Make a good shoe

A while ago I blogged about Tullian Tchividjian–Billy Graham’s grandson and the successor to William Kennedy as the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church”–and his reaction to Lutheran novelist Bo Giertz.  (He offered a clarification to that post:   “I didn’t say that Giertz caused a Copernican revolution in my preaching but that the conversation between Henrik and Linder described the Copernican revolution that took place in my preaching a number of years ago.”)

He since has written an interesting post about vocation:

Martin Luther was once approached by a man who enthusiastically announced that he’d recently become a Christian. Wanting desperately to serve the Lord, he asked Luther, “What should I do now?” As if to say, should he become a minister or perhaps a traveling evangelist. A monk, perhaps.

Luther asked him, “What is your work now?”

“I’m a shoe maker.”

Much to the cobbler’s surprise, Luther replied, “Then make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.”

In becoming a Christian, we don’t need to retreat from the vocational calling we already have—nor do we need to justify that calling, whatever it is, in terms of its “spiritual” value or evangelistic usefulness. We simply exercise whatever our calling is with new God-glorifying motives, goals, and standards—and with a renewed commitment to performing our calling with greater excellence and higher objectives.

One way we reflect our Creator is by being creative right where we are with the talents and gifts he has given us. As Paul says, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:20,24). As we do this, we fulfill our God-given mandate to reform, to beautify, our various “stations” for God’s glory–giving this world an imperfect preview of the beautification that will be a perfect, universal actuality when Jesus returns to finish what he started.

For church leaders, this means that we make a huge mistake when we define a person’s “call” in terms of participation inside the church—nursery work, Sunday school teacher, youth worker, music leader, and so on. We need to help our people see that their calling is much bigger than how much time they put into church matters. By reducing the notion of calling to the exercise of spiritual gifts inside the church, we fail to help our people see that calling involves everything we are and everything we do—both inside and, more importantly, outside the church.

I once heard Os Guinness address a question about why the church in the late 20th century was not having a larger impact in our world when there were more people going to church than ever before. He said the main reason was not that Christians weren’t where they should be. There are plenty of artists, lawyers, doctors, and business owners that are Christians. Rather, the main reason is that Christians aren’t who they should be right where they are.

“Calling”, he said, “is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything w eare, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction.”

via You’re Free To Stay Put – Tullian Tchividjian.

I urge you to go to the site and also consider the discussion in the comments.  Some people pushed back against the doctrine of vocation, insisting that spreading the Gospel is the only way we truly serve God, with others citing the influence of Lutheran theology on their evangelicalism (contrary to an earlier discussion about how that doesn’t happen much!).

By the way, do you see anything missing in this particular account of vocation?

A conversation with one of my critics #3

In which we conclude the “battle of the books” between my  God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point) and  Ben Witherington’s  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor and also get into some other issues:

WITHERINGTON: Why do both Jesus and Paul talk about rewards in heaven or in the Kingdom, and the lack thereof for those who are less profitable servants, shall we say? Do you think virtue is its own reward, and how does virtue relate to your notion of vocation or calling?

VEITH: Of course we are rewarded. God awards abundantly. And I have no problem with the notion that the great saints, the true heroes of the faith, will receive a greater reward than someone like me, though we are also told that the first will be last and the last first and that there will be lots of surprises in Heaven. (Some will put forward their “mighty works” only to have the Lord say, “I never knew you” [Matthew 7:22-23].)

Virtue is to do God’s will. We are to do God’s will in every part of our lives – in our families, in the workplace, in the church, and in our culture; that is, in our vocations.

The underlying question is, how do we become virtuous; that is, how do we do God’s will? We must know God in order to know His will–which means we must know and trust His Word–and to actually do His will, we need to be saved from our sinful condition through the life-changing work of Jesus Christ. Now  we are in the realm of faith.  To say that good works are the fruit of faith, which Matthew 7 also teaches in the passage immediately before the one cited above, is a very literal truth.  Knowing what Christ has done for us and personally trusting and depending on Him makes us want to do His will.

I totally agree with you when in your book you indicate that coercing someone to do something has no moral value.  And when we do something good just to be rewarded, that also compromises the work’s moral value.  The politician who shows up at a soup kitchen for 15 minutes while the cameras roll is not necessarily showing virtue, if he feeds the hungry only to boost his image and his polling numbers.  The woman who really feels compassion for the homeless and the hungry and so gives up Thanksgiving dinner with her family to serve at the soup kitchen, she is showing virtue and she will have her reward.  She is following God’s will and thus is co-operating with God in His love and care for His children.  He uses her as His hands and feet, as you say, and He honors that.  (Now He may also have used the politician to give food to the hungry during that 15 minutes, and perhaps beyond in drawing attention and building further support for the soup kitchen.  The politician himself didn’t do anything particularly virtuous, but God did something good with him anyway, though not by any kind of coercion into virtue.)

