The Coherence of All of Life
Most of life is autobiographical? For Howard Butt Jr., yes — and for me too.
Born under the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos in Colorado, growing up next to the Sierra Nevadas of California, I was graced with a family that longed for me to see and hear and feel the world like God does, hoping with great hope that I would live into the grace of the covenantal cosmos of God.
Stumbling along the way, through my adolescent years I began to find myself in beliefs about God and grace, in the meaning and purpose of a life written into the vision of the kingdom of God. And beginning the long pilgrimage of adulthood, I spent several years studying, asking questions about everything, wanting to make sense of making sense. The undergraduate years are ones for doing just that, reading and reflecting on what we believe and why, on who we will be and why, on what our lives will be about and why. The years do not last very long, but for most of us they are formative, introducing us to ideas and practices that shape us for the rest of life.
Intrigued by the challenge of belief in the modern world, most of my senior year I studied the Enlightenment project, wanting to understand the ways that its vision of human flourishing affected my time and my place. And so I read in history, philosophy, psychology, art history, and theology, becoming sure of the interdisciplinary character of all of learning and all of life — that somehow it was all connected, that there was a coherence to the whole of life, if I had eyes to see.
And while during those years I decided that I would never be a scholar of biblical languages — my questions were different questions — in my frail efforts at learning Hebrew I was captured by the word, avodah. Beginning at the beginning our studies started in Genesis, reading from back-to-front as the language required. My course was taught by someone with a Ph.D. in Semitic Studies, and his classroom presence was forceful: He knew his stuff, and we didn’t. The word avodah perplexed me, and I looked to see the ways the word was used through the book of Genesis, and beyond. I was surprised to find that it had several uses: work, yes, but also worship and service, the whole of life.
The next day we discussed our reading, and I put up my hand, asking about the word. Very quickly, the professor told me that the word meant to “work,” and nothing more, definitely nothing more, dismissing my question. It was a long time ago now, but I still remember thinking that our different readings had more to do with worldview than with the text itself; already I was beginning to believe in a coherent cosmos, rejecting the dualism that seemed pervasive, one that even affected the learning of Hebrew.
Most of a lifetime later, I was invited to speak at a very well-known evangelical seminary in America for an event called the Avodah Summit — and yes, I smiled. In the strange providence of God, my Hebrew professor ended up spending most of his career teaching at that seminary. And here on his own turf the word was being resurrected, given a new life for a new day. The conference was for seminary professors and their students, for pastors and for people from the marketplace throughout the city. And if I smiled, I also sighed, because the word does mean more, and it matters that the church teach that for the sake of the people of God, and for the sake of the world.
Threading its way through my life is the conviction that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, incarnate in Christ, is the Lord of every square inch of the whole of reality: our work, our worship, our service, everything. A belief born in my undergraduate years, that commitment threads its way through my life, giving coherence to all that am, to all that I believe — even and especially now, years later, knowing more the weight of belief in a secularizing, pluralizing, globalizing world.
My academic interests took me into deeper studies of the interdisciplinary nature of life, and my questions focused on the relationship of belief to behavior, especially the way that human beings connect what they believe with the way that they live, personally as well as publicly — a biblically born, theologically rich vision of vocation is a good way to describe that. Over the years I began to write about this, and then to speak about it, more often than not to colleges and universities whose institutional missions focused on that challenge.
Eventually I was drawn into a visionary grant from the Lilly Endowment, Programs in the Theological Exploration of Vocation. Millions of dollars were given to 90 universities and colleges across America, each with an ecclesial history — so Notre Dame and Boston College as Catholic institutions, Baylor and Wake Forest as Baptists, Seattle Pacific and Duke as Wesleyans, Geneva and Calvin as Reformed, and on and on, schools representing the diversity of theological traditions in the United States, each tasked with exploring the meaning of vocation within their tradition. Because my work had focused on the meaning of the university years, I was often brought in, either through my writing or speaking, in many different ways addressing the critical years between adolescence and adulthood in the formation of faithful vocation.
