When I was first asked to deliver this lecture, now about a year ago, the question I was asked to address was, “Is it possible to sustain a sense of Christian vocation in the contemporary world?” A year ago, that question, I think, had as much to do with a sense of the world in which we then lived, in which people saw themselves wanting to go to Wall Street or to go into vocations of law and medicine and business. We were asking if there was a place for Christian vocation in a world where everything seemed to be moving in the direction of these professions. A lot can change in a year, or even in the course of just a few months. The way I now would respond to this question is to say that it is not only possible, but it is more urgent than ever—for the sake of the culture in which we live and sustaining fulfilling and flourishing human life and flourishing human communities—not only that Christian vocation be articulated and lived, but that there also be vibrant Christian institutions capable of being bearers of that tradition, incubators of leadership, and laboratories of learning.
The economic crisis that hit us last fall and that is now confronting us in profound ways has returned questions of Christian vocation and Christian character to the center of our culture. So let me begin by taking you back just a few months. In late September 2008, my wife and I had been asked to speak in New Canaan, Connecticut, to a group of businessmen on the topic of ambition for the gospel. Two days before we arrived for the presentation, the financial-services firm Lehman Brothers went under. The crisis had hit Wall Street, and by the time we arrived, forty-eight hours later, houses already were for sale, people were losing jobs, the House of Representatives was considering a bailout bill—and initially rejecting it—and everything was imploding. The night before our talk, the people who had invited Susan and me said, “Would you mind talking about how you sustain a life when everything is crashing down around you?” It’s a good thing that both my wife and I are preachers. We’re used to having to improvise, and so the topic of the conversation changed. But even then, no one, I think, really believed that the world was changing quite as dramatically as it now appears to be.
The question that we are now beginning to grapple with is the one the psalmist asks in the eleventh psalm: When the foundations have been destroyed, what will the righteous do? We now have a sense that the foundations have been shattered if not destroyed, that we are not just dealing with a financial crisis, we are dealing with cultural challenges and shifts maybe of tectonic proportions, and the questions that we have to raise are fundamental ones.
In early October, after the financial crisis had begun to hit, I was at a number of meetings with leaders of other Christian institutions, and over and over again people were beginning to speak with anxiety—especially the leaders of some of the smaller Christian institutions, small free-standing seminaries, small colleges, institutions that don’t have much margin, many reserves—wondering whether they could make it through the academic year, much less beyond. And so, as part of our Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School (an initiative supported by the Lilly Endowment), we convened a group of Christian institutional leaders to talk about the question of what it means to lead Christianly in a time of economic challenge. We gathered about thirty-five people in mid-December. I thought the most important thing we could do would be to get some people who really understood financial issues to come and give a briefing before we grappled with the challenges of leading Christianly. I asked a colleague of mine who is a professor of international finance at Duke to come and spend an hour talking to these people who lead fragile institutions about the economic crisis.
So he came. Everybody was waiting for his forecast, and he spent the first half of his presentation talking about the economic challenges, offering sage advice, predictions about how long into 2009 and 2010 the downturn was likely to last, and talking about the number of jobs likely to be lost. But then, about halfway into the presentation, he stopped and he said, “I’ll be glad to answer any questions in a few minutes about all those economic forecasts, but I want to say something else to you all.” He said, “You all need to realize that the fundamental problem that we’re wrestling with here is an issue of greed.” He added, “We’re talking about a failure of character among our economic, political, and cultural leaders in this context, and it is crucial that people in positions like you, who lead Christian institutions, step up and start talking about the centrality of character.”
You could have heard a pin drop.
These were leaders of small, fragile institutions, who a year ago were asking questions like, Is it possible to sustain a Christian vocation in the contemporary world, when so many people want to go to Wall Street to make enough money to retire at thirty-five? And here was a distinguished professor at one of the country’s leading business schools challenging us to step up to the plate and begin talking about Christian character again. It was as if a challenge had come from an alien world, but it was a challenge calling for the return of the central questions of Christian vocation: What does it mean to live a good life, a faithful life that is trustworthy and honest and truthful and courageous?
