On Vocation and the Common Good

(Dr. Steven Garber deliered this commencement address at Geneva College on Saturday, May 5, 2012)

President Smith, respected trustees, gifted faculty and staff, distinguished guests, and especially honored graduates and their much-loved families, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today.  In the mysteries of heaven and history, generations of graduates watch and listen this day, a cloud of witnesses that they are, hoping for us as we take up this 164th commencement ceremony of Geneva College.

Imagine following the Beaver River down into the Ohio, and then upstream past Ambridge and Sewickley, finally to the place where the great river is born from the two rivers. Along the Allegheny are several grand public spaces, two of them for Pittsburgh’s sports teams.  Last summer I spent a very interesting day between those two stadiums.

From morning to night I met with a group of people whose vision I helped form some years ago.  We call ourselves theWedgwood Circle, and its vision is focused on cultural renewal.  Believing the culture is upstream from politics, we have drawn together people from the world of the arts—the storytellers of our society in film, in music, in art galleries, in television, in theater–and from the world of industry and philanthropy as well, asking the question, “What would happen if we invested in the culture together? What if we cared about history together, about the way the world turns out?”  Not easy questions, and not easy answers.

That day I had the privilege of speaking to the group about our vision, and why it matters, but the privilege was mostly that I did so alongside John Perkins, a man whom I first met here atGenevain the 1970s.  Some of you know him well, as he is a hero to all of us who care about justice rolling down like a river, especially so in light of our long and tragic stumbling over race in American life; what the writer Wendell Berry has called “the hidden wound” of our life together.

Alongside courses in the history and philosophy of science and seminars in film criticism, in my last year as an undergraduate I gave much of my time to planning a conference we called “Reshaping the American Dream.”  1976 was the Bicentennial Year and it seemed to me that Geneva Colleges hould take the lead in rethinking our history and our mission as Americans.  Audacious?  I suppose.  Arrogant, I’m not sure.  But hopeful, definitely.

As the 1960s became the 1970s, as the counter-culture merged in and out of the culture, many in my generation were rethinking everything.  We dreamed dreams about the way world ought to be.  One of those we invited to speak at our conference was John Perkins, the Mississippi native that he is, the African American that he is, the son of sharecroppers that he is, the courageous visionary that he is, who joined others in helping us think through who we are and who we needed to be, if we were to take our part in “reshaping the American dream.”  When all was said and done, the world did not change dramatically—which was a disappointment.

But years later, I am still dreaming dreams.  And that I do took me into a day of conversation in the inner sanctum of the Pirates stadium, with people from across the country, each one committed to the responsibility of cultural renewal.  Some were business people, some were city planners, some were clergy, some were journalists, some were philanthropists, some were artists, and together we spent a day doing the hard work of seeing what might be done, of seeing what we might do to take responsibility for the way the world turns out.

As good as that day was, the night was even better.  We walked across the large parking lots between where the Pirates and the Steelers play their games, and along with thousands upon thousands went to the U2 concert.  Have you ever been?  They are amazing phenomena, grand and magnificent and artful.  And perhaps surprising to some, there is even something majestically, mysteriously graceful in a U2 concert—and Pittsburgh as Pittsburgh was there to witness a little bit of heaven touching earth for a summer evening.  Looking at the crowd gathered under the towering Mt. Washington, it felt as if the whole city was in Heinz Field, rocking and rolling along with Bono and his band, taking part in the final concert of the biggest tour in music history.

Listening to him that night I was once again reminded of the unusual gift that is his, viz. he sings songs that are shaped by the truest truths of the universe, but in language that the whole world can understand.

Can you?  Have you learned to do that?  In these years at Geneva, has that been what your learning has been about?  Have you learned to think so clearly about the vision of the kingdom that you have developed a proper confidence in your ability to translate, so that those who do not think like you and believe like you, still might be persuaded by you?  When you commence from here on into the world, will you be able to enter into the vocations and the occupations that your disciplines have prepared you to take up, with the skills of heart and mind you will need to sing songs that the whole world can hear?

