A Theology of Vocation and Spiritual Formation

The following is the edited transcription of a talk given to participants of The Washington Institute‘s “Come and See” Vocation Conference July 16-17, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Jesus came into the deep mess—the mess of the human experience.  Of course, he came for us and for those that we seek to minister to.  Isn’t Christ-likeness exactly what we are trying to engender fundamentally?  An incarnational mentality that is willing to dive into the mess and be willing to take it on and–right there– be a redemptive presence to show what the character of God is?

Years ago, my friend Rich was packing up his car to leave UVA and go to law school.  A well-intentioned friend came up with him and pled with him through tears to abandon his law school plans in order to go into full time Christian ministry.  He said, “Rich, you are going to throw your life away.”

Rich listened, but was not persuaded.  He went off to law school and became a recognized lawyer seeking justice in international corruption cases, specifically related to international business and issues for governments.  This is what he does, he pursues justice against businesses that have participated in malpractice or governments that have knowingly supported businesses that have been involved in malpractice.

This is fundamentally Rich’s vocation: to do justice.  Two years ago, we had a month-long series on the gospel of justice and I consider it one of my biggest successes ever at the Falls Church to have Rich stand up in the pulpit and give one of those sermons.  It was the first and hopefully not last time a lawyer would take the pulpit, and nobody walked out.  In D.C., that’s saying something.

I once went to see Rich in his office and he was talking about the various ways he tried to be a Christian in that place.  Whether it was having a Bible on his desk or a little cross on the wall or some sort of Bible verse somewhere.  He wanted something that if someone walked into his office they would say, “This is a person of Christian faith.”  He talked about how he had done all that and he just didn’t find it compelling anymore.  What else was there to do as it related to being a Christian presence in his office?  I responded, “Rich, there are two ways of bringing light into your office. You can bring in a flashlight and have it in your pocket and pull it out and turn it on and shine it when you really want to show the light of Christ. That’s one way to bring the light of Christ into your office. And the other way is to be light.”

That is to say, let’s have Christ so alive in us that we radiate.  And then the light of Christ floods the office because of his presence living within us.  We lay down our strategies of witness because our presence becomes a form of witness.  Isn’t this the New Testament promise?

As I was walking down to the elevator, a guy from his office who I had met once ran to catch up with me.  He basically made my point.  He said, “You have no idea the difference that Rich makes in this place. It is like Christ himself is working here.”  That’s pretty high praise.  I don’t think anyone’s said that about me yet.  I have a ways to go.  He went on to talk about how Rich’s presence had been so helpful to him; about how much Rich had helped him professionally and also as a believer and how much he had seen Rich become, basically “a pastoral presence in our lawyer’s office” by virtue of who he was and by virtue of his character.  He’s an excellent lawyer.  He’s a partner, so he’s doing good law.

I once asked Rich, “How often do you enter your law office in the morning with this thought, ‘I am the priest here today’?”  His response floored me.  He said, “Oh I don’t know. Maybe two times out of the week.”  I was so encouraged that here was somebody who consciously would walk into the door of his building knowing that his job there was to take what God had given him, consecrate it, and offer it back up for the good of God and people—all in a law office.  I quoted him later that week in a sermon and he said, “Oh yea, two out of five. That doesn’t sound very good.”  And I said, “Rich, in baseball, that’s batting .400. That’s pretty darn good.”  My suspicion is that not very many people bat .400 or .200 or .01.  I was so encouraged to meet somebody who actually, consciously had in their mind that they were a priest in that setting.

Now that’s a good story; there are some bad stories.  As a pastor, I have had many conversations with people where I hope that they will remember something that I said, you know, at least one thing would be helpful!  I don’t know if people remember or not, but what I do know is that on some occasions, the conversations that I have stay with me for years.  I am the one who’s actually impacted.  My work as one who helps in the spiritual formation of another becomes critical to my own spiritual formation.  These conversations and faces continue to rattle around in my soul, and they help me form my own questions, and these questions lead me on journeys where I walk away with some greater understanding of something.  One of those stories is with Jerry.

