Who is ‘called’?

Are nurses or architects, businessmen or diplomats ‘called’?

I remember picking up the following idea somehow: if you’re a pastor, you’re called. If you’re not a pastor, you’re not called. (OK, there are missionaries, too—they’re also definitely called.) But the idea is, if you’re a full-time religious person—someone who gets paid to lead in a religious organization—you’re called. Otherwise, you’re not.

I was never actually taught this idea. It just seemed to be in the air … just built into the way people talked.

Today I question this idea.

What I picked up sounds like Catholic theology.

Catholic thinking divides Christians into two categories, clergy and laity. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the two groups as people who belong to the same society, but occupy different ranks. Clergy are ordained to a higher class, and so populate a higher rank in the spiritual hierarchy.

Clergy teach, lead in worship, and govern over the laity; lay persons learn and follow. Clergy are the shepherds; laity are the sheep. Translating this two-tiered system into a Protestant way of speaking: full-time ministers are called; others aren’t.

But what if everyone’s called?

I think there might be two senses to this idea of a ‘calling.’

First, the NT uses the word ‘call’ to mean the invitation to follow Jesus. I’ve been thinking more and more about the metaphor of the Kingdom. I think of ‘calling,’ in this sense, as the invitation to join the Kingdom of God.

Many traditional phrases describe the invitation to become a follower of Christ: “receiving Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior”; “trusting in Jesus Christ for eternal life”; “being born again”; “saying ‘Yes’ to Christ.” They all mean roughly the same thing: to commit one’s life to, to promise loyalty to, to trust one’s destiny to Christ. These phrases all denote the act of exercising faith in Jesus Christ.

But second, in everyday language, people more often use the word ‘call’ to talk about someone’s life work or passion. People have a ‘calling,’ a ‘vocation’ (the Latin vocatio just means ‘calling.’) Some think teaching kindergarten (or any of dozens of other jobs) can be a ‘calling.’

These two concepts both matter.

Not long ago, I heard a friend focus on the second meaning to the exclusion of the first. He said ‘calling’ refers to your life work. He’s a Christian, but he wanted to push back on the idea of “receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior” or “saying ‘Yes’ to Christ.” He wanted no part of that.

For me, I’ve always thought the two senses of the word ‘calling’ are related. But how?

So I’ve been thinking perhaps the idea of God’s Kingdom pulls them together. The Kingdom of God is the realm of God’s rule. And the two kinds of calling are both related to that divine rule.

It seems the first calling (the invitation to receive Christ, to say “Yes” to Jesus, to be born again—I don’t care how you say it) as a summons to join the Kingdom. And that means the second calling (the life work God lays out for someone) is a command to build the Kingdom.

Why not agree with my friend? Why isn’t a great life calling—like curing cancer—enough?Why isn’t it enough to just do good in the world? Or why isn’t it enough just to dedicate your life to feeding the hungry or caring for prisoners? (Jesus said we should do those things.) How does a life calling connect to “receiving Christ as Lord and Savior”?

Last week, a part of the relationship between these ideas dawned on me. If I only pursue the second calling, as noble as it may be, I’d be pursuing that calling, in a way, as an act of building my kingdom. (If I give my body to be burned, as St Paul said in the “Love Chapter,” that amounts to nothing more than a tinkling sound, if the object of my life’s love is unclear.)

If I put my life’s work first—even if my life work is more noble than Mother Teresa’s—it’s still my life work.

In a nutshell: the first calling makes clear whose Kingdom I’m building. Before I get into the Kingdom-building business, the Lord wants me to be clear that it’s His Kingdom I’m building. After we establish that, then he sets me to doing my life’s work.

So that’s what I’ve been noddling: maybe the two callings are connected in that the second calling is about what I shall do with my life. And the first calling is more about why. Seems to me that these two issues are connected, and both of them matter.

Theology Matters. Really?

Thomas Aquinas, the 14th century Catholic theologian, is credited with exploring the question: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Many people think this question typifies the idea that theology doesn’t matter. The word ‘theology’ can be like the word ‘academic.’ As in the sentence, “That’s an academic issue.” In this negative sense, the word ‘academic’ means “a theoretical issue that makes no real difference.”