The greatest worry that I have in this time is that we are going to batten down the hatches and just figure out how to ride out the storm, that we will get as many people on to the ark as we can for the next several years and then see where we are. And yet, the deeper challenge that we face is how we are going to be faithful Christian leaders in these transitional times. We must not respond by hunkering down but by reclaiming a vision that has been given to us by God, enabling us to get ahead of the curve and to help prepare our institutions and the wider culture for the vision that we need to have. I dare say that, by and large, institutions like Valparaiso University are better positioned than places like Duke to wrestle with those kinds of questions.
Christians in America have been at our best during such uncertain, unstable times. Valparaiso University was not founded at a time when America was at its peak but in the midst of a cultural crisis on the eve of the Civil War. Many other institutions were founded in the early 1800s in the midst of a communications and transportation revolution and in the midst of a different kind of banking crisis. Duke University was founded in the 1920s, and undertook its first growth from 1928–1932, not exactly the best timing for a fundraising campaign. And yet, that is when Duke Chapel, the central architectural and spiritual center of Duke University was built. Its cornerstone is dated 1930. Christians have had a long tradition of undertaking some of our most creative, entrepreneurial initiatives in education, in health, and in other areas of human need, not when the signs were best, but when the challenges were greatest.
The most significant way for Christians and for Christian institutions to live out our vocations is to become bold in envisioning the future, perhaps in different ways than in the past but in ways that are faithful and continuous with what we have received. What would that look like? I want to suggest that we have to reclaim a set of themes that have been at the heart of the best understandings of Christian vocation. Christian vocation is focused not primarily (as it has so often been understood in narrow circles and particularly by people like me who represent seminaries trying to increase enrollment) on full-time ordained ministry. That is not the primary focus of the Christian vocation; that is a specific kind of Christian vocation, but it is secondary. At the heart of Christian vocation is the purpose, the telos, of cultivating ways of life in the world that nourish and cultivate thriving, flourishing Christian communities that bear witness as signs, instruments, and foretastes of the reign of God.
The focus first is on thriving and flourishing communities and then on how I find my life as a way that bears witness and that nourishes that community. The focus is not on these communities as ends in themselves but on these communities as they bear witness as signs, instruments, and foretastes of the reign of God. After all, community in and of itself is not a good thing. Nazi Germany came about, in part, out of a particularly pernicious evocation of community. Community in and of itself can be exclusive; it can be scapegoating; it can be narrow; it can be rigidifying. The focus must be on thriving and flourishing communities that bear witness as signs, foretastes, and instruments of the reign of God. At the heart of Jewish and Christian understandings of what it means to be human is the idea that we are created for relationship. St. Augustine said it so well at the beginning of his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, oh God.” We are created for communion, for relationship with God and with others.
In a recent book called Loneliness (Cacioppo and Patrick 2008), the authors describe the social pain of loneliness, and they emphasize that this pain is not only a metaphor. They cite research in neurobiology demonstrating that the same part of the brain that processes loneliness also processes physical pain. When a person is experiencing loneliness, it is as if someone is physically hurting you. We are created for communion, for relationship, and so any vocation worth living is in service of ways of life in the world that cultivate thriving and flourishing communities that bear witness as signs, foretastes, and instruments of the reign of God. They are going to be communities that are marked by forgiveness and reconciliation. They are going to be marked by generosity and joy and justice and peace. They are going to be marked by a sense of what it means to be human.
