Learning Vocational Holiness from “The Pastor”

By Andrew Arndt

Eighteen months ago, some friends and I sat in a restaurant dreaming together. “If we were trying to help Christians in Denver think more clearly about how the work of our hands and faith in Christ intersect, and we could bring one person out to Denver to speak on this, who would it be?” We tossed around a few names. Before too long, my friend Dave Strunk, a pastor at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church, said, “What about Eugene Peterson?”

While it seemed audacious then, it turned out that through a contact in Colorado Springs we were able to get in touch with The Pastor. These days, Eugene and his wife Jan travel sparingly (they’re both in their 80s), but they were more than willing to have a small group of us travel out to their house on Flathead Lake in Montana to interview Eugene on vocational holiness.

My personal interest in hearing Eugene’s thoughts on the subject sprang from my familiarity with his life and work, chronicled so well in the dozens of books he’s authored on Christian faith and practice. What is it, I wondered, about our work that forms us into Christlikeness? How do Christians keep a proper view of work? While at his Montana home, we learned three things from Eugene Peterson on vocation:

In the first place, it is important to ground any Christian understanding of work in a broader understanding of Creation. (Watch “The Role of Work in the Plan of God” [4:37].)

The Role of Work in the Plan of God from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

We wanted to talk about jobs, and Eugene wanted to talk about birdwatching. For Eugene, a proper appreciation for the created order is essential to a right understanding of work. “The Creation,” he remarked, “is our best introduction to holiness and beauty. Everything fits, and if it doesn’t, we’re in trouble.” That is to say, when you observe the birds and the bees, the mountains and hills, the oceans and streams, you immediately notice that everything has a place and a role, and out of that place and role it joins in a sort of beautiful and harmonious dance--”the music of the spheres” as the classic hymn This is My Father’s World puts it.

And the “work” that, say, the birds or the stars do is really not “work” at all, but simply their being what they are. In a sense, their work flows out of the grace of their being, which is a gift from God. The Creation, Eugene insisted, “is training in ontology,” and if we’ll grasp that, we’ll begin to develop a proper view of work--one that flows out of a respect for what we are as creatures made in the image of God and given a peculiar vocation and task.

Secondly, we must ground our understanding of work in the context of Sabbath. Once again, we wanted to talk about labor, and in an interesting twist, Eugene wanted to situate any such talk within a broader conversation about the rhythms of rest and worship that anchor us in an appreciation for Creation, ourselves, our neighbors, and the God under whose care we’ve come. This is crucial because one of the ways in which modern culture subverts vocational holiness is by keeping us perpetually busy and distracted (Watch “Busyness, Sabbath and Work as a Gift (4:06).)

Busyness, Sabbath, and Work as a Gift from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

The sheer pace and noise of our lives can prevent us from beholding the holiness that is always all around us. We lose our reverence--for God, for Creation, for our neighbors, and for ourselves--and as such our agency (of which our 9-5 jobs are but one expression) can find itself driven along not by a joyful responsiveness to the goodness of God, but rather by fears and antagonisms. To ground our lives in worship, for Eugene, is to ground our lives in grace, out of which any meaningful work flows.

Lastly, we must acknowledge the complexity of vocational holiness. On the one hand, Eugene was able to talk in no uncertain terms about how vocation must be cultivated, how it is incumbent upon each of us develop a sense of how we’ve been called and equipped, what our aptitudes are and what we should do with our lives, and then begin to apply ourselves towards making a concrete and gift-specific impact on the world. (Watch “Cultivating Vocation” (8:05).)

Cultivating Vocation from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

AND YET, he was able, in the very next breath, to acknowledge that in the course of Christian history, not many have had (or will have) the opportunity to do a job that fits them perfectly. That need not be a problem, however, for our rich Christian heritage provides us with the resources to not be determined by our circumstances, but rather to find Christ in all things and to find our own flourishing even in the most adverse of circumstances. Citing the slaves of early American history, many of whom because of their faith in Christ found deep meaning and hope and were even able to create culture and legacy for their families on the plantations, Eugene remarked, “No one is hopeless.” (Watch “Suffering in Work” (4:20).)

Suffering in Work from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

The deepest impact our time with Eugene had on me was that it gave me a renewed appreciation for the sanctity, the holiness, of this wonderful life that God has given us. The task for us, so it seems, is not to make life holy but to recognize that holiness and live into it. When a holy reverence pervades our hearts and minds and imaginations, then we will begin to become “vocationally” holy as well.

I sometimes think the recent faith and work movement has the propensity to miss it on precisely this point--oddly enough, we can become myopic about the work piece of the conversation and miss the faith piece. As pastors and leaders, our central task always remains: Teach people to love God. Teach them to love their neighbors. Ingrain in their hearts a deep respect for the beauty and harmony, the rhythm and ordonnance of the created order, and their place in it, and the integration of their faith and their work will be as effortless as simply living.

Andrew Arndt is the Lead Pastor of Bloom Church. Andrew served on the founding board of Bloom Church in 2007, and took over the role of Lead/Teaching Pastor in 2009. He is also the regional director for the Kern Pastor network and serves on the Church Advisory Council of Denver Institute for Faith & Work.