It is an important question for undergraduates, wherever they may be found.  Some years ago I spent a week in Chicago, lecturing between the University of Chicago and Wheaton College, in both schools meeting seriously Christian students.  They are two very different institutions with two very different histories in two very different parts of the city.  The longer I listened in both places though, the more sure I was that the students needed to know each other, to listen to each other.  They needed to understand that while the social settings of their educations were profoundly different—the one an almost Ivy League education founded on a great books curriculum with deeply secular intent, and the other a faithful vision of Christian learning with everything, everything, in place to support students in their vocations as students—my reading was that they would face a common challenge when they finished, viz. would they be able to graduate and make sense of faith in the face of the intellectual and sociological challenges of a pluralist and pluralizing world?

Do you hear that question?  Do you understand that challenge?  It is one thing to study hard in one’s undergraduate years, even to think things through carefully and critically in light of faith, but it is something else altogether to take up the next years of life in the push-and-shove of a secularizing society, still making sense of what you believe and why you believe what you believe.  Many do not make it.  In thousands of very different ways they fail to develop the habits of heart that will sustain them as adolescence becomes adulthood, as they move from being kids to having kids, as they move from dorms to houses, as they move from paying tuition to paying taxes.  Everything becomes more complex.

That is not terrible, even if it is sobering on a day of glory such as this.  I honor its glory—we all do.  But the days that follow, the twenty-something years that become the thirty-something years, are what wise observers call the valley of the diapers.  They are the settling-into-life years, where we begin to buy cars and houses and washing machines.  There is a wonder to all of that, but there is also a harder face.  Will we coherently connect what we believe with how we live?  Especially so as we take up our lives in the secularizing, pluralizing, globalizing world that is ours?  That is not only a question for students at the University of Chicago and at Wheaton College, but it is yours as well, almost graduates of Geneva College that you are.

This question of belief and behavior, of worldview and way of life, of doctrine and discipleship, is a question I began asking atGeneva in my very first semester.  By unusual grace, Dr. Robert Tweed allowed me into an upper division seminar in New Testament themes.  In almost every way I did not belong.  And yet, week-by-week we would read, and we would talk through our reading in his office in an old home that is now gone, somewhere up on the ridge between here and Old Main.

Over the course of the semester each one came to know and love the Bible more fully, even as we came to know and love our professor more personally.  That is always the best of education—the very best of a Geneva education—the mysterious place where the one who is teaching loves both what he is teaching and whom he is teaching.  Our final project was to be from a Pauline epistle, and I chose Romans 12, the first few verses.  Somewhat innocently as I look back, and yet clearly providential, as it was the first time that I saw the centrality of the relationship between belief and behavior, what another teacher, Francis Schaeffer, once called the critical connection of “the orthodoxy of doctrine and the orthodoxy of practice.”

That opened a door for me that has never closed.  When I finally finished at Geneva I was still following that question, and through the years of my masters and doctoral studies, I kept asking and answering that same question through the long labor of love that learning is.  And now, most of my life later, it is still at the heart of my vocation, a question that became my calling.

I will say this gently, even if plainly: for as good as four years of college can be, for as hard as four years of college can be, the years that follow will be both: wonderfully wonderful in ways that you have not yet imagined, and horribly hard in ways that you have not imagined either.  The years will be both, joy and sorrow twined together in hundreds of different ways, embodied in the lives of each one of you.  It cannot be other than that.  In marriage and family, in work and worship, in the range of your relationships and responsibilities from the most personal to the most public, it will not be other than joy and sorrow twined together in the now-but-not-yet world that is ours.

Who will you be?  What will matter to you?  How will you work out what you have learned in the way that you live?  Will you become men and women marked by the coherence of the kingdom?  By a deeply graceful seamlessness between what you say matters most, and what in fact does?  Will your educations be the light onto the path of your vocations, offering contours that make sense of what you do and why you do it, of where you live and with whom you live?

We all hope so.  In fact we are here today to stand with you, hoping with you and for you as you leave the Beaver vale, entering into the villages and cities of the world.