I was in Philadelphia, speaking at a men’s retreat, not even on these topics.  I was talking to Jerry; he was mature in his faith.  Any one of you would love to have him in your congregation, in part because he was a really good businessman.  We love having business-like minds on our vestries or on our sessions.  He owned and ran a car dealership, and it sounded to me like a great business.  It sounded like a great work environment that was pastoral and love-filled and marked with integrity and compassion.  He said there was a lot of Christian witness and compassion both verbally and nonverbally.  He said that the business had allowed him to give away a lot of money.  Like I said, just the perfect person for your church council.

Then he shared with me that he had a lurking suspicion that he had missed his calling.  He wondered if he should go into full-time Christian ministry.  He went to seminary testing this out, and he finally said with an air of exasperation. “Bill, how do I know my vocation?”  I had come to like him very much and was heartbroken that so much of his life’s work felt like a waste and that all the reasons why he thought it was “OK” were “second-best.”  I said to him, “Well, Jerry, how are you listening?”

There are two things that I want to highlight from this story.  One, Jerry was looking for a theology that made sense of his job.  Secondly, he was looking for a spirituality that led to an interactive relationship with God, one that was based on conversation, listening, and not just intellectual understanding and obedience derived from the will.  Two massive topics: one about theology, one about spirituality.

Here’s the encouragement.  If I was back in Philadelphia now (four, five years later) and Jerry’s been paying attention to recent developments in the church, he and I might have a very different conversation.  I might find him thriving with few questions about whether or not his work matters to God.  That’s the encouragement.

This is because of the huge proliferation of resources and messages in very recent years coming out of the Evangelical church on the fact that our work matters to God and that our work is God’s work.  I want to pause on a question: “Why do some jobs not seem to matter as much as other jobs?”  I believe that every job, rightly understood, matters to God as long as it is not against God’s purposes and it is somehow moving in the direction of human flourishing.  It’s easy to say to a doctor, “Oh, your hands are the hands of Christ!” Or to Rich, the lawyer, “Oh great your job is justice!”  But what about the guys who I passed on my way here this morning who are setting up the cones getting ready to fix Route 66?  What about their job?  Do they matter?  And I would say, yes, they do.

However, what is required is a comprehensive theology that understands the scope of God’s vision for human flourishing.  Good homes matter and good places for people to live matter as it relates to their individual human flourishing. That’s why the state of Route 66 matters to God.  We have to understand the concept of human flourishing and we also have to answer this question, “Does the world go up in a blaze of flame or is the fire in the New Testament refining? Is there continuity between this world and the new heavens and new earth?”  We have to decide where we fall.  And if we decide that “it goes up in a ball of flame” then all of our “secular” jobs could seem pretty meaningless.  If, however, we believe in deep continuity and if we believe in heavenly rewards, which Jesus does, then we can start to see why every job matters to God.

Now, the pastoral question is, “How many steps do you want to have to take in between being able to demonstrate that this is the work of God in the world?  How many steps are you willing to take before being able to connect your theology with your job?”  Some people have a higher tolerance for this than others.  It’s not unfamiliar at all for someone to say, “You know what, there’s value in that and I’m very grateful for it, but I want to be able to have less cognitive distance in my own brain about what I’m doing in God’s kingdom.”  And if they can’t figure out about their own job, then they start thinking about another job.  That’s ok.  It’s one of the ways that God does it.  He speaks through our discontent.

There’s been this resurgence of understanding that our work matters to God and that our work is God’s work.  This recovery of an emphasis on vocation is not in isolation.  I’d say there are at least four other sea changes that we’ve been living through in these last twenty, maybe thirty years.  Some are more clear than others, some are on their way still.  The first is an emphasis on God’s heart for justice and concern for the poor.  The second is a dramatic leap forward in ecumenical relations and appreciation for the ancient church.  The third is a new, positive orientation towards Christian responsibility for creation care.  Finally, there is the emphasis, and even new language, on spiritual formation.

I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois.  It was a great place to grow up.  I was there in the 1980’s and none of these four things were on the scene.  In fact, some of them were viewed as distinct threats to the gospel.  I think what is going on here is that God in his mercy is helping the Evangelical Protestant church in the US, which is a relatively new and small slice of church, to mature in our own theological vision.  God is giving us the spiritual nutrition that we need in our tradition to help people get into their twenties and not ditch the Christian faith because we haven’t been able to give them something that matches the world that they’ve all of the sudden entered into.

