I recently zoomed in for a conversation with Mary Sauger, Emily Monterosso, and Katelyn Hargrave on how their experience of God’s world impacts their understanding of vocation. This represents out third all employee chapel where we heard people tell stories related to some aspect of their sense of calling. Brian Stogner began with how God’s people have helped to shape his sense of calling. Jaymes Vettraino talked about his calling in relation to God’s life. And now a great conversation with these three women on calling and God’s world.
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It would be a mistake to think of creation as something God did all at once, ending God’s creative involvement with the world we inhabit. The bible is pretty clear that just as God spoke the world into existence, so God’s word continues to sustain all of life. God’s creative work is ongoing.
The coming of Jesus as an Incarnate Word is a sign that God is still at work for the good intentions related to the creation from the very beginning. Now the Word of God is bringing about a new creation in the form of a new heaven and a new earth. So, God’s creative work is ongoing and will result in the consummation of God’s creative intentions when on the Day of the Lord, God will be all in all.
The biblical view of the creative intentions of God leaves no room for a hard and fast distinction between the material and the spiritual. Humankind lives in the divinely given vocation when the care for the earth and our bodies is a priority.
This human vocation is made clear in the creation stories of Genesis 1-2. Humankind is blessed by the creator and given a role of stewardship for the rest of creation. It is surely part of bearing the divine image to care for the material world.
When Israel is called into covenant relationship with God, provision is made for the right treatment of land and possessions. The land is also to have sabbath, lying fallow every seventh year. There are provisions in the law against the clear cutting of trees. Israel’s life before God is necessarily a life with and for the land. Notably, Israel’s interdependence with the land is seen in Deuteronomy’s declaration that covenant infidelity will result in the land “vomiting them out.”
These examples could be multiplied, but these are enough to point to the reality that we have a divinely given vocation to live for the well-being of God’s creation. In our time of environmental degradation, this divine vocation has never been more critical.
This also means, however, that those who work in the areas of discovery (understanding creation) and preserving and extending creation’s health are participating in the spiritual work of co-creation with the Creator. Additionally, all of our efforts in activities like gardening, recycling, or reducing our carbon footprint through the conservation of energy are spiritual and related to our human vocation.
To see creation as a tool for our own use, rather than as a partner in the flourishing of all life is surely a perversion of the divine intention. It is sin. To choose profits at the expense of clean water and air is surely a denial of our divine vocation. Conversely, any attempts to constrain our appetites for the well-being of the other, including creation, is spiritually transformative.
Many of you are aware that we received a grant from NetVUE to develop a shared sense of vocation throughout the university. One of the activities chosen to foster this ambition is an employee chapel time, which will include lunch conversations immediately following the presentations. Three dates have been chosen: Feb 4, Mar 3, and April 7. Each chapel will feature a story teller from among the RU staff and faculty who will reflect on their own story of vocation from a particular perspective. Dr. Stogner has agreed to be our first story teller on Feb 4.
I want to remind you of some of the ways we’re thinking about vocational discovery as we anticipate these chapel times. One image we’re using for vocational discernment is that of orienteering. In a wilderness, travelers can discover where they are with a map and three fixed points on the horizon. Our fixed points on the journey of vocational discovery are God’s life, God’s people, and God’s world. If we pay attention to these three things, we have a better chance of charting a path related to God’s call on our lives.
These three aspects of vocational discernment overlap, but can also be distinguished from one another. For instance, God’s life would include God’s people, and God’s world, but God’s life is not exhausted by these realities. People have experiences of God that are more vertical and transcendent, and even personal, than the more horizontal and social experiences related to God’s people and God’s world.
While these three aspects of vocational discernment are distinguishable from each other, all three are essential for a robust sense of calling. If one’s calling is rooted only in God’s life, the result might be what theologians call “quietism,” a sense of inner peace without concern for justice or mission. A call rooted only in a sense of God’s people might result in what theologians call “fideism,” a sense that God only works in the privileged confines of the faithful, ignoring the ways that God might be working through unexpected sources in the world. A sense of vocation formed principally by experiences of injustice in the world might result in an “activism” removed from notions of mercy essential to the life of God and God’s people. All three aspects, then, are necessary for healthy vocational discernment.
