Monday, April 30, 2007

The Purpose of Vocation

As someone who works in the marketplace, I know that it can sometimes be challenging to understand the significance of a "marketplace calling". As I'm reading through God at Work, Gene Veith is offering me fresh perspectives on how to view my vocation.

Vieth makes the point, that as Christians, we are citizens of two kingdoms - the spiritual kingdom of God where He rules the hearts of His people and the earthly kingdom where God rules over His creation. Understanding the difference between the two kingdoms is vital to shaping our approach to vocation.

Christians are citizens in both of God's kingdoms. In His spiritual kingdom, we rest in Christ; in His earthly kingdom, we serve our neighbors. The greatest commandments as affirmed by Christ Himself, are thus fulfilled: "Love the Lord your God" and "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31). p.38

Veith's point is that in the spiritual kingdom, we must not relate to God on the basis of our works but rather by grace alone. In this realm, our works have no merit, it is faith that pleases and "serves" God.

It is dangerous according to the Reformers to confuse the two realms. We dare not come before God trusting in all the good works we have done. We come before God as sinners. If we trust in our works...we feel no need for Christ's forgiveness. This is why all vocations are equal before God. In the spiritual kingdom...peasants are equal to kings. p.38-39

He goes on to tell us that the point of our vocation is not to serve God but to serve our neighbor.

Again, Luther said that faith serves God but works serve our neighbor. We often speak of "serving God"... in the spiritual realm, it is God who serves us. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). In our vocations, we are not serving God - we are serving other people. p.39

OK, let me get this straight - the purpose of vocation isn't to serve God? Just in case, I might have misunderstood, he clarifies by repeating the assertion a little later.

In vocation, we are not doing good works for God - we are doing good works for our neighbor. This locates moral action in the real messy world of everyday concrete interactions with other people. The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one's neighbor. This is the test, the criterion and the guide for how to live out each and every vocation anyone can be called to...who are my neighbors in my particular vocation, and how can I serve them with the love of God? p.39-40

Do you agree with Veith? Is the point of our working, not so much to serve God but rather to serve our neighbor? If so, who are your neighbors in your vocation and how do you serve them?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

God at Work

I've just begun reading God at Work by Gene Veith, the culture editor of World magazine. It's a book about the doctrine of Christian vocation as it applies in all of life. I've only read the introduction but it's already made some salient points. Here's an excerpt about the implications of the Reformation on the vocation of every believing Christian.

The Reformation notion of "the priesthood of all believers"...taught that the pastoral office is a vocation...But it also taught that laypeople as well have vocations, callings of their own that entails holy responsibilities, authorities and blessings of their own. The "priesthood of all believers" did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.

Veith gladly concedes that he draws much of his insights about vocation from Martin Luther's understanding of the topic.

...for Luther, vocation is not just a matter of the Law...rather, above all, vocation is a matter of the Gospel, a manifestation of God's action, not our own. In this sense, vocation is not another burden placed on us, something to fail at, but a realm in which we can experience God's love and grace, both in the blessings we receive from others and in the way God is working through us despite our failures.

The area of vocation and work/faith integration is much discussed today and is in fact one reason the Every Square Inch blog exists. However, I find that biblically sound resources on the topic are few and far between. This book holds promise to be one and I'll keep you updated as I read along.

Another wonderful resource is TheHighCalling. As its name implies, the website's purpose is to promote a high view of our work as Christians in the marketplace. This week, they are running a blog tour to highlight the newly redesigned website that just went live. You really need to check it out and join as a member.

Among the other blog tour stops, are the following -

LL Barkat
Gordon Atkinson
Ramblin Dan
Charity Singleton

Camy Tang
Marcus Goodyear
Al Hsu

Emdashery Stacy Gina Conroy CREEations
Milton Brasher-Cunningham Mary DeMuth Karl Edwards
Amy Goodyear Jennwith2ns Charles Foster Johnson
Eve Neilsen Mike Mcloughlin Naked Pastor

Monday, April 23, 2007

Grief and Hope

Last week was filled with grief for many directly affected by the Virginia Tech shooting. But sooner or later, suffering and loss is something we will all have to deal with.

