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Business People 5 (Michael Kruse)

Business People 5 (Michael Kruse) March 21, 2012

Real estate people say real estate is about three things: location, location, location. Well I suspect integrating business and faith is also about three things: vocation, vocation, vocation. “Vocation” comes from the Latin vocare meaning “to call.” “God calls each of us into the divine relationship, and we respond to this call through the living of our lives, including our work lives.” (89) You might say that vocation helps us understand our location within God’s mission.

Today we move to the second part of the John Knapp’s How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it). The first four chapters have explored the nature of the divide between work and faith. The last four chapters invite us to think about how we might find coherence. Chapter 5 “Rethinking Christian Vocation” is the topic for today.

Does Knapp’s description of vocation match your understanding of the term? What impact does this understanding of vocation have for the sacred/secular, eternal/temporal, and public/private dualities we discussed last week? What do you think about the Naaman story and the idea that we can be whole working in a less than perfect business?

Knapp opens with a story about a man who told him that, “God called me out of AT&T” into a “business as mission” enterprise that would aid the poor in emerging nations. I’ve heard many similar stories myself. But Knapp wants to know, is it possible that God calls some people into AT&T and to remain there? Do we have a theology that would support this idea?

Knapp reminds us that:

“The Scriptures affirm even the most basic forms of work, not necessarily because they yield individual wealth or even happiness, but because they nourish life and prevent suffering (e.g., Gen 3:19; Prov. 14:23; Prov. 20:13; Eccles. 9:10; 2 Thess. 3:10-11).” (88)

Calvin believed that everyone must work. Work is part of the mission to which God has called us. It is partly through our work that we demonstrate we are part of the elect. I’m not sure most of us are ready to go that path with Calvin but the positive legacy of the Reformation was in realizing, as Knapp says, “…that work is not merely a means of survival but is a service to God in the ongoing process of creating and ordering the world.” Work is not primarily about personal gain but about seeking the welfare of others as we serve God.

Knapp points us to a helpful distinction about primary and secondary calling. We all have a primary calling to follow Christ and a secondary calling to do so in a particular context. Our primary call becomes particularized in a secondary call. We are called to a particular family, a community, and to a particular work. Our identity is in Christ but we are commissioned to serve in particular ways.

Knapp raises an issue that called to my mind the oft repeated Frederick Buechner quote, ‘Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need’.  It is indeed special when someone can find employment that matches some great passion. My experience is that this is not the case for most of us. Work more typically is about providing for our own needs, being of service to others through the work we do, and serving family and friends with the wealth we create. It is about service to God in both good and difficult circumstances. I’m reminded that it is possible even for a slave to live out his or her primary vocation in work:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” Col 3:22-25

Knapp suggests that, “We are to be as faithful as possible within the confines and limitations of our own situations, whatever and whenever they may be.” (90)

He goes on to say:

“Certainly we should seek God’s guidance when considering career choices, but Christians would do well to give much more attention to discerning God’s will in their current situation. Are our lives the sum of random experiences, or has God’s hand and providence brought us to a place where we may serve here and now?” (91)

Now Knapp points out that this “serve where you are” idea can be taken too far. Luther believed that based on 1 Cor. 7:17 (“each of you should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him”) that each person should stay in the station to which he or she had been born. Many have also concluded that this means there is only one occupation to which God calls each of us and that if we want to find God’s will then must discern what that call is. This is a misreading of the passage. Paul was making the case that new Christians need not alter their status, including work, as a result of their newfound faith. Unfortunately, this “one true calling” idea is widely shared and the source of considerable anxiety for some Christians. A false sense of “higher callings” or anxiety about missing the one true job may actually take us away from where we might best be of service.

In essence, I read Knapp to say that it is not so much what we do for an occupation but whether we are serving Christ in that occupation. But it is not true that every expression of work is as legitimate as any other.  Most Christians would agree that a pornography store is not a legitimate business. Other examples are not so clear. How about working for a cable company that includes pornographic programming? Should a Christian work for a military contractor (particularly if you a pacifist)? What about a bank that exploits low-income borrowers? Knapp writes:

“How, then, can a Christian know when to leave a job for moral or spiritual reasons? Sometimes the answer is obvious, as when some activity risks criminal liability. At other times it’s a matter of gauging one’s potential for changing things for the better.” (95)

And later:

“To be sure Christians should be unwilling to participate in some activities or even to hold certain jobs, but leaving a situation must always be weighed against the potential of staying for the benefit of others. Although either decision may be difficult, the latter usually takes an extra measure of courage and spiritual stamina.” (97)

There is no simple formula.

I particularly appreciated Knapp’s reflection on the story of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-19). (You may recall that Naaman is one the gentiles of great faith Jesus mentions at the announcement of his ministry in Luke 4:27.) Naaman was the commanding officer over the Syrian army, Israel’s enemy. He discovers he has leprosy. A servant girl tells him of a prophet that can heal him. He gets permission from his King to visit Israel. He goes first to the King of Israel to request permission to see the prophet. The King of Israel is suspicious and will not see him, but sends him on to Elisha. Elisha also refuses to see him but sends out his servant to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times. A bit insulted, Naaman hesitates but finally decides to go wash in the river and he is healed. Naaman gives credit to God and declares there is no other God but the God of Israel.

But now he must go back to Syria and return to his command. That will mean kneeling to pagan gods, an act of blasphemy against the one true God. As Knapp says, “His public actions in the workplace will conflict with his personal faith.” (96) He is deeply concerned to have Elisha intercede with God on his behalf so that he may be forgiven of his inevitable transgressions. Elisha simply instructs him, “Go in peace.” “The prophet pronounces God’s blessing with the assurance that it is possible for Naaman to be whole and undivided in his workplace.” (97) Finding that sense of wholeness seems to be the key.

Knapp is suggesting that we need to revisit and rethink the idea of vocation. Doing so has two important implications. First, it communicates that what I do in my daily work life matters greatly to God. It integrates my life with God’s mission. Second, because my life is integrated, it communicates that what I do in my daily life is subject to Christian ethical reflection. So recovering a sense of vocation is the first piece in addressing “what can be done about it.” Maybe the first place pastors and church leaders can start is to cultivate a greater awareness of vocation and how our work is connected to God’s mission in the world.

Questions:

Does Knapp’s description of vocation match your understanding of the term? What impact does this understanding of vocation have for the sacred/secular, eternal/temporal, and public/private dualities we discussed last week? What do you think about the Naaman story and the idea that we can be whole working in a less than perfect business?

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