Several years ago I joined a small table of folk for a conversation about the relation of the church’s ministry to the callings of God’s people. While wide-ranging, we eventually got to this issue: why is it that when we pray together as the people of God gathered for worship on Sunday, we regularly pray for our missionaries in Kenya and Kazakhstan, but not for our attorneys on K Street?
In the vocational geography of Washington, DC, K Street represents Lord Bismarck’s hard-won wisdom: “If you want to respect sausage or law, then don’t watch either being made.” It is a long avenue running east and west across the city, just a couple of blocks away from the White House at one point. High-rise buildings, full of cars and people, sometimes it is more crassly referred to as “Gucci Gulch,” because of the shoes-of-choice characteristic of the highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists employed there.
It seemed to those of us at lunch that day that the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers of the kingdom needed to understand their work as blessed by God and prayed for by God’s people, just as much as did those whose callings take them to the far places of the earth as Bible translators, church planters, evangelists, and pastors. So, while we said a loud “Yes!” to the importance of praying for Kenya and Kazakhstan, we pleaded for K Street too.
Now written into our weekly liturgy is a time of simple, heart-felt prayer for a handful of people, by name and by vocation. So-and-so, a journalist. So-and-so, a businessman. So-and-so, an attorney. So-and-so, a builder. So-and-so, a teacher. So-and-so, a politician. So-and-so, a homemaker. So-and-so, a social worker. And on and on and on. It is good that we do this because it reminds us that we are in this together, a congregation taking up the ministry of truth and grace in our terribly fallen world, through our callings creating what Walker Percy called “signposts in a strange world”- even signposts of the world that is to come.
Reflecting on all this I said “yes” a few weeks ago to an invitation to speak to a gathering of attorneys on K Street. Month by month they meet under the banner of the Christian Legal Society for a lunch conversation over some aspect of the vocation of law. Men and women, older and younger, private and public, about 30 lawyers from across the city sat around a beautiful conference room with spacious views of the city to consider one more time the challenge of thinking and acting christianly in the world of work.
I began with a story of a recent conversation. At the end of a weekend retreat where I had spoken on the dynamic relationship between faith, vocation, and culture, a man came up to talk. An Englishman living in the New York City area, he said that “for 25 years I have prayed for God to be present in my work, and I think he has been. But doing what I have done, the business of technology and computers, I have had the aching sense that my work is a bit less than what it might be if I was a more serious Christian, that somehow business as a vocation is ‘second-class’ for a devoted follower of Christ. But I want you to know that during this weekend a wound in my heart has been healed.” He smiled, and I smiled back, breathing in my heart as I did: thanks be to God.
And I wondered aloud to these attorneys: what is the wound about? where does it come from? what does it mean?
Various ones offered insights, knowing as little about the man as they did, but all together a picture began to develop of someone whose understanding of his calling had been misshaped by things said and not said, prayed for and not-prayed for, as the people of God come together to worship, to preach and to pray, to sing and to be silent.
Situating the story of the man whose wound had been healed within the larger vision of The Washington Institute, with our commitment to developing a coherent understanding of the way that faith forms vocation, and in turn that vocation forms culture, I set forth this thesis: what we believe about the most important things in life affects the way that we live in the world; but the reverse is also true: the way that we live and the world in which we live, affects what we believe. So that culture does shape faith, just as it does vocation. We are more whole people than we know, because of the mysterious and profound twining together of belief and behavior, of worldview and way of life, in ways that shape our very souls.
I then began to tell the stories of our two “patron saints” at The Washington Institute-George Washington and William Wilberforce -bringing books by and about both, and explaining that pictures of them and their work adorn our walls. We have been intrigued by these men, but even more so have been formed by them. In unique and remarkable ways, they offer windows into the faith/vocation/culture dynamic that is the heart of our work. Perhaps most important for us is that both saw themselves as implicated in history, as responsible for history, for the way the world is and ought to be-and that commitment plainly grew out of a thoughtfully-framed understanding of faith and vocation, of creed and calling.
