Vocation as the Christian Life

Fitting in with my vast conspiracy to take over the secular holiday of “Labor Day” and turn it into a Christian holiday celebrating Vocation, I was asked to write about the subject for a special Labor Day issue of  World Magazine .   I believe full access is for subscribers only, so I will take a point of special privilege and reprint it here, in full.   This essay reflects the fruit of my study of the topic since I published God at Work, so it includes some additional aspects than the ones I explore in that book.  I offer it to you as a Labor Day present (presents being a good way to make a holiday popular):

Arenas of Service

Work & Calling | A return to Luther’s doctrine of vocation would mean a return to God’s priorities for our lives—and a return to being more effective salt and light in the world | Gene Edward Veith

Some early church fathers co-opted pagan holidays and turned them into Christian celebrations. Labor Day is ripe for a Christian takeover. A day that had its origins in the early struggles of the labor union movement is now little more than the last long weekend of summer vacation, a final time to fire up the grill before the fall grind starts up again. But celebrating the human capacity to work is an occasion to recover one of Christianity’s most important, yet nearly forgotten teachings; namely, the doctrine of vocation.

Vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. It provides the blueprint for how Christians are to live in the world and to influence their cultures. It is the key to strong marriages and effective parenting. According to the classic Protestant theologians, our multiple vocations—in the family, the culture, and the workplace—are where sanctification and discipleship happen.

Today many Christians have become disillusioned with political involvement and are floundering for ways to engage the culture. Christians struggle as much as non-Christians with broken marriages and troubled families. The stumbling economy and the pursuit of prosperity seem like materialistic treadmills.

Rediscovering the doctrine of vocation could energize contemporary Christianity and show Christians how once again they can be the world’s salt and light.

The Reformation brought to the fore three key teachings that would characterize the Protestant movement in all of its variations: the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the doctrine of vocation.

Modernists would reject the authority of Scripture and postmodernists are currently questioning justification, but vocation—despite contributing to the vast social changes brought on with the Reformation—was perhaps taken for granted and so faded from the church’s memory.

The word is simply the Latinate term for “calling.” Perhaps the best summation of the concept is in 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”

God “assigns” different kinds and places of service for each Christian and then “calls” each Christian to that assignment. The Reformation theologians fleshed out this concept with other biblical teachings about God’s workings in society and the Christian’s life in the world (e.g., Ephesians 5-6, Romans 12-13, 1 Corinthians 7).

The great theologian of vocation was Martin Luther, who developed the teaching in his battles with monasticism—the view that the spiritual life requires withdrawal from secular life—and in defining “the priesthood of all believers.”

For Luther, vocation, like justification, is ultimately God’s work. God gives us our daily bread through the vocations of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. God creates new human beings through the vocations of fathers and mothers. God protects us through lawful magistrates.

Vocation is, first of all, about how God works through human beings. In His providential care and governing of His creation, God chooses to distribute His gifts by means of ordinary people exercising their talents, which themselves are gifts of God.

Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.

God thus looms behind everyone who provides us with the goods or services that we need. In one of Luther’s many memorable lines, God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid. This means that all work and all workers deserve honor. Whereas the world might look down on milkmaids and garbage collectors, they actually bear the sacred presence of God, who works in and through them.

God created us to be dependent on others—meat processors, manufacturers, journalists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, parents—and, through them, we are ultimately dependent upon God Himself.

Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, He is working through us to bless others. In our vocations, we work side-by-side with God, as it were, taking part in His ceaseless creative activity and laboring with Him as He providentially cares for His creation.

Today the word vocation has become no more than a synonym for “job.” The theological term includes the work that we do, but it includes much more than that. God calls us to many different tasks and relationships. The unemployed still have vocations from God. Every Christian has multiple vocations.

Luther sorted them out into four “estates,” or spheres of life that God has established: the church, the household, the state, and what he called “the common order of Christian love.”

