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Henry Ford lived his entire life within a dozen miles of the Dearborn, Michigan farm where he was born.
A guy who experienced almost nothing of the world nevertheless changed it in ways that are still reverberating today.
Ford is arguably the most successful industrialist of all time. He is hardly remembered as a daring young entrepreneur, since his primary culture-shaping contribution – the car he named the Model T – rolled off the assembly line for the first time on October 1, 1908, when he was already 45 years old.
Automobiles were rapidly coming into fashion. At the time, there were some 2,200 makes on the market. But the Model T left them all in the dust.
Ford’s production numbers defy imagination. Within four years, 75% of all the cars on the road were Model Ts. In 1910, it took 14 hours to build one. By 1913, assembly required only 90 minutes. A car, truck, or tractor rolled off a Ford assembly line somewhere in the world every 10 seconds. Prices fell rapidly. As social historian Bill Bryson reports in Made in America, the cost of a Model T plunged from $850 to just $345 in 1916. Ford doubled the wages of his factory employees to the princely sum of $5 a day, which allowed ordinary blue-collar workers to live the dream of buying the very items they were making.
By 1920, the United States sold more cars every year than the rest of the world put together, and more automobiles were tooling around the state of Michigan than England and Ireland combined.
Model Ts were romanticized as the greatest invention of all time during the first quarter of the 20th century. They are still remembered fondly today. But make no mistake: They were a beast to drive.
The original models had no speedometer and no gas gauge. If you wanted to find out if you were running low on fuel, you had to stop, get out, tip the driver’s seat back, and check the dipstick in the gas tank. Checking oil levels required even greater commitment. The driver had to slide under the car, use pliers to unscrew the oil plug, and judge the need for additional oil by how fast the stream poured onto the ground. The car’s unique “planetary transmission” had two forward gears and one reverse, and took a long time to master. The headlights were notoriously dim at low speeds, but could burn so hot at higher speeds that they might explode.
So what made the Model T so charming?
Every one of them, as Bryson reports, was “practically indestructible, easily repaired, strong enough to pull itself through mud and snow, and built high enough to clear ruts.” Each one could also be adapted to plough fields, clear snow, or pump water. Just try to do that with your Honda Civic this week.
Model Ts are chiefly remembered for their sameness. Apart from minor variations, they were all alike.
“You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black,” Ford used to quip. That wasn’t precisely true. The original shades were gray, red, and green. But black enamel was the only paint that dried fast enough to be useful in Ford’s high-speed assembly process. Therefore the vast majority of Model Ts ended up black. Car parts were also interchangeable. If you ever had reason to do so, you could always swap components with the guy who lived next door.
Sameness is comforting. Sameness is what assures us that a Whopper will taste pretty much the same at every Burger King from coast to coast. There’s a sameness to the floor plan for every Holiday Inn Express. “The best surprise is no surprise,” Holiday Inn’s marketers remind us. Standardization of food, service, travel, and human experience in general has become an expectation. Sameness rules.
But sameness is not the rule in the Jesus-following life.
The apostle Paul makes this bedrock statement in I Corinthians 12:4-6: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
Notice where the sameness is found. It relates to the source of human giftedness. We receive what we need in life from the same God (the Father), Lord (the Son), and Spirit.
Our personal experience, meanwhile, is differentness – different gifts, different kinds of service, different kinds of working. People are not interchangeable. We didn’t all roll off the same assembly line.
Every Christian carries the DNA of discipleship. But just as different cells in different parts of the human body express different aspects of the same genetic code, members of Christ’s Body will tend to excel in significantly different areas.
Let’s imagine, for example, that as part of trusting Christ we’re all called to live out the letters “SE.” How might that be expressed in ministry?
For those in the choir, SE might mean “sing exuberantly.” People on a mission venture will “serve enthusiastically.” Members of the pastoral staff are called to “study eagerly.” Volunteers with Habitat for Humanity “sheetrock energetically.” Those on the Finance Team excel at “shrinking expenses.” And out of love for God, members of the Sunday morning Hospitality Team will “serve eclairs” – something that helps the rest of us love God, too.
If all this sounds like a vast over-simplification, it is. No one knows how or why the Holy Spirit leads different members of God’s team to function in such different ways.
Nevertheless, we know it’s true. To paraphrase Paul, “If all of us exceled at the same thing, you’d never look at a group of Christians and say, ‘Now, that’s a body.’”
So where does that leave each of us?
Resolve to discern the uniqueness of your calling, and pursue it with all your heart. As old saying goes, when you get to heaven God isn’t going to ask you why you weren’t more like Martin Luther or Augustine of Hippo or Francis of Assisi or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. He’ll ask you why you weren’t more like you.
It’s time to leave the same-old-same-old fears behind. It isn’t true that when God was passing out gifts, you were somehow overlooked.
Your spiritual enablements, opportunities, and differentness are exactly what the world needs.
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