A cobbler, a smith, a peasant—each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops.
You will be for me a kingdom of priests . . .
Does this little job matter?
There is a moment—and it comes for all of us—when, at the end of a long week, we begin to ask existential questions about our work: Does this job mean anything? Does it matter? Does it have value? Does anyone notice?
The angst of a weary Friday is often compounded when we consider the finite nature of our jobs in relation to the seemingly infinite nature of global challenges, forces, and institutions. The office wall posters, clichés, and platitudes ring hollow and we are left paralyzed by the (in)finite nature of the work we have been assigned.
THOSE WHO MARCHED AND THOSE WHO COULDN’T
It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation. . . . We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are. . . . We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places.1 —Kathleen Norris
Social media loves a protest. The photos are vivid; the videos are enthralling; the frenetic energy of a passionate and pulsating crowd is palpable. The Women’s March certainly qualified as “trendworthy”—it was the largest physical protest in American history. On January 21, 2017, my social media feed was filled with panoramic vistas of endless crowds, impassioned speeches, funny signs, and convicting demands for the dignity, rights, and honor of women. As far as I could tell, none of the protestors suffered from any existential angst about the meaning or importance of their actions that day. There was no doubt that they were participating in history, part of something infinitely larger than their finite selves.
That said, soon enough, a different sort of social media post began to appear in my feed that morning: from women who could not march. A number had to work that day—manage employees, wait tables, design marketing campaigns, and prepare lectures. Still others were stay-at-home mothers looking at a long day of errands, lunches, and laundry. The absent women posted reflections of disappointment and frustration. The marchers were doing something—the moms and managers weren’t. Put another way, the marchers felt like they were bending history; the managers and moms felt like history was bending them. My social media feed became a fascinating mixture of thoughtful women all reflecting on callings that were finite and global challenges that were anything but.
This article is not about women’s rights, important as that topic is. It is a theological reflection on the rampant—and ruinous— assumption that on January 21, 2017, the marchers were a part of something important, something infinite, while the moms and managers were not.
My friend Jennifer Stewart Fueston is a poet and a mother. With regret, she and her infant son missed the march. They live in Denver, and it was, after all, January. And so mother and son followed their callings that morning—he nursed and she wrote a poem. Entitled “To the Women Marching, from a Mother at Home,” the poem reads in part as follows:
It is cold, and my son is small
I rock him in the fragile boat of my body
between this night’s dark and brighter shore . . .
In the quiet, we hear your chanting.
Remember us with you, we are the rear guard.
I am carrying him like a banner, feel him
cutting his teeth on my curdled milk.
I am sharpening him like an arrow.2
THE PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS
The ordinary man who honorably fulfills his daily calling before God hardly seems to count anymore; he does nothing, or so it is thought, for the kingdom of God. . . . In the view of many today, to be a real Christian requires something extra, something out of the ordinary, some supernatural deed . . . And so it is that the power and the worth of Christian faith is not appraised according to what a man does in his common calling but in what he accomplishes above and beyond it.3 —Herman Bavinck
Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes. —Kitchen sign
American Christianity has, by and large, bought into the world’s understanding of what it means to live a life that matters. Scale and excitement are key. Vocations that truly matter in American Christianity, ones that receive recognition, need to be exciting, exotic, and immense. Because of our obsession with heroic Christian vocations, callings that are by design small, ordinary, repetitive, and mundane are on the outside looking in. In our worldview, finite callings have limited access to infinite meaning.
For all their rancorous debate, progressive and conservative Christians have largely agreed to accept the world’s extremely narrow understanding of what it means to live a life that matters. On both the right and left, the list of jobs that truly matter to God is distressingly short. Progressive Christians lionize careers in social justice, activism, and race relations. Conservative Christians lionize careers in missions, evangelism, and church leadership. Where does this leave the 99 percent of Christians who are not professional evangelists or activists? How can they participate in the mission of God?
Progressives and conservatives commonly provide answers that are both theologically simple and discouraging: If you are not in these fields, your ultimate purpose will be found in paying for those who are. While rarely communicated with such stark clarity, this message of “vocational hierarchy” is communicated all the same. We see it propagated constantly in Christian conferences, magazines, books, and media. Ponder for a moment how many times you have seen Christian leaders praised for serving the poor in Africa, planting a church in New York, or fighting for justice in Washington DC. Now ponder how many times you have seen Christians praised for designing a safer freeway, raising a student’s reading level, or engineering a more fuel-efficient car.