The Lilly Endowment asked me if I had any ideas. I had one, born of my reading of Lesslie Newbigin, who argued that “the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.” My response was that unless they connected the schools to the seminaries within their traditions — Duke to the Duke Divinity School, for example — the grant would not be sustainable. Eventually the graduates would meet the realpolitik of the marketplace which typically had no place for work as vocation; even harder, they would meet the realecclesiastik of the church, which characteristically neither prayed nor preached as if vocation mattered to God or the world.
For the next few years I traveled all over, asking questions about the ways that vocation was taught between the undergraduate institutions and the theological seminaries. From East to West, from North to South, I heard the same thing: what you are saying is our theology, but we don’t teach that here. It did not matter that the “theology” was different, in practice a bifurcated dualism was taught, one that argued — within the Catholic tradition, the Orthodox tradition, the Protestant tradition — that vocation is incidental, not integral, to the mission of God. “All that you are saying would be nice, but we have no time, no room.” And as I sat in the offices of deans and presidents across America, I wondered, “Who do you think your graduates are going to pastor?” It was clear to me that pastors pastor people whose lives are mostly engaged in their lives in the world, not their presence in the church building. And because vocation is the word that it is, a complex word for the complexity of life, a pastor’s principal work must be to “equip the saints for the work of service” in God’s world.
To say it simply: Vocation is integral to the mission of God.
We should all still be learning from John Stott, who famously made this argument in Christian Mission in the Modern World. With his richly wrought biblical and theological study of the word “mission,” he concluded that if we understand missiology and anthropology rightly — what did Christ come to do in the world? — we must first of all repent of our dualism and rethink what we teach about vocation, so central it is to the mission of God. I have taken Stott all over the world, simply offering the great teacher’s wisdom on a question that plagues the church in every city on every continent. Everywhere I have gone, the disposition to dualism got there before me.
Because of what I have done in my life, these are the conversations of my life, too often. I remember a phone call from someone who had worked on Wall Street throughout his career, retiring to a farm in Virginia. He asked if we could talk about his life, but specially about the work of his life. Over lunch he told me, “I’ve been in the church for years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon about the world of work. It is as if my pastor sees me in church, and assumes that I live there, too. I don’t. On Monday I go off to work. I’m not looking for a cheap exegesis of Daniel that will sort out the complexity of my work in Germany this week, but what I long for is the sense that the pastor has wrestled with the text, remembering me in the labor of my life, because that is central to my life.”
Having watched seminaries stumble over this so badly, I groan. Even places that have every reason to teach otherwise, cannot do it in a way that is institutionally coherent. I groan again.
A few summers ago I taught a summer school course at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, asked to focus on my book, Visions of Vocation. Mature and thoughtful students from all over took part, and I loved our hours and days together. On the last morning, a woman from Australia asked to talk to me during the break. A regular summer student at Regent, coming every year for 30 years, she told me, “You’ve answered a question I have had for years.” Of course I wondered, and she said, “For a long time I have not been able to see the difference between my life, and my Christian life.” There was a moment of quiet, and she said with an honest smile, “They’re the same thing, aren’t they?”
Of course they are. But we stumble and stumble again over dualism, just as Howard Butt Jr. did early in his life, unable to understand what the call of God could possibly be for someone whose life was in the world. We understand a calling to the ministry, yes; but a calling to the marketplace, no.
A Wound in My Heart Has Been Healed
The stories go on and on, and much more could be said.
At a weekend conference for a men’s group in a church, I was asked to speak about the meaning of vocation. What is it about? Why does it matter? And more. After the Sunday morning address, several men came to me asking if I would be willing to talk to one of their friends, someone they had invited from outside their congregation. He told me that he had come from New York City because he was interested in the topic, having spent the years of his life burdened by the connection of his faith to his work. A Brit, he had come to a true faith as an undergraduate, and having studied the intersection of technology to business, had spent 25 years working at that. “But I have always felt that I was a bit second-class in the church; that if I had been more serious about my faith, I would have done something more ‘religious’ with my life.” As I listened, I loved him, longing for him. He then said, “I want you to know that a wound in my heart has been healed this weekend.” Thanks be to God, a thousand times.