The Great Put-On
Frederick Niedner

Few individuals in either the church or the academy have given more thought, read more widely, or written more provocatively on the subject of Christian people following their various callings in the world than Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass. Bass’s direction of the Lilly-funded Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, along with all the publications that have issued from it, have had tangible, wide-spread, and salutary effects on communities of faith as they have worked to give their convictions hands, feet, and hearts of flesh and blood. While it may be difficult to measure the Valparaiso Project’s impact with the sort of empirical data an assessment-driven culture demands, anecdotal evidence abounds.

The wake of Schwehn’s 1993 volume, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, has grown very wide indeed as it continues to find readers and generate conversation among those who shape and support church-related institutions of higher learning in North America. The network of Lilly Fellows institutions, at least in part another Schwehn brainchild, has grown to nearly one hundred church-related colleges and universities, all of whom have benefited greatly from sustained, focused thinking about teaching and scholarship as Christian vocation.

I count myself among those who have benefited in ways beyond counting for having been a colleague, friend, and conversation partner with Bass and Schwehn over the past thirty years. I can no more imagine how my personal and professional life might have gone without their friendship and influence than I can picture the course of my life had my children never been born. So thoroughly and profoundly do our long-time relationships, along with the stories they generate, shape us, as well as the world we get to inhabit.

Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, the volume that Schwehn and Bass co-edited, offers up not only a rich anthology of humankind’s best thinking about work, vocation, and integrity, but also serves as a window on the editors’ scope of learning and their capacity for meaningful engagement with dialog partners who come from many different eras, traditions, and points of view. We might expect to hear many of the voices Bass and Schwehn call into this conversation, among them Aristotle, Tolstoy, and Dorothy Day. But Matt Damon and Ben Affleck? Malcolm X? Sullivan Ballou, a Union soldier in our nation’s Civil War whose only literary legacy is a letter he wrote to his wife shortly before he perished in the First Battle of Bull Run? Not likely—unless you know Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn, whose practiced ears hear in all of us, published or unpublished, expressions of yearning and struggle to make our lives count for something.

Firmly ensconced in my personal canon on the subject of Christian vocation is Martin Luther’s “Treatise on Christian Liberty,” the piece in which Luther explicates one of the great paradoxes he came to embrace. “The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all,” Luther asserts. In sum, this treatise describes freedom from and freedom to. By virtue of their baptismal faith, Christians are free from having to justify their existence or behaviors, as if that were within a human being’s capacity in the first place, and they live instead as part of a body the crucified Christ has taken to himself as a husband takes a wife to whom he pledges an eternal bond of faithfulness. Nothing could ever happen, except that I am his and he is mine, the believer trusts.

Freed from making meaning somehow of my own sometimes crazy or pathetic life and circumstances, I am therefore free to serve my neighbor. As Luther puts it, just as Christ “put on” us sinners and acted for us as if he had been what we are, so we “put on” our neighbors and live for them as though their lives are our own. “A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor—in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.”

Neither the “Treatise on Christian Liberty” nor any other piece of Luther’s writings appear among those in Leading Lives That Matter. This does not mean, however, that this volume has somehow sidestepped Luther or downplayed his importance. Rather, the influence of Luther shows up all through this book, not only in the bent of the editors’ introductory and summary essays, but in the thinking of numerous anthologized writers. Several Lutherans in the volume invoke or quote Luther, including Schwehn and Bass (45), Gilbert Meilaender (239) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (109), but several Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians seem to have grasped Luther’s paradoxical thinking too.

Not surprisingly, the Bonhoeffer excerpt on vocation, “The Place of Responsibility,” shows the clearest influence of Luther’s thought. In a near paraphrase of the “Treatise on Christian Liberty,” Bonhoeffer writes of how the grace of God in Christ seeks us out in our various places and claims us there, and in response we wear or bear the grace of God as we enter every place life takes us. We respond to the call of Christ, or embody the grace of Christ, in all those places. Moreover, Bonhoeffer asserts, every place among humankind, whether the place where Christ found us or the one in which we find others “is in every respect burdened with sin and guilt, be it a royal throne, the home of a respected citizen, or a shanty of misery” (Leading Lives, 108).

Put another way, the core element of Christ’s work remains ours as well, for the whole of our lives. In one form or another, our primary work is handling sin, just as was Christ’s. One can see this truth even in Frederick Buechner’s now-famous formula for locating the place of one’s vocation. You find the place to which God calls you, says the excerpt included in Leading Lives That Matter, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (111).

I admit to having fallen in love with that quote almost forty years ago, when Buechner’s Wishful Thinking first appeared. For a stretch of years, I frequently quoted it in essays, speeches, and sermons when the occasion called for a quick, clear thought on vocation. Among other things, it captures the freedom of Luther’s vision for genuine vocation. There is not one place or role that any of us must find, else our life is wasted on folly or sunk in unrighteousness. No, we can be free lords and dutiful servants in any number of places, some of which we will find and others that will likely find us. I must also confess to having fallen in love with The Velveteen Rabbit around the same time. I tossed that raggedy, old bunny around quite liberally for a few years as well, trying all the while, I suppose, to convince myself that we become real by having our noses rubbed off and our joints go floppy, all for the sake of some child’s love. Nowadays, I cringe whenever I hear someone use the Velveteen Rabbit in a sermon or quote Buechner’s handy GPS for vocation-location, partly because most often those who do so have quite obviously just discovered them and believe they have found something completely new and partly because both of these homiletical shibboleths can sound distressingly trite if naïvely deployed.