I’ve been thinking that theology might actually matter less than some people think. Some people live for theological debate. Bad idea. Theology says we should live for God … a very different thing.

It might surprise you that I agree theology is sometimes irrelevant.

Some theological debates are about differences that make no difference. They’re ‘academic’ in the bad sense. (The word ‘academic’ also has a good sense.)

I should give you an example. Every Christian knows God is the Creator of all things. There are debates about when God did what he did. Was it long ago? Was it more recent? I have fairly settled opinions here. But maybe, at the end of the day, the exact date of God’s work of creation isn’t all that important.

That God created the world matters hugely. Doesn’t it seem that when God created the world matters less?

So is theology ever really that important?

Here’s another example. Humans experience the freedom to make decisions. Humans make choices to resist a temptation or to cave in to that temptation.

Now I don’t mean this freedom is absolute. It’s actually limited. It’s shaped by a person’s circumstances. It’s influenced by her strength of character. It’s even affected by her current state of mind. (A man who just experienced a huge setback might choose to do something in a weak moment that he would not otherwise do.)

Still, as humans, our choices (I believe) do affect our world. And we are rightly held accountable for these choices.

But there are big debates about the exact nature of this freedom. Is it compatibilist freedom, or is it libertarian freedom? I have an opinion here, too. (No surprise!) I do think this opinion is important for theoretical reasons (which aren’t important to my example).

Many don’t understand the debate between compatibilist freedom and libertarian freedom. (And if you’re in that group, don’t worry.) What’s important is the practical reality: we do have freedom to act, and we are responsible for how we act. Wise people choose to live consistently with that truth.

When theology matters supremely.

Theology is our best attempt to describe, to explain, to interpret, what is real (and Who is Real!). All of that matters supremely. In exercising our freedom, we will flourish only as we make choices that fit in with what’s truly and ultimately real.

An example: gravity describes the real physical world. If I choose to attempt unaided human flight by launching myself off a skyscraper, gravity will ground me … because my choice will not line up with the truth about how physical reality actually is.

That’s a silly example that makes an important point. I have to choose to live my life according to what’s actually true about reality.

Theology is simply the truth about what’s real—it’s truth about our world and more fundamentally, it’s truth about its Creator.

Biblical theology teaches: “I came into existence through God’s creative will, and God created me to find my purpose in loving my Creator.” If my life choices fit with this biblical theology, I will thrive.

An alternative teaching says: “I came into existence by a series of unguided, physical events, and I will flourish if I choose loving myself as my ultimate purpose.” If my choices live out this philosophy of life, that’s like having a go at unaided human flight.

Thinking theologically shapes a life of intentionality and meaning.

Theology isn’t an end in itself. No arena of knowledge is. Knowledge claims, including knowledge claims about God, matter when they shape life choices. There are the “angels-on-the-heads-of-pins” questions out there. They might have answers. I don’t actually know. But they’re largely irrelevant.

But this doesn’t show all theology is irrelevant. Theology forms the parameters of meaning which shape the lives of persons and families, communities and cultures, for good. That sort of theology isn’t to be despised. It really matters.

“Old” vs. “New” Thinking

Do generational differences affect theology?

I heard a fascinating generational distinction from a fascinating young woman. (I’ll call her Samantha, or Sam for short—the legal department asked me to use a fake name, so either is OK.) Anyway, Sam said to me, “Christians in my generation don’t think like older Christians.” (I’m pretty sure Sam is somewhat under 30.) “Christians in my generation think that Jesus is the center, and it’s all-important to draw closer to Jesus. Older Christians focus on secondary issues.”

I really don’t think Sam’s theology differs a lot from mine. To some ears it might sound as though it does. But I doubt that was her point.

“Older Christians believe in the Trinity,” said Sam. “And I do, too. I believe in the Trinity, but in a different way.”

