When “Is” is not “Ought”

Abandoned BuildingWe are, in the words of David Dark, artisans of the possible – hopeful for what could and should be in the world.[1] We’re uncomfortable with the status quo and understand the responsibility of cultural renewal. Sounds nice, but how do we hold on to this when faced with some of life’s difficulties that easily dishearten us?

Over the course of the past year, I have been taking a closer look at the theology of vocation with a small group of pastors and lay people from around the country. We’ve taken on the task of exploring a richer understanding of vocation as we seek the common good for our churches and our cities. This is exciting stuff. What struck me last week, not for the first time, but maybe with a new profundity, is the deep complexity of our task. As we participated in wonderful conversations with people who love their cities, the difficulty of searching for answers rushed into my mind. This was going to be more challenging than I had originally anticipated. The excitement from a conversation exploring a robust theology of vocation gave way to a traffic jam of questions. What do you say to the frustrated soul whose disheartening work environment lay beyond her immediate control? How do you navigate the conversation with a recent college graduate, excited about his potential, whose fingers are numb from sending out resumes as the student debt looms in the background?  What words come to mind for the seasoned worker who’s been laid off from her dream job?

The college I work at is located in a small town, in the process of the continuously recovering rust belt. Abandoned factories, a struggling economy, and blue-collar labor describe our place and neighbors.  Does the conversation change when I reenter my city, the place I call home? I remember sitting with Nolan a few years ago. A recent graduate, he was passionate about working with young people, sending out dozens of resumes, and was working at Starbucks. Not the proverbial coffee shop; he really was working at Starbucks. And he was disheartened. Words often fail me during these conversations with those that are unemployed or underemployed. It is not an uncommon experience. It’s one thing to sit and talk about how our work matters to God (and it does, deeply), but it’s another thing to face the depths of human frustration and through the tears help someone understand that God still does care, deeply, about him and his work in His kingdom. How do we do this? What does a faithful response look like? I don’t know exactly. This is tricky. The Apostle Paul wrote that we don’t see things clearly just yet. We look through the dark glass, peer through the fog. The mysteries of God are just that, mysteries. It’s time to make peace with the dark glass. By no means are we excused from faithful wrestling with the complexities.

I’m excited by the deep exploration of this topic: seeking the common good of the city, searching for ways to better equip people to faithfully influence their workplaces, helping people gain a better understanding of the value of their contribution in the Kingdom of God. Maybe I need to embrace not being able to answer all of the questions. Maybe I should start with one.  Jack Kerouac wrote, “And so I struggle in the dark… trying desperately to be a great remember-er, redeeming life from darkness.”[2] How do I become a better remember-er of God’s sovereignty and His faithfulness, particularly during the darkest times? How do I help others become better remember-ers? There is a poem that hangs in my office, at its conclusion Wendell Berry reminds us to “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.”[3] Five dozen resumes feels like more tracks than necessary, but again, dark glass is hard to see through.

There is no formula for seeing through the mystery. At times life can feel like 40 years of wandering in the wilderness – plenty of time for practicing.  Berry’s final encouragement is to practice resurrection. Renewal. Redemption. We exercise our good remembering and allow it to shape faithful responses. Here’s my hope: to messily, but faithfully, respond to this multidimensional life; continually searching for responses to some of life’s deep complexities; to continually seek the common good in my own particular city; to create a life liturgy of practicing resurrection. May we strive towards the coming Kingdom. Practice on, artisans of the possible.

This is a re-post of Brian Jensen’s article from 2013.  


Brian Jensen lives in Beaver Falls, PA with his wife Sara and their three kids, Toby, Zoe, and Levi.  He serves as Dean of Student Development at Geneva College.


[1] David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).  Many thanks to Dark for this hope-filled phrase, as well as a number of other thought provoking ideas that I use on a regular basis in a course that I teach. [2] Ibid.  Again, thank you to Dark for including this Kerouac quote in a wonderful chapter on the importance of remembering.
[3] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
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