(wk. of Aug 22-28, 16)
“We know the news on the other side of the world, but not the neighbor on the other side of the fence.”
Called to a community
A Christian's vocation involves more than a career
The concept of "vocation" or "calling" is an application of the doctrine of providence: God not only preserves the cosmos and superintends the history of nations but is subtly at work in the most minute circumstances of each individual life.
The doctrine's biblical lineage is clear: Since God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies in splendor (Matthew 6:26-29), and since a sparrow cannot fall from the sky apart from the will of the Father (Matthew 10:29), then surely God provides and cares even more for His children. If God has a plan to prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), and works all things to good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), then surely each believer is called to a role in the salvation of the world and the redemption of all things.
The concept's attractiveness is also clear. The doctrine of providence has the Creator God as a personal, intentional being, not a distant God but a God compassionately involved in the fates of persons and communities. Special providence fills the universe with subtle threads of purpose, and promises they will weave together beyond the sorrows of the world for the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Each person becomes the subject of God's most intimate concern. The concept of vocation slakes our thirst for significance.
Yet, the theology of vocation is complex. As an undergraduate, I belonged to a fellowship of faithful overachievers at Stanford University. We thought of vocation in the same way we thought of finding a spouse. Just as we sought "the one" partner God meant for us to marry, so we sought the one path God had prepared for us. This was the occasion for great anxiety. Students feared that if they diverged from God's intended path, or never found it, then they would miss out on the blessing of becoming who they were created and called to be.
We rarely challenged the equation of vocation and profession: We were to venture great things for God and reach the heights of our professions in order to acquire a broader influence for the sake of the kingdom. Yet I could not escape the feeling, when we joined together for fellowship and worship and service, that we were already living the life for which we were designed. We loved God and loved the world shoulder to shoulder.
When our four years at Stanford were up, we scattered across the globe in pursuit of our vocations. The costs became clear over time. To use myself as an example, none of my five closest friends live in the same city as I do, and none of their closest friends live in the same cities they do. We have equated vocation with profession at the expense of family and fellowship. And many who believed they were called to particular professions find themselves, when their jobs are lost or unfulfilling, frustrated and disillusioned.
I have spoken with many of these Stanford students. Some are still chasing significance or success. Others have given up the search and only want to pay the bills. Many regret the sacrifices they have made to the idol of their careers. One friend recently wrote, "I share my life with virtually no one, and if I don't do something about it then I will die just having been someone's employee." The right-minded pursuit of professional excellence is important. But were we right to leave family and friends in the belief that our calling to particular careers trumped everything else?
The conditions of modern living only exacerbate such problems. We are connected superficially to vastly more people than before, yet connected deeply to far fewer. When my father grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s, he saw 10 to 30 people on a typical day. He knew them all. He knew their stories. They knew his. Today we see thousands of faces every day, yet know hardly any of the souls behind them. Surrounded by a sea of company, we die of thirst for companionship.
The most mobile and networked society in the history of the planet has its drawbacks. Duke University researchers have found that Americans in 1984 enjoyed an average of three deep relationships in which they shared "important matters." By 2004 that number had fallen to two, and a quarter of respondents confessed they did not have a single confidant. In 1940, single-person households composed roughly 7 percent of all households. Today that number is nearing 30 percent. Sociologists like Robert Putnam and Robert Bellah have shown how technology that decreases the distance between nations has increased the distance between neighbors. We know the news on the other side of the world, but not the neighbor on the other side of the fence.
Some who feel starved for authentic human relationships are finding them in callings to community, to "small things," and to particular places and moments. Let's look at these three trends.
First, some American evangelicals are reinterpreting vocation today by emphasizing a call to follow Christ and redeem the world together: Vocation is less a profession than a purpose pursued through our careers but also through the common life we share. Thus in urban centers such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, many evangelicals live in intentional communities. They share homes, buildings, or neighborhoods. They try to form enduring relationships and a healing presence within a community.
One well-known example is Shane Claiborne's Potter Street community in Philadelphia. He explains, "In a hyper-mobile culture, we value stability. We value growing roots. Our neighborhood is fractured and infected with instability, so we grow gardens and renovate houses and build the kind of relationships where we know everyone's names and god-parent their children." He points to biblical examples of a community restoring ancient ruins: The call of God summons us to renew the world together.
Jeff Barneson, a minister to Harvard graduate students and faculty for over 25 years, has made his home into the center of a community that engages the university culture: "Whatever calling one has, it's hard or impossible to do it by yourself. It's more fun, more fruitful, and more sustainable in community." Andy Crouch similarly argues in Culture Making that those who scatter to pursue greatness as individuals miss out on the opportunity to establish an enduring influence upon the culture with a community of people committed to creative redemption.