In God's providence, the recent April TableTalk issue was on the topic of grief. Ligonier Ministries has kindly made the content available as a means of God's help to those coping with loss.

There are a number of wonderful articles offering a biblical perspective on grief but the one that spoke to me was by Jim Coffield entitled From Grief to Glory. In the article, he asserts that how we deal with grief and loss reveals our core belief about God's nature and our own heart.

He makes several great points in the article about dealing with grief in our lives -

1. Loss is inevitable.

While we live in this present age, loss is inevitable... No one is exempt. Although the degree and level of suffering and loss may be dissimilar, we all will experience loss, and we will have to face the realities of grief.

He asks a vitally pertinent question - what do we do with our grief?

What do we do with our pain?... If we are honest, we will admit we often try to make a deal with God concerning loss: "I will follow you but make sure my kids turn out ok. I will follow you but I want to earn your blessing."

Coffield tells us that this kind of thinking is wrong since it attempts to relate to God on the basis of our efforts to earn His blessing.

God has revealed that we already have all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ...we should live out of this fullness because our greatest loss, our relationship with God, was forever addressed on the cross. We are not alone and our Father will never leave us.

2. God is Aware of Our Losses.

Coffield asks the question we want to know but may be too afraid to ask - in the midst of our loss, does God care?

Scripture is clear that Jesus is intimately aware of the cries of his children. Jesus weeps of Jerusalem and Lazarus' tomb....The most obvious display of his concern for the effects of sin and loss in our lives is His coming and sacrifice for us on the cross.

His point serves to remind us that the cross is the definitive statement that God loves us and cares for us, even when we are in the midst of suffering and grief.

3. How Should We Grieve?

Coffield makes the point that Jesus invites us to grieve with Him, to come to Him in our grief and suffering. Yet, we often suppress our grief as a means of coping rather than facing our grief. In doing so, we may miss the opportunity to approach God and receive the kind of comfort that only He can bring.

"Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted". Most of us, however, refuse to mourn and grieve. We refuse to mourn because we cannot wrap our finite minds around the despair and hope that live in loss... God is inviting us to face the significant and debilitating losses of our lives by resting in His arms...God invites us to trust him, to depend upon him. Jesus says "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

Artwork copyright JR Bell (Used with permission)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tragedy at Virginia Tech

By now, we all know - the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech this morning has left as many as 33 dead, including the gunman. Some have called it the deadliest shooting in modern US history. For the friends and family of the deceased, it's an especially a sad day. May the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, comfort them in their grief and trouble.

Even for the rest of us, it is difficult not to be affected by such tragedy and senseless killing. It's a harsh reminder that we live in a fallen world, tainted by our rebellion against God. How can we make sense of this? I suggest reading this perspective on the Virginia Tech shooting from the Desiring God blog. It offers a view on how to care for those in suffering as well as a biblical perspective on suffering, evil and God's sovereignty.

Another good reference point on how to speak about this tragedy with non-Christians is the speech by Tim Keller, delivered at the 9/11 remembrance service last year in NYC. Great takeaways on how to identify with suffering (as we rightly should) and yet introduce the hope of the gospel.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Does Beauty Transcend ?

I really wanted to post on this earlier in the week but I've been unplugged for the past 3 days.

Washington Post conducted a fascinating social experiment - it's a long article but worth reading. They commissioned Joshua Bell, a renown violinist to play some of the finest classical music ever composed on a Stradivarius, right in the middle of a Washington DC metro train station...during rush hour.

The idea was to find out if the essence of beauty is self evident, and whether it would transcend the busyness of the rush hour commute. Would people be so moved by the music, so as to pause the hustle and bustle of the morning, to recognize or perhaps even appreciate its evident beauty?

Well, the results aren't pretty. As Joshua Bell played for 43 minutes, a total of 1,097 people passed by. Only seven stopped to listen. Here's the excerpt from the article that really got my attention -

The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.

