Sometimes we smile at how things work out.
Early on in our life of The Washington Institute, the Lilly Endowment drew us in to help with a far-reaching grant that they were offering to the nation, “Programs in the Theological Exploration of Vocation.” Eventually Lilly gave $2 million grants to 90 universities and colleges, each one rooted in a particular ecclesial tradition e.g. the Catholic Notre Dame University, the Baptist Howard University, the Methodist Duke University, the Southern Baptist Wake Forest University, the Calvinist Covenant College, the Anabaptist Eastern Mennonite University, the Lutheran Valparaiso University, the Reformed Calvin College, and on and on. Many schools from many traditions, each granted significant funds to work at the meaning of vocation within their own histories.
And we were asked to be part of this, particularly over the question, “What happens when these students graduate, and enter into life?” Responding to their interest, we argued, “The years following school are harder. Graduates meet the realpolitick of the martketplace where jobs may be found, but vocations are harder to come by. But even harder is the realecclesiastick of the church, where vocation is not on the liturgical radar screen of most churches. We don’t preach or pray as if we believe that vocation really matters to God or the world.”
As we took up that work with Lilly, we visited many universities and seminaries, realizing that there was a relationship between a Methodist undergraduate institution and a Methodist seminary, viz. eventually the graduates who took the vocation questions seriously would want to find a Methodist congregation where vocation mattered.
That fall our family invited good friends to join us for Thanksgiving, and in our conversations the topic of work came up. What are you doing? What are you thinking about? What is going on? I told of a visit to Covenant Seminary and Covenant College the previous month, engaging administrators and faculty at both places over the Lilly grant and its hopes.
My friend was an elder at Gracc DC, a new congregation in the city of Washington, and asked if I had any prayers for vocation because he was leading the prayers of the people in their Sunday worship—and thought it would be good to pray for people in their vocations. I looked around for a day or so, and finally wrote him something—passing it off as more“ official’ than it was. This was what I sent:
God of heaven and earth, we pray for your kingdom to come, for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Teach us to see our vocations and occupations as woven into your work in the world this week. For mothers at home who care for children, for those whose labor forms our common life in this city, the nation, and the world, for those who serve the marketplace of ideas and commerce, for those whose creative gifts nourish us all, for those whose callings take them into the academy, for those who long for employment that satisfies their souls and serves you, for each one we pray, asking for your great mercy. Give us eyes to see that our work is holy to you, O Lord, even as our worship this day is holy to you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I forgot about it until about 9:30 pm Sunday night. A young man in the church whom I had known, wrote a letter to the pastors and elders of Grace DC, and copied me. Essentially he said this, “Thank you. I have been worshipping in churches my whole life, but I have never been prayed for in my work. If you think that worship and work have something to do with each other, that somehow what I do at work grows our of what I profess in worship, then that changes everything.” And then he added a note, and it made me smile. “I am going to cc. Steve Garber from The Washington Institute, as I am sure he would be interested to know we did this.”
And of course I was. Over the years since then we have entered into ever-deeper relationships with Grace DC: teaching courses on vocation and the mission of God, speaking at congregational retreats, meeting with the elders and pastors to keep pressing in, meeting with members who have good questions, and more. Their eagerness to think it all through, and to keep working at the vision that vocation is integral to the mission of God, has been a great encouragement to us, and a good gift to their members.
Out of our work there, in particular the congregational retreat a few years ago, I met Kwang Kim from the World Bank. At the campfire on Saturday night, after several presentations on the ways that faith shapes vocation which shapes culture, he asked if we could talk. That began a conversation that continues to this day, and now he serves on our board. Be sure to read his recent essay on our website, “Reflections on the Meaning of a Good Life.”
And then a couple of years ago I was asked to meet with a new pastor there, the newest addition to their staff. A U.S. Naval Academy grad, a commissioned officer, and a Covenant Seminary alum too, David Noble was hired to give leadership to “Faith and Work” at Grace, and I was asked to tell him some of the story of where this came from in the congregation’s vision.
Since then we have become friends, and we continue to talk about his work and ours. For example, a month ago he brought into a being a evening on calling, featuring a parishioner whose told about the pilgrimage that his own vocation has been. In addition, David is participating in our year-long program for pastors in Washington, “Integral, Not Incidental,” where we are working at the pastoral and congregational implications of our credo and vision, viz. vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei.
More could be said. But it is a story of Grace, and the ways that their vision has been twined together with ours—and the vision we share includes pastors as well as World Bank consultants, kindergarten teachers as well as mothers and fathers at home, journalists as well as nurses, accountants as well as lawyers, college professors and members of Congress—yes, butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers. David’s presence there, tasked with the vocation of pastoring a congregation to more faithfully c0nnect worship with work, makes me smile. Just imagine…. praying for people as they go into the world, week by week. It might change everything.