There is one call that is universal to all God’s children, the “Follow me” of Jesus Christ. But within a global population of more than seven billion souls, we each are called, perhaps varying by season, to distinct functions and roles. Oftentimes, we admire those who find a calling early and pursue it throughout their vocational lives. I fear, however, we can look around and just as often see those discontented with their work life, whether it is from the unsettling effect of mismatched of gifts and talents, the disappointment with meager pay, or the pain caused by abusive bosses or companies.
This essay is a self-reflective excursion from the perspective I suspect many find themselves in at various stages of life. In some ways, given my current circumstances, I feel adrift, without clarity or specific direction as to how or in what direction to proceed. So, welcome to my journey. I apologize if this meanders a bit. Perhaps the “why” of such wandering will become obvious. I am not sure. But, one hopes, there may be a method to my madness. And trust me, it is sometimes maddening.
Even as I set about this writing, I am suddenly reminded of the Christmas hymn, “I Wonder as I Wander,” by John Jacob Niles. So I am distracted for a moment to look up the tune and its lyrics. And I realize that wondering and wandering are central themes of my life. But my life is anchored by the fact that “Jesus the Saviour did come for to die For poor on’ry people like you and like I.” With that assurance, I am secure even in seasons untethered amidst the concerns of this world, so my wondering and wandering are with diminished anxiety about what the future holds.
I recently listened to a short recording of two Christian leaders speaking on the topic of calling. Since I am in a transitional season, seeking God’s direction for my here and now, these leader’s advice was poignant, even inspiring this essay. The key piece for me was that they advised that one should review personal history and ask, what is it that you have done in your life, both early and late, that has afforded the most positive pleasure and success? What is the thread that runs through the whole of your life that binds it all together. Reflecting on those questions led me to a single word: discovery.
It is doubtful that anyone who knows me well at all would be surprised if I were to say I am inquisitive. I have always loved learning, both by exploring the published ideas and stories of others and by the range of my own firsthand experiences. I once, jokingly I thought, told my spiritual mentor that my biggest problem was that I wanted to know everything. I have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. The problem with knowledge is that it can foster personal pride (1 Corinthians 8:1). And, I am sure, there are skeptics already thinking “knowledge won’t make you happy,” or “knowledge cannot save you,” or even, as Festus cried out at Paul, “Much learning is driving you mad!” (Acts 26:24). Trust me, many of my family members and friends will attest that I have long since taken leave of my senses and am a bit (or extremely) out of touch with reality.
I reiterate, for all the skeptics, the anchoring I have found in Christ. Perhaps, as said, there is a method to my madness, even if that method is not yet thoroughly understood. I resort again to Scripture, a safe haven and my foundation of reasoning: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). My comfort lies in knowing that, whether we respond appropriately or not, we are all called according to God’s purpose, that is, our salvation in Christ and the redemption of all creation through Christ.
So, what is it historically that speaks so clearly to me about discovery as my unifying theme? As I listened to the advice of those commentators, one directive stood out: think on what things align that you experienced both early in life, before the age of ten or twelve, and later in life. Both a set of circumstances and a particular incident in my early history jumped out at me.
The circumstances of my early life included being born to two curious parents. Though both were raised in poor farm families, their thirst for knowing, and especially seeing, led me to worlds beyond my home life, through the dozens of library books consumed during summer vacations, to family vacations travelling across the nation, to the activities of summer camps from the age of eight on. As farmers, my parents also instilled work and earning my own way as hallmarks of life. These two factors – hard work and learning – became inevitable strains in my life.
I began making money at the ripe age of six years old. That was when I started making potholders on a small metal loom. I sold them to housewives in our neighborhood for fifteen cents each or two for a quarter. Having earned $1.25 on my first outing was the demise of my weekly allowance. I had discovered earning by my own labor. That evolved into my first regular job as a paper boy at the age of eight from which I derived enough income to buy a cassette recorder from a local hardware store at age eight, keep myself supplied with candy and snacks of my liking, and, eventually, the outright purchase of my second bicycle, a Schwinn three speed at age twelve. I was on my way as an entrepreneur as a product of my upbringing.
