Portland, OR
25 April 2011

Welcome to the West Coast!

I grew up in this part of the world, in the Golden State, just to the south of Oregon. When I was 20 I dropped out of college, living in a commune in the Bay Area for a year. I learned to eat Chinese food with chopsticks in a little greasy spoon in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and week-by -week I hitchhiked between Palo Alto and Berkeley, listening into a world of worldviews, all the while thinking and rethinking my life, and life.

My father was a scientist at the University of California, and he was a good man. A gifted researcher, he was also a thoughtful Christian. I remember one morning driving across the miles of California, he on his way to Berkeley and me on way back to the commune—and we talked for several hours about vocation. I pushed and pushed him, asking him if there was any real difference between a Christian who was a scientist, and a scientist who happened also to be a Christian.

Looking back on it, the difference does not seem that decisive. But that morning it seemed, to my 20 year-old mind, a distinction that made all the difference in the world. Years later, what is more clear to me is that I was wrestling with what has become the question of my life:

What is the relationship of faith to vocation to culture?

Or to put it more simply:

Is vocation integral to the missio Dei? Or is it, sadly and merely, incidental?

So first a story… then a musing over the meaning of signposts…and finally three commitments with three questions.

First: A Story

The scientific genes missed a generation with me… but I have known some scientists in my life. 25 years ago I spent a few years in Pittsburgh, working at my PhD. And I met week after week with a group of graduate students at Carnegie –Mellon University. Of all the students I have known, they were easily the most renaissance of people: widely and deeply read in diverse disciplines, and yet prized recruits into very competitive PhD programs in computer and electrical engineering. We met as a reading group in the Robotics Institute there.

One day we were meeting, reading a book by a European scholar on the meaning of technology, and we heard the door open to the conference room. No one came in, and the door closed in a few seconds. We assumed that we were the wrong room. We finished our study, and went off into the rest of life. The next week a professor from an Australian university joined us; he was on sabbatical at CMU writing a book on artificial intelligence. At the end of our study, he told us that he had come looking for us the previous week, hearing that some Christians met in the Robotics Institute on Thursday at noon, “But when I heard you discussing technology, I just assumed that you weren’t the Christians.”

I could tell you stories like this for hours— but like everyone else, I have 18 minutes.

Everything about Q is on purpose. That it is called Q is on purpose. That it is gathering this year in Portland is on purpose. Portland represents something that matters to what Q is all about. That Donald Miller welcomed us here, on behalf of Portlandia, is on purpose. What he represents, what he means, is integral to the purpose of Q in Portland. To put it starkly: Q doesn’t make sense unless Donald is here.

And now that we have been welcomed, we are stepping into the day with a conversation about vocation—why? Simply said, it is on purpose. Understanding vocation rightly means we have understood Q rightly, because it means we have understood the purpose of God rightly. We understand the nexus of faith to vocation to culture.

So here is my thesis: vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission of God.

If we get the mission of God right, we will understand why vocation is where we begin.

If we miss on the meaning of the mission of God, we will miss on the meaning of vocation—and it will be, a thousand times in a thousand places, one more reason that people assume that PhD students in engineering disciplines who are also serious Christians shouldn’t be talking about technology.

Second:  Signposts

To get at this I want to talk with you about signposts, and about being signposts.

To do that, we need to remember Walker Percy, the great American novelist and essayist. He was not a romantic, for a moment. Over the course of his career he wrote many novels, most with an apocalyptic title. The Last Gentleman. The Second Coming. Love in the Ruins. The Thanatos Syndrome. He was not afraid to look the bleakness of the human heart, right in the eye.

Over time the New York literary critics began calling him “the American Camus,” an identification he resisted, always insisting instead that there was “a hint of hope” in his work. Towards the end of his life he published an anthology of essays, Signposts in a Strange Land, clearly one of the most impressive efforts at cultural apologetics ever done.

Signposts? Signposts. It is an evocative image.  Several years ago I spent some time in India, in the south, the state of Kerala. On every road in every town there were banners marked by hammers and sickles, the iconic symbol of communism, reflecting a strange, contemporary debate about the meaning of history among the Indian people.

Of all that Marx and Mao got horribly and tragically wrong, what the Communists of Kerala got right was this: the work of our hands matters. The ordinary stuff of life is at the heart of life. Sickles and hammers, the most ordinary tools used by men and women in every century and every culture, are woven into the meaning of history. The world will be different because of what you do with your hands! That is what Marx and Mao promised, and that is what was being argued over in India with their banners streaming over the streets.

Signposts? Signposts, yes.

A few weeks earlier I had been in Beijing, giving a lecture at the Beijing Film Academy. I spoke on the theme, “Good Stories and Good Societies.” If the Chinese political leaders promise “a harmonious society,” rooted in centuries-long visions of a mandate from heaven, of Tiananmen, it will require that their best filmmakers, their best cinematic story-tellers are captured by the vision of good stories. Good stories nourish good societies, always and everywhere.

What is a good story? I offered them an image of Percy’s, actually, from his collection, Signposts in a Strange Land. He argued that, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” Substantively interacting with some of China’s best films, I argued that “bad films always lie—they lie most of all about the human condition.” And of course I set forth a vision of the vocation of filmmaker, of one who tells stories formed by the truest truths of the universe.

When I finished, I looked out into the auditorium, wondering if they had heard. For a few seconds there was silence, then a young woman raised her hand, and then another student and another. For a half hour we had a fascinating conversation among the hundreds in the room about “the truth of the human condition”– what is it? and how do we know it? Their work will matter for China as a society, and because of China’s emerging role in the globalizing 21st-century, it will matter for all of us.

Signposts? Four good stories, four hard stories—and these are the conversations of my life.

