Online Conversation | Calling and Community in a Post-Pandemic World
On Friday, May 15th 2020 we were delighted to welcome Trinity Forum founder, author, and social-critic Os Guinness, and Dean of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, Pete Peterson to discuss calling and community in the aftermath of this global crisis.
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors: Pepperdine School of Public Policy, Eric Affeldt, Mike and Julie Brenan, and Donis and Rita Walker.
Painting is Thomas Cole’s The Picnic, 1846.
Opening and closing song is Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme by Bach, played by Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer.
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Transcript of “Calling & Community in a Post-Pandemic World” with Os Guinness & Pete Peterson
Cherie Harder: We started this quarantine series at the onset of the quarantine as a way of engaging big ideas together, even while we were socially distanced. And now, two months later, the world has changed. We are in a recession. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Families are stressed. New graduates are entering a chaotic and contracting job market. And for many of us, long-buried questions about our work, our sense of meaning and purpose, are pushing into our consciousness and taking on a new life and urgency. There’s really nothing quite like being isolated to make us wonder, what is our vocation? Why am I here? And how do I find and fulfill the purpose of my life? So it is with real pleasure and excitement that I get to introduce our guests today, Os Guinness and Pete Peterson, to discuss calling and community in a post-pandemic world. Os Guinness is an author, a social critic, and, I am very proud to say, the founder and the first Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. So on that count alone, I owe him a great debt of gratitude. He has written or edited more than 30 books, including one (that may be my favorite) that is particularly germane to our conversation today, entitled The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. We will link to it in the chat feature and really encourage you to avail yourself of that book. Joining us is my good friend Pete Peterson, the Dean of Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Public Policy and a frequent writer and speaker on issues of civic participation, government responsiveness and transparency, and social capital. He writes widely for a whole variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and others. Os and Pete, welcome.
Pete Peterson: Good to be with you.
Cherie Harder: Good to have you here. We’ll start out by jumping in and defining our terms. Calling has been used to mean anything from professional achievement to self actualization and following your bliss, or, conversely, limited to full-time Christian ministry. So what does calling mean? Os, since you literally wrote the book on calling, let’s start with you.
Os Guinness: The way I define it is that when God says to us through Jesus, “Follow me,” everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do is now given a direction, a dynamic, because it’s all done in response: it’s done as unto him. For me, that’s calling. And we’ve got to distinguish it from on the one hand making it too selfish – all about me (no, it’s about Him) – and on the other hand making it too spiritual – part of the spiritual, religious world only, rather than the whole of life.
Cherie Harder: Pete, anything you want to add to that definition?
Pete Peterson: First, I’d say it’s such an honor to be with Os. His book and this conversation radically changed my own life. It’s really something that’s come full circle, just to be here with the both of you. I guess I’d only add that one of the parts of the call that I learned so much from two decades ago, when I was going through my own early-onset midlife crisis, was the fact that there is a primary calling and a secondary calling. What Os discusses in the book is that there is a primary calling placed by God on all individuals to come into relationship with Him. The secondary calling is the one that tends to be seen through the lens of vocation, profession, and civic engagement or participation, one that is more specific to us as individuals, that is uncovered through experiences and through community. That understanding of a primary calling and a secondary calling has been a really helpful way for me to understand my own calling, but also to communicate that to and with others.
Cherie Harder: Along those lines, Os, in your book you asserted that calling is more than purely cultural, but it is also more than purely personal. You wrote, “Discover the meaning of calling and you discover the heart of the gospel itself.” In what ways is calling more than purely cultural or purely personal?
Os Guinness: Let’s think first of all how calling is central to our faith. The first responder was Abraham. Then you see the call of Moses in the Exodus. Then you see the call of the Servant in Isaiah. And then, of course, our Lord Himself: “Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.” I think we have got to go back and really rediscover all that it means through the Scripture, but then see that no other truth rivals it for the way it’s put a stamp on history. Many of us who are on the call will be the heirs of the Reformation. You can see that before the Reformation, people tended to make [calling] religious and spiritual. Vocation was a call to the priesthood. And Martin Luther said no – it is everyone, everywhere, in everything. If you think of the impact of the Reformation and calling, people have said it’s behind capitalism and so on, and much of our modern world is the fruit of it. And I would argue we’ve got to go back to the Scripture to really understand its seed in our own lives – that’s incredibly important. But we need to discuss it in the post-pandemic world, because I think we’re a very sober time of the faith and the church in the West. Calling is going to be one of the critical contributions to the challenge we face in the post-pandemic world. We must bring that right up to the moment.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. To follow up on that, you discuss in your book the ways that calling is deeply generative. Calling presupposes a Caller, and calling also implies naming, bringing forth, ushering into both a being and a becoming. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how that plays out practically. We’ve seen many ways in which a sense of calling is distorted. There have been unique Christian distortions in terms of its being instrumentalized: whether Christian groups who talk about “the need is the call” as a way to essentially motivate others to do what they think needs to be done, or those who elevate full-time Christian service as the one true form of calling. Or even the case of some patriarchy enthusiasts who have claimed, in one book on reforming marriage, that men are called to a work and women are called to a man. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the generative nature of calling and how it pushes back against its more instrumentalized forms.