Second, some are learning that in the economy of a providential God, the slightest acts of obedience can have dramatic consequences. God calls some to socially significant roles, and calls others to make each act significant by doing it for God.
This is not an easy lesson to learn in contemporary American culture. Ever since teachers became the curators of children's self-esteem, the younger generations have been raised with a finely nurtured sense of their own specialness and significance. A recent Barna study shows that 80 percent of American teenagers believe they will definitely or probably, by the age of 25, have a job that is both "great-paying" and allows them to "make a difference." Roughly half believe they will regularly serve the poor by 25, and over a quarter believe they will be famous.
Christians in American culture struggle with a sort of vocational schizophrenia. We want to make a difference while making money, to be remembered for serving the forgotten. We want to give our cake to the poor and sell it too.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with striving both to do good and to do well, as long as we seek God's kingdom first-but mixed motives are often hidden within the yearning for significance. I can see this in my own story. An elite gymnast as a teenager, I was certain that God had called me (although I would never have put it this way) to win enough Olympic glory to give lots to Him and keep some for myself. Even when my career crashed to an end before the 1996 Olympic Trials, it was easy to present a strong faith. I had broken my neck in a fall from the horizontal bar, yet this presented its own opportunity for greatness, as though I were playing the part of the faithful sufferer for my eventual biographers.
Grasping at spiritual greatness in a critical, observed moment was easy because it appealed to my pride. The quiet heroism of small things, the constant surrender to God in unobserved decisions and unimportant matters, is far more difficult. Yet those who follow Christ are to do small things with great love and never care about winning the world's applause.
Third, some are learning what John Stott observed long ago: There are general callings for all believers and specific callings for each, but our most essential vocation is to a person, not a profession-and following Christ is a possibility in every moment. Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him "daily," never "tomorrow."
During my seminary years I worked with a congregation within the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. My first sermon focused, for obvious reasons, on the biblical metaphor of exile, yet I soon discovered inmates who spoke as though they were living already in the Promised Land. Many had come to Christ within the prison and had grown the congregation there. They could not set their hearts upon a future that was distant and might never come. They had to find their vocation in that place and that moment.
As college students my friends and I regarded our vocation as something that would begin in earnest in later years-but the call of Christ is always now. It's ironic that Christian inmates at a maximum security prison found it easier to live their calling than members of a college fellowship at Stanford University 15 years ago. Confined to a single location, hidden from the world, trapped in a kind of endless present, the brothers within those walls had no choice but to live their calling as a community, then and there, in thousands of everyday acts that the world would never see. By answering the call, they made their exile into the Promised Land. They found in the prison, as Thomas Merton found at a Trappist abbey, "the four walls of my new freedom."
In a culture that tells us to "go where the jobs are," some evangelicals are reexamining what it means to follow their calling. A vocation is both greater and more intimate than a call to a career. Paul is not renowned for his tents, nor Luke for his skill as a physician, but God employed these skills to serve a greater purpose. Perhaps we too can rediscover our freedom as we answer the call to root ourselves in a community that labors together, here and now, in deeds great and small, to give witness to the love of God.
“...the world is full of work to do, and not all can be kings but some must be kings' tailors, tasters, and jesters.”
The work of our hands
We all can't be kings—some need to be cleaners of their porcelain thrones
Andrée Seu Peterson
In my new job as a “ custodial assistant ,” I discovered that when you bend down far enough with the sponge to see the brand name of the equipment you're cleaning, you get to wondering about history: How did Mr. Kohler get into the toilet manufacturing business? And Mr. Crane? And Mr. American Standard? I presume no one simply stumbles onto the vocation of porcelain human-waste disposal without there being a pretty good story behind it. Ask any kindergartener what he wants to be when he grows up, and dollars to doughnuts it won't be a water closet maker.
There is a classroom scene in the 1977 Woody Allen film Annie Hall , where in response to the character Alvy's nostalgic musings, children of his 1942 school days take turns standing by their desks and say where they are now: “I run a profitable dress company.” “I'm president of the Pinkus Plumbing Company.” “I sell tallises.” “I used to be a heroin addict and now I'm a methadone addict.” “I'm into leather.”