I think Sam was implying that I believe differently than she (though she didn’t make the point exactly). (Full disclosure: I’m somewhat over 30.)

Sam was talking about how we believe, in addition to what we believe.

Sam reflected the well-known distinction between centered-set Christians and bounded-set Christians. In 1978, Paul Hiebert borrowed this distinction from set theory and applied it to theology (in the article, “Conversation, Culture and Cognitive Categories”). Today, many use these two categories to distinguish modernistic and less youthful Christians from postmodern and more youthful Christians.

Centered-set (postmodern) thinking defines a set (a set is just a collection of objects) by locating its center. Then it marks the members of that set by identifying objects that are moving closer to that center. Centered-set thinking doesn’t focus on the boundary. It’s less concerned about sharply defining a line in order to divide what’s “in” the set vs. what’s “out.”

So centered-set Christians care less about minor theological commitments and more about whether a person is moving toward Jesus. They ask: “Is the trajectory of a person’s life and thinking toward Christ?”

Bounded-set (modernist) thinking classifies members of a set by defining a boundary. It identifies who’s “in” and who’s “out” by using litmus test issues that sharply mark the boundary line. So a minor point (like some detail about Christ’s return) can take on major importance, not because it’s essential in itself, but because it functions to define a group’s boundary.

Take Maria, who’s orthodox on the Trinity, but whose loyalty to Jesus is fading. Vs. Thomas, who’s not fully orthodox on the Trinity, but whose faith in Jesus is blossoming. Centered-set Christians worry much more about Maria. Bounded-set thinkers fret more over Thomas. “He’s not orthodox. That’s a problem,” They would say. “Maria’s heart may be growing cold, but hey, at least she’s orthodox!”

Sam implied that centered-set thinking is preferable to bounded-set thinking. She hinted that bounded-set thinking is passé or unhelpful or many even dangerous.

I wonder if the issue isn’t more complicated.

It feels to me like there’s more to it.

I see centered-set thinkers setting boundaries to describe themselves. Sam said that people who think as she thinks are “postmodern.” Older Christians who don’t think as she thinks are “modernist.” (She used those exact categories.) So postmoderns are “in” her set; modernists are “out.” So there she defined a boundary.

When Sam said she’s a “centered-set thinker” and implied that I’m “bounded set thinker,” she was, in a way, setting up a boundary. Centered-set thinkers (like her) are “in” her group; bounded set thinkers (like me) are “out.” There’s another boundary.

So it does feel more complicated.

Maybe Sam has the wrong two options: boundary-setters vs. non-boundary-setters. Because sooner or later, we all define our group by setting our boundaries. Maybe the problem is that some traditional Christians define (and defend) boundaries by highlighting theological claims that are (let’s face it) really and truly minor. Could that be it?

Maybe these two ways of thinking enhance each other.

I feel myself agreeing with centered-set thinking: there’s a downside to overemphasizing minor details for the sake of protecting boundaries. I know people who do that. It’s not pretty.

Instead, we should “major on the majors and minor on the minors.” We should indeed focus centrally on the central issues like loyalty to Jesus Christ.

I also feel myself worrying that centered-set thinking people sometimes overstate their case. Because there’s a rightful place for boundaries. Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God and savior of the world, defines the center toward which my life should migrate. That makes me an orthodox Christian. “Orthodox Christian” is a set of which I’m a member. (Sam is, too.)

So I notice that my core statement, “Jesus is the center,” also defines my boundary. An important boundary. It feels we should define boundaries. But not by focusing on otherwise irrelevantly minor issues. Perhaps we define our theological boundaries best … precisely when we most clearly articulate our essential theology core.

Unsung Heroes

Who is your hero?

Heroes respond to tragic events with courage under fire. We watched heroes in action as the Boston Marathon bombing story unfolded.

We also watched the story of a hero on January 15, 2009. US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia at 9:15 that morning. Suddenly, 90 seconds into the flight, the A320 hit a huge flock of 15 pound geese. The cockpit recorder captured audible thuds as geese hit the plan. The geese killed both jet engines. But they did not kill the 155 people sitting on that plane. They lived because a quiet hero, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, calmly landed his 150,000 pound jet in the Hudson River.