God wants us to serve Him and our neighbors because we want to (there is your free agency!) and out of love.  And love and good works grow out of faith.  “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).  The key is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).  And this happens in vocation.

Continue reading.

A conversation with one of my critics #2

More of my debate with Ken Witherington, author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, which takes issue with what I say about vocation in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point):

 WITHERINGTON: Let’s take one of these issues where we really do have a difference. While I am not going to suggest that human beings, Christians in particular, never are co-operating with God in some sense, I am going to insist on is that there are plenty of times where we have been graced and empowered to do things for God. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. Doubtless he could have done it without us, or by using others, but Gene, he’s decided to do it by empowering you and me, for example.

Now what this in turn means is that while I am happy to talk about God empowering or leading or guiding such activities, at the end of the day, they would not happen as my action, unless I decided to do it and acted on the decision. The matter was not fore-ordained, and so I am not merely going along with what God is doing, without God coercing me (and so ‘freely’ in the Edwardsian sense of not compelled to do it), I am actually acting as a free agent of God, and indeed God will hold me responsible for my behavior, accordingly. He will not be holding himself responsible. I bring this all up because it affects the way we look at the notion of vocation and the notion of calling, as we can discuss further in due course.

VEITH: Ben, I think I agree with your first paragraph.

I’m not sure I fully understand your second paragraph. (Do you mean “with God coercing me”?) Is it that you are bringing “free will” into the doctrine of vocation, as with the Arminian doctrine of salvation? As a Lutheran, I can actually agree with much of the former without agreeing with the latter. (Luther wrote “The Bondage of the Will,” but he also wrote “The Freedom of the Christian,” in which he develops his theology of vocation.)

I guess the main difference would be that we Lutherans might have a greater emphasis on sin in the human agency that we do have.

Say a man has the calling to work in a bank. He lends people money and takes care of other financial needs of the community, so that he is indeed loving and serving his neighbors. God is in what he does. But one day he decides to embezzle money. He is stealing from his neighbors. He is certainly free to do that, but God will indeed hold him responsible. Perhaps then he goes to church, hears a sermon from God’s Word, and is convicted of his sin. He repents and puts the money back before anyone notices. From that time on, he works as an honest employee. He has the agency to do that also, though we would say the credit for his repentance goes to the Holy Spirit working through God’s Law. Now that he is doing what he should, does he earn merit for that before God? Well, not really. He is now doing what he was supposed to do all  along.  “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10).   The man, however, assuming he is a Christian, is in the process of being sanctified.   The struggle with sin, finding forgiveness, and doing what is right made him grow in his faith, which bears fruit in good works, and so he has grown in sanctification.   (Vocation is where sanctification happens.  You make that point too, associating our work with our sanctification, but you seem to think Lutherans don’t believe that.  We do!)

WITHERINGTON: Interesting.   I don’t think a banker has a calling to be a banker in the Biblical sense of the term calling, but let’s leave that aside for a moment.  A big part of my objection to what you write about work is the Lutheran understanding of God’s involvement in human work, that He uses human beings as His instruments and is somehow “hidden” in vocation.

Continue reading.

A conversation with one of my critics #1

Someone asks me a few weeks ago if anyone ever disagreed with what I have written about vocation.  I said, not really.  I have presented on that topic to a wide variety of groups who hold to all kinds of different theologies and everyone seems to resonate with what I say.  Luther’s doctrine of vocation is so clearly Biblical and it makes so much sense that it seems like a teaching that just about everyone finds enormously helpful and illuminating. 

But I spoke too soon.  A new book DOES take issue with what I say in God at Work.  Ben Witherington is a professor at Asbery Seminary, a Wesleyan/Arminian school, who is the author of  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. (You can go to the link on Amazon and use the “Look Inside This Book” feature, searching for “Veith” and most of what he says about me will come up.)

So Baptist blogger Trevin Wax set up an online interview/discussion in which the two of us thrashed out our differences. He is posting the exchange over the next several days, so I will too. (When you hit “continue reading,” you’ll go to Trevin’s blog. Come back here to comment, and if you comment at his site, please copy what you say here also.)

WAX: What role does the church play in relation to a man or woman who is seeking to discern God’s call to a particular vocation?

 VEITH: I think that the church’s main role is, quite simply, to teach the doctrine of vocation, according to its own theological light.

As Dr. Witherington says in his book, this is a topic that has been neglected by churches, despite how much the Bible teaches about the topic and despite the huge role that work plays in people’s lives today.

After that, the man or woman struggling over questions of vocation simply needs to be encouraged to see God’s hand in the normal processes and decision-making that goes into finding a job.  Dissatisfaction with what one is currently doing, particular interests and talents, opportunities that arise, doors that open and doors that slam in your face – all of these are factors in going in one direction or another.  Christians are still subject to all of these “secular” factors, but, through the eyes of faith, they can trust in God’s leading.