The particular incident was one my aging father, now approaching ninety years of age, still enjoys recounting from time to time. One morning, well after I should have returned from delivering my newspapers, I had not. I was just eight years old and discovering the wonders of the morning hours in our quiet Midwestern town. Dad recognized that I was late and thought it best to track me down. He found me just one city block from home, sitting very still on the front steps of my elementary school. He stepped from the car and asked me, “Dave, what are you doing?” As way of explanation, I asked him a question: “Did you know that if you sit really quiet you can hear the water running over the dam?” That dam was about five blocks away. I was lost in those moments in the wonderment of my world, unawares as a child of discovery speaking to my heart, having read many times since, albeit without recognition until the very moment of this writing, that “Deep calls to deep at the sound of Thy waterfalls” (Psalm 42:7) – a new discovery even in Scripture writing about discovery. Unbeknownst to me then, it was the voice of God I was hearing! Notice that I was sitting still, silently, and listening intently. Though I did not know the Bible at all at that age, is it any surprise that I would “Be still and ‘know’ God?” (Psalm 46:10).
Through the years, I have never found any particular marketplace vocation or career discipline overtly appealing. So, when I started college, I pursued a degree in English literature simply because it was something I enjoyed. Since I have had no technical education, along the way I resorted to self-led studies of practical business matters, especially business management and leadership development. My first “professional” position was in entry level management with a restaurant company, which contributed to partnering with a friend to launch a start-up before the age of thirty. The long hours did not bother me. I was pursuing my goals of wealth and independence and I was not afraid of hard work. And we failed miserably.
I married in the waning days of that first endeavor but would soon launch another. In that Schwinn three speed bicycle, I had discovered an extension of the travel – the going and seeing of firsthand experience – which had been planted by my parents. Just out of high school, I had embarked on a coast-to-coast bicycle tour. The second entrepreneurial venture was to buy a fledgling bicycle shop and build it, over the next nine years, into one of the top recumbent bicycle shops in the country. We did quite well in that business but our marriage hit upon some seriously trying times. We chose the marriage over commercial success and sold the business. Still somewhat adrift vocationally, I then heeded the call to attend seminary in mid-life.
Throughout my life, along with management and leadership reading, I had taken up various other studies, but all proved dissatisfying. Fictional literature is fascinating as a study of the human condition. And I added readings in history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. But all these fell short of what I was looking for, even though I was never quite sure what that was. I knew I was looking for answers and all these simply led to more questions.
I first came to Christ as a teenager at a youth rally in Kokomo, Indiana. Through high school and college I wandered away from God, seeking my own pleasures in life, pleasures that would ultimately nearly destroy me and my second marriage. In fact, those pleasures, as out workings of my own selfishness, were at the heart of undermining my first marriage. I was far too foolish to commit myself to anything or anyone other than myself.
It was those same foolish pursuits that brought the second marriage to crisis. But God, in his mysterious ways, had drawn me back to him nearly a deacde earlier and now, in the midst of that second marriage crisis, called me to the seminary. I was hooked! For all the shortcomings of philosophy and history and psychology et al, in God I found an infinitely deep subject, ultimately unfathomable but curiously accessible. And in Christ I found the only answer that could ever completely satisfy or that I would ever need.
Oddly, the call to seminary was not, as one might suspect, a call to a pulpit. It was a call to study another topic somewhat new to me but generally familiar due to my business experiences: economics. Now, I completely understand that look of consternation on the faces of many reading this essay. The question has arisen often, “what has economics to do with the Gospel and Christian faith?”
Frankly, it is a good question and much too complicated to answer simply here. But, after nearly a decade of research, I wrote a book on the integration of those topics. That part of my journey began during my second semester of seminary, in the spring of 2003, and culminated, at least insofar as the basic research was concerned, when the book was published at the end of 2011. Even now, the research and contemplation continue and the book has already proven itself incomplete. A revision, I hope, will someday be forth coming.
After seminary, my wife and I launched our third venture in an industry completely different from the two industries of earlier ventures, one in light electronic manufacturing and one in specialty retail. This third was in all things lawn and landscape and exterior property maintenance. Again, the long hours did not bother us. But at age fifty, the physical labor took its toll. By the end, I underwent a second back surgery which left me in a fragile enough state that physical labor is now ruled out for future work. This I found a bit saddening as I had always enjoyed physical labor, work that left me feeling gritty and bone-weary at day’s end but always with a sense of accomplishment and tired strength. Alas, the foibles and confidence of youth now fading.