Every Christian has been “called” through the gospel into the life of faith (Romans 8:30), becoming a member of Christ’s body, the church. While God providentially works through nonbelievers as well as believers in their labors, “vocation,” strictly speaking, applies to Christians, those who hear themselves addressed in God’s Word. In response to that Word, Christians recognize their other callings as works of faith. But God also calls people to tasks in His church. Pastors speak rightly of being “called” into the ministry, whereupon God works through them to teach His Word, preside at His sacraments, and give spiritual care to His people. Laypeople too are called to do tasks in the local congregation, singing in the choir, serving on committees, serving meals, and in other ways blessing their fellow members.

Being in a family is also a calling. God established marriage, and being a husband or a wife is a vocation. Being a father or a mother is also a vocation. So is being a son or a daughter. So are being a brother or sister, a nephew or uncle, a grandmother or grandfather. (Notice how one person holds multiple vocations within a family: A woman may be the wife of her husband, the mother of her children, the daughter of her mother, the sister of her brother, and more, with each vocation having its particular dimensions of service.)

For Luther the estate of the “household” includes both the family and the activities by which it supports itself. He had in mind the concept expressed in the Greek word oikonomia, the laws of the household, from which we derive our word economy. For Luther, in his day of family-based labor, economic life is connected with family life.

We also have vocations in the state. We were each born into a particular time, place, and society. The cultural context in which we find ourselves is thus part of the life that God has assigned us.

We thus have responsibilities to our government and to our culture as a whole. Some Christians are called to positions of authority in the government. Americans have the unusual calling of being both subjects and rulers at the same time, since our democratic republic places the governing authorities themselves under the authority of the people who elect them. Christians thus have the vocation of citizenship, which means that politics, civic involvement, and cultural engagement are all realms of Christian service.

Our formal positions in the family, the workplace, the church, and the culture are not the only spheres of service to which God assigns us and to which He calls us. Journalists like to refer to themselves as “the fourth estate,” but Luther’s fourth estate is the “common order of Christian love.” This is the realm where people of different vocations interact informally. In Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were on the way to serve in their vocations, but they ignored the man bleeding by the side of the road. In the ordinary course of everyday life and in our relationships with our friends and neighbors, God also calls us to service.

In stressing the spiritual significance of these so-called “secular” estates, Luther was challenging the Roman Catholic practice of reserving the terms vocation and calling for religious orders, to an individual’s calling from God to become a priest, a monk, or a nun. To enter into these “spiritual” offices required taking a vow of celibacy (thereby rejecting marriage and parenthood), poverty (thereby rejecting full participation in the economic life of the workplace), and obedience (which involved substituting the authority of the church for that of the state).

The Reformers insisted that the Christian life requires not withdrawal from the world but rather engagement in the world. The Christian faith is to be lived out not primarily in “church work” but in vocation.

What this meant in practice is that the “spiritual disciplines” moved out of the monastery into secular life. Celibacy became faithfulness in marriage. Poverty became thrift and hard work. Obedience became submission to the law. Most importantly, prayer, meditation, and worship—while still central to every Christian’s vocation in the church—also moved into the family and the workplace.

Today even Protestant Christians have often slipped into the assumption that serving God is a matter of “church work” or spiritual exercises. Churches set up programs that can take up every night of the week. Some Christians are so busy doing church activities, making evangelism calls, or going to Bible studies that they neglect their spouses and children. Some Christians are preoccupied with “the Lord’s work” while letting their marriages fall apart, ignoring the needs of their children, and otherwise sinning against the actual responsibilities to which God has called them.

But according to the doctrine of vocation, the church is the place where Christians meet every week to find the forgiveness of Christ, feed on God’s Word, and grow in their faith. Whereupon they are sent out into their vocations—to their spouses, children, jobs, and culture—for that faith to bear fruit.

Faith bears fruit in love (Galatians 5:6;

1 Timothy 1:5). The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.

God doesn’t need our good works, Luther said, but our neighbor does. Our relationship with Him is based completely on His work for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But just as God is hidden in vocation, Christ is hidden in our neighbors. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers”—feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and imprisoned—”you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). We love and serve God in our vocations by loving and serving the actual human beings He places into our lives.

Every vocation has its particular neighbors. Members of a congregation are called to love and serve each other. In marriage, husbands are to love and serve their wives, and wives are to love and serve their husbands. Parents love and serve their children, who, in turn, love and serve their parents. Rulers love and serve their subjects. Workers love and serve their customers.