What will be the core of your calling as you do so?  What will be at the very center of your life?  While we might gladly settle with the answers of Westminster and its catechism, I want to set another vision before you today.  It comes from the prophet Jeremiah, speaking to the exiled people of God who were singing their songs along the rivers of Babylon.  Always longing, sometimes weeping, they sang their songs, waiting in hope, living in hope.  “How long, O Lord, how long….”

And into their longing the word of the Lord came through Jeremiah, “Seek the flourishing of the city.  Pray for it.  Build houses.  Plant trees.  Get married and have children.  Know that when the city flourishes, you will flourish.”   In many ways, they are difficult words to hear.  Babylon was the capitol city of the conquering kingdom, the political face of a way of life that stood against God.  Thousands of years later Babylon is in our ears the most iconically pagan city we know.  Babylon of all places!  Seek its flourishing?  What could that possibly mean?

This is not a sermon today, but I do want you to hear these words of Jeremiah, words that echo across centuries and cultures, from pre-modern peoples to very modern, perhaps even postmodern peoples.  They represent a vision of human flourishing that is as true for the exiles from Jerusalem as it is for the graduates of Geneva.  Seek the flourishing of the cities that will be yours, and know that as those cities flourish, you will flourish, human beings will flourish.

Simply said, it is a vision of vocation for the common good, seeking the shalom of cities in and through our vocations.  The word “flourish” that Jeremiah uses is the word “shalom”—the world as it ought to be, in every way.  In business and engineering, in the arts and education, in law and medicine, in neighborhoods and towns small and large, in this society and all over the world.  Always and everywhere it is a vision of vocation for the common good—for Babylon, of all places.

In my work in The Washington Institute we speak often of common grace for the common good.  The best theology understands that God alone is the savior; we do not save ourselves.  His grace is always amazing grace, and a saving grace it is.  But the whole of life is his gift, what we call ordinary or common graces.  Families that love us, dogwoods that blossom, the sun that shines, highways that are safe, laws that are just, surgeries that heal, a bowl of ice cream late at night and a cup of Earl Grey tea in the morning—common graces each one.  They do not save us, they cannot save us, but they are graces to us, gifts of God to us.

Our lives are to be common grace for the common good.  Whether we teach kindergarten or advanced calculus, whether we build cabinets or buildings, whether we listen to the hurts of trafficked women or of aging parents, whether we counsel high school students or multinational corporations, whether we write computer code or novels, whether we bandage the wounds of little ones or surgically repair their broken bones, whether we make wills or make laws, we are to be common grace for the common good.

The vision of Pro Christo et Patria is one worthy of your life, signed into the very seal of Geneva as it is.  The words assume that Jesus who alone is Lord calls his people into every square inch of the whole of reality, giving ourselves away to the hope of history, seeking the flourishing of cities and countries and cultures the world over.  For Christ’s sake, pro Christo— for the city, for the country, for the culture.  Common grace for the common good.

That was the word of the Lord for Daniel—exile from Jerusalem that he was—whose vocation was to serve three despots, three mercurial rulers who wanted his wisdom for thinking through the complex social, political and economic responsibilities of the day.  For most of his life, that was Daniel’s life, a vocation for the common good of his society.  Agricultural policy, military strength, highway construction, water resources, political administration—the stuff of life for ordinary people in ordinary places, whether in Babylon or Beaver Falls.

That is to be our life, butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers that we will be.  With a smile I will say what all of you already know: most of us will not be Bono singing his songs along the three rivers ofPittsburgh, “How long, how long, O Lord, do we have to sing this song?” That summer night scores of thousands joined him in that ancient Hebrew psalm, somehow hearing their own hearts in his heart.  But his work is his work, and we have ours.  We have our own songs to sing.

  • Will you have learned so well what is yours to have learned here along this Beaver River, that you will be able to translate the truest truths of the universe so that people who do not think like you and believe like you, still might be persuaded by you of what is right and just and fair?
  • Will you be someone who takes the long calling of Jeremiah and Daniel into the 21st-century, seeking the flourishing of the city?
  • Will you find your way into a vision of vocation for the common good?
  • Will you be able to sing your song so that the whole world can hear?

May it be so in hundreds of wonderfully different ways, honored graduates that you are.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

Meet Steve