These explanations are likely too abstract or theoretical to fully clarify what vocational reflection might involve. The best way to develop understanding is to hear others talk about what vocational reflection has been like for them. The stories others tell have a way of drawing us near, allowing us to participate in ways that allow comparison or contrast. It’s an interesting phenomenon that we often learn more about ourselves be hearing the stories of others.
And so, we will hear stories from our colleagues in hope of clarifying our shared work around vocation. They’ll not only give us some sense of their own story, but will emphasize one of the three aspects of vocational discernment. In doing so, we will not only be inspired by the stories of others, but will also have greater insight into the ways God might be calling us.
No Hebrew Scripture word is used more to describe God’s character than the word chesed, which is translated multiple ways (e.g. loving kindness, loyalty, steadfast love). In my youth group days, we often sang, “The steadfast love of the lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning.” These lyrics are taken from Lamentations 3:22-23 and include the word chesed.
This word is especially important in describing God as a covenant partner. The covenant God makes with Israel depends not on Israel’s covenant loyalty, but on God’s. There is no exhausting the mercies of God. They are new every morning. You can put your trust in them.
But the demonstration of chesed is not only for God, but should characterize human relationships as well. To practice steadfast love is God’s way of creating a trustworthy community. I almost hesitate to use the word “love” here because we tend to associate that word with how we feel about others. Chesed is not something we feel, but something we do. We live mercifully, with loyalty, with the best interest of the other in mind.
A set of stories that many of us are familiar with that features chesed is David’s rise to the monarchy. You’ll remember that David is anointed as king by Samuel while Saul still occupies on the throne. While Saul seeks to destroy David, at several dramatic moments in the story David displays chesed to Saul. And of course, the drama surrounding David and Saul brings Saul’s son, Jonathan, into view. Jonathan acts toward David with chesed (1 Sam 20:8, 14) to save him from the violent intentions of his father. Later, after Saul and Jonathan have died, David shows chesed to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth by caring for him as his own (2 Sam 9:1, 3, 7). In both instances, Jonathan and David acted against their own personal interests for the sake of the other.
Beyond the major stories surrounding David, Saul, and Jonathan, there are several in this narrative arc that feature chesed and minor characters. Stories about David that include less-than-household biblical names like Hanun, Barzillai, and Hushai all turn on actions characterized by the narrator as chesed (cf. 2 Sam 10:2, 1 Kings 2, 2 Sam 16:17). Taken together these stories suggest that David’s unlikely ascent to the throne has been paved through actions of steadfast love or loyalty. In the chaotic circumstances of David’s life, chesed has created a trustworthy path. The reader senses that this is God’s work. God has been with David, but in the concrete actions of characters who have lived out steadfast love.
I like Katherine Sakenfeld’s definition of chesed. It is “faithfulness in action.” This is God’s way of being in the world–God’s way of demonstrating covenant faithfulness, and the way God’s people demonstrate they are living the way of God in the world.
So, as we consider how are work participates in God’s work for a trustworthy world, we would do well to reflect on occasions in our work when faithfulness in action is demonstrated. What things come to mind as evidence of chesed in your life?
A group of twelve faculty and staff are currently reading a book called, The Purposeful Graduate, in anticipation of a planning retreat we are having later this Fall. The book details research done among the initial universities (60+) who received Lilly grants for vocational exploration on their campuses. The universities were diverse, from Ivy League institutions, to Christian universities of every size and stripe, to historically African-American schools.
Despite the diversity of the schools, a remarkable picture of shared positive outcomes emerged from the longitudinal study. We’ll devote more space to the specifics of the study later this semester, but I just want to point out now that the effort to provide a vocational journey experience for students, not only impacted learning outcomes, but also deepened the meaning of the work performed by staff and faculty.
We hope that will be true of our experience as well. As we think more about how to engage students around their vocational journeys, our own sense of calling will be deepened.
We’re trying to create a shared vision and language about vocation around the phrase “trustworthy world.” Two weeks ago we searched for initial descriptions of what might make for a trustworthy world. You had great suggestions.
