June 29, 2012
Missional Malaprops, or My Schadenfreudean Slip
A reflection on calling by David A. Zimmerman.
"I came to get my foot out the door." I laugh every time I hear it, this off-the-cuff malaprop from a bright-eyed, ambitious attender at the 2009 Urbana Student Missions Conference. She's interviewed in a promo for this year's conference. Silly little student, I condescend to myself, I think you mean "get my foot in the door."
That, after all, is the actual idiom, which suggests that you're doing a small, undignified thing as a means to the greater end of a large, profitable thing. If you take an entry-level job at an Internet startup, for example, you've gotten your foot in the door at a ground-floor opportunity. You'll spend ungodly hours doing grunt work for little pay in the hopes of getting stock options for a billion-dollar IPO down the road. A little pain now, great gain later.
Getting a foot in the door was what aggressive salespeople would do as they traveled from town to town, house to house, physically preventing people from slamming the door as they tried to hawk vacuum cleaners or magazine subscriptions or tickets to heaven. Broken foot bones, the logic goes, are a small price to pay for a big fat commission, or a jewel in your cosmic crown.
It's no wonder students today get the words wrong on idioms (idia?) such as this one. Respect for cultural history is as lost an art as the English language, I'm afraid. But it's not entirely their fault: selling things door-to-door is itself an artifact of a pre-digital age. Besides, it's rude to slam the door on people. So maybe the idiom has run its course.
The malaprop, though, now there's a whole different kettle of fish. This student didn't get her foot in the door; she got it out the door. I'd never heard that before, and after my condescending chuckling subsided I started thinking about it, and I really, really liked it.
This is Urbana, after all, where hundreds of thousands of college students have convened over the decades in pursuit of some vocational clarity, or to start marking out the path of costly discipleship that leads to mission work overseas or in the inner city. Some undoubtedly have left the conference frustrated, with no greater sense of assurance about where they should be or be headed. But ask around and you'll meet lots and lots of people for whom Urbana set the bar, set the course. Urbana has served, over the years, to issue the same challenge issued by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship: "When Christ bids a man [or, we assume, a woman], he bids him [or her] come and die."
Some students, I'm sure, have left Urbana and entered work that led to their death. Not just in some exotic missionary outpost, either: lots of work can be hazardous to your health. But even for those whose call led to something desky and cushy, there is a death that happens in the realm of discipleship (which is in a sense the realm of vocation), the results of which we must live with.
Our vocation, when viewed from the perspective of the sacrificial mission of God that culminates in Christ's atoning work from the cross but extends to even today in the ongoing work of God's people in the church, isn't so much a matter of arriving--of getting your foot in the door and gobbling up stock options or padding your 401k--but of going. God sent Abraham from the land he knew to a land he did not yet know; God sent David from the work of a shepherd, which he knew, to the work of a king, which he could not have imagined for himself. God sent Esther, an orphaned child of a marginalized and despised ethnic minority, to become a queen and deliver her people from genocide. God sent his Son to the earth and ultimately to the cross; God sent his Son's followers from a cramped and secret upper room to the streets of Jerusalem, and Judea, and the ends of the earth. The last thing God has in mind for us, it seems, is to arrive.
Again, Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship:
It's an absolutely counterintuitive call, this vocation of a disciple that God has in mind for each of us. Each of us hears it and enacts it differently, and I suppose each of us corrupts it and compromises it in our own unique ways. But maybe part of the reason the Western church seems so adrift sometimes is because God has charted a course for us, and we keep trying to get our feet safely indoors.
Maybe this generation, this Urbana class, isn't so much manufacturing malaprops as it is flipping the false scripts we've written for ourselves. Maybe, if we turn enough of such self-serving idioms around, the world will start to be set aright.
***For more information or to register for Urbana 2012, click here.
For historical and contemporary examples of God moving people into mission and vocation, read Movements That Change the World.
For a brisk introduction to the concept of God's call on us, check out Everyday Missions.
For a thought experiment on how Jesus draws us out of ourselves and into his kingdom work, read The Parable of the Unexpected Guest.