I’m not easily impressed, but this impressed me.

Captain Sullenberger wasn’t born knowing how to land an A320 in a river. It took time and discipline to develop the ability to do exactly the right thing in the moment of extreme pressure. Sullenberger prepared for a life-changing moment of virtuous heroism by stitching together a life-time of small virtuous actions. Our pastor recently quoted Sullenberger’s own explanation:

“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Here’s the other thing that impresses me.

Many people I know quietly make small, regular deposits in the bank of experience. But their heroism remains hidden because they never face the kind of crisis Sullenberger encountered. CNN’s cameras never catch them making a withdrawal. They never make the evening news. But they are heroes nonetheless.

I get to work with a lot of heroes. For example, Dr. Denise Kjesbo, who leads the Children and Family Ministry M.A. program at Bethel Seminary. She also leads Bethel’s Cory Center for Children’s Ministry. And her influence is quietly being felt around the world.

There are many heroes we never hear about.

Two years ago, Dr. Kjesbo met with a Bethel graduate named Jan Ryder. Jan proposed to offer a Diploma in Children’s and Family Ministry at Carlile College in Nairobi, Kenya. The curriculum is patterned after Bethel’s Children and Family Ministry curriculum. Jan persisted in her quest to launch this program, and the first students arrived on campus last June.

This year the Cory Center team decided to support one of the students, offering $1000 to a young woman named Gift Mwansa. Gift is a Children’s Ministry Leader from Zambia, and the scholarship will pay for two years of tuition at Carlile. When Gift finishes, she will pass on her knowledge to others. As the leader of Children’s Ministry in the Anglican Church for a whole region of Africa, she will educate children’s workers who serve little ones in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi.

Drawing Near to God in the Face of Tragedy

You never wake up thinking something bad is going to happen.

And surely we did not wake up yesterday thinking something unusual would happen in Boston. I did know the Boston Marathon was on. A good friend, Dave Ashmead, had qualified to run this year, and Ty, my son, and Renee (we call her ‘Nee’), my daughter (in-law), would be in Boston to hang out with Dave and his wife, Allie, for the big event.

I also know that about 27,000 people would run the race, because I’ve got just enough geek in me to look that kind of stuff up. Randomly, it happens I Googled this info a couple weeks ago.

But I didn’t know … what we now all know: The bombs went off. Three are dead. Scores are wounded. And the Boston Marathon will never be the same.

Sometimes tragedy can get close.

When I saw the news yesterday on my computer I thought: “Ty and Nee, Dave and Allie, are in Boston. No way they were hit by the bombs. There are tens of thousands of people there. No way.”

It turns out they were standing a block away from the explosion. (Dave is fast. He’d finished his run an hour before. By 2:50 p.m., the four friends were just walking around together.) Here’s what my son explained: “We were walking in the direction of the explosion and were stopped by a metal barricade. We then paused at the street map in the photo to figure out another route. We paused for about the same amount of time it would have taken to walk the length of the building that separated us from the explosion.”

They were walking down a street. They stopped to look at a map. The bomb went off 100 yards away. If they had kept walking as they intended …

This happened to me before.

August 1, 2007, 6:05 p.m. The 35W bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis collapsed.

My wife, Sandy, had driven across the bridge a minute before.

When I learned of the collapse, I first reacted rationally: What happened? Is Sandy OK? What was the timing? What caused this bridge to fall? On and on … details of the event. Some answerable; some not.

The next day I felt shaken. Tears came. What might have been? What if? What then …

What do we know?

I’ve taught Christian theology for over 30 years. One course I’ve taught is: “Perspectives on Evil and Suffering.” What I’ve learned is … there’s a lot I haven’t learned.

Why did a police barricade stop my family and friends a block away from the bomb? Obviously, the barricade did not stop others. Some were right on top of the bomb, and they’ve literally lost life and limb. Why? I don’t know.

I’m often reminded of what I don’t know. I remember a professor of mine saying, “The more you learn, the more you’ll learn … you have much more to learn.”

