Grace, Vocation, and Leaving the School that I Loved

Part of a series of autobiographical reflections written by Richard T. Hughes.

It was 1970, the year before my doctoral graduation. The job market for professors was tight, so tight that I sent letters of inquiry to 140 schools scattered all over the country—large schools and small schools, state schools and private schools, colleges and seminaries. The constraints of the job market had left me desperate. It didn’t much matter to me where I taught. I just wanted a job.

Of those 140 letters, only 60 institutions saw fit to reply, and the letters I received were amazingly uniform. In fact, I could hold each envelope up to the light and count the paragraphs. There were always three: Paragraph #1: Thank you for your inquiry. Paragraph #2: Unfortunately, we have no openings. Paragraph #3: But we will be happy to keep your letter on file. I knew that the “file” that each letter referenced was the large round “file” that sits on the floor. To say I was discouraged is an understatement.

And then grace appeared in the form of a telephone call from the provost of Pepperdine’s new Malibu campus which would open in 1972. He had gotten my name, he said, from a friend, and would I be willing to fly out for an interview? After the discouraging responses (and the non-responses) to my 160 letters, the invitation to interview at Pepperdine—an invitation that essentially came out of the blue—struck me as a God-send, an act of unmerited grace. Yet, I quickly discovered that embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity. 

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Called by a Book

At its core, the question of vocation—if we are Christians—has everything to do with living one’s life as a disciple of Jesus, hearing his summons, embracing his call. And the life to which he calls us—if we have ears to hear—is a life of solidarity with those he called “the least of these”—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed, and those in prison. 

In a word, Jesus calls us to become fully human—to see through the facades of power, fame, and success, to burst the artificial barriers that separate us from people less fortunate than ourselves, and to claim our common humanity. As William Stringfellow observed many years ago, this profoundly Christian vocation can be lived out through any number of professions or careers.

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The Grace of Troubling Questions

Finding good work to do—work that can enrich and satisfy the soul, not just for a moment but for a lifetime—is an incredible gift of grace.

That gift can enter our lives in such mysterious ways, however, that we often fail to see it for what it is. In fact, grace can sometimes appear in such profoundly negative ways—in defeat or despair or rejection, for example—that we often resist the very grace that can make us whole.

In my case, the grace that opened up a lifetime of good and satisfying work first appeared in the form of deeply troubling questions about the church in which I was raised, the Church of Christ.

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Finding vocation in loss, suffering, and death

There could be no better time than the present moment, with the Covid-19 pandemic threatening human life all over the world, to ask the question, “How might we find vocation in loss, suffering, and death?” To help us think about that question, I want to begin with a story.

It was almost twenty years ago when I learned that the Lilly Endowment had awarded Pepperdine University, where I taught at that time, a $2 million grant to support the “theological exploration of vocation” with our students.

I was ecstatic, and only moments after that call, I met one of my classes and shared the news with my students. They all were delighted—all, that is, except one. Far from delighted, he seemed distressed and troubled and told me straight up, “This project strikes me as a gift to children of privilege, a project that will simply cater to their own self-absorption. Most of the people in the world,” he continued, “don’t have the luxury of thinking about their ‘vocation.’ Life for them is a struggle simply to survive.”

My student’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning and reinforced a truth I already knew—that to serve our students well, this project had to encourage them to envision their lives and careers in terms much larger than themselves.

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