Acknowledging that while I had long honored Washington’s military and political leadership at the most critical point in our nation’s history, for years I had dismissed him as “another Deist” among the founding fathers-and explained why over the last few years I have revisited the question of his faith. I do live in Washington, and his life and story shape the city. I am a member of The Falls Church, an almost-300 year old Anglican congregation which at one point counted Washington as a member of the vestry; our historic church building was planned while he served in that role. I have listened to my rector, a holy and thoughtful man, every-once-in-awhile weave Washington into his sermons, helping his congregation understand the honest faith of this man whose name graces our city and whose gifts graced our church.
We see through a glass darkly-even at patron saints! But we are able to listen and learn, even from those who have long-ago lived and died. From what I have read, I offered some account of Washington’s life, of the way that his Anglican beliefs formed his understanding of what he was to do and why he was to do it, all with an unnaturally keen eye to the meaning of his calling for the future history of the United States. Faith. Vocation. Culture.
One resource in particular that I drew upon is the recent biography, Washington’s God by Michael Novak, which tells the tale of Washington’s life through the prism of his Anglican heritage and the landscape of faith in 18 th-century Virginia. The central story is that Washington was shaped by both, not surprisingly. His understanding of God, human nature, and history reflected the years of creedal and liturgical formation that was plainly part of life for someone who kept making the choice over his life to worship God as Anglicans did and still do. But he was also a Virginian and a gentleman at that, and so the enthusiasm for faith that characterized Anglicans in England under the influence of the “methodism” of the Wesleys and Whitefield-e.g. as Wilberforce was -was foreign to his experience.
Novak takes great care to understand the deism of 18 th-century America, and especially the ways that Washington’s God was decidedly different than Jefferson’s. A deep, sustained, articulate understanding of providence is evident in the worldview of Washington, whereas a God who knows and cares, a God who sees and hears and feels-and expects his people to do so as well -was anathema to Jefferson. Against tremendous obstacles, from the most personal to the most political, Washington continued to believe that God was in heaven and that his purposes were being worked out on earth through the responsible and irresponsible choices of human beings.
The painting of Washington on our wall is that of Gilbert Stuart, and shows the great man with his head and shoulders, but below that his portrait is incomplete. We like that, as it is a visual metaphor for the incomplete character of Washington’s connecting of faith to vocation to culture. Some ideas and issues he understood with unusual insight; he had an uncanny ability to understand his moment, and his responsibility in it. His calling kept calling him. Perhaps most important of all was his perseverance, the steadfast grace and courage that kept him going when the world, the flesh, and the devil stared him and history in the face. A true hero who was extruded by God and history to step into his time and offer crucial leadership when no one else could have done so, he was also a man who saw through a glass darkly– like each of us.
At that point I introduced the paradigm which is the core curriculum of The Washington Institute. Articulated most clearly in The Fabric of Faithfulness, we believe that there are habits of heart that develop and sustain visions of faith and the vocations that grow out of them, so that over time our convictions deepen and our callings are clarified- rather than discarded because we find ourselves face-to-face with Lord Bismarck’s insight about sausage and law, sausage and business, sausage and education, sausage and the arts, sausage and medicine, sausage and international development, sausage and architecture; and in that encounter, become cynical about the very possibility of a coherent life.
What are these habits of heart? Forming a worldview that can make sense of my life in the ever-secularizing, ever-pluralizing world, of my beliefs about God and truth, the human condition, good and evil, joy and sorrow; finding a mentor who embodies these convictions, as the truest truths are taught and learned only as we look over-the-shoulder and through-the-heart of someone who shows that the words can be made flesh, that the ideas can have legs; and making the choice time and again to link up, heart and mind, with a community of kindred spirits, people who together are committed to a coherent life where liturgy, life, learning, and labor is understood as seamless. (See Ray Blunt’s articles on Wilberforce and Jefferson on our website, for a comparison of these two men through the prism of this paradigm.)