Sometimes people focus on the details. Why did the 35W bridge collapse? The NTSB said something about the steel gusset plates being designed improperly. That answer does explain “Why?” at a certain level. But it’s pretty unsatisfying. It doesn’t answer the deeper “Why?”

So, obviously, we don’t know everything. But do we know anything?

Here’s one thing I know. Whenever I teach “Perspectives on Evil and Suffering,” I invite people who have suffered significantly to share their stories. And the stories these incredible people tell are just unbelievable. But even more incredible is their bottom line. Over and over, those who have suffered have said: “Don’t get me wrong. It was horrible. But I am also thankful for my suffering. For without my suffering I would know God as I do.”

Here’s another thing I know. Atheists won’t buy it. I know there are skeptics for whom the previous paragraph will bring disgust and even contempt. I had dozens of such conversations, and I get what they’re saying.

But with all due respect, I do know this: I can point to many friends—people of faith—who have walked with Christ through suffering. And I believe them when they say: “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve found God in the middle of my suffering.”

I’ve never suffered terribly. I can’t say I fully understand what these friends are saying. But I believe them.

The story we find ourselves in is true.

We who follow Jesus Christ live in the light of Good News. God is redeeming a broken world—a messed up, falling-apart-at-the-seams world. That’s real. But it’s not all that’s real. God’s doing something about this world. God is bringing healing and causing restoration. That’s real, too. Part of the reason we suffer is that God’s work isn’t done. And another thing: I’m pretty sure God is inviting us into that healing work.

There’s a lot we don’t know. We certainly don’t know about tomorrow. But I say we invest our full selves in each day. We live. We love. We work. We serve. And our lives are in God’s hands.

Ty and Nee, Dave and Allie, I love you more than life itself. Let’s Skype soon.

The Message of the Cross

Holy Week reminds of a simple doctrine that I misunderstood for years.

I began teaching theology at Bethel Seminary twenty-five years ago. After teaching for a few years, I remember thinking … the arrogance here is breath-taking, I know … but I remember thinking that I had learned all the basics of the faith.

Sure, I thought, I would learn some new things. But the new things I would learn would be details. I thought I would refine minor decimal points, as it were, but not the integers. I had the main points down.

A great thing about life is learning new things … or learning old things newly.

It’s Easter next Sunday. We celebrate the resurrection of Christ. And for the last few years, Easter has reminded me that I had a limited view of the gospel. Because when I thought of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus, I thought mostly of Good Friday. And it didn’t think of Easter.

I may have been misled by the symbol of the cross. Someone said recently that the symbols of several religions have to do with positive things like light. Muslims have the crescent moon. Jews have the six pointed star. Buddhists have the lotus flower with arises from murky water to achieve purity and enlightenment.

But the symbol of the Christian faith is the cross. It’s a symbol of death, not light. Now that’s remarkable in itself: the symbol of our faith is the instrument of Roman capital punishment. Beyond that it may have led me to think that Christ’s death is the whole of the gospel.

I learned at my grandmother’s knee the following definition of the gospel: “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.” Put all that together, and it’s not hard to see how I thought of the Good News as a Good Friday concept. When I thought of the Good News, I didn’t think of the resurrection.

A Good Friday gospel shapes how we view the Christian life.

If the gospel is only about forgiving the wrong I do, what does this say about the Christian life? The goal, it seems, should be: do less wrong.

I remember a fundamentalist preacher talking about a young student who was following Christ with passion. This student would be sharing his story of faith, said the preacher. He was going to tell us, said the preacher, about all the things he didn’t do.

If the whole of the gospel is getting rid of the wrong I do, the Christian life gets defined as the wrong I don’t do.

It helps to read what the Bible actually says. This is what turned me around.

The Bible (I Corinthians 15: 3-4) defines the gospel: the Good News is both that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins and also that he arose on Easter. The cross, in other words, is not just a Good Friday thing, but also an Easter thing. The cross is a symbol that speaks of the whole weekend of God’s work.

