What will you do today?

In October 1996 I visited Stuart Cook, a Baptist minister in Leicester. He gave me a gift of a book he’d edited called In Good Company. It’s a collection of readings from Christian history, along with appropriate Bible verses, one for each day of the year. Sadly Stuart died soon after, but I’m grateful for his ministry and his wonderful collection of valuable readings. I want to share one here.

On June 12th, 1806, in the cool of a late Indian evening, William Carey* sat down to write a letter. In it he described what he’d done that day.  Here’s my summary of his letter.

Carey got up at 5.45 a.m., read a chapter of the Hebrew Bible, prayed until 7.00, and then joined family prayer with servants in Bengali. While tea was being made, he read a little in Persian with help from a language teacher, and then read the Bible in Hindustani. All this before breakfast.

As soon as breakfast was done, Carey began translating an ancient Sanskrit text, helped by a pundit (a knowledgeable teacher). That took until 10.00 after which he spent more than three hours on college duties. [He had been made Professor of Bengali at Fort William College.] When he got home he studied a proof-sheet of the Bengali translation of the book of Jeremiah. That took until dinner time.

After dinner, with the help of another pundit, Carey worked until 6.00 translating most of Matthew chapter 8 into Sanskrit. Then he met with a Telinga pundit to learn that language. At 7.00 he organised ideas he’d previously noted down into a sermon, which he preached at 7.30. At the end of the church service he received a sizeable gift from one of the attendees towards a new place of worship. It was 9.00 before the service was over and congregation gone. Then Carey began translating Ezekiel chapter 11 into Bengali, which took until almost 11.00.

At 11.00 Carey began writing the letter describing his day.

Carey’s letter fascinates me. By anyone’s standards, he had a busy day! It could be untypical, but I suspect it wasn’t, because everything that day was routine. There were no emergencies, no surprise callers, no unexpected tasks. All he did was ongoing work. This was how Carey lived his life.

I’m glad I don’t live my life like that, though there have been some crazily hectic times. One weekend, I spoke at a residential conference, and gave five addresses on the same day. In our office building, I climbed the stairs to the top floor to join others in a conference room, glanced at my watch, saw it was 10.30, and realised I was heading for my fifth meeting of the morning. That day could have been the nearest I’ve come to matching Carey’s pace of work, except my afternoon was quieter, and I didn’t start every day with back to back meetings. My life was busy, but not Carey-busy.

Carey’s crazily busy day is an example and a warning.

First, Carey’s example. I know a lot about Carey from his own writings and those of his contemporaries. Beyond question, he was a man of deep commitment – first his commitment to God, and second to the people he served in India.

Those two things are inextricably linked, because the second would never have happened without the first. Carey had a burning certainty that God’s plan for his life was to leave England and go east to India. He’d researched and written a remarkable book called An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (which was probably a great book title in 1792; likely not so great today). Carey’s book made the case for taking the gospel to the world, surveyed population numbers and religious facts, and argued for the formation of a missionary society.

The missionary society came into being later that year, and Carey ensured it sent him and his family to India. It was no small decision. His wife, Dorothy, was very resistant. She’d never seen the sea, and certainly didn’t want to cross it to a far-off land. Carey would have gone on his own, but just in time Dorothy agreed to accompany him providing her sister could come too. All of them knew that disease killed many who went to India and, in fact, their son Peter soon died of dysentery. Not long after, Dorothy’s mental health declined severely, and she died in 1807.

But on Carey went. Why? He was driven to spread the Christian message and to serve people in need.

If he’d stayed in England his life would not have been comfortable by 21st century standards, but relatively safe and secure. But he couldn’t stay. It wasn’t where he believed he was meant to be. That place was India, and he could not be anywhere else.

I’d question some of the decisions Carey made. But I can’t question his extraordinary commitment. The odd thing is that today we think such commitment is ‘extraordinary’. A person willing to give up everything they have, and accept hardship and sacrifice, is considered an extremist.

But are they? Or have we normalised the abnormal? Do we equate deep commitment to a cause with unacceptable radicalism? And think that we should be wary of people like that? Perhaps change-makers like Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa have always been considered too zealous. They weren’t easy to be around. Too much agitation for change.

But would the world have been better if they’d been ‘normal’, kept their mouths shut, and just did what ordinary people do? The truth is that we needed their agitation. We needed their commitment. We needed a Carey. And his example has been a challenge to every generation since.

Second, a warning. I’m moved by the sacrifices Carey made to meet need he saw every day. But I’m concerned in case we think days packed with activity from early morning to late at night are virtuous, and less hectic days are not.

With colleagues and trustees, I was interviewing candidates for a director-level post in our organisation. We asked one of the prospects about his commitment to work. Part of his answer was, ‘When the pressure’s on, I’m willing to work until midnight.’ I looked to my colleague David, and each of us silently mouthed, ‘Just until midnight…?’ And we laughed quietly, because both of us had, at times, worked well past that hour.

On occasions that’s fine. What’s not fine is when it’s all the time.

Commitment must be controlled, and commitment must be appropriate to the cause. I’ll explain both of those.

Two categories of people fail to control commitment to their work. One group can never leave anything undone. Their work controls their time. Some I’ve known would not turn up to their child’s school concert if they hadn’t got through everything work-related first. (Or they’d go back to the office after the concert.) The other group find fulfilment by being busy. I referred to a conference address by Tom Houston in the earlier blog ‘Dream on’. In one part of that address, Houston said ministers were often criticised, leading to low self-esteem. But what propped up their self-worth was a packed diary. They felt better when their personal calendar was full of appointments, because that proved they were needed. Finding comfort in excessive demands on their time is not exclusive to ministers. A good commitment goes bad if not controlled.

Commitment must also be appropriate to the cause. I’ve been close to people who ran their own businesses, or held senior positions in multi-national corporations, or others in less lofty yet important roles. Many were ‘driven’ individuals, pushing and pushing to grow the business or win the next promotion. Work is honourable, and deserves our best. But, for some, the work becomes their master and unhelpfully and unhealthily controls their lives. That causes marriage and family problems, with spouses and children left in no doubt they’re less important than the career. Health also suffers. They overeat to combat their stress, perhaps developing diabetes or ulcers or heart problems. Many sink into depression, and life gradually seems pointless. What is all this for? Often what’s happening is that they’re sacrificing for the greater profit of an already wealthy company. Commitment to that cause can’t be compared to the commitment of a William Carey to change lives in India. Their cause doesn’t justify the cost to themselves or their families.

There isn’t a single day when we shouldn’t be giving our best. There’s plenty to be done, including by the retired who usually wonder how they ever had time for employment. I’m all for commitment. Carey is a great example, and we need many more sold-out for what they believe should be changed in this world. But there’s also a need for caution. Work is not our god, and outside of careers there are people and purposes that matter greatly.

‘Expect great things. Attempt great things,’ said Carey.** Yes, with all our hearts, we should. So, what will you do today?

*William Carey’s vision and efforts led to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society (now BMS World Mission) in 1792, the first mission society of its kind. In 1793 he left for missionary work in India, spending the rest of his life there. Carey is regarded as the father of modern missions. He died in 1834, aged 72. From 1996-2008 I was General Director of the society Carey founded.

**Apparently these were the original words spoken by Carey, though he’d also have agreed with the more well-known version ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’