This week I’m wondering if we can see ways that our work participates in the creation of a trustworthy world. For instance, someone who works in admissions might say, “When I accurately portray the RU experience to a prospective student, I’m giving then a trustworthy picture of our campus and the place they could have here.” A student services staff person might say something like, “When I invite students into opportunities to serve our community, I’m hoping they’ll develop a desire for a more just world.”
A faculty might say, “When I teach someone how to accurately account for a company’s finances, I’m preparing servants for a more trustworthy world.” Or, “When I design a service learning project, I’m trying to connect course content to a trustworthy engagement with the world in which we live.” Or, “When I give students detailed feedback on their work and ask for a response, I’m providing an opportunity for them to deepen their understanding of the material and their relationship to it.”
These lists could go on and on. I’m wondering if you have a sentence that describes your work in this way. Share them in the comments section.
Part of what this blog wants to accomplish is to vary our angle of perception by zooming in and out. Last week, we took a “zoomed out” perspective by providing terms we think might describe a trustworthy world. When we zoom in, we want to go a bit deeper, especially to provide biblical or theological notions of a trustworthy world.
I appreciated the comments on last week’s blog. They were great and demonstrated something important. Some of the words or phrases reflected an experience of a trustworthy world as it was created to be. Some represented sentiments related to a world we do not yet know, a world that has yet to be created–a new creation. Both are needed. This week, I want to “zoom in” on the trustworthy world of a new creation as represented by the phrase “kingdom of God.”
Most mornings, I pray these words: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” These are perhaps the most familiar lines of the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray. They help us to see the world the way he did. “Your kingdom come, your will be done…”
Jesus was all about the kingdom of God. Mark’s gospel introduces Jesus by saying he came “proclaiming the good news about God. ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news'” (Mk 1:14-15). He lived and taught in such a way to give people a view of life the way God would order it. No, that’s not quite it. He lived and taught in such a way to give people a view of life the way it will be ordered when the kingdom of God comes fully at the end of the age.
By teaching his followers to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus was inviting them to live now in light of the future realities of the coming kingdom of God.
Jesus assumed that the coming kingdom of God is a more trustworthy way of ordering the world than the ways other powers and authorities do. For instance, in contrast to the ways other kingdoms tend to be stacked in favor of the wealthy and powerful, the kingdom of God is arranged according to the needs of the poor and excluded because only a world arranged in this way can be trustworthy for all. So, we pray only for our “daily bread,” not for as much bread as I can gather.
In contrast to the violent world given to us by the rulers and authorities of other kingdoms, the kingdom of God is ordered non-violently. Loving enemies, turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile are the way people live who pray daily, “Forgive us our trespasses, because we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s a habitable world because it turns on mercy.
Jesus believed this is the way the world will be in the age to come, not the way the world already exists. It’s a world that is “near,” to recall the language from Mark’s gospel, not “here.” So, it is a world that is still coming. But this doesn’t mean we passively wait for this world to crash and burn while we wait for heaven. Jesus taught us to pray for God to “make it on earth as it is in heaven.”
In fact, early Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus meant that the future day of the Lord had broken into the present. Most Jews of Jesus’ day believed in the resurrection of our bodies on the day of the Lord. The uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection was that it came before the final and great day of the Lord–that it happened in the middle of history. His resurrection was a sign that the realities of the age to come were breaking into the present age with power. In fact, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all flesh in Acts 2 convinced believers that they could live by the Spirit in the power of the coming age, and not by the power of the rulers and authorities of this present age.
One way theologians talk about the realities of the kingdom of God, is that we live in the already, but not yet. The trustworthy world of God’s reign is near, but still coming. God’s people live today believing that that coming day is real. They don’t wait with resignation for this world to pass. Instead, they engage the powers and authorities of this world with the power of the coming age. They live what they pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the previous post, I suggested that one way to name the meaningful work we share here at RU is with the phrase “trustworthy world.” When we contribute to the creation or maintenance of a trustworthy world, we not only provide space for our students to pursue their vocation, but we also participate in the work of God in the world. The biblical themes of creation and new creation both portray God’s concern for a trustworthy world.
