another country. I’d never taught before, I didn’t have a PhD. And somehow, I had this weird sense that there was no one else in the world who was more fully qualified for this job than me.
Up to that point, my career had felt like an aimless wandering from one opportunity to the other. But when I prepared my application package, I began to see an order and coherence to my journey that I had never experienced — let alone planned — while I was in it. The puzzle pieces of my career suddenly arranged to show a picture that was definitely not my design, but revealed God’s plan and a direction that led straight to that job.
I’ve been teaching social work in Christian universities for 20 years now.
As I said, what happened to me doesn’t make it any clearer what will happen to you. But, we can get certainty and assurance from knowing that we are part of God’s story. It’s often in the telling and retelling of our individual stories in the light of God’s bigger story that we can begin to hear and see what God is doing in our own lives. That means we have to be patient enough to listen, wait and learn.
And if there’s one thing you learn at a Christian university like Redeemer, there are more than enough problems out there and no shortage of good work that God needs doing in his world. God could do all this work himself, but instead he’s made us “ambassadors of reconciliation” and “co-workers,” as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 and 6. Think about that: we are God’s colleagues.
So, you might be wondering what exactly you’ll be doing this summer, or after you graduate, or in five, or 10, or 20 years. You probably can’t see now exactly what God is up to, but you can be certain that he’s preparing something right now. Why?
Because once you were dead, but God has made you alive, and you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God is preparing in advance for you to do.