To make matters worse, this latent vocational hierarchy is liturgically reinforced Sunday after Sunday as mission teams, charity workers, and church staffs are brought forward and commissioned for “God’s work” while the other 99 percent are reduced to passive audience members. Those seated in the pews—who develop software, manage households, conduct surgeries, design sewage systems—are on the outside looking in. The message is that their daily work can only participate in the missio Dei if it is twisted into some sort of platform for either justice or evangelism. The work of designing, cooking, caring, negotiating, and selling has no place or purchase in the kingdom.
In this season, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is ironic to witness Protestants erecting for themselves a whole new priesthood—a select group who alone perform holy work on behalf of the rest of us. The heirs of Martin Luther have misplaced a chief tenet of the protesting movement: the priesthood of all believers. Our myopic theological visions would do well to recover Luther’s much richer theological imagination, which enabled him to actually compose the following prayer for men who change diapers:
O God . . . I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will?
Luther goes on to reflect cantankerously on his “diaper prayer” by saying, “Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers . . . God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling. Those who sneer at him . . . are ridiculing God.”4
COMMANDED TO “GO AND MAKE”
The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of transubstantiation—which does or does not take place on Sunday—for instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to work that fills our lives Monday through Saturday.5 –Miroslav Volf
Theologians love words and I’m no exception. The word “make” has always loomed large in my own theological imagination. Without fail, my courses on work, calling, and vocation often begin with the point that God is a maker. Indeed, this is the first thing we learn about the nature of God in Scripture—not that God loves, but that God makes. More than that, the God of Genesis delights in both the process and the product of that making.
God’s effervescent delight in making is so intense that the making must cease from time to time; the maker-God is compelled to stop, sit, and enjoy that which has been made. The creational craftsmanship, the stuff itself—its beauty, complexity, and value—cause the maker-God to cease activity and gaze upon its wonder. Like the smell of sawdust on the carpenter’s floor, God breathes in creation’s aroma.
More than simply the product, God’s process of making is joyous. It is joyous in its repetition and diversity, its care and color, its infinite scale and finite detail. Moreover, the maker-God delights so much in this (micro)cosmic process of making that God does not want the making to end, and fashioned the creation itself to continue the generative process. The whole creation is therefore invited—no, commanded—to continue the process of cultivation and craftsmanship.
Fish, go and make.
Sparrows, go and make.
Adam and Eve, go and make.
Like the budding flower of a tulip, the creation itself was uniquely fashioned to continue unfolding and revealing its complex beauty as petal after intricate petal opens up and displays its color. Every time the daughters of Eve and sons of Adam investigate a molecule, design a violin, build a home, or wash a dish, they are plunging their hands into the fertile soil of God’s garden. The computer scientist, the carpenter, the neurologist, and house cleaner are all a part of that garden. None of them “create meaning” in God’s garden; the meaning, value, and purpose are already there. Divine glory is already present in the justice they seek, in the products they design, and in the children they raise. It is the maker who infuses meaning and value into the earth they cultivate.
Well, come now my daughters, don’t be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters. Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly.6 –Teresa of Avila
The homeliest service, that we do in an honest calling, though it be but to plough or dig, if done in obedience . . . is crowned with an ample reward. . . . God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good but how well.7 –Joseph Hall
A child carefully draws a picture for a sick friend, a software engineer creatively develops a new application enabling businesses to coordinate, an orderly in a retirement home joyfully plays cards with lonely residents, a biologist painstakingly investigates a new algae, a poet patiently wrestles a stubborn couplet to the ground, a manager skillfully cultivates a working group marked by trust and collaboration. God loveth adverbs.
If Christians cannot recognize and honor these adverbs in their (in)finite nature, we have a serious problem. The narrow vocational visions of both progressives and conservatives betray a troubling lack of theological imagination. Reducing the vast complexity of the missio Dei to mere “evangelism” or “social justice” misses what it means to be called by God to serve in a multifaceted creation and its kaleidoscopic restoration.
My point is not that evangelism and justice do not matter. We urgently need more marchers and more missionaries, not fewer. My point is that our theological understanding of what counts as a holy calling matters. The church must theologically grapple with the complex and diverse ways in which the people of God are called to participate in God’s economy. Once we do, we will quickly realize that we need to commission more than one percent of our population for service in the kingdom.
The manager, the mom, and the marcher are priests all three. Each has a place in God’s garden. Each has a sacred calling to participate in its restoration. When my friend Jennifer could not participate in the Women’s March, she nursed her son and wrote a poem. While her calling was finite, she saw her place in the infinite. Rocking back and forth in that small and quiet nursery, Jennifer could say to no one but her maker: “I am sharpening him like an arrow.”