Certain vocations exercise authority. But authority itself is not just a matter of exercising power over others. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” said Jesus. “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. . . . For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Of course, we often sin in and against vocation. Instead of serving, we want to be served. Instead of loving our neighbor, we often use our neighbor for our own selfish purposes.

Vocation clarifies moral issues. Mothers are called to love and serve their children, not abort them or abuse them. Doctors are called to heal their patients, not kill them. Leaders are called to love and serve those under their authority, not exploit and tyrannize them.

Some actions are sinful when done outside of vocation but good works when done within vocation. We have no calling from God that would authorize having sex with someone to whom we are not married. But within the vocation of marriage, sex is not only authorized, it becomes the means by which God creates a one-flesh union, engenders new life, and builds a family.

Vocation has to do with the priesthood of all believers. A priest is someone who performs a sacrifice. We no longer need sacrifices for our sins, since Christ, our great High Priest, offered Himself as our sacrifice once and for all (Hebrews 9:26). But, in light of that sacrifice, God calls us “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

Loving and serving involves an act of self-denial for the sake of someone else. That is, it involves a sacrifice. Again, Mark 10 says that rulers are to serve as Christ did, giving His life as a ransom. Today’s “Gentiles” not only seek to “lord it over” others, they are obsessed with self-fulfillment and self-assertion. Vocation focuses on self-sacrifice.

The Bible instructs wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. At the same time, though, the Bible instructs husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The husband is not to receive the wife’s submission in domination or in “lording it over” her, since that was not how Christ loved the church. Rather, he is to emulate Christ precisely in “giving himself up” for his wife. Thus, both the wife and the husband are called to sacrifice themselves for each other. Both are presenting themselves as living sacrifices.

The father, coming home from work dead tired, has presented his body as a living sacrifice for his family. So has the mother who drives her kids to soccer practice when she has many other things she would rather do. So has the worker who has put in long hours to do the best job possible for the company’s customers.

Christ, who is in vocation and in the neighbor, takes up all of these sacrifices, small or great, into His sacrifice. And He loves and serves His creation by means of our love and service in our vocations.

In all our religious and ethical life,” says Einar Billing in his classic work on vocation, Our Calling, “we are given to an incredible overestimation of the extraordinary at the expense of the ordinary.” We look for miracles, spectacular events , and mountain top experiences. Meanwhile, the spiritual significance of everyday life gets overlooked. Vocation, though, transfigures our ordinary, mundane existence, charging it with spiritual significance and with the very presence of God.

Luther said that changing a baby’s diaper is a holy work. A child doing his chores is outperforming the Carthusian monks in works of holiness. By extension, we can see the office desk, the factory machinery, the computer screen—likewise the voting booth, the marriage bed, the dining room table—as altars upon which we exercise our royal priesthood.

Vocation is where sanctification happens, as Christians grow spiritually in good works and in their relationships. Vocation is where evangelism happens, as Christians teach their children and interact with nonbelievers. Vocation is where cultural influence happens, as Christians take their places and live out their faith in every niche of society.

Vocation changes the quality of what we do. An artist with a sense of vocation will create not just to express himself or to advance his career but to love and serve—not corrupt or ridicule—his audience. A businessman who sees his customers as the objects of his Christian love will serve them with his very best work.

From the outside, the economy has to do with the division of labor, individuals pursuing their own self-interests, laws of supply and demand, and other impersonal forces. And so it is, as part of God’s created order. From the inside, however, the economy can become transfigured into a vast network of mutual dependence and mutual service, and economic activity can become an expression of love.

Christians can celebrate on Labor Day the joining of our work with God’s work.

Copyright © 2010 WORLD Magazine
August 28, 2010, Vol. 25, No. 17

Vocation Day weekend

This is normally a weekday blog, but to celebrate Vocation Day weekend–which some call Labor Day weekend–we are going to do something a little different.  On Saturday, I am going to put up a long post reflecting my latest study of this important but oft-neglected teaching.  Please read it and contemplate it on Sunday.  Then on Monday I’ll post a series of questions and discussion topics drawing on that article.  Of course, if you are actually fulfilling your vocations by spending time with your family this weekend, that’s even better.  Even then, you might look in from time to time.