Concerning this new emphasis on vocation, Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor, represents the tipping point.  Now this conversation about vocation and our work mattering to God enters into the Church’s conversation in such a way that it is much more universally accepted as legitimate, precisely because of Tim Keller’s voice in our own generation.  This is what he says, “Perhaps not since the days of the Protestant Reformation has there been so much attention paid to the relationship of Christian faith to work as there has been today.”  That’s really strong language.  That’s 500 years, and this is timely and needed.

You are probably familiar with the stunning statistic from 2011 that 84% of Christians between the age of 18 and 29 had no idea how the Bible applies to their occupational field or their professional interests.  There is still a sharp divide in our own tradition on what constitutes a higher calling.  We see it pastorally, we see it on the internet.

Christianity Today is a fantastic publication doing phenomenal work on this stuff (see: This Is Our City Project under Andy Crouch’s leadership).  So it’s always very ironic to see these wonderful articles about good Christians doing great work for the common good right next to the advertisement on the sidebar for a seminary saying, “Are you called?” And then it goes on to say here’s how to get your M.Div. at such and such seminary.  What does that say?  That if you aren’t interested in this particular seminary you aren’t called?  That just sends a wrong message.  There are all sorts of examples like that.

Another one was, “Change your life.  Change the world.”  And then there was the advertisement for the seminary.  I just feel this presents a profound mixed message for the reader.  What is the message coming from the seminary community?  That if God has touched your life, then we want you at our school.  And if you don’t belong at our school, we’re not so sure if God has touched your life.

It is really important to continue whacking at the trunk of a very large tree, which still implicitly says, “You’re better if you are called to get a paycheck in a way that is identifiably a result of Christian ministry.”  How did we get here from Luther?  Luther is ours.  As he said, “Priests, bishops are supposed to employ God’s word in the sacraments. That is their work and office. And the shoemaker and smith and farmer and the like has its own opposing trade. Nonetheless, all are equally consecrated priests and bishops.”  How did we get here?  Well, that’s a longer conversation but it’s one we are trying to address.  So we can talk about that some other time.  Here is another quote with two massive topics embedded in it.

This one is from Archbishop François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận who was a bishop in Vietnam in the 1970’s and 80’s.  He was chosen as Archbishop in 1979 and three months later was whisked away by the Vietnamese police and was put into solitary confinement for nine years.  Talk about verification of vocation.  What he felt while he was in that little jail cell was a burning desire to care for his flock.  That’s what a bishop does.  So he wrote little words of spiritual encouragement on scraps of paper from a calendar and they got smuggled out and they were hand-copied and sent throughout the Christian community in Saigon.  This is one of those little notes:

“Saints do not do anything extraordinary. They simply carry out their ordinary activities. The worker will become a saint in the workplace, the soldier will become a saint in the army, and the patient will become a saint in the hospital. The student will become a saint through studies, the priest will become a saint through his ministry as a priest, and a public servant will become a saint in the governmental office. Every step on the road to holiness is a step of sacrifice in the performance of one’s mission in life.”

First, inherent in this statement, is the assertion that the soldier’s work matters as much as the priest’s and as much as the student’s.  There’s a theology in that isn’t there?  Secondly, our work is not a diversion from our sanctification.  It is a means to it.  So we need a theology and a spirituality of vocation.

One of the things that Steve Garber is fond of saying has become an assertion of our ministry.  It is that “vocation is integral, not incidental to the missio dei.”  We believe that our work in the world, rightly understood and practiced, is as important to God’s work in the world as pastoring, as missionary work, as evangelism, all these so-called full-time Christian ministries.

The question is, why do we believe this?  Why do we assert this so boldly?  Because it preaches.  This stuff really inspires people.  But that’s not enough of a reason for a message, is it?  Just because it might be in vogue or popular does not necessarily mean it’s going to be life-giving or helpful.  So a really critical and important question is, does the Bible teach this?  We don’t want to just be clever.  We don’t want to just be timely or relevant.  We want to be Biblical.  That’s our heart.  Two years ago, The Washington Institute did a four-month lecture series of four parts on whether or not the Bible teaches this.  We talked about vocation through the lens of the four-chapter gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.  How does this speak to work?  How does this speak to jobs?  How does this speak to vocation?  Those terms are each different and deserve close attention.