WITHERINGTON: I would say from the outset we need to distinguish between being called by God and some particular vocation.   So calling and ‘vocation’ should be distinguished.

I certainly think the church has an obligation to help persons discern the call of God on their lives at this or that point in time in their lives.  But a person can be called to a variety of tasks on a variety of occasions for a variety of ways of serving the Lord and edifying others.  As, you will have deduced from my book entitled Work,  I don’t really agree with either Luther’s two kingdoms approach, nor the subset of that, the notion that we are called to some specific vocation over the long haul  (e.g. one to be a plumber one to be a preacher etc.)

Continue reading

Mollie Hemingway on her faith

The Washington Examiner has a series in which they interview people about their faith.  (They did that to me once, which I blogged about.)  Journalist Mollie Hemingway didn’t mince any words.  Read the whole interview.  Here is an excerpt in which Mollie explains vocation:

It seems in some ways that reporting on religion could lead to doubts about one’s own faith, or at least to confusion or pluralism. How has your journalism shaped or affected your own faith? Has it made you any more or less of an orthodox Lutheran?

That hasn’t been my experience at all. For one thing, my job as a reporter isn’t to advocate for one belief system over another. Rather, I aim to break news or explain trends, and allow individuals to tell their own story.

Lutherans study not just what we believe but what we don’t believe. So I already knew we held different doctrines as well as why. Nevertheless, I have found that learning more about other faiths has generally strengthened my own. I have seen new religious ceremonies and structures and met wonderful atheists, pagans, Druze, Jains, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Evangelicals and Catholics. Some of my conversations with them have challenged me, but in general I’ve found that it makes me appreciate Lutheran teachings much more. The best example of this is that I used to be attracted to unbelief. While I still enjoy reporting on atheists and have many non-believing friends, learning more about atheism and its history has cured me of any attraction to it.

Many people consider a vocation to be an occupation — or maybe an occupation that’s especially satisfying. How does the Lutheran understanding of vocation extend beyond our careers?

Lutherans have a special understanding of vocation. It’s not limited to one’s job but every single relationship I have, including parent, child, friend, neighbor, parishioner and citizen. It’s any position in which I am the instrument through which God works in the world.

So, for instance, God heals us by giving us doctors and nurses. He feeds us by giving us farmers and bakers. He gives us earthly order through our governors and legislators, and he gives us life through our parents. God is providing all these gifts — but we receive them from our neighbors.

Luther wrote that fathers should not complain when they have to rock a baby, change his diaper, or care for the baby’s mother, but instead should view each act as a holy blessing. Everything we do in service to others is a holy blessing.

At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?

I believe, with the Apostles, that Jesus Christ is the God-man who died to redeem the world from sin, rose bodily from the dead, and will raise me in the body on the last day.

via Credo: Mollie Hemingway | Leah Fabel | People | Washington Examiner.

Starbucks and vocation

Blogger Matt Perman wrote a good post entitled “Starbucks, Vocation, and The Meaning of the Mundane.”  He even included a shoutout to my book about vocation, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life !

The other day I came across an excerpt from the new book by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. I don’t know if he’s a believer or not, but right at the start he does a fantastic job of articulating, in shadow form, a core concept of the biblical doctrine of vocation. Here’s what he says:

“Only weeks earlier, I’d sat in my Seattle office holding back-to-back meetings about how to quickly fix myriad problems that were beginning to surface inside the company. One team had to figure out how we could, in short order, retrain 135,000 baristas to pour the perfect shot of espresso.

Pouring espresso is an art, one that requires the barista to care about the quality of the beverage. If the barista only goes through the motions, if he or she does not care and produces an inferior espresso that is too weak or too bitter, then Starbucks has lost the essence of what we set out to do 40 years ago: inspire the human spirit.”

I realize this is a lofty mission for a cup of coffee, but this is what merchants do. We take the ordinary—a shoe, a knife—and give it new life, believing that what we create has the potential to touch others’ lives because it touched ours.

Here’s the point: the ordinary is not ordinary. Rather, it is in the ordinary that we are able to build people up and, yes, inspire the human spirit.

When you clean house for your family, or pour a cup of coffee, or take your car to the wash, you aren’t just doing small, mundane things. You are building building people up. You are making things better, and making a statement that people matter. Or, that’s how you ought to see it.

And the doctrine of vocation takes us further than this. For it means that, when we serve others in the everyday, it is actually God himself who is serving people through us. God is hidden in the everyday. This is true if we are believers; and God is also working through unbelievers, even if they don’t know it (Gene Veith makes this point very well in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life when he discusses why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” when we actually get it from the grocery store, who got it from the bread company, who got the ingredients from various other spots, and so forth).

In fact, the doctrine of vocation even takes us one more step. When we, as followers of Christ, serve others for his sake, we aren’t just serving them. We are actually serving the Lord himself.

via Starbucks, Vocation, and The Meaning of the Mundane : What’s Best Next.

HT:  Brady Russell


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