Wisely, Bass and Schwehn included the entire VOCATION entry in Buechner’s Wishful Thinking. In context, the intersection of personal gladness and the world’s deep need identified in the oft-quoted line appears not in some magical, trouble-free kingdom, but amidst the same human brokenness Bonhoeffer names as common to the places where Christians find their callings—in Buechner’s case the cutthroat world of advertising, a leper colony, or a pit of boredom and depression.

Even in context, however, Buechner’s description speaks only of what any one of us has to give the world from the riches of what makes us glad. It does not account for the vocation-seeker’s own deep needs, some of which may come from the very shape of his or her gladness, and thus it fails to account for the necessity of others somewhere nearby who will find their vocations by holding up the gladly giving one, seeing to his or her forgiveness, thus making the contribution meaningful, or perhaps possible in the first place.

With a stroke of genius, the editors of Living Lives That Matter have given Buechner’s image the perfect piece of context. In the very next entry, we find the concluding paragraphs of a Will Campbell essay titled “Vocation as Grace,” in which the wise old Baptist tells what I’ll admit is my own, all-time favorite story that describes how vocation works. One evening after attending a circus performance, Campbell met and engaged in conversation the veteran leader of the circus’s high-wire troupe. At the end of the conversation, he asked the man why, at his age, he still goes up there on the wires and risks his life every night. The man spoke of the thrill of performing and his love of hearing the audience’s reactions, but ultimately he admitted he had to be up there because the rest of the company, most of them his family members, had weaknesses, personality quirks, and attention deficits that made it necessary for him to continue on as a stabilizing influence. Without his watchfulness, they might all come crashing down. Finally, Campbell asked why the others go up there night after night. After a moment of hesitation and apparent reluctance to answer, the man blurted out as he turned to walk away, “Because I drink too much” (113).

Among the baptized and redeemed, there is no call or demand for flawlessly righteous saviors who must tend the needs of their sinful, defective flocks. Rather, we go up on the various high wires of life together, because any and all of us can and will fall. For as long as possible, we hang onto each other in our places of vocation, each living by the grace of others’ contributions. We hang on even when one of us falls, because neither failure nor death, indeed, not even betrayal, serves as warrant for removing any of us from the circle that desperately needs someone, in the stead of the Crucified One, to put us on like a garment and live in us because for now we can’t find a way even to breathe.

Finally, I hold up for celebration Garret Keizer’s “A Dresser of Sycamore Trees” as another piece in Leading Lives That Matter that bears the stamp of the peculiar sort of freedom Martin Luther learned from St. Paul. Keizer would likely identify his vocation today as writing, but earlier in his life he could not see that such a calling could have sufficient gravity. He thought perhaps he should study for the Episcopal priesthood. If ordained, he could obviously and truly serve God and his neighbors.

In the course of a retreat Keizer entered as a way to discern his vocation, he encountered two telling signs, one of them a quirky, wise, old sinner named Jeffrey who for forty years had routinely “visited” the monastery where Keizer retreated, the other a room full of books, including many that were not written chiefly as theology, but as good fiction, poetry, or thoughtful analysis. All these books, however, bared human hearts and spoke of longing for love and community. From the two signs in juxtaposition, Keizer learned that priests and writers do pretty much the same thing. They both hear confessions. They listen to stories of all the wild, wonderful, and depraved things that human beings do to themselves and others, and in one way or another, they offer it all up, hand it all to God, the only one who can bear the load. Moreover, at the end of every confession, the priest says to the person confessing, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” The writer, too, makes confession and begs for mercy from God and from those whose stories he or she has heard—and repeated in the pages of a book.

In handling sin by hearing its sorry tales and lifting them from the solitary burden-bearers who have grown weary and sick to death of carrying them, the writer, just like the priest, puts on his or her neighbor, as Christ put on us, and wields the grace that frees the enslaved to get out of themselves and become, yes, servants of their broken-down neighbors.

Keizer discovered this in a retreat, and the rich, insightful books and essays he has written in subsequent years reveal that he has re-learned that paradoxical truth many times. So have all the rest of us, living in communities of people who trust in the crucified one who takes our place, puts us on, and lives in us, communities like the one in which I live, work, worship, and sin, sometimes boldly and sometimes not so boldly. My community includes Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass, who graciously and more frequently than I likely know put me on and carry and absolve my sins. We, too, discover and re-discover the truth of this curious paradox of freedom and servanthood most every day of the lives which, by some chance, we have been given to share in the same time and place.

Frederick Niedner is Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.

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