At the beginning, we looked at vocation and work through the lens of Creation.  Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.”  Simply mentioning that this verse happens before Genesis 3, you watch light bulbs come on in people in the pews.  “You mean that work is pre-Fall?  You mean our labor is part of the way things were designed?  I’ve never thought about it that way.”

I live in a more rural environment, and it is really true that people will work for their family life in the evening and friends on the weekend, and that’s it.  That’s not exclusive to a rural environment; it’s just a little more pronounced perhaps.  People aren’t as consumed by work there as they are here in this strange place.

You realize that the Fall in Genesis 3 is not about the introduction of work, it’s about how work gets harder.  Again, we come back to that conversation about how work is work.  After we were all finished and even when we were on the way you could really see this transition happening in people as their thinking shifted from, “I have to go to work,” to “I get to go to work.”

Here is another quote, by Terence Fretheim about creation untamed.

“Genesis does not present the creation as a human product, wrapped up in a big red bow and handed over to the creations to keep it exactly as it was originally created. It is not a one-time production. Indeed for the creation to stay just as God originally created it would constitute a failure of the divine design. From God’s perspective, the world needs work. Development and change are what God intends for and God enlists human beings and other creations to that end. From another angle, God did not exhaust the divine creativity in the first week of the world. God continued to create and uses creatures and their vocation that involves the becoming of creation.”

Tim Keller gets into this.  Amy Sherman gets into this.  Ben Witherington gets into this.  Tom Nelson gets into this.  There is a profound theology in this.  There is something we can rest on, explore, and offer to our folks, and we can root it in the Scripture. That’s really good news.

The other thing I would say is about theology, and I think this is probably true in almost everything. Clarity on anthropology and eschatology fills in almost every gap.  That is, we need to have fundamental clarity on why we were made and what our being “made in the image of God” means; we need clarity on questions like, “Where is it all going?” “What’s my role in this progression, and where will I land?”  Until we have clarity on these things, people will always trip and stumble on a million different issues, not least of which are sexuality and vocation.  I would encourage us all just to continue to pound a drum on anthropology and eschatology.  We need to have landed on what we think happens after Jesus comes back.  That really has bearing on our work now.

Praying for parishioners week by week in their vocation has probably had the singular biggest impact on our church as it relates to people understanding that their work matters to God.  People have walked into our church, heard that happen, and stayed and joined the church for that one little reason.  We do have testimonies from time to time.  Every Labor Day, we’ll have someone get up who’s not wearing a collar and talk about how they do wear a collar, as it were, in their normal week.  Some of our clergy are especially good at visiting people in their workplace.

So there’s a theology of vocation.

There’s also a spirituality of vocation.  This comes back again to the story of Jerry.  How do I know my vocation?  How are you listening?  Vocation comes from the root “calling” which assumes that there is a caller and it also assumes that we can hear.  If we are not listening we are going to have a hard time hearing.  So often, the response to the question of “what is my calling” is “what are your gifts?”  That’s very different than “how are you listening for the caller?  Tell me about your prayer life?  Tell me about your experiences of solitude?  How does God’s voice sound to you?  When have you heard him?  How often are you in solitude like Jesus in order to create space simply to listen and to hear the One who calls?”

It’s not that uncommon that God calls us to do things sometimes that don’t necessarily employ all of our gifts, or he may call us to lay down some of our gifts for a season.  He may also call us to use our gifts in ways that make no professional sense.  This is because of vocation.  Listening is a primary skill to knowing our vocation, but it is not easy.  Our devices don’t make it any easier. Henri Nouwen says:

“We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us, unable to understand in which direction he calls us. Thus, our lives have become absurd. In the word “absurd” we hear the Latin word, surdus, which means deaf. A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear. When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word ‘obedient’ comes from the Latin word audire, which means ‘listening.’ A spiritual discipline is necessary to move from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free interspace where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance. Jesus’ life is a life of obedience. He was always listening to the Father, always attentive to his voice, always alert for his directions. Jesus was all ear. That is true prayer: being all ear for God. The core of all prayer is indeed listening, obedient standing in the presence of God.”

This is a lovely invitation.  We are trying to help people listen.  Now, there is a place for gifts and inventories and things.  I’m not denigrating that at all.  It’s important and I’m the beneficiary of a lot of that in my own life.

