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Dan Miller, Success, and Practical Wisdom

“Success” books and “success” writers, frankly, have long filled me with suspicion.  The “health and wealth gospel” is a perversion, seems to me.  It would be hard, frankly, for someone like myself, trained under the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, the author of The Politics of Jesus, not to see health-and-wealth-gospel as a perversion. And sometimes the “success” folks lean that way. Thus my suspicion. So, some years ago I went with some reticence to hear a presentation by Dan Miller, of 48 Days to the Work You Love, on our campus.  I already loved my work of teaching and writing.  What’s not to love about being a college professor, except for grading papers?

But I overcame my reticence because I had recently expanded my list of possible places to look for wisdom. So I thought I would go check it out, even though one of my colleagues rather disdainfully refused.

I was intrigued enough by the presentation to read Dan’s book.  (I was fascinated that he grew up Mennonite.)  And I was convinced enough by Dan’s book to dream. Yes, I already love my job, and think it’s my rightful vocation.  But what if I allowed myself to imagine and dream?  What if I allowed myself to explore quite legitimate passions in myself I may have unhelpfully suppressed or inhibited? So I did a bit of that, on paper.  I wrote down a picture of what living a life of liberty might look like.  To make a very long story short, and to leave out way too much, this was one important element in taking a step toward what would become Tokens.  Dan encouraged me to dream;  I did;  and I got a wonderful gift of liberty out of it.

A year or two later, I saw Dan at Mama Mia’s, that wonderful little Italian place on Trousdale Lane near I-65 and Harding Place.  By that time we had recorded one or two episodes of Tokens, and I went over to introduce myself to Dan, and tell him about Tokens, and the part he had played in the conception of it.  Next thing I knew, Dan and his wife Joanne had Tokens season tickets;  even better, I looked behind me on stage at our first Ryman show, and there stood Dan singing with the Nashville Choir, a spot he’s occupied for two years now, and I trust will do so again this November. We’ve become friends. My Ohio-Farm-Boy-Mennonite-Success-Writer friend.  Yet again, breaking down false dichotomies.

I’ve now read a lot of the “success” stuff.  There is much to critique in that genre that’s empty or vacuous:  especially when “success” gets equated with filling up self-centered appetites that cannot be filled, leaving one with more stuff but less life.

But I’ve also found lots of practical wisdom in those pages.  And one of those helpful things, already alluded to, is one of the things I think most helpful in the “success” genre, and one that I find theologically most compelling:  that is, the refusal to place artificial, self-imposed limits upon oneself.

I can already hear the nay-sayers:  well of course we have limits.  And yes, of course we do.  We are finite human beings, and one form of idolatry, from the days of the Garden of Eden forward, is to refuse to accept rightful boundaries, the attempt to make ourselves gods, to fancy ourselves on a par with the Creator, instead of accepting our very limited role as mortal human creatures.

But this is where moral philosophy can help us:  read most charitably, the “success” folks should be read like we read the book of Proverbs in the Bible.  The proverbs are not timeless universal rules that apply in all times, places, and circumstances.  Instead, they are wisdom, which is to say, practical knowledge about how life very often works.  They are describing certain virtues—skills, habits, dispositions—which generally lead one to a particular kind of end.  Lazy?  Well, you’ll end up with a leaky roof.  Promiscuous?  Well, you’ll end up with heartache and eventually going down in painful fashion.

Generally speaking, those proverbs are quite right.  Similarly, some of the wisdom of folks like Henry Ford (himself, from what little I know, not a person I necessarily want to model my social ethics after) is generally quite true:  “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right.”

That is, if I tell myself, “oh, I can’t possibly do that,” whatever that is, then it becomes true.  If I tell myself, “oh, I can do that,” whatever that is, I may or may not be able to see that come true in my life.  But at least I have opened up the possibility that it may become true in my life.

Which brings us back to the issue of liberty. For years, my favorite quote from one of the early church fathers has been from Irenaeus, in the second century:  “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  The calling of God is to liberty and joy and life.  To exercise our gifts and passions and abilities in delightful work that might many days be akin to play.

And I’m thankful for the role Dan Miller, and so many others, have played in helping me enjoy such liberty.

-Lee C. Camp


(The photo above features Dan in the choir at the Ryman. For more pictures from our Ryman show, "The Welcome Table," click here.)

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