Wilberforce’s worldview offers another vision of the ways that faith, vocation, and culture affect each other; in sum, of course, this is what every worldview is and does, viz. provides a way to understand the meaning of faith, vocation, and culture-from the most secular understanding of life and the world to the most transcendent. Born into a home much like Washington’s, the merchant and landed class of the18 th-century British empire, he was raised in an Anglican world. Among those he met as a young man was the former slave captain and now pastor, John Newton, who was a friend of Wilberforce’s relatives. He was sent off to Cambridge and lived a fairly dissolute life during his university years: drinking, playing, and sometimes studying. Upon graduation he entered the House of Commons, representing his home district. A few years later he took a trip to the continent, and employed Isaac Milner, a Cambridge don, as a traveling companion. Over the miles of travel they talked long and hard about all sorts of topics, religious faith among them. Milner was a devout follower of Christ; “awakened” in his Anglican faith, what today might be called an evangelical.
By amazing grace Wilberforce found his way to faith, and his first inclination was to leave politics-ungodly, unholy mess as it was (and is). How can I, now a serious Christian, be involved in something as dirty as politics? Perplexed, he sought out his old friend, knocking on the door of Newton, wondering what he should do. The old and wise man pleaded with him to stay engaged in his vocation, but to do so fired by his new faith, Queen Esther-like-for just such a moment as this- “to take up the abolition of slavery.”
It is a long story, well-told in several books, but for us, the way that Wilberforce so purposefully pursued the formation of a Christian mind is instructive, reading and reflecting over many years, learning to think critically and carefully as a Christian whose vocation was public justice, the work of politics. Quite deliberately he apprenticed himself to Milner and to Newton, opening his heart and hopes to these godly teachers who walked along with him as he was learning to live within the contours of Christian faith. And finally, and this was crucial, he also gave his life to a community of like-minded, like-hearted companions, fellow pilgrims of diverse vocations-business, banking, education, the clergy, politics -who determined to live near each other in a neighborhood called Clapham, day by day eating, talking, praying, playing, thinking together.
To what end? They had two great objects: the reformation of manners and the abolition of slavery. The first is what we would call the renewal of the social fabric, as they understood that there would be no political address of slavery without the culture believing that it was no longer acceptable for human beings to buy and sell other human beings. Among my friends here in Washington we put it this way, paying careful attention to his Clapham community: culture is “upstream” from politics. The second was a huge undertaking, as the slave trade, and its related enterprises, was the primary economic engine of the British empire. No small thing.
In the story of Wilberforce do you hear the habits of heart that give us the skills to keep at our posts over a lifetime, deepening convictions and commitments as we live into the meaning of our vocations and occupations? Simply said, for Wilberforce as for each of us, they are a worldview, a mentor, anda community.
Comparing and contrasting our two patron saints at these three decisive points, Wilberforce’s life was more coherent than Washington’s-even while we deeply honor both. Ponder their respective communities. The Mount Vernon setting of Washington’s life, the beautiful plantation along the Potomac which is now a national treasure, is a very different place from Wilberforce’s Clapham neighborhood, now subsumed in the suburb we know as Wimbledon. While Washington’s table had regular visitors, he had no friends and neighbors, men and women thinking, praying, working together on the founding of a nation. Adams was in Boston and Jefferson was at Monticello, hours and days away from Mt. Vernon; but even more sadly, they were not kindred spirits, caring for each other as they together cared for their culture.
Well, the story goes on. We find ourselves telling it again and again. My colleague Ray is especially good at doing so in public sector settings, in courses and conferences across the country creatively and winsomely engaging people in consideration of these two lives, and what we can still learn from them.
I finished my time with the lawyers by acknowledging that “few of us will be a Washington or a Wilberforce”-even as we learn and listen to the ways that they held together Christian faith, a strong sense of vocation, and a compelling understanding of their responsibility for culture. And we do not need to be. Our callings will take us to different places, to different relationships and different responsibilities. Our lives feel more ordinary, and that is the way it ought to be.
Kenya , Kazakhstan, and K Street too? Yes… that all of God’s people might love and serve him with gladness and singleness of heart, in our various vocations taking the wounds of the world into our hearts- and finding in that calling that our own hearts are healed too. In N.T. Wright’s theologically rich image, becoming healed healers. May it be so.