One of the things that I am very grateful to offer is spiritual direction.  It’s a real shift to move from mentoring, discipleship, and pastoring to spiritual direction.  They are very different and distinct and one is not the other.  One of the main parts is specifically not talking.  All we’re doing is listening and helping the other person to listen and trying not to get in the way.  For somebody who’s paid to talk, it’s a discipline to stop talking and to provide that ministry as well.  We are elevating the value of silence and solitude and enabling people to do both.  There are two great resources on this topic: one is my sister’s book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, and the other one is Hearing God, by Dallas Willard.  These are books I often recommend to people who are really beginning to go deep in their posture of listening.

I recently received a wonderful email from a guy who came down not long ago from New York City to Corhaven for a personal retreat.  He is in business in Manhattan.  He works for a toy company that employs several hundred people in Honduras making safe wooden toys, high-end stuff, out of sustainably harvested wood in a way that generates self-sustaining business practices. He saw that there were personal retreats and wanted to come down for a five day one and he saw that TWI was having a retreat right after that. He emailed me and said, “For whatever it’s worth, I’m one of the Gotham fellows from Redeemer Presbyterian Church and their Center for Faith and Work.”  So I responded, “Great, yes come! Have a personal retreat, and then join the corporate retreat and then go back for your Gotham retreat.”  He just emailed me and this is the effect of him doing a personal retreat, most of which was in silence and solitude, and then coming to one of our group retreats. Here’s what he says,

“I have been particularly blessed by God’s nearness following my personal retreat and the final Gotham retreat. The Gotham retreat was a very rich experience in the Lord’s presence and community, and both it and my time in Corhaven will always be a sweet remembrance of the Lord’s love and faithfulness.”

This happens all the time.  People come out with vocation questions and they encounter the love of God. He went on to say:

“With regards to work, God has used these past few months to refocus my time on Tegu and I can say that I’ve never felt more confident or comfortable in my time here. I still have questions around long-term career direction, but God has given me a conviction about where he has me and the role I’m playing in my business and I’m very grateful for that.”

So what is the goal of these retreats and this posture of listening?  To what end?  Self-actualization?  Is that the goal?  Is it so that people walk around a little bit lighter?  Those things can happen, but it’s not the point.  It’s about something far deeper. It is about spiritual formation.

Robert Mulholland has the best and most quoted definition of what spiritual formation is:  “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  We want to see people become those in whom Christ freely lives and through whom he freely works, wherever they are and whatever their job happens to be.  We’re hoping that people can say with utter integrity and experience, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  Or, “It is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me.”  You get somebody who becomes better and better at their job and they become a powerful presence for Christ.

Remember we started with the story of Rich?  That is what we are talking about.  He is a really good lawyer who is a potent presence of Christ.  In other words, what does the aroma of Christ smell like on a person?  Christ living through us will always be more powerful than anything we do for him on our own strength.  In that sense, life becomes a school of spiritual formation.  Everything is an opportunity to be formed in the image of Christ.

The trick, then, is to be able to see our workplace as that school too.  As opposed to our work being a distraction from God’s purposes in my life, what if I saw my work as a tool.  We are talking about “aha!” moments.  What I’ve been continuing to find is that vocation becomes either the back door or the front porch to deeper things.  It allows God to really start messing with people in different parts of their life in such a way that it comes back around and gives them more clarity and confidence and competence in what he has called them to do.

People come to me and us often saying, “I need to hear God about my vocation.”  Often God says, “Now that I’ve gotten your attention, let me talk to you about what’s really holding you back.”  When well understood, this topic leads us to better theology and to a deeper spirituality.  In short, it leads us to God.  I’ve always read this insight from Oscar Romero thinking it applied to my work, but it actually also applies to this work as it relates to the church growing up into the full measure of the stature of Christ and the church maturing in its own theology in this conversation about vocation. Oscar Romero says,

“The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that can be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings us to perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives concludes everything. And this is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds that are already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that, because this enables us to do something and to do it very well. We are workers, not master builders. We are ministers, not Messiahs.”

So can we walk out of this thinking, “You know what, I can’t do it all, but here’s something that I can take some big steps in.”  I’m not going to see it all realized even in my own church and seminary, but you know what, that’s actually not my business.  My business is to be very faithful with what I’m being called to do in this arena and what God is laying on my heart.

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