The onset of recession, along with my treatment for cancer and the (second) back surgery bookending 2009, was the handwriting on the wall. In early 2010 we faced the demise of that business. I anticipated the opening of a new adventure of deeper discovery and new challenges. It was as the seventy-hour-a-week demands of that enterprise evaporated that I felt the nudge to write the book.
I had considered pursuing a doctoral degree after seminary. On the good advice of two professors, I decided to skip the time and expense and set about organizing my thoughts. I had formulated a theory that the marketplace was actually intended and instituted as part of God’s order for creation. I cannot say exactly where the thought originated, and I have yet to find the core issue reiterated by others, but something inside me said, “God did this.” I found the key in a single word – `ezer – in Genesis 2:18. Eve was to be Adam’s co-worker, one to share in the productivity of their work, one with whom he could exercise mutually beneficial exchanges materially, intellectually, and spiritually. And a market economy was born, not as a financial model (there was no need of profit amidst the abundance of the Garden of Eden) but as a socially ordering institution and a spiritual pursuit of living unto holiness. But I digress.
The discovery of that single element, nuanced obscurely within the creation story, was a moment of elation and affirmation. I found something that I had not known before, then found that no one else that I could find had discovered it before either. It may prove to be my “crowning achievement” in life. But let’s give credit where credit is due. All I did was read the story with different lenses perhaps than others had done. God wrote the story then revealed to me a subtlety, a subtext, if you will, when He saw fit. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time wearing the right glasses.
I was, however, misunderstanding the outcomes of writing that book. I had thought it one type of step in the progression of my life but it has proven a wholly other kind. I took nearly two years, while “unemployed,” to write and edit the final draft to the satisfaction of my publisher. I presumed its publication would lead to opportunities, and perhaps an unfolding of new career paths, to speak and teach as a subject matter expert. It was received well by a handful of academics attuned to the importance of the marketplace in God’s mission in the world but, to my disappointment, it has found little traction with pastors and lay leaders. Some of that perhaps was the serious nature of how I wrote, not exactly on a scholarly level but with intentional depth and seriousness beyond the tolerance of a popular audience.
So, my journey continued. After its publication, the book led to a handful of opportunities to minister to others. But given the general lack of reception and the difficulty in explaining its significance to a broader audience, the topic of marketplace ministry has been a hard sell. It has proven especially difficult in raising funds to carry out what I believed was to become my vocational calling: to teach and preach on the redemption of the marketplace. Opportunities have arisen, especially outside the United States, in numerous invitations to share what I have learned. But alas the Lord has not seen fit to make provision for fulfilling those requests. I am able to encourage many, through writing and even coaching trans-globally via the Internet, but my heart’s desire is to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), to “taste and see that the Lord is Good” (Psalm 34:8).
Two and a half years have passed since the book release, and it seems many doors have been closed before they even opened. The life of wandering and wondering goes on as the prospects of finding wage-earning work seems to have dried up. I have not drawn a salary in more than four years and the likelihood of being hired after the age of fifty in the current economy appears to be increasingly remote, especially given my lack of technical education or experience. The grounding of those farm kids who raised me to look to work as the core function of life seems to be shifting sand as time accelerates and life is passing by me more quickly than ever.
But I am enthralled by the vocational tone within Jesus’ invitation: “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). The yoke tells me there is work yet to be done, to be shared as I am harnessed alongside my Lord. I do not clearly discern the shape of that work. Nor do I even understand how it is that provision may come (though I have yet to miss any meals so I certainly cannot complain). But even now, he continues to reveal more of his glory, his grace (charis, NT) and lovingkindness (hesed, OT), satisfying my every need. Other than Christ, what else could I possibly need?
God’s revelation invites me into a whole-life vocation of growing adoration and increasing emulation of Jesus Christ. It is as if I am discovering more fully my only true vocation, my calling, in that simple command, “Follow me,” to simply trust and obey. I am finding rest and new food for my soul even in the midst of barrenness. God is feeding me with manna from heaven, the Bread of Life. The rest is just details and I am content to sit still, listening to the water pouring over that dam in my memory.