And now the eco-jihadists

James Lee broke into the headquarters of the Discovery Channel just outside of Washington, D.C. yesterday, wearing bombs strapped to his body.  He took three hostages.  He was killed by police.  He was demanding that the nature channel change its programming.  Here are excerpts from his Manifesto:

2. All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions. In those programs’ places, programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed. All former pro-birth programs must now push in the direction of stopping human birth, not encouraging it. . . .

4. Civilization must be exposed for the filth it is. That, and all its disgusting religious-cultural roots and greed. Broadcast this message until the pollution in the planet is reversed and the human population goes down! . . .

5. Immigration: Programs must be developed to find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that. Find solutions to stopping it. Call for people in the world to develop solutions to stop it completely and permanently. Find solutions FOR these countries so they stop sending their breeding populations to the US and the world to seek jobs and therefore breed more unwanted pollution babies. FIND SOLUTIONS FOR THEM TO STOP THEIR HUMAN GROWTH AND THE EXPORTATION OF THAT DISGUSTING FILTH! (The first world is feeding the population growth of the Third World and those human families are going to where the food is! They must stop procreating new humans looking for nonexistant jobs!)

6. Find solutions for Global Warming, Automotive pollution, International Trade, factory pollution, and the whole blasted human economy. Find ways so that people don’t build more housing pollution which destroys the environment to make way for more human filth! Find solutions so that people stop breeding

as well as stopping using Oil in order to REVERSE Global warming and the destruction of the planet!

7. Develop shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race. Talk about Evolution. Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people’s brains until they get it!!

8. Saving the Planet means saving what’s left of the non-human Wildlife by decreasing the Human population. That means stopping the human race from breeding any more disgusting human babies! You’re the media, you can reach enough people. It’s your resposibility because you reach so many minds!!!

 

We don’t just have to worry about Islamic terrorism.  There are other kinds of fanatics who are totally possessed with an idea and whose self-righteousness is so exalted that they are willing to kill what they consider “human filth.”   This is just another kind of jihad–call it eco-jihad–a holy war that finds salvation in slaughtering non-believers.

In this case, notice the alliance between radical environmentalism and hostility to even legal immigration.  Notice the revulsion against children, which is surely at the essence of the pro-abortion, anti-life mentality.  Also the revulsion against civilization, human beings, and, doubtless, himself.

In the current spiritual and cultural climate, expect more of this.

MORE THOUGHTS:  I know that this man and his ideas will be dismissed as deranged.  Of course he was insane, lacking a normal sensibility.  But his insanity consisted largely in taking certain current ideas and being consistent in acting on them. 

It is possible to believe as an intellectual conviction that the earth is heading for a global warming catastrophe and that the world is overpopulated, while still having three children, driving them around in your SUV, and living a normal life.  Insanity would be acting consistently on those beliefs, to the point of trying to wipe out the human population.   It is also possible to be a devout Muslim without being so consistent as to become a suicide bomber.  Or to be a nihilist without killing yourself. 

Christians too are not immune from fanatic madness.  It is possible to believe that America is under God’s judgment without the mad and evil reaction of picketing the funerals of slain servicemen.  Or to believe that the majority of people are reprobate sinners without hating and mistreating your neighbors. 

At the same time, those who formulate the foolish ideologies and the twisted theologies do bear responsibility for setting off their followers who take them too seriously.

I do think Christians who believe in the doctrine of vocation tend to be immune from this syndrome, since vocation grounds one solidly in normal life.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, be sure to tune in this weekend for this blog’s celebration of Labor Day with a VOCATION EXTRAVAGANZA.

International adoption

Michael Gerson writes a moving column about international adoption:

Scott Simon — the sonorous voice of NPR’s “Weekend Edition” — has written a short, tender book about the two most important people in the world. At least to him. “Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other” recounts the arrival of his two daughters, Elise and Lina, from China, while telling the stories of other families changed by adoption.

