Sunday, July 10, 2016

Calling: Knowing and Loving

This summer, along with many of my colleagues, I am reading Steven Garber's book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. I have enjoyed it immensely, but I find I have to read it in small chunks, because there are so many big ideas, and I need to spend some time chewing on them, so to speak.

It is timely that I am reading this book right now, but perhaps not for the reasons you might suspect, given the title of the book. The book is about vocation--calling--but not in the sense that you might normally associate with the word "vocation." Calling is much more than just your job, your employment, your career. A the very beginning of the book, Garber includes a note explaining his belief about meaning of "vocation," and he suggests we should think about this word as "a rich one, having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally--all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God" (from "On Vocation," p. 11).

In the chapters I have read so far, Garber draws upon his experiences working in Washington D.C. as an academic and the leader of a think tank, his friendships with people in powerful positions and lowly ones alike--Senators and students, authors and artists--and weaves their stories together in ways that have brought me fresh eyes to the concept of vocation.

The reading so far has me thinking, "Just what am I called to do?" and this is a little unsettling for me, because I feel like I am just getting comfortable in my work as a professor.

But, as I suggested above, I find the reading of this particular book timely at the moment. If you have been following the news in the United States at all in the past weeks, you will undoubtably know that there is an incredible sense of unrest. Political rhetoric is burning. Race relations are tense. There have been so many shootings across this country in the past week alone, and my heart aches. Protestors and police alike are in turmoil. And all of it is playing out in social media in painful, hurtful, nasty ways.

I am troubled, friends. My heart hurts. When I see the kinds of things my friends are posting on Facebook--on all sides of all issues--my heart hurts. When I see the angry tweetstorms--on all sides of all issues--my heart hurts. There is so much pain, and anger, and sorrow, and venom, and it's getting blasted all over the place in what seems like thoughtless, mean-spirited, and even deliberately divisive ways. It seems like everyone is mad, and rather than taking a step back, catching our breath, and being a bit reasonable, we'd all rather rush right to the brink, lash out, hurt-them-before-they-hurt-me, and plug our ears and close our eyes and try to outshout anyone who might possibly disagree with us, meantweeting, facebookbashing, and memebombing our way across the battlefield.

And into all of this, I'm reading Garber, about vocation.

And in the midst of it, something clicked for me today. Garber raises an important question about the difference between and relationship between "knowing" and "doing." The path he takes to get there is through an understanding of covenant--which is more than just an "agreement" or a "contract" as it is sometimes described. Garber suggests that a covenant unfolds through relationship, revelation, and responsibility, and that knowledge is a theme running through these three.

Garber then asks the question, "What does it mean to 'know'?"

His answer: "If we were to take the Hebrew scripture, from Genesis to Malachi, listening to and learning the way that knowledge is understood, it would come to something like this: to have knowledge of means to have responsibility to means to have care for. If one knows, then one cares; if one does not care, then one does not know" (p. 100). Garber notes that the Hebrew word yada means "to know," but the connotations are much richer than what we might understand from the English word "know." As just one example, the word yada in Genesis 4:1 is translated "made love to," rendering "Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant." That is indeed "knowing!" Garber notes that yada is "a multifaceted word that, in its near one thousand uses in the Hebrew scripture, is translated variously as know, knows, knew, known, knowing, knowledge, acknowledge, understand, teach, realize, show, experience, care for, concern, concerned about, have sex with, and learns" (p. 105). "Knowing" as caring for, or being concerned about, or learning definitely takes on a different character than just the factual connotation I usually assign to "knowing."

I've been reflecting on this. In my own life, I realize how a change happened in terms of my perspective on illegal immigrants. I confess that I once held the perspective that "Illegal immigrants are breaking the law and ought to be deported." No ifs, ands, or buts about it. (And PLEASE hear this right--I know that some of you might feel that way right now. No judgment from me is intended...I just want to share a firsthand example here...) This perspective, however, began to change for me once I actually got to know some Hispanic people here in my town (truly, I do not know their immigration status, but I suspect that they may be illegals.) Once I learned more about what drew them to this area, came to understand more about their hopes and dreams and fears and joys, I found that my hard-lined perspective began to shift. "Knowing"--in this deeper yada kind of way--changed me. Yes, I recognize that illegal immigrants are breaking the law. But meeting up with individual human beings, developing a relationship with them, understanding more about their situation...dare I say knowing them?...caused me to care for them, to be concerned about them, and to soften my stance.

This is, of course, my personal example; I'm sure that there are others who could argue the other side of this situation as well. Perhaps someone got to know someone firsthand and it didn't change their perspective at all--just confirmed all of their preconceived notions and stereotypes. But my suspicion is that if we really take the time and energy to get to know someone, to see the image of God in them, we will find our hearts softened.

One more example from Garber: he tells the story of a friend of his who worked as Chief of Staff for the U.S. State Department who has been working for some time with the problems in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians. When he left the State Department, this man reached out to a Palestinian human rights lawyer, and the two of them--who had become friends through their travels together in Israel--formed a new organization called the Telos Group, which has the audacious vision of being for BOTH the Israelis and the Palestinians at the same time. Yes, this is complicated work. Yes, it is challenging, because of the different perspectives of the different groups. But, yes, they are working to make a difference in the Middle East. As Garber says, "It is no surprise that when people see and hear, meeting real people with real lives, that a transformation often takes place. Relationship, revelation, responsibility. When we learn like that, we begin to see ourselves implicated" (p. 117-118). And perhaps that is what I'm hoping for and dreaming for? That we will become concerned with "justice for all, not justice for 'just us'" (Garber, p. 117).

This all has me wondering about the future of our nation. How will we make a way forward in this summer of hate and hurt? How will we overcome differences?

#blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter meeting with compassion and understanding?

#nevertrump and #hitlery hashtaggers coming together to find a way forward?

The only path I see is knowing...and loving. To really love, we have to know. And perhaps more than that, we have to want to know; we have to be willing to put ourselves out there. We have to take the first step towards understanding, care, concern, and learning.

Perhaps look for opportunities for conversation, and not just retweet or share that post that only seeks to hit-first-and-hit-hard?

Perhaps we need to uncover our eyes, and unplug our ears, and stop trying to outshout everyone else?

Perhaps we need to try to honestly know the other?

Or is that too much to ask? That we might have to humble ourselves a bit, confess that we might be wrong, and be willing to learn and listen? Perhaps admitting that Jesus was actually serious when he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself"?

What if that is what we are really called to as Christians?


  1. David, I get what you are saying about when you open yourself to know and understand people (like illegal immigrants) , your perspective changes. I come across that this all of the time as a nurse. The people I care for are so different than me sometimes- same sex families, illegals, women who have had many abortions, drug users, the list goes on. We live in a broken world. My job isn't to judge them, I try to show them Jesus through my love and care. Thank for your thoughts, cousin! Amy

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Amy! I'm still wrestling with what this looks like in practice, but I'm willing to try. Love that you have the opportunities to you do in your work as a nurse, and that you take advantage to love extravagantly. Blessings to you, dear cousin!