My most recent heroine is a woman whom I learned about just a couple of weeks ago. Our Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School has been working in the Great Lakes region of East Central Africa. This area includes the countries that surround Lake Victoria, some of the least stable countries in the world, places like Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. At one of our conferences, a colleague of mine from the Divinity School met a woman named Maggie, and he asked her if he could visit her village. Maggie was a Roman Catholic in Burundi who was working at her bishop’s residence when, in the midst of the Burundian civil war, the militia came. They stripped her naked, and they tied her up and made her watch as they proceeded to kill most of her family and friends. Then they untied her, and, for some reason, decided to let her live. She was at the time the caregiver, virtually the mother, for eight orphaned children whom she had found hiding in the sacristy. She offered money to the militia to rescue twenty-five other kids. So now she became the mother, effectively, of thirty-three children.
She said to the children and to some other adults, “It’s time to make this community live again.” One of the first things she did was build a swimming pool on the very ground where so many of her family and friends had been killed. She said she wanted the children, as they would swim, to be cleansed. She used baptismal imagery to talk about what that swimming would mean. She built a hospital, a key unit of which was an OBGYN clinic because she said if you care for mothers and babies as they begin their journey there will be more hope. She created microfinance programs; she set up a mechanics area for young men to learn; she set up seamstress and hair cutting places for people to learn; she established a school for the children to attend.
And she built a cinema, with Hollywood style seating, because she wanted the children to discover that it wasn’t all about survival, but it was also about joy. Eventually, some of the militia came because they wanted to see some of the films that were on. So she put a sign up in front of the theater that said they had to put down their guns before they entered the theater. Eventually, word got out about what she was doing and one of the militia leaders got really angry. He sent somebody to kill her. The militia man came with his gun, ready to kill her, and Maggie said, “You don’t want to do that!” He said, “What?” She said, “Look you’re living out in the bush. You’re filled with hate. You’re defining yourself by what you are against. That’s stupid. Why don’t you come and live with me? I can arrange a bed for you. You can work for us and help build something constructive.” He said, “Oh. Ok.” This is a true story! My colleague from Duke Divinity School spent a half day with that former militia man, because he is now Maggie’s driver.
Maggie recently won an award, called the Opus Prize (www.seattleu.edu/opusprize). When Maggie talks about her own understanding of her life and her vocation, she says “Love made me an inventor.” At the heart of a vision of the richest sense of Christian vocation is being captured by a sense of the love from God and from others that enables us to see things that others wouldn’t be able to see. When we can see a swimming pool where others would see dead bodies. When we can see a film theater, a hospital, schools, microfinance. When all of a sudden, even against all odds, there are thriving, flourishing communities and lives born out of a vision, sustained out of a sense of perseverance and nourished by a sense of character.
If that is the telos, we need to be producing more people like Maggie. But what does that mean? I want to offer you three different phrases that I think are intrinsic to what is involved in sustaining that sense of vocation. The first phrase describes a way of thinking that I call traditioned innovation. We are caught as a culture between people who always want to do the same thing that they’ve always done just because it’s familiar and other people who just want to change things because that’s what they always want to do. Traditioned innovation is about that lively sense of tradition that Jarsolav Pelikan described when he wrote, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, tradition is the living faith of the dead” (1986). We long to bear witness to the living faith of our forbearers, to people who have carried a vision forward, the men and women who worked the grounds, who taught the classes, who served the food, who came here and became loving alumni. There is a tradition that is carried forward, and yet that tradition is living to the extent that it is focused on the future, and so it is focused on innovation. “Love made me an inventor.” This is a love that is as deep as it is long and that goes back to the very creation of the world.
Traditioned innovation is at the heart of Christian vocation, and I would argue that it is at the heart of how we read the Bible itself. The book of Acts is about a Holy Spirit who is making all things new but in ways continuous with the past. If you go back even further, to Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomos, the second law, is a second giving of the Ten Commandments in a new context. The continuation of tradition in a new way is at the heart of who Jews and Christians understand ourselves to be, and it is at the heart of the best institutions and ways of living in the world. Any practice worth doing is always about drawing from the past and discovering what are the new twists and turns (See Bass 1998). This is a way of thinking that can sustain the most exciting vocations in law, in medicine, in teaching, in business. And if traditioned innovation is a way of thinking, we need people who are equipped and ready to take risks to do it.
The second phrase is transformative leadership. But notice that I don’t say transformative “leaders” or, worse, transformative “leader.” Sometime we imagine that if we could just get that one person. Some people thought it was going to be Barack Obama. Others didn’t. Some people are still longing for some heroic genius who is going to figure out the economic crisis. We just wait for that one leader who can make everything happen, when the truth of the matter is even a Maggie in Burundi is only made possible by a whole group of people around her, people that formed her, that nurtured her, that mentored her, that sustained her, that lived with her, that cared for her.
Transformative leadership emphasizes that leadership is about the work of a company of people. Remember that the goal is thriving and flourishing communities, Christian life lived in company, in relationship. And the transformative leadership that we need is what we discover in those relationships that embolden and encourage us to do things that we would never have done solely on our own, because that loneliness hurts. One of the greatest dangers that we have is that in our culture—whether you are a business leader, a leader in law, or in medicine or in higher education or the ministry—we tend to create isolation, and in isolation we are likely to render far worse decisions, if not commit outright immoral conduct.
Transformative leadership is willing to take risks, to imagine what might be, and also to be so deep in learning that it knows what already has been. It can draw from the best of our past for the sake of our future. But transformative leadership also suggests that a Christian vocation has as its backbone the work of the laity. At the heart of transformative leadership is what people are called to do daily in the world, in education, in social work, in business, in law, in medicine, in mission, in whatever setting we might find ourselves, wherever we might discover that sense of vocation, to be willing to exercise leadership. Transformative leadership does not mean you have to be in a position of authority. Sometimes being in authority helps, but sometimes it can be a constraint. People like Maggie are changing the world without any formal authority.
The third phrase is vibrant institutions. We’ve come through a period that’s not very pretty in American culture. For at least forty years, maybe a full half-century, we have operated as if institutions were either irrelevant or else malevolent. We have assumed that, at their best, they are necessary evils. We often just wish we could get along without them. They intrude in some romanticized notion that we can find personal meaning without the constraints of these awful bureaucracies. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that I left the ministry when I become the administrator of a divinity school, I could probably retire. Because of this cynicism, we equate institution with bureaucracy, and this is tearing apart the fabric of American culture.
When I say vibrant institutions, I don’t mean only places like Valparaiso—though they are crucial. Take for example, the game of baseball as a carrier of traditioned innovation. Develop by contrast the way Cal Ripken played the game of baseball with the way some of its current, steroid driven players have. For some of today’s players, it’s all about personal careers and setting records and making salaries. It’s all about external goods and self-aggrandizement. In contrast, Cal Ripken saw himself as being a part of a much larger institution on which his whole career was built and which he would pass on to people beyond him. He wanted to be part of the game. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ryne Sandberg said, “I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect…. If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game did what they were supposed to do and I did what I was supposed to do” (Heclo 2008).
Vibrant institutions become bearers of that tradition. They are incubators of leadership. They are laboratories of learning. They become the background of a way of life. We can take them for granted in a good way, in the sense that we don’t always have to think about them on a daily basis. But we too often take them for granted in a bad way, when we assume that they don’t need tending and caring for. Paying attention to the details is central to the good way of life. The Latin root for the word administration is ministrare, to serve. To administrate is to pay attention to institutions that are vibrant and life-giving. These institutions shape us and form us in ways that are extraordinarily powerful. Those of you who are students at Valparaiso may not have realized it, when you finally one morning decided to send back the acceptance form, that you were making a decision about the formation of a way of life, of a way of thinking that would mark you in ways that you trusted and trust will be life giving and for which, hopefully, you will be grateful for years into the future. Vibrant institutions give shape to our lives. They bear that tradition. They incubate leadership. They are laboratories of learning, or experimentation with traditioned innovation.
A recent book by Hugh Heclo called On Thinking Institutionally makes a very important point about the difference between “thinking about institutions” and “thinking institutionally.” For the last generation, American higher education has, at best, been willing to think about institutions. But thinking about institutions always puts you at some distance from them and often typically to offer criticism of them. Thinking institutionally involves you in a standpoint where you see yourself as part of a larger enterprise. And so you adopt a fundamental posture of affirmation and trust. This doesn’t mean that you don’t criticize. It actually makes criticism all the more important because it’s part of your love and your affirmation of what the institution is called to be and the ways in which the current organization falls short of it. It’s what Michael Walzer called “being a connected critic,” as opposed to being armchair critics launching verbal grenades at a distance.
We need all three of the phrases in order to cultivate those thriving and flourishing communities: a way of thinking that is traditioned innovation, a commitment to the importance of all of us involved in transformative leadership, and a cultivation of vibrant institutions. If you only have one or two of those three, all of them will suffer. I’ve met some extraordinary leaders in various parts of the underdeveloped world who are struggling because they lack the institutional infrastructure that would enable them to do the kind of education that we do in the United States. But in the United States, we’ve got incredible infrastructure of institutions that are no longer vibrant because we’ve given up on leadership and traditioned innovation. We’ve got some colleges that are keeping their doors open by giving up on the liberal arts and offering only technical skills, because that’s where the revenues are to be found. And other schools are just putting their heads in the sand and saying “We’ll never change. Everyone else will eventually come to their senses.”
If as a culture we begin to focus on what it means to have a way of life in the world that is focused on thriving and flourishing communities that bear witness as signs, foretastes, and instruments of the reign of God, that cultivate traditioned innovation, transformative leadership, and vibrant institutions, we will begin to discover a different way of life, the cultivation of ways of living in which you don’t have to speak in order to communicate. You may know that old line of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” This is at the heart of what Christian vocation would be. Not just of individuals but of communities, of institutions that communicate by their very way of life.
What would that mean for you and me as we think about vocation personally and individually? I want very briefly to identify four phrases that I hope you will think about keeping in tension together. They are four different ways of thinking about vocation and life that often are simply articulated as if they are the definition of vocation. But I want to suggest that they have to be held in tension, because it is in their complementarity that we are most likely to discover the richness of our own gifts and temperament.
The first one comes from Gail Godwin’s novel Evensong (Ballantine 1999), in which a young woman is trying to understand her own vocation, and her parish priest tells her, “Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you.” Whatever it is that you are going to be about in life, it needs to comport with the gifts that God has given you in creation and to fit with your temperament in a way that makes sense of your own personal history. I had a friend when I was growing up who I envied for a long time because he knew exactly what he was going to do in life, and I didn’t have a clue. This kid knew he was going to Johns Hopkins for college, and he was going to become a doctor. He knew it because that is what his father had done, his grandfather had done, and his older brother had done. We graduated from high school, and I went off to college where I changed my major five times, in one year. My friend went off to Johns Hopkins where he majored in pre-med, and I knew that he understood what his life was about… or not. Because what happened at the end of the first year, what he discovered, was that he actually was terrible at math and science, and he flunked most of his courses his first year at Johns Hopkins. Being a doctor wouldn’t ever have made more of him. By contrast, there are things that you find it’s a great joy to wake up in the morning and do, that keep making more of you.
Yet if left alone this idea can make us self-indulgent. Sometimes, we say, “I’m only going to do that which I like and which makes more of me.” And we all know what it’s like to be around people who are consistently happy about being made more of. And so we need the complementary vision offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship (1959). “When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die.” At the heart of that vision is the notion that comes from Christ of sacrifice, of bearing the cross. It may or may not mean physical death. In Bonhoeffer’s case, it did. In many places in the world, that kind of willingness to accept a Christian vocation does mean taking risks of physical life. But at the heart of this is an understanding that our vocation isn’t only about being made more of; it’s also about being faithful even if it is costly. There are lots of good gospel and biblical examples for that, but left on its own this idea also has some problems; it can easily become masochistic. It can become the way in which the powerful manipulate the powerless so that those who are already weak are told to sacrifice more. Whether on racial or gender or economic grounds, it can become a tool whereby the powerful remain powerful at the expense of the powerless. And so this sense of vocation needs that complementary sense that something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you.
The third and probably the most familiar description of vocation is Frederick Buechner’s teaching that your vocation is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet (1973). It’s important to remember the word “deep” in both of those phrases, because it’s not just about superficial gladness or superficial hunger. To be sure, if it’s your vocation to feed the hungry in deep and rich and important ways by being involved in homeless ministries or programs, that’s all to the good. But that’s not the only kind of thing the world hungers for. The world also hungers for joy, for beauty, for community. So perhaps your gift is to play the piano or to become part of a jazz band. The world has deep hungers for that, and it may also achieve a deep gladness. But that deep gladness also is a way of addressing both Godwin’s making more of you and Bonhoeffer’s asking you to die, because if you are clear that it is your vocation in following Christ even the costliness of a vocation can be life giving.
Last fall, I got a call from a reporter friend of mine who wanted me to talk about someone who was about to be buried. He had died at age eighteen. His parents were missionaries in Africa. And she wanted to have me make sense of why parents could put their kids at risk as missionaries. She was genuinely perplexed, and she said, “I really need you to help me understand something, because the parents said that they were sure that John would have done it all over again, even if it meant he only had eighteen years to live.” She said, “Does that make any sense at all to you?” I just said, “Yes,” because I didn’t think I had enough time to give her the full context in which you narrate a life such that it gives you deep gladness to take the risk of costly sacrifice.
The fourth phrase is one that is actually not so much a definition of vocation as just one of those reminders that I think is absolutely crucial when you are thinking about a vocation rather than just a job or a career, and that’s the line, “If you know how to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” When we are thinking about vocation, we have to be willing to recognize that it’s going to involve ongoing narration and negotiation and understanding. Part of that traditioned innovation is that whatever the glories of the past are, they don’t give you an automatic solution for the future.
When my wife and I were dating, we talked about how we were going to navigate two careers in marriage, and we developed a very clear ten-year plan for the first ten years of our marriage, and how it was all going to be sequenced. Whose career would take priority when, and it was all going to make sense, and it was going to be completely equal, fifty-fifty. We got married. About six weeks into our marriage, that plan was completely useless, and at that point we said, “Never mind. We’ll figure it out on the fly.”
In part, it’s a daily recommitment. One day, I was talking to one of my mentors, a wonderful, extraordinary, faithful pastoral leader. I said to him, “Bishop Goodson, when were you called into ministry.” He said, “Well most recently, this morning.” It’s a way of remembering that our sense of vocation always has to be renewed, that we are always involved in seeing where our deep gladness is, where the world’s deep hunger is, where we might be made more of, and where we might be asked to come and die. And it’s in the intersection of those four themes that we are likely to narrate our vocation most faithfully, hopefully focused on vibrant institutions, transformative leadership, traditioned innovation, all in the service of thriving and flourishing communities that bear witness as signs, foretastes, and instruments of the reign of God.
The last thing I want to say to you is that in order to have that happen, you and I are all going to need a few good friends. We are created for relationship not in the abstract but in the particular. There are people who are given to us and with whom, by virtue of our intentionality, we cultivate what I call “holy friendships.” Holy friendships are those people who know us well enough to know the games we play, the fragile spots we need to overcome, and how to help us make sense of the intersections of those four themes. They know how to keep us focused on renewing that calling each and every morning. Holy friends are those people who know how to challenge the sins we’ve come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and help us to dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.
I don’t need people around to challenge sins I already hate. It’s kind of like piling on in football. “Ain’t it awful? Oh, it’s just terrible.” But those sins that I’ve come to love, they are usually ones that I have redescribed into something that sounds more like virtue. “I’m not a workaholic. I just do the Lord’s work.”
These holy friends also help us affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim. They can help us see what might make more of us, because, sometimes, we are caught in the wounds of memory, and we can’t see it. We don’t even know it. If you are a great singer, and somebody says, “Boy, you sing beautifully,” it’s nice to hear, but it’s old news. But it’s rather when they say, “I see God working in your life in this way,” and you’re thinking, “No. That’s not me.” And they say, “Yeah, I really see it.” And they are there to help support and encourage you in taking that risk. Most of us have a little bit of a hard time just changing the way we wear our hair, much less affirming a new gift. We need people who affirm these gifts in us.
Holy friends also help us dream the dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed. One of my favorite passages in Scripture is Ephesians 3:20–21. It’s the close of that great prayer about trying to comprehend the height and depth of breadth and length of Christ. It ends with two verses that are bad grammar and great theology. “Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine….” I had in the fifth grade a teacher named Mrs. Wadell in Denver, Colorado. She was an old school grammarian, and she told us over and over again that you can’t modify the word “all.” You either have it all, or you don’t. When we would watch Denver Broncos games and the announcer said, “So-and-so is giving 110 percent today,” I would just know a lecture was coming on Monday from Mrs. Wadell. “You can’t give 110 percent unless the scale is 1000 percent.” So imagine my surprise to open up Scripture of all places and find “all” being modified not once, not twice, but three times.
It’s great theology though, because the writer is saying far more than that it would be good if God could accomplish all that we could ask or imagine. That alone sounds pretty good, but the writer says God can accomplish working within us more than all we can ask or imagine. Far more than all we can ask or imagine. And then it’s like you are in a great jazz concert in New Orleans and everything is clicking and you are thinking the music cannot get any better than this. Or if your tastes run to symphony orchestras, everybody in the symphony is coming together, and the conductor has it all clicking, and you are thinking that this is a foretaste of heaven. And then they ratchet it up just one notch more. The writer says that God by the power working within us can accomplish abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine.
I suspect it had to be people who caught hold of all of this—holy friendships with a vision of thriving and flourishing communities with traditioned innovation and transformative leadership and vibrant institutions—who founded the predecessor institutions of Valparaiso University in 1859. It was also a bunch of young kids who urged the Methodist conference to found Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis in 1905. They went to the Methodist annual conference and said, “You need to raise a bunch of money, because there are poor people here who don’t have healthcare. Do it now!” People who catch a vision like Maggie.
The nineteenth-century architect Daniel Burnham said these words, “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing asserting itself with ever growing insistency. Remember that our sons and daughters are going to do things that will stagger us. Let your watchword be order, and your beacon beauty.”
Think big in a time of anxiety when fear could easily overtake us as individuals. It could overtake us as institutions. It could lead us to isolate ourselves from one another and from larger purposes. But we wouldn’t be here without some men and women who were willing to think big even in difficult times, who were focused on large purposes about Christian character, about cultivating thriving and flourishing communities, who thought it was possible maybe even to change the world, who might not have known what Valparaiso University would be like in 2009. We might not know what it will be like in 2059, but what we do know is that we can focus our lives on bearing witness to the God who can accomplish abundantly far more that all we could ask or imagine by working within us and who is calling you and me and all of us to think big. Let love make all of us inventors, now and in the coming years.
L. Gregory Jones is Dean and Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School and President and CEO of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
Bass, Dorothy. Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. New York: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: McMillan, 1959.
Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
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Author’s note: This essay is an edited transcript of an oral lecture delivered as the Albert G. Huegli Lecture on Church-Related Higher Education at Valparaiso University on 12 February 2009. I have sought to preserve the character of the oral presentation in this published version and express my thanks to those who transcribed the lecture into written form.