Simon describes himself as skeptical of transcendence but as taking part in a miracle. “My wife and I,” he says, “knew that Elise and Lina were our babies from the moment we received their postage-stamp portraits. Logically, I know that’s not possible. But I also know that’s how my heart, mind and body . . . reacted to their pictures. . . . I would take the photo out of my wallet in the weeks before we left to get each of our girls and hold it against my lips to whisper, ‘We’re coming, baby.’ ”

It is an unexpected form of human affection — meeting an unrelated stranger and, within moments, being willing to care for her, even to die for her. The relationship results from a broken bond but creates ties as strong as genetics, stronger than race or tribe. It is a particularly generous kind of parental love that embraces a life one did not give.

International adoption has its critics, who allege a kind of imperialism that robs children of their identity. Simon responds, “We have adopted real, modern little girls, not mere vessels of a culture.” Ethnicity is an abstraction — often an admirable abstraction, but not comparable to the needs of a child living in an orphanage or begging in roving bands. Adopted Chinese girls are refugees from a terrible oppression — a one-child policy that Simon calls “one of the great crimes of history.” Every culture or race is outweighed when the life of a child is placed on the other side of the balance.

It is one of the noblest things about America that we care for children of other lands who have been cast aside. Simon recalls his encounter with an immigration officer in Chicago when bringing Elise to America: ” ‘When you cross that line,’ he said, ‘your little girl is a citizen of the United States.’ Then he put one of his huge hands gently under our daughter’s chin and smiled. ‘Welcome home, sweetheart,’ he told her.” This welcome to the world is one of the great achievements of history. After millennia of racial and ethnic conflict across the world, resulting in rivers of blood, America declared that bloodlines don’t matter, that dignity is found beneath every human disguise. There is no greater embrace of this principle than an American family that looks like the world.

Instead of undermining any culture, international adoption instructs our own. Unlike the thin, quarrelsome multiculturalism of the campus, multiethnic families demonstrate the power of affection over difference. They tend to produce people who may look different from the norm of their community but see themselves as just normal, just human.

Every adoption involves a strange providence, in which events and choices are random yet decisive. “Those of us who have been adopted,” says Simon, “or have adopted or want to adopt children, must believe in a world in which the tumblers of the universe can click in unfathomable ways that deliver strangers into our lives.”

via Michael Gerson – International adoption: From a broken bond to an instant bond.

Read the rest of it, including Gerson’s own personal story of the fruit of international adoption.

Go here to buy Simon’s book: Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption

St. John the Hensley

My newest grandson, John Peter Hensley, was baptized yesterday.  It happened to be on the commemoration of the martyrdom of John the Baptist.  Pastor Douthwaite preached a remarkably good sermon, tying both of those events together, linking John the Baptizer with John the Baptized.  Finally, he announced that just as we have St. John the Baptist, we now have, by virtue of his baptism, St. John the Hensley.

And as if that were not enough, throughout the sermon, he also tied everything into vocation.  A sampling (Adam and Joanna being his parents; Johnno being the Australian nickname for John):

Not all heard John’s preaching as good news. And Adam and Joanna, I can fairly surely say that you will not hear all of little Johnno’s preaching to you as good news – especially when he calls out to you at 3 am, calling you to your vocation as father or mother to come and feed him, or to change his diaper. But he will call out, whether you like it or not, because that’s his vocation right now, calling you to your vocation, and so being God’s gift to you. That you may serve as you have been served. That you may love as you have been loved.

You won’t believe how good this sermon is.  You have got to read the whole thing, which has more insights than I can summarize.  The sermon is posted here:  St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist Sermon.

St. John the Hensley

Teachers good and bad

The California teachers’ union is calling for a boycott of the L.A. Times for publishing an expose of teacher performance.  Here are some of its findings:

• Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. There is a substantial gap at year’s end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%. The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math.

• Some students landed in the classrooms of the poorest-performing instructors year after year — a potentially devastating setback that the district could have avoided. Over the period analyzed, more than 8,000 students got such a math or English teacher at least twice in a row.

• Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas. Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district. The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.

• Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.

• Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers’ effectiveness were not. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.

Other studies of the district have found that students’ race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level played little role in whether their teacher was effective.

via L.A. teacher ratings: L.A. Times analysis rates teachers’ effectiveness – latimes.com.

It seems that some people have a vocation for teaching.  Let’s focus on the positive.  What are traits of good teachers?  Tell about good teachers who were able to get through to you.


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