Knowing myself, I probably wouldn't have been found among the seven but it did give me pause to think -

Is real beauty self evident and self authenticating?
Why can't we recognize it?
What does that say about us?
What is real beauty?

One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.

Psalm 27:4

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Spurgeon on How Faith Reconciles Us to Our Vocation

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) always seemed to preach with the gospel in view, even on practical matters such as work and vocation. Among the more intriguing points on the topic of vocation is this assertion -

Faith is beneficial to our vocation because it "reconciles [us] to the discomforts of [our] calling". What exactly does that mean? Well, I'll let him speak to us in his own words -

Faith has a beneficial influence...for it reconciles a man to the discomforts of his calling. It is not every calling that is easy or lucrative or honoured among men.

Faith teaches the humble worker to see Jesus in all his lowliness, condescending upon himself the form of a servant for our sakes. Faith reads "Jesus, knowing that he came forth from God and went to God, took a towel, and girded himself, and washed the disciples' feet." That was one of the most menial of employments, and if our Lord and Master did not disdain it why should we be ashamed of the humblest form of service?

I like the honesty of his counsel. Especially his acknowledgment that we are sometimes called to a vocation that is neither easy nor honored among men. Perhaps too much of the work/faith discussion is about making a grand impact on business, politics and culture. Could it be that not enough is said on how to redeem small, obscure and menial moments by humbly serving "as to the Lord"? Spurgeon's words can help us think differently about this.

Spurgeon goes on to tell us more about the fruit of gratitude in the life of a faith filled, humble worker.

Your faith ought to help you by arousing gratitude for deliverance from a far worse drudgery. You did for Satan things for which you are now ashamed... There is no degradation for anything that is done for God. Faith in God sanctifies the man and his calling too, and makes it pleasant to him to carry the cross of Christ in his daily labour.

Here's the gospel connection, from Spurgeon's perspective

Faith is a great teacher of humility for it bids us think little of ourselves and rest alone in God; and because it fosters humility it renders a man's task pleasant when else it would be irksome.
When the Lord makes us feel that we are poor undeserving creatures, we do not mind taking the lowest room or the meanest work for we feel that as long as we are out of hell and have a hope of heaven, the meanest service is an honour to us.

Another way faith reconciles us to the discomforts of our vocation is by enabling perseverance through the avenue of gospel hope.

Faith also removes discomforts by reminding us that they will not last long. Faith says of trial, "Bear it. The time is short. Soon the Saviour cometh and the poorest of his followers shall then reign with him". Toil on, O weary one, for the morning light will put an end to thy labour, which lasts only through the hours of darkness...Thus faith takes the thorns from our pillow, and makes us learn in whatsoever state we are therewith to be content

In this life, we may encounter what seems to be difficult, fruitless work but there's a better day coming where work will be creative, fruitful and joyfully fulfilling.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Who is Jesus?

For this week leading up to Easter Sunday, I'm setting aside the usual faith/work, gospel centered cultural engagement theme to focus on a person - Jesus Christ.

We live in an increasingly, pluralistic, multi-cultural society with religious diversity. And, I happen to believe it's a good thing that we should welcome and embrace.

However, in a pluralistic environment, it's vital for the foundational distinctives of our faith to be clear. For the Christian faith, that starts with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Here is a passage from Hebrews that speaks to who he is.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

If you want to know what God is like, the writer of Hebrews would say - "look to Jesus". This verse reminds me that in God's wisdom, he has chosen to definitively reveal himself to us through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "exact imprint" of God. This vast universe we live in was created for him, through him and upheld by him.

In reference to this verse, an excerpt from the book, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the Creator of the universe. Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. Jesus Christ, the Person, never had a beginning. He is absolute Reality. He has the unparalleled honor and unique glory of being there first and always. He never came into being. He was eternally begotten. The Father has eternally enjoyed "the radiance of His glory and exact representation of His nature" (Hebrews 1:3) in the Person of his Son...To feast on this forever is the aim of our being created and our being redeemed.

Artwork copyright JR Bell (Used with permission)