First, the NGO world, the not-for-profit world that we know so well, full as it is of its own complexity. Two of my good friends are Jena Lee Nardella and Todd Deatherage, both are speaking here. Jena directs the Blood:Water Mission, which exists to address the complex intersection of blood and water in the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. I first her met her when she was an undergraduate, and have walked along with her over the years of Blood:Water’s life, seeing her through the early hopes and tears, to the celebration this spring of the completion of the 1000 Wells Project. Whenever a well is dug, wherever a clinic is established, a signpost is created, a signpost of the way things ought to be, and can be. The same is true for my friend Todd, who directs the Telos Group, which exists to argue the very unpopular position that any long-term peace in the Middle East depends upon taking seriously the histories and futures of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. For the most part, neither the church nor the world wants to hear that. But Todd and his colleagues keep pressing the point, each time and each trip offering their vision of proximate justice and mercy as a signpost of what must be. It is the reality of politics, the most realpolitick argument that can be made.

But the marketplace is its own setting for signposts. Hans Hess and Evan Loomis are two other good friends of mine who are not here. Hans founded Elevation Burger six years ago, wanting to make a better burger, a more healthy hamburger. It was a good idea, in fact an idea whose time has come—as now there are Elevation Burgers being built all over the country and the world, responding to the desire for burgers that are healthy and tasty at the very same time. The tagline is “Ingredients Matter,” because they do—for both individuals and for societies. Evan has taken a similar vision into another arena of the marketplace, creating a new company that he has called TreeHouse, “a Whole Foods version of Home Depot.” The first store will open this fall in Austin, TX, the home of the green building business that is rippling across America, addressing both present need and future responsibility, “smart building for smart living,” as they describe their vision.

They are signposts each one.

And yet, and yet. Sometimes our best shots at being signposts miss, sometimes we will be misunderstood—even tragically.

Have you seen “Of Gods and Men”? An award-winning film, earning the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, it is showing at the art house theater in the Rose Garden neighborhood just a few blocks from here. It is the story of a small group of men who live in a Trappist monastery in Algeria, there to be a witness to the gospel of the kingdom in a predominantly Moslem community. It is also a story of remarkable faith, remarkable hope, remarkable love– and it is a story that in most every way makes no sense at all…. and only can if we offer ourselves to the world, seeing our vocations as signposts.

Even at our best, sometimes we miss, and sometimes we are misunderstood. But we are still called, called to be signposts in a strange land.

Third: Three Commitments, Three Questions

So how will we do this? How will become signposts like this?

We must commit:

  1. To a theological imagination that makes sense of who we are and how we are to live, especially to understanding the meaning of vocation as integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei. We need a theological imagination that is rich and true enough to push back away from every sort of dualism, from every effort to privilege the sacred over the secular, the not-for-profit over the profit, of saving grace over common grace. The paradigm has to change, and we need the theological grist running through the mills of our minds that is able to do that.I have a question for us: if this is our theology, why don’t we pray it? Why is it that the communists in Kerala understand that the work of their hands is deeply written into the meaning of history, by their banners proclaiming that sickles and hammers matter, that the work of human hands matters to what history is all about, and yet we as Christians do not pray as if that was true? When was the last time that architects and builders, teachers and librarians, doctors and nurses, artists and journalists, lawyers and judges, were prayed for in your congregation? We could do that, you know? We need to keep praying for the Young Life staff people, and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, but we also need to pray for the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers too, remembering that most of what God is doing in the world is being done in and through the vocations of his people.
  2. To an over-the-shoulder, through-the-heart learning that will grace you for the rest of your life. This kind of apprenticeship in life gives us eyes to see that a coherent life is possible, that it is not written that cynicism and compartmentalization are the only real possibilities.And so a second question: what you are doing to address the challenge of the valley of the diapers? The years between 20 and 40 are hard ones, as they are the ones where we sort out who we will be for the rest of life. What is it that will matter to us? What will we love? And because the stakes are so high, we need teachers who can show us that words can become flesh, that worldviews can become ways of life. How we will take this up as a community here?
  3. To a community of folk who will together embody things that matter. Q Gatherings and Axiom Conversations, communities and congregations of all shapes and sizes. As the good folks at Comment magazine have put it: to re:think, to re:search, to re:build. If we are going to be common grace for the common good, we need each, deeply and desperately we need each other.And so a third question: who and what are you committed to? Every Wednesday morning I meet with Todd Deatherage and Mark Rodgers, both of whom are here. It is simple, and sometimes we don’t—but we have a standing appointment with each other, trying to work a common life together. Wendell Berry is right about this, you know. We critically need to belong to a people who work out their vocations in a place. People and place matter, if we are to hold onto our humanness—in fact, if we are to hold on.

A Conversation With Consequences

Q? Why have we come? Why have we flown from across a continent? To talk, yes, but not to just talk. We all hope that this conversation has consequences.

To a person, we are people who long for the world as it ought to be, who long for the world as it someday will be. To a person we are people who live our lives in that tension, giving ourselves away to God and history, hoping that the world will be different because our frail lives are in fact woven into the missio Dei, that our vocations are honestly and deeply integral to the mission of God in the world. With Mumford and Sons, we sing, “sigh no more,” longing to find a love as it ought to be, longing to live and love as we ought.

To a person we are people who really do believe that when Christians meet together in rooms like this—and in Robotics Institute conference rooms the world over –that of course we should talk about technology, and business, and education, and politics, and the arts, and the media, and the church, and neighborhoods and cities and societies, and globalization too. The stuff of life, of your life and my life. Yes, the stuff of the whole of reality, every square inch.

Yes, we have come because we see ourselves as implicated in history, and therefore we want this conversation to have consequences.

Amen and amen.

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