I taught theology for a lot of years before this became clear to me.

If the whole of the gospel includes both forgiveness of past sin and also empowerment for future service, then a life of faith has to be more than a life of sin avoidance. Avoiding sin is important, but it’s not enough. Following Christ includes a life of passionate service.

I’ve come to think that there are two great callings in life. The first is Christ’s invitation to make him my leader, which I do by pledging my trust in him (that’s called faith). The second is Christ’s command to get involved in his Kingdom building work to redeem this broken creation. We’re called to the adventure of redemptive service.

And it was reading the Bible that changed my thinking about something I’d learned at my grandmother’s knee. It was something that I still thought, even after going through graduate school in theology.

Each year for the last several years, the Easter story has reminded me of a long-standing gap in my perspective. As I said, reading the Bible brings new insight and new life.


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Why do I roll out of my warm bed at 5AM every morning?

That’s actually a core life question. Put it another way: How am I investing the one-and-only life God with which God has gifted me? Not a question to obsess about every day. People who are asking this question every day are either climbing in thin air in the Himalayas, majoring in existential philosophy, or smoking something that’s only legal in certain western states. It strikes me: you probably shouldn’t pursue those first two activities for too long; and you shouldn’t do that last one ever. But at certain times in life, asking this question really matters. You should not … never ask this question.

The answer came to me as I finished the best beef stroganoff I ever ate.

I have just accepted an invitation to become the 12th Dean of Bethel Seminary. A job change like this does raise the question mentioned above. For me, my job change poses these questions: “Why a Seminary?” And “Why Bethel Seminary?” Why invest my life’s energy in this 140 year old school? I was reminded of my answer during dinner last Monday at the Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis.

My answer had nothing to do with the stroganoff.

Last Monday a dozen people gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of five Bethel Seminary seniors. I ordered the stroganoff … outstanding! The menu said the noodles were hand-cut … unclear what that means. The seniors are Kern Scholars—a cadre of Bethel students supported by the Kern Foundation. After dinner, these women and men reflected on their last three years at Bethel Seminary and on their next years of ministry and calling.

The student reflections reminded me again of an answer I already know.

Each student spoke about receiving a call from God to give their lives in service to those who need God. That’s why they came to seminary. And each one talked about their time at Bethel as a time of intense personal growth and spiritual transformation. One said, “I look at myself now, and I can’t believe who I’ve become, compared to who I was just three years ago.”

For me, doing my work is worth it because of the transformation these students experience.

Most people think seminary education should get laser sharp on learning the Bible (in Greek and Hebrew, of course), exploring church history, and mastering systematic theology. Most people think seminary should emphasize the core intellectual contents of the Christian faith.

A Bethel Seminary education is more than this (though not less). To be sure, these Kern scholars study Scripture. (And they learn Hebrew using an innovative approach—we use strategies employed to teach English to second language speakers. Yep, it works with Hebrew, too.) These Kern scholars study church history, hermeneutics, Old and New Testament, systematic theology. They hone critical thinking skills, research abilities, and exegetical strategies. They add ministry skills: leadership, preaching, pastoral care, discipleship, evangelism, church management, and global missions.

These amazing students reminded me: it’s who you are that counts most.

But between and behind the intellectual content and ministry skills is the most fundamental thing: moral character, relational health, spiritual life. Here’s why: people don’t follow leaders whose character is flawed—who have anger issues, love power, put people down, or act like narcissists. And we wince when leaders focus outside their gift areas—e.g., when those gifted in encouragement put all their time into teaching, or when those gifted in leadership spend all their time in care ministry. Ministry leaders’ character, and their mature self-awareness of their giftedness, is their most important quality.

The stroganoff last Monday was good. But far better was the reminder—which I gained from five unique student reflections—of the value of a deeply transformational education.

I get to be part of an amazing team of people at Bethel Seminary. We invest our lives and energies in providing an education that gives incredible students the life-changing opportunity to experience a spiritual transformation that happens nowhere else.

That’s what we do at Bethel Seminary. And it’s what gets me up every morning.