Tag Archives: Christian vocation

FINDING GOD’S GRACE AT THE AHA

After a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Peyton Manning strike a blow for old geezers, I’m feeling much too “do-less” (my grandmother’s word) to grade papers, so I thought I’d share some scattered thoughts about the recent American Historical Association annual meeting that I attended two weeks ago in Atlanta. The AHA is the premier professional organization for academic historians, and typically four to five thousand of us show up for each year’s conference. We’re a raucous bunch—not. Actually, think of every stereotype of historians that comes to mind and then double them, and you’ll be on the right track.

I’ve never much enjoyed the AHA, to be honest. The sessions can be interesting, but as a concept they’ve never made sense to me. Believe it or not, historians read their professional conference papers word for word, which means that a typical AHA session involves a room of extraordinarily educated individuals (most of whom have PhDs) sitting around while someone reads to them. Given that we are literate, a cheaper and more efficient approach would be for all of the presenters to post their papers online. We could then read them at leisure from our laptops in coffee shops or while watching football on our couches, instead of having to travel across the country to have them read to us in a hotel conference room.

But that would defeat the real purpose of these gatherings, which is all about connecting with people: reuniting with old friends, making new acquaintances, giving “elevator pitches,” talking to publishers, impressing potential employers, interviewing and being interviewed, seeing and being seen. What happens in the formal academic sessions—in conference rooms with names like “Salon West” or “Grand Ballroom D”—is not quite a sideshow, but it’s close. The real work is done in the numerous receptions and banquets, the book exhibit and the hotel bar.

Which is another reason I’ve never much enjoyed the AHA. I hate to schmooze. I also hate the self-conscious isolation that comes with not schmoozing. Standing by myself in an academic reception reminds me too much of junior high (though without the fear of bodily harm). When our firstborn was fifteen months old, my wife and I traveled together to a historians’ convention in New Orleans and brought our daughter along. On the second night of the meeting, we stopped by a reception sponsored by my alma mater. The room was stuffy, loud, and crowded, with folks standing shoulder to shoulder, drinks and hors d’oeuvres in hand, while they shouted in each other’s ears about the historiographical contributions of their doctoral dissertations. In the hubbub our toddler managed to slip away from us, and I’ll never forget where we found her. She had somehow made her way through the forest of grown-up legs to the far side of the room. There she stood, pressed into the corner with her back to the crowd and her forehead against the wall. Many a time I’ve wanted to do the same thing.

My discomfort at these meetings is more than just a matter of temperament, however—the lonely-in-a-crowd feeling that an introvert in such a setting should expect. It comes also from a sense of not wholly belonging, from the palpable tension that washes over me between the values of my profession and the demands of my vocation. Professionally, I’m a member of the guild of PhD’ed historians at work in the Academy. Vocationally, I’m called generally to be a Christ follower, and more particularly (I believe) to serve the Church by helping her learn from history and remember the past faithfully. My profession and my vocation aren’t blatantly at odds—I’d have to abandon my profession if they were—but neither are they wholly complementary.

In her marvelous essay “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” Christian historian Beth Barton Schweiger observes that “professionalization” is a process of “narrowing allegiances and priorities in order to conform to the rigid standards of the guild.” Professionalization is particularly a problem for the Christian historian, she goes on to explain, because our profession practices “knowledge as power,” eschewing the “deeper purpose of historical knowledge . . . which is to serve the ends of love.” She drives home her point with a series of rhetorical questions:

Where is mercy at the American Historical Association? What form does justice take in the job register? Who considers love in the array of bloodless panels at professional meetings?

I take her basic point. Considered as a whole, Schweiger’s surely right that “the world of professional history does not reward charity or wisdom.” But that doesn’t prevent countless individuals from being agents of God’s grace amidst the striving for professional place and power. I know this for a fact, for I was the beneficiary at least a half dozen times in three days.

The last three years have been a time of prolonged trial in the McKenzie family, and my wife and I are chronically weary and often discouraged as a result. The last thing that I expected was that the AHA would be a respite, a time of encouragement and refreshment, but that’s exactly what happened. It began on the second night of the conference with the opportunity to find a quiet corner in the Hilton and talk for an hour with a former student of mine. This young man is the complete package—great mind, exemplary character, extraordinary determination—and yet he’s encountered a series of roadblocks that have left him discouraged. We talked freely, and I had the privilege of reminding him of God’s faithfulness and love, and he responded with genuine concern for my family and for me. I left encouraged by his caring, and grateful for the opportunity to teach in a setting where connections of such depth develop frequently.

The next morning was the breakfast reception of the Conference on Faith and History. Among several conversations that were uplifting, two stand out. First was the opportunity to talk with an older friend, a scholar of national reputation who, for reasons that I have never comprehended, has always jumped at the chance to help me whenever he can. He helped get me on my first professional panel twenty-six years ago, he’s given me feedback on manuscripts, and when I needed a professional reference when I was being considered for an opening at Wheaton, he wrote the longest letter of recommendation that I have ever laid eyes on, so laudatory that I could scarcely recognize the person he was writing about. Before we parted he reminded me that he prayed for my family regularly, and he asked for prayer for one of his grandchildren. I felt loved.

Before leaving I sat down beside another friend of long-standing, mainly to pat his arm and say “hi” before he had to leave. At this point the breakfast was ending and most of the CFH members were scattering for various academic sessions, but this loving man asked me how I was and, what is more, he really wanted to know. We talked for an hour and a half in the empty dining room while the hotel staff set up for the next event. He encouraged me professionally, getting excited about my academic projects as I described them, reminding me that my labor was not in vain. He encouraged me personally, as we shared about our families and our hopes and concerns for our adult children. I left that conversation feeling affirmed, and encouraged, and loved.

This litany will soon grow tedious unless I summarize. That afternoon I ran into a historian who has been praying for my family for the past couple of years, and I took the opportunity to share with him some of the ways that I see his prayers being answered. He wanted to hear more, and we talked and walked and shared for three quarters of an hour.

By prior arrangement, I then met with the man who taught the very first college history class I ever sat in, when I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at the University of Tennessee. Thirty-eight years later, this man who inspired me to pursue an academic career wanted to connect with me. As we sat in the Marriott lobby he told me what he had seen in me nearly four decades ago, and then he trusted me enough to talk about the son who had returned from Afghanistan with PTSD, and the sense of helplessness and sorrow that had turned his own heart toward God.

Finally, before catching the airport shuttle the next morning, I was able to grab breakfast with a wonderful historian who I’ve known since the 1990s. We hadn’t connected in several years, and after finding out how I was doing, he was transparent enough to share about a personal heartache as well as God’s subsequent kindness, and again I walked away encouraged.

Does the historical profession, as a profession, reward wisdom and charity? No, it doesn’t, but I found instances of both this year at the AHA, along with encouragement and kindness and grace. May God alone be praised.

THINKING HISTORICALLY ABOUT VOCATION

Wheaton College undergraduates attend chapel services three times a week during the academic year.  Typically, the entire student body meets together in our beautiful Edman Chapel, but once each term students gather in smaller groups within their home departments–biology majors with biology majors, philosophy majors with philosophy majors, etc.  Today was the appointed day for departmental chapels, and it was my privilege to be the featured speaker in the chapel service hosted by the Department of History.

The title of my talk to our majors was “Thinking Historically About Vocation.”  At the beginning of the year my History Department colleagues and I decided that we needed to do a better job of helping our students think about life after graduation and the range of career paths they might follow.  Toward that end, we plan to bring back a number of History alums to campus for a series of panel discussions about possible vocational paths.

Before we launch that initiative, however, I thought it was important to help our students think about vocation at a more foundational level.  Before asking “What is my specific vocation or calling in life?” I want them to ask, “How, as a Christian, ought I to understand the concept of calling?”

In preparing my remarks, I relied heavily on a work that I would recommend to anyone wanting to think Christianly and historically about vocation.   The book is Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, edited by the late William C. Placher.  Placher was a long-time philosopher and theologian at Wabash College, and Callings is an an anthology of fifty-seven selections from prominent Christian thinkers of the past two millennia from the first-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth.

Placher

In her marvelous little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes that most modern-day Christians are “stranded in the present.” Dismissing what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “the communion of saints”–the fellowship of believers across the ages–we cut ourselves off from the hard-won insight of believers across the centuries and rely instead on the trendy and popular musings of the moment.

Callings assaults such arrogance head on. (And it is a form of arrogance, if we’re honest about it; C. S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.”) As we read systematically through the selections, we join a conversation that began long before we came on the scene and will continue long after we are gone.  In doing so, we discover that intelligent, devout believers have differed dramatically over the centuries about a concept we tend to take for granted.

Placher identifies four broad periods in history in which “calling” has had different meanings.  The first was the Early Church Period, say 100-500 A.D.  During these years it was far from easy to be a Christian.  Most Christians were in the minority in their communities.  It was common for followers of Jesus to come to faith as adults, and their decision to profess faith often came at great personal cost, sometimes meaning a break with family, sometimes leading to persecution.  During this period, when individuals wrestled with calling, they were confronting the basic question of whether to profess faith and, if they did so, how open to be in their declaration.  One of my favorites selections from this period is an excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions, written around the close of the fourth century.

During the Middle Ages, 500-1500, Christian writing on calling changed significantly.  In those areas around the world where Christians were to be found, they were usually in the majority in their communities.  Christianity was pretty much the dominant religion wherever it existed at all.  Most Christians lived under the authority of the Church and were surrounded by other believers.  As a result, when Christian writers reflected on the concept of calling, they rarely had in mind the question of whether to become a Christian.  They were much more preoccupied with the question, “What kind of Christian should I be?” Specifically, now the decision at the heart of finding one’s calling was whether to pursue a “religious” life.  During these centuries, to have a calling meant to serve in the priesthood or a monastic order, becoming a priest, monk, or nun.  Not coincidentally, individuals who wrote on calling tended to belong to monastic orders themselves, such as the Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas or the German monk Thomas a’ Kempis.

As Placher notes, it’s unlikely that either of these periods offers a perspective on calling that feels right to us.  If you’re like me, when you think about calling you’re probably not thinking about whether God might be leading you to join a monastic order, as would have been the case during the Middle Ages.  At the same time, you probably do have in mind something more specific than the general call to faith in Jesus as Lord, as calling was typically understood during the Early Church Period.  Don’t we typically think of something between these extremes–a general sense that God is summoning us to do a certain something with our lives, and that doing that something will give our lives greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment?

This understanding of calling dates to the third period that Placher identifies, namely the four a half centuries or so during and after the Protestant Reformation, say from the early 1500s to the late 1800s.  Two crucial things were happening during these years that transformed thinking about calling.  First, early reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to push back against the Catholic teaching that only priests, monks, and nuns were pursuing a calling from God.  Any task undertaken as unto the Lord is “reckoned very precious in God’s sight,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Second, much of the western world was undergoing a period of increasing commercialization and economic sophistication that historians call the Market Revolution.  When Calvin wrote in the 1530s, he still inhabited a world of severely limited options.  He could take for granted that almost all females would labor as wives and mothers, while almost all males would inherit the occupations of their fathers.  The son of a peasant farmer would be a peasant farmer; the son of a craftsman would be a craftsman.  In contrast to Christian writers in earlier centuries, both Calvin and Luther tended to equate “calling” with “occupation.”  Neither, however, offered advice to Christians about how to figure out the occupation to which God was calling them, because neither really expected their readers to have much choice in the matter.  Their goal was to teach Christians that, whatever kind of work they had inherited as their lot, they could quite literally think of it as a calling fraught with religious significance.

Over time, thanks in large part to the economic changes swirling around them, the heirs of Luther and Calvin began to modify or elaborate on their teaching.  They began to distinguish between “general calling” (the calling to faith in Christ) and “particular calling,” the calling to a specific walk of life or job.  More significant, they began to offer advice for discerning the latter.  English Puritans like William Perkins (writing at the close of the sixteenth century) and Richard Baxter (writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century) pinpointed a series of criteria for identifying an appropriate “particular” calling.  Any line of work we would pursue, they taught,  a) must be something we can practice with integrity and conformity to Biblical principles;  b) should in some way serve the common good; c) should express the desires of our heart; and d) should mesh with our particular abilities or skill set.  These criteria would not point the Christian to one and only one possible line of work, but they would be helpful in narrowing down the range of acceptable particular callings.

The fourth and final period that Placher identifies is what he calls the “Post-Christian” era of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In this period it has no longer been a given that Christians are in the majority in the communities where they reside.  (In this sense our world resembles the Early Church Period.)   During these years a number of Christian writers have consciously tried to return the focus of “calling” to the divine summons to live a life of obedience to Christ and to take the focus away from paid work.  A key writer in this vein is the late Karl Barth, whose writing on the topic is one of my favorites.  Barth argued that the early Reformers were right in insisting that the Catholic definition of calling during the Middle Ages was far too narrow.  In seeking to redress this, however, they committed their own error by equating the concept of calling so exclusively with work.  According to Barth, the divine calling applies to the totality of our existence, cutting diagonally across every dimension of our lives.

The selections in Callings will not lead you to simple answers about the concept of Christian vocation.  Like any fruitful conversation with the past, however, it will help you to discern your own position more precisely and think about it more perceptively.  As Placher put it,

The past does not always have the right answers, but its answers are often at least different from those of the present, and the differences cause us to question our own previously unexamined assumptions. . . . After traveling in other countries, we come back to our own with new questions. But the past too is a different country, and, voyaging in it, we gain richer perspectives on our own time.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: BONHOEFFER ON CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

Fall has arrived in the Midwest. The leaves are beginning to show orange and red, the temperature is supposed to dip into the thirties tonight, and my recent trip to southern California already seems like a dream. I spent the latter half of last week in Malibu, where an organization called the Conference on Faith and History convened for its 2014 biennial meeting. The Conference on Faith and History is a national organization of Christian historians that has been in existence for nearly half a century. About three hundred participants gathered for this year’s meeting. The program was amazing, the fellowship was great, and I had a blast.

Almost everyone I tell about the location of the meeting chuckles and winks. The assumption is that the CFH intentionally seeks out beach-front locales for its meetings, as if we were all looking for a place where we could put on Speedos and sip drinks with little umbrellas in them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In past years, I’ve attended CFH gatherings in such non-Malibu-like sites as Huntington, Indiana, Shawnee, Oklahoma, and Holland, Michigan. The CFH always holds its national meetings on Christian college campuses, and it just so happened that this year’s host school was Pepperdine University. Not that I’m complaining.

Have you ever been to Pepperdine? It is perched on high ground overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the vistas from the heart of campus are just ridiculously gorgeous. How anyone gets any work done there I can’t imagine. In an odd way, it was comforting to come back to the Chicagoland area, knowing that I could look forward to weather that will drive everyone indoors for the next eight months. What a blessing. . . .

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

But enough about the weather. My time at the conference sent my thoughts repeatedly to an extended passage in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve shared a portion of it before in a different post, but I thought I would return to it now and explain why I find it so meaningful. To do so requires a bit of personal context. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Thirty-two years (thirty-two years!) have passed since I embarked on an academic career. When I began graduate school at Vanderbilt University in the autumn of 1982, I thought that God might be calling me to become a Christian professor on a public university campus. I had not reached that conclusion easily. Throughout my senior year at the University of Tennessee I wrestled with several career options. With no certain sense of direction, I tried to keep my options open and did everything I could to put off making a decision. By December I had applied to thirteen different graduate or professional schools encompassing four different kinds of study. The options on the table were law, business, law and business, and history. I didn’t have peace about any of them.

From hindsight, that began to change when I was home over Christmas break, thanks to an unexpected visit from a near stranger. I recognized the white-haired man on our front porch as an usher in the fairly large Southern Baptist church that I had grown up in. I didn’t know him by name, however, and I doubt that we had ever more than smiled at one another in passing. I had given my testimony in a Sunday night service right after Christmas, and this gentleman explained that he had felt impressed to pass along a book to me that someone had given him.

The book that he placed in my hands was a book on Christian discipleship: The Upstream Christian in a Downstream World, by Charles W. Dunn. I took the book back to school with me that winter and read it against the backdrop of my ongoing struggle to figure out what in the world God wanted me to do with my life. Although it contained a great deal of wisdom, what struck me most was not the author’s counsel but rather his own life story. Charles Dunn was a professor of political science at Clemson University, and he filled his book with summaries of countless conversations over the years with college students about the claims of Christ. Gradually, I became more and more excited about the possibility of imitating Dunn’s example, and when Vanderbilt offered me the opportunity to pursue graduate study in history entirely on their dime, I decided to enroll and pursue a Ph.D.

Graduate school was harder than anything I had ever attempted, but it was also marvelously rewarding, and almost from the first I felt a sense of affirmation about the path that I had chosen. That sense of confidence was reinforced when, six years later, I was offered a marvelous job at a world-class research university immediately upon finishing my graduate study. My wife and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, determined to invest in the lives of students at the University of Washington.

I arrived at UW confident that God had called me to be a Christian history professor, but with only the slightest idea of what that meant. I took for granted that what would make me a Christian history professor would be what I did outside of the classroom. I would look for ways to witness to unbelieving students when they visited my office, and my wife and I would lead a Bible study for college students at our church. But when I was in the classroom, what I taught and how I taught wouldn’t differ that much from my unbelieving colleagues. I would just be nicer.

Had you asked me during those years, I would have insisted that I was doing my best to love God with my mind. I was pretty sure that I was imitating the apostle Paul in “pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). But I was not thinking “Christianly” about my profession, nor did I have the remotest idea of what it might mean to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

My evangelical upbringing had taught me that, whatever my specific career path, all that truly mattered was personal integrity and evangelism. And so for years—it embarrasses me now to admit this—I defined faithfulness in my calling with little reference to the actual content of my teaching and scholarship. Yes, I would teach a Sunday School class, and yes, I would look for opportunities to witness, but otherwise I would simply jump on the academic treadmill. By not thinking deeply about the institution in which I labored, I found it relatively easy to be content in that labor. But while I was focused narrowly on personal piety and evangelism—good things both—I was also happily serving a university which rested on a worldview that was the antithesis of what I professed to believe.

I’m not pretending for a moment that I have it all figured out now, but I do think that God helped me over time to think more deeply about the foundations of the secular multiversity of which I was a part. I slowly began to realize that the classroom is never a neutral space, and that I had been teaching in a way that made me unwittingly complicit in the university’s secularizing mission. Whatever I might be doing or saying outside of the classroom, inside of the classroom I was implicitly teaching my students to make sense of their world without reference to the Author of all wisdom and knowledge.

As I came to grips with this insight, I was forced to wrestle with my calling in a way that I never had before. And as I tried—really for the first time—to think “Christianly” about my vocation, I began to experience what the late Harry Blamires (one of C.S. Lewis’s last students) called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Before this, I had never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular Academy for one simple reason: I wasn’t thinking like one. But now that was changing, and the result was a growing sense of alienation.

This is where the Conference on Faith and History came in. I knew that I didn’t understand how to pursue my vocation as a Christian historian faithfully, but I also didn’t know what to do differently. I needed to learn from those who shared my vocation and were farther down the road than I was. Some of this I could gain by reading books and articles on the subject, but that was not enough. Looking back, I think I was sort of like the Ethiopian court official that we read about in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-40), the one who Phillip the Apostle encountered on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Like him, I needed a living, side-by-side conversation, and when I attended my first CFH convention I found that. The fellowship that I encountered in the Conference on Faith and History encouraged me deeply. Even more important was the ongoing conversation about calling that I was invited to join. It continues to bless me immeasurably, and I will always be grateful.

RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFERAnd so it is that throughout last week’s conference my mind kept returning to passages in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, as you probably know, was a German theologian and pastor who was an open critic of Nazi rule from the moment that Adolph Hitler rose to power. Because the established Protestant churches were under the control of the Gestapo, for several years Bonhoeffer secretly trained young pastors in an underground seminary. In 1938 he penned Life Together, an extended meditation on Christian community that grew out of this experience.

Life Together III first read Life Together the fall that I arrived at Wheaton College after twenty-two years at the University of Washington. It impressed me deeply. Bonhoeffer began by quoting Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” The rest of the book proclaims two truths: First, as Christians we desperately need the blessing of Christian community.  Second, we must never, ever take it for granted when we are blessed to experience it.

Here is how Bonhoeffer explains the first point:

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.

Here I read Bonhoeffer articulating both the longing I had felt at UW and the blessing that I had felt in my interaction with the Conference on Faith and History. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of vocation for nearly twenty years, and there’s only one thing I’m absolutely certain of: we need to work out our understandings of our calling in community. We need to be in conversation with other believers about what it means to follow God faithfully in the particular circumstances in which He has placed us.

Bonhoeffer also writes movingly about the preciousness of Christian community. The book’s third sentence sounds the theme: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” Surely he must have reflected on that truth countless times in the years to come, including the two years that he spent in a succession of prisons before his execution in April 1945.

I have meditated on the passage below frequently since coming to Wheaton. It helps put into words my gratitude for the Conference on Faith and History, but it also provides a framework for thinking about the opportunity that God has granted me here at Wheaton. I need to hear regularly both the reminder and the warning that it contains:

It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.