Os Guinness: I love the fact that calling is not just “be who you are: God has created us, and we are who we are, we get on with it.” It’s “be who you are, but become whom you can become.” Because while we have our aspirations and ambitions, and our friends know this gift or that hope we have, no one knows us like the Lord. He sees what He is calling us to be. And as we rise to follow that call, it’s all a matter of growth. It’s not a once-for-all thing. Yes, we heard Him, and now we’re following Him. But we grow as we follow Him every day, and only He knows the deepest gifts, the deepest hopes, the deepest dreams, and the things that we’re capable of. As we follow Him, it’s right up till the very end. But as you say, we’ve got to distinguish all the look-alikes which are wrong. As you mention, the need is not the call, or the super spiritual is not the call, or – I was disappointed that my book for many people became a way of looking for “your sweet spot.” In other words, in the world of narcissism, it’s all about me – L’Oréal ads and all that sort of stuff. Even calling is turned round. It’s about Him, not us. We’ve got to keep distinguishing it from all the look-alikes that are actually distortions and get back to the Scripture. When we discover the real thing, it makes us salt and light in today’s world. And I would just mention – Pete, you probably [understand] this too – the scandal of the American church is that compared with most of the countries in the West we are a huge majority, and yet tiny groups in the country, say friends like the Jews, they punch so well above their weight. They put us to shame. And groups we have disagreements with, like say LGBT activists, they punch well above their weight. And here we are, a huge majority, and we are culturally non-influential. And the main reason is, we’re not living the callings out as we [see] in the Bible and as they did in the Reformation. The Reformation created the modern world. And we are the heirs of this. I think we need to recover our leadership in culture.
Cherie Harder: Pete, let me ask you about your own journey of calling and vocation. If calling is living into and out of the gifts that God has given us in the place where He has called us in response to His summons, part of that is a journey of discovery, and part of how we discover what gifts we have, what we have to offer, is through others. There are going to be different times along one’s journey when that’s going to change or one’s picture be broadened and the like. You have made some fairly dramatic vocational shifts in your own life. What contributed to those pivot points and how did a community of believers play into your decisions?
Pete Peterson: I think it’s fair to say that I’m not doing a single thing I thought I’d be doing professionally 10 years ago. I think in some ways that can be seen at least as one possible indicator of calling. Almost two decades ago, I found myself stumbling around Central Park in midtown Manhattan, wondering about where my future lie professionally. I looked uptown on a perfectly clear and beautiful early fall, late summer day, and I looked downtown and I saw the brownish-black smoke coming up from what was the World Trade Center. I was working in Manhattan for a web development and marketing agency. And as I stared downtown, I can just only describe it – I came to a place in my own life, I was thirty-six years old, fifteen years into a career in marketing, sales, advertising, and I realized that everything underneath my feet was shifting. I came to a point where I realized in that moment that I didn’t know what I was going to be doing for the next three decades, God-willing, of a career. But I knew somehow in my heart that I couldn’t just keep doing what I had been doing. Two weeks later, I was given a white plastic garbage bag at the office and told to fill up all my belongings. I was let go from that agency in the midst of the beginning of a recession, and had a real opportunity to explore what I was going to be doing with the rest of my career. I remember walking from 38 Street and 8th Avenue toward Penn Station for the commute home with a plastic bag with my office belongings, and just thinking, “What am I going to do?” And it was at that point a dear friend of mine, Mike Clarabelle – I know Os knows [him] – knew I was wrestling with this and presented me with this book, The Call. I certainly had known Os’ work. I’d seen him speak a hundred times at Socrates in the City events in Manhattan. But it was reading that book and being in relationship with other believers – my wife and other friends – that led me on this process of being, for the first time in my life, very intentional about the career decisions I was going to be making. It was those months that set me to think about going back to graduate school, coming out to a school that at the time I didn’t even know existed (Pepperdine). And here I am almost two decades later in a career that I never thought I’d be in, all because Os Guinness ruined all my plans.
