For most of 30 years I’ve been meeting with two friends every Wednesday morning for a cup of something. Very ordinary people we are, we meet in very ordinary places like Panera or Peets, to talk about the vocations of our lives—and then go off into our work another day, taking up the callings and careers that make us “us.”
Over the years our occupations have changed, no longer here-or-there doing this-or-that, but our visions of vocation have only deepened, still asking the same questions, still wrestling with the world, the flesh and the devil for answers that make sense of making sense of what we do and why we do it.
Place matters, more than we know, the contours of our commitments defined by the rootedness of our lives. That we live in the world of Washington DC means that there is something political and public about the vocations that bring us together, binding our hearts and minds through the years. Having chosen to live by the creed of the Clapham community of 225 years ago in England—to choose a neighbor before you choose a house—we work hard at the complex challenges of this city, a city known the world over for its glories and shames, a city which draws people from every corner of the country and the earth who want to put their shoulders to history, longing to change the way the way the world turns out, for blessing and for curse.
Destructive partisanship, naked ambition, short-sighted political fictions—all this and more make this place unique in the world. Neither Sacramento nor Shafter, neither Denver nor Monte Vista, neither Harrisburg nor Beaver Falls, neither Topeka nor Lawrence, and not Bratislava or Nairobi or Singapore or Belfast or Jerusalem or Sydney or Beijing or Mexico City either. Where we live and move and have being sets the tables of our lives and labors.
And week after week, year by year we think aloud and together about the questions that are ours, none of which have cheap answers—because the truest truths of the universe cut deeper than the partisan divide, our deepest loyalties are to something more than partisan wins-and-losses.
Todd Deatherage, for example, after years on Capitol Hill and the State Department, gives his life away to the Telos Group, whose mission is to nourish understanding of what seem the most intractable issues of the day, the deep-seated, long-suffering problems that run through the Israeli and Palestinian conflict; and to the cultural consequences of the poison pill that America swallowed generations ago in the slavery of Africans that bubbled into terrible being in our Civil War a century-and-a-half ago, that still plagues our national well-being. Almost no one in the church or the world is willing to ask the hard questions which are at the heart of his life, preferring more partisan loyalties instead.
Mark Rodgers is integral to our life together, a neighbor who has been a friend for most of life. Always the political visionary, after years of leadership on Capitol Hill he formed the Clapham Group and the Wedgwood Circle as ways to bring into being literal and metaphorical “tables” for folk who almost never talk with each other. Both for-profits and non-profits, institutional hopes of both left-and-right give definition to Clapham; while Wedgwood has as its reason-for-being a renewal of the arts and entertainment in America for the sake of the world, since its beginning believing that the culture is upstream from politics—so that the stories and storytellers of our time matter deeply for sake of our life together in America and throughout the world. Singers and songwriters, painters and painting, novelists and novels, films and filmmakers, playwrights and plays, and more upon more, each vision-shaping and reality-defining windows into what it means to be human and into what human flourishing is and must be.
And me? Always the professor at the table, a cup of tea in my hands, thinking with my friends who are my neighbors about the on-the-ground meaning of vocation for our common good, and yes, working away at the questions that are mine about the intersection of faith to vocation to culture.
We are clay-footed people, each of us, seeing something of what is real and true and right, never seeing everything. And though our deepest commitments are held in common, we do not always agree about the particulars of which ideas must have legs for us to get where we need to go. Twined together, we are different and distinct, sometimes fraying at the edges—but trying again next Wednesday, praying for wisdom for the next week.
But these longings bring us together, hoping for more common grace, for more common good, for more common ground, knowing in our bones that our nation’s wellbeing is absolutely dependent upon on it, because cities and societies cannot flourish without these commitments coursing their way through our life together.
And all this over a simple cup of something, sipping our way into what we believe about what matters, and therefore what we are willing to do with days of our lives.
Lord, have mercy, please we pray.