Reflections on the Eugene Peterson Vocation Event

Last night, 175 folks from all over Denver came together to listen to The Pastor, Eugene Peterson, open his heart and talk with us about faith and vocation.

The event, hosted by Denver United Church and sponsored by Cherry Creek Presbyterian, Littleton Christian, Bloom, and New Life Church, in collaboration with The Denver Institute for Faith and Work, was intended to spark critical dialogue around the questions of what role human work has to play in the plan of God, and how we understand what kinds of work God may be calling us to.  Back in March, a group of four of us went out to Flathead Lake, Montana, to interview Eugene at his hope about these important questions.  We edited our footage into four movements (which will be available here shortly) and shaped the event last night around those four movements:

  • The role of work in the plan of God
  • How we discover our vocation
  • Challenges to vocation
  • A charge from Eugene to us

The whole event, from my perspective, was a smashing success.  I thought the clips of Eugene were fabulous, the pastoral reflections poignant, and the structure of the night wonderfully conducive to absorbing the content.  Some highlights for me:

I was struck at how often Eugene kept taking the conversation back to Creation and Sabbath-keeping when we wanted to make it about work.  When I was conducting the interview, in all honesty, at first I was a bit stressed out.  “Why the heck does he keep talking about Sabbath and birds and mountains and stuff?!” I would think, “He knows we’re here to talk about work right??!”  But eventually I started to see that his insistence on Sabbath and Creation was quite intentional.  Sabbath and a deep appreciation for and attention to the Creation help us order our lives in such a way that productive, God-honoring, people-helping work is not our god, but the natural outflow of living in a way that is deeply congruent with the “grain of the universe.”  To worship rightly is to begin to work rightly.  I loved that.

I was struck at Eugene’s comment that “there is no human work that is not capable of being vocationalized.”  I remember being struck at that phrase when I first interviewed Eugene and it has lingered with me ever since, both because he made up an awesome word on the spot 🙂 (and I LOVE good words) but more importantly because of the possibility such a statement opens up for us, for it puts us in a position to receive the work in front of us as a gift from the hand of God through which we can both develop our faculties and also serve our neighbor.  And to do such work well, with great love, even if we feel like it doesn’t “fit” us perfectly or isn’t our ideal job, is to find our way into a deeper sort of fulfillment–the fulfillment of having tasted and touched a profound holiness.  Eugene’s story about his dad sticks out here–a butcher his entire life, Eugene’s dad worked so hard and so well that Eugene thought his dad loved being a butcher.  At the end of his dad’s life he discovered that he never really liked it.  And yet… he found the fulfillment of vocational holiness in it.  That insight is just SO important, because it helps us see that…

According to Eugene, no one is hopeless with this business.  Our “American Dream” culture creates in us two things which are highly destructive to ordinary vocational holiness:

  1. A sense of entitlement that, all things being equal, we should be able to find “the perfect job”
  2. A false belief that once we find that perfect job, it will be perfectly fulfilling for us

But, as Eugene aptly pointed out, most Christians down through history have found themselves in less-than-ideal situations.  He made reference primarily to American slavery, saying, in essence, “These people were in perfectly non-ideal situations.  And yet, they found their way into the hidden heart of holiness.  They worked and played.  They sang and told stories.  They raised their children.  God was in it…”

This, I think, is a PROFOUND hope, for if we’ll eat Eugene’s little scroll, as bitter as it might taste in our mouths, it will be substance in our stomachs and strength for our bones.  MOST of us are in a position where our work does not totally “fit” us, and try as we might in our lives, we may never attain perfect “fittedness” between our sense of who we are and our situation.  No matter.  Hear me–IT DOESN’T MATTER.  If we’ll receive the work with gratitude and give ourselves fully to it and to the totality of our lives, we’ll know a rare satisfaction–a satisfaction that, as the wise writer of Ecclesiastes says, comes from the hand of God:

24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  (Eccl 2)

There was, of course, TONS more.  I hope you’ll check into Denver Institute’s website often in the coming days to enjoy the videos yourself (and watch out for some extra cuts we’re going to throw up on YouTube later this year).

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention some people and organizations who made all this possible:

First, a huge thanks to the Made To Flourish Pastors Network for the generous grant that made this event possible.  I’m grateful to be involved with their fine work and pray God’s richest blessings back to them for their grace and generosity.

Second, a huge thanks to the many volunteers who gave of their time and effort to make last night happen.  People like you make the world go ’round.  Thanks for what you do.

Lastly, I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for the leadership and initiative of Jeff Haanen, the founder and president of the Denver Institute, who worked tirelessly with a bunch of distracted and busy pastors to make this important event happen.  Jeff – you are loved and your work is a huge blessing to this city.  Keep it up.

Grace and peace, as always.

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