The road is long with many a winding turn, as the Hollies sang in 1969. And few people today are where they thought they would end up. It may be that Shakespeare's Malvolio is right and “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” But it is also true that “time and chance happen to them all” ( Ecclesiastes 9:11 ). And from yet another perspective, Proverbs indicates that it takes baby steps of willful choices to reach a destination. God knows the mix of all thereof.“The road is long with many a winding turn, as the Hollies sang in 1969. And few people today are where they thought they would end up.”
Back to the point of useful appliances: An entrepreneur once told me that the name of the game is to look for a need—to find value, or to create it. Finding value I could understand more readily than creating it, so I requested examples of the latter. “Cell phones, tablets,” he said. So Misters Kohler and the long line of forebears in his noble profession were doubtless men of vision who turned the most obsolescence-resistant of human needs into profit. Like undertakers.
Now Tom Sawyer, he would be one who created value rather than finding it. He saw no value in whitewashing the old picket fence but a burdensome bother from Aunt Polly. Nevertheless, he knew how to call into existence the things that are not, on a minor creaturely scale, and managed to persuade Ben Rogers of the inestimable pleasure and privilege of taking a paintbrush to wooden slats in a rhythmic up-and-down motion. The modest charge: an apple.
And so the world is full of work to do, and not all can be kings but some must be kings' tailors, tasters, and jesters. “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” ( 1 Corinthians 12:15-17 )
To truly believe this saying is to gain wisdom and contentment. I have always read Psalm 90 as a dour prayer, with its emphasis on the ephemeral and transitory nature of life's doings under the sun: “We bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (verses 9-10).
But this time my attention is arrested by the ending verse that bespeaks a happy permanence in all we do for Him: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”
“Will there be wastebaskets and garbage cans in heaven?”
Wastebaskets in heaven?
A practical application of the Lord's Prayer
Will there be wastebaskets and garbage cans in heaven?
The question is not as frivolous as it sounds. It's rooted in the question about how much of our activity in the here and now might have been eliminated if Adam and Eve had successfully resisted the fall into sin that spoiled everything.
We're all pretty much agreed, I suppose, that oncologists and divorce lawyers will be unemployed once God's people enter their heavenly state. So will funeral directors, and the manufacturers of Roundup, flea collars, and aspirin.
But a number of vocational callings are not so easily categorized. What are we to say about the architects of beautiful homes and public spaces? Or automotive and aeronautical engineers who will speed us along new interplanetary routes? Or chefs who invite us to celestial banquets with unimaginable menus with no threat to our waistlines? Will all such folks, when they get to heaven, simply crank things up a notch and get on with their God-glorifying work with new gusto? Or will they have to learn a whole new way of doing things?
And how is our behavior now supposed to be different because of those understandings? When we Christians talk about "claiming the culture for Christ," we might well divide our task into two parts. On the one hand, we've got positive assignments of the sort Adam and Eve had on their first job descriptions-things like tending the garden, composing music, and delighting in fellowship with each other and with their Maker. On the other hand, we've got tasks focused primarily on reclamation, repair, and redemption-working to undo or counter the effects of the Fall.
It's a fascinating exercise - and a worthwhile one as well - to take a list of a couple dozen people you know pretty well (like all the officers of your church!) and categorize their callings and vocations. Which of them belong in the first group, primarily busy with assignments they might well have had in the original pre-Fall creation? And which of them, on the other hand, spend most of their time in a healing mode, working hard to undo and set straight the effects of the Fall?
I'm not suggesting for a moment that folks on one side of the line are more spiritual, more holy, or more blessed than those on the other. All of us, to be sure, find ourselves at different times on either side of the divide. But as author Randy Alcorn suggests in his must-read book Heaven (2004), few Christians take seriously enough the continuity that God has established between the Creation we currently inhabit and the New Creation He has planned for us in eternity.
Which takes me back to the wastebaskets and garbage cans. Let me assert, without biblical proof but just for the sake of argument, that we will indeed have such items in eternity. Where else will you discard your peelings when you prepare that perfectly heavenly apple pie? Where will you toss the first draft of an essay or poem you write after you're suddenly struck with an improvement that makes it ever so much better? There wasn't anything intrinsically sinful about a waste can in Eden, and to the extent Heaven will stimulate all our creative juices, we'll need waste cans there as well.
All this very much affects how you approach your day's work in the here and now. As Alcorn stresses in his book, most of us have too dull, boring, and unexciting a view of heaven. When that's the case, we end up as well with too dull, boring, and unexciting a sense of our job description in our present circumstance. But nothing-not even taking out the garbage-is mundane.
Everything we do should be a new expression of God's greatness, a clear expression of His healing redemption, or some combination of both. Finding the motivation to live that
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