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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