Two years ago (almost to the day, as it happens), I shared some thoughts about The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber. Though the book was written primarily for college students, my post-college, post-grad-school self found it quite beneficial anyway. In my review I reminisced aloud about my college years, when I picked the major I did because—no joke—it was the one with the fewest math requirements. I went on to say:
Somehow it hasn’t all turned out terribly, which I attribute solely to God’s grace, but I do wonder how my college years would have been different had I made life-altering decisions based on even better questions than how to avoid math requirements—for instance, questions about the nature of the world, and God’s relationship to it and to me and to everyone else, and how a college education may actually be a gift to be stewarded for God’s glory and to be used for loving our neighbors.
Garber’s new book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, is a natural follow-up to his earlier one. Writing with the same graceful, wise voice that so many of us found so winsome in The Fabric of Faithfulness, Garber expands his explorations of vocation beyond the university classroom to the classroom and laboratory that is the world itself. Quoting poets and singers and theologians, telling stories about his friends and acquaintances, Garber invites us to ask deep questions about the world around us, and to find our vocation more or less, it seems to me, where the novelist Frederick Buechner famously did—that place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Garber wants us to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, he wants us to behold it gratefully, truthfully, and hopefully. He wants us to recognize and appreciate its created splendor. He wants us to be honest about its brokenness and limitations. And he wants us to orient our lives around the hope—in answer to the question Sam Gamgee asked Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, which each of us in one way or another continues to ask—that yes, one day every sad thing will come untrue.
In broad strokes, I think that’s the story the scriptures are telling as well, the story in which we are invited to find ourselves—or, better, the story in which we are invited to lose ourselves.
But knowing is not the same thing as living, and weaving belief and behavior together, as Garber has previously written, doesn’t happen automatically (more on that, by the way, from N.T. Wright in After You Believe). In fact, it’s possible that the more we know—about God, about ourselves, about our neighbors and our world—the more paralyzed we can become. At root may be self-righteousness or fear, narcissism or prejudice, or even mere fatigue, but the resulting paralysis looks very much the same.
Garber acknowledges these dangers, but he urges us to press further on, further in:
Can we know the world and still love the world? Can we know the messes of the world and still work on them because we want to, because we see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake? Sometimes some people make that choice… and always it is a vocation of imitation of a vocation. At our best and truest, we stand in the long line of those who remember the profound insight of Thomas à Kempis in calling us to “the imitation of Christ.” To choose to know, and still to love, is costly; it was for God, and it is for us. In fact it is the most difficult task imaginable.
Just as he finds clues in the fifteenth century writing of Thomas à Kempis, he finds encouragement in J.I. Packer’s modern classic Knowing God, in which the Anglican author and theologian urges us not to be content with merely knowing about God, but actually knowing him and being known intimately—as we are invited to do. Packer writes:
God knew the worst about us before he chose to love us, and therefore no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves, and quench his determination to bless us. He took knowledge of us in love.
Garber and his colleagues at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture like to say that vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei. Flipped on its head, we might say that the work God has given us to do—whether we’re paid to do it or not—is corrupted when it stops with us.
As Garber puts it:
To see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake, is both hard work and good work—and it cannot be done alone.
[Header Image: Sunset, Wheat Fields near Arles (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh]