There Is No Calling Without Community

I’m happy to report that, last Friday morning, Mark Pattie and I submitted our revised manuscript for The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. I don’t yet have a publication date to share, but one way or another, it’s a huge step forward.

Tentative cover of The Pietist OptionAnd it means that I can return to blogging this week… I’ll start by saying thanks to Mark, who took on a huge challenge — and a major addition to his workload — when he agreed to write this book with me. In the middle of finishing his revisions (and coming off a week with three funerals), I don’t know how he found the time to write the terrific sermon he preached yesterday.

But I’m glad I heard it. Mark preached from Philippians 2, which is a favorite of mine as well. One of Katie and my wedding texts, the kenotic hymn of verses 5-11 features in one of the chapters I contribute to The Pietist Option. But Mark focused on the two verses that follow:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

What struck me most was the pronoun in the last verse: “at work in you, enabling you…

I don’t know biblical Greek, but I assume that we’re losing something in translation. Because 21st century English doesn’t have a second-person plural pronoun, we’re inclined to hear that verse the way 21st century Americans prefer to hear most things: as a direct address to each of us as individuals (“at work in you, Chris, enabling you, Chris…”). But this was a letter to a community, read communally. The same apostle who elsewhere said that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom 12:5) surely meant that God works through all the interconnected members of that community, enabling all of them together to “work for his good pleasure.”

Visualization of 1 Cor 12:27

And that crystallized an idea I’d been slowly coming to realize for several months:

There is no calling without community.

Vocation has been much on my mind since my sabbatical, the second half of which was primarily devoted to wrestling with some mid-career doubts about whether I still felt called to be a professor. I came back to Bethel fairly confident that I was on the right track… and eager to talk about calling with my students. So I made that the recurring theme of our first-year Intro to History course: it’s the topic of our final essay, and has shown up in a variety of readings and assignments already.

As usual, I started with Frederick Buechner, who wants us to heed “the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” It’s not purely personal; Buechner thinks we must also heed the voice telling us to go “where we are most needed.” But we should be attentive to our own joy, to our own flourishing; we should seek our “strongest sense of sailing true north…”

Frederick Buechner
A younger Frederick Buechner – Buechner Institute

Knowing that that advice is far easier to follow if you’ve got all the advantages and privileges in life that I’ve been given, I still think that Buechner’s right. But what I’ve learned (or re-learned) so far this year is that even an introvert like me can’t find “gladness” in solitude.

Wherever I hear that voice, it’s because of other people.

• I can only teach because I have students. (And they wouldn’t be in my classroom if not for parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors, and others.)

• I can only write because I have readers. (And, for the upcoming book, a co-author… and an editor and many, many other collaborators.)

• I can only speak because I have audiences.

• I can only love because I have a wife, and children, and parents, and siblings, and other family… and friends.

Because Another loved me first.

I can only “work out [my] own salvation” as part of a (plural) “you”, and then only because that Another is at work in that body, “enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

And if I can take that realization to heart, perhaps then I’ll get closer to having “the same mind” that was in a Christ who “emptied himself” and “humbled himself.” Perhaps then I’ll finally be ready to understand how Paul started that passage:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Phi 2:1-4)