But what is a trustworthy world? What kinds of activities might be related to God’s work in this regard? These are the kinds of questions this blog will pursue during this semester.
With this post, I simply want to suggest words that would describe aspects of a trustworthy world and invite you to do the same. What are the elements that make the world a trustworthy place for all of us? I’ll offer a few. Feel free to provide your own in the comments section.
A trustworthy world is loving.
A trustworthy world is just.
A trustworthy world is dependable.
A trustworthy world is life giving.
A trustworthy world is communicative.
A trustworthy world is merciful.
A trustworthy world is hopeful.
A trustworthy world is healing.
The list could go on. I hope you will recognize that these are all things that we attribute to God’s activity in the world.
One way to think of these things is as forms of resistance against the powers of death and despair. When we pursue mercy, we resist the ways that our world would write people off or consider them sub-human. When we live towards dependability, we resist disloyalty which tears at the fabric of our shared life. When we advocate for justice for the poor or overlooked, we resist the ways our world is ordered for the benefit of some at the expense of others. You get the idea.
Hopefully, you also see what you do in some way in words like these. They may provide clues to understanding your life in relation to God’s calling.
Make our list longer. Maybe you have an entire post on an aspect of a trustworthy world that we could feature here in the next few weeks. Let me know.
All of us who followed the misadventures of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer know that Seinfeld was “a show about nothing.” The everyday experiences of the Seinfeld characters portrayed a world of superficiality–of banality and vapidity. Based on the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld, the ordinary becomes the absurd and all you can do is laugh. Seinfeld is a modern day version of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, all is vanity,” minus the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” part.
The world of Rochester University is full of the ordinary as well. We show up for classes, advise students, keep Moodle running, recruit potential students, provide financial aid, and countless other things. We have the capacity to poke fun at ourselves and can recognize the difficulties of our jobs. But the ordinary for us is far from superficial or absurd. Rather, the daily work we do brims with meaning.
We believe the ordinary is meaningful in part because it’s connected to our notions of Christian education. God is the focus of what we do.
This focus can, however, get lost in the details of doing our job. Sometimes processing student aid forms or cleaning a dorm or grading papers can lower our sights and drag us into the mundane. Part of this loss of perspective might be due to the fact that we’re accustomed to considering some things “sacred” and some things “ordinary.”
The thing is, though, we believe God took on human flesh and was immersed in the ordinary. For those of us who follow Jesus, the ordinary now always bears the possibility of the sacred.
Here’s one way to think of the ordinary that might tie it to God’s meaningful presence in the world. When we process forms and provide timely feedback on student assignments, or respond to helpdesk tickets and fix the air conditioning, we are contributing to the making of a trustworthy world.
I like the term “trustworthy world” as a way to characterize God’s desire for creation. It resonates with the creation story where things are called “good” and all creation flourishes and gives life. It also corresponds to the imagery of the end of the story–the new creation–where all things are made new. Everyone has “their own vine and their own fig.” Life is shared and plentiful. Nations no longer practice war, beating their swords into plowshares, and they seek the Lord for instruction. The lion even lies down with the lamb. You get the idea. The story ends where it begins, with pictures of a trustworthy world.
The term trustworthy also carries some pretty important biblical vocabulary related to God. In the Old Testament, God is revealed as righteous and full of steadfast love. God’s rule results in shalom, or well-being. God is trustworthy. In the NT, God’s righteousness is confirmed in the person of Jesus who shows us the full extent of God’s love in his death on a shameful Roman cross. We now know the reach of God’s love, it’s length and breadth, and know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Talk about something you can trust!
So, God is interested in a trustworthy world for the sake of the flourishing of all creation. When we work together, then, at RU for the sake of a trustworthy space, we participate in the ongoing work of God in the world. Far from being superficial or absurd, our ordinary work bears the potential of participation in the mission of God.
We think this business of a trustworthy world is a significant part of RU’s vocation, or calling. This blog site will be dedicated to exploring the various dimensions of our shared journey of vocation. Welcome to the journey.