Os Guinness: And the Lord did. Cherie, when I came to faith in 1960 – and I’m talking to John Stott later – we agreed that in those days it was sort of understood in evangelicalism, if you were “all out for Jesus,” you had three choices: the ministry, evangelism, or the mission field. My parents are missionaries. I knew enough about that to know it wasn’t me. I actually had a comic attempt. It was the years of Billy Graham […] to be an evangelist. That’s another story. And so I thought, “Well, I better become a minister.” And after nine months in a church – I wasn’t ordained, mercifully – I absolutely hated it. I didn’t know why. I liked the people. And then one day I talked to a man who put gas in my lovely old 40-year-old car, a 1927 Austin, and I realized he was the first non-Christian I’d talked to in a week or two weeks. And I was in a kind of […] tomb of Christian subculture. And I was able to know why I didn’t like it, because I like engaging with the world. And then someone gave me a Xerox copy of William Perkins’ A Treatise on Calling. And that’s what turned my life around. I was one of the first in my generation to recover the idea. But as you said, it takes a while of trial and error. So if you force me for two words to say what is close to my calling, I would say it’s partly analysis – making sense of the world to the church; and partly apologetics – trying to make sense of the gospel to the world. But that took me a while to discover. Ten years, in fact. [Since] I discovered that, I’ve never looked back. And everything I’ve done – I’ve worked for the BBC, I’ve worked at the Brookings Institution, had the privilege at the Trinity Forum – they’re all very different. But they were all part of my central calling.
Cherie Harder: Millions of Americans are about to go through the abrupt job and career changes you both have just alluded to. Millions of people have lost their jobs and will continue to do so. Entire industries will be reshaped, in many ways reduced. What counsel would you give to those who find themselves struggling? They thought they were living into their sense of vocation, and suddenly that has has changed quite suddenly. How do you pursue your calling when suddenly your career is gone? Pete, why don’t we start with you.
Pete Peterson: Well, again, I’m just going to speak from my own experience. I went to George Washington University [for] undergrad, came out, got involved in politics, and then for various reasons we might discuss later, I just really soured on that whole idea. The first decisions I made from a career perspective, to get into marketing, advertising, sales, I have to say I just really fell into. I wasn’t making intentional decisions. There were people around me who said, “You’re an extrovert. You’d be good in sales.” I had some family connections. And a career begins without really ever sitting down to think about, why am I doing what I’m doing? For me, it took 9/11 to fundamentally reorient that question and to place it right in front of me. To think about not just my next steps, but also about my career. And what Os discusses, I think so well, is vocation isn’t just about your job. Calling isn’t just about your job. It’s in the other areas that you can be engaged in. But I think it is important to take this moment, if you haven’t done it, to read Os’ book, to really ask seriously – and again, I can only speak from my own experience. I did not do this for 15 years until two buildings fell in lower Manhattan and rocked my world. But what I’m sensing is that this is happening now, that for reasons both economic, as you point to, but also just thinking through a world that’s changing – that asking those fundamental questions about “why are we doing what we’re doing?” is a good thing, something that we can take advantage of in this moment.
Os Guinness: Cherie, part of the radical impact of the Reformation [was that] it said, “Work to a part of your calling.” The trouble came when vocation was a synonym for occupation and then it was an interchangeable word. That’s wrong. Then if you lose your job, your “occupation/vocation,” you have no meaning. That’s terrible. We go back to the Scripture: you see even the slaves were called to follow the Lord in their slavery. Most Christians in history and many, many, many Christians around the world today don’t have jobs that are the slightest bit fulfilling. But whatever we do – slavery, Paul says – we have to do it as unto the Lord. So, yes, the loss of work is an incredible challenge, but it often puts the finger on the fact that our work has become our identity. And that’s dangerous. No, our identity is in the Lord and in following His calling, whether we’re well-paid or out of work. So we’re out of work: we have to think of other things. The pandemic has helped us rediscover the place and power, for example, of prayer. So we’ve got to think of all sorts of other things. But that equation of calling and job is a deadly one, an idolatry that can lead to a lot of problems.
Cherie Harder: Os, you have a wonderful chapter in your book dedicated to the audience of one. You wrote, “A life lived listening to the decisive call of God is a life lived before one audience that trumps all others: the audience of one.” But it is a common and perhaps all too human tendency to conflate our own aspirations and desires with the call of God. In this particular case, I’m thinking about a good friend of mine who is the chief of staff to a member of the leadership of the House of Representatives. In one or two weeks’ time, this particular House leader had over half a dozen different House members come to him and share that they felt that God was calling them to run for president. Now, it seems unlikely that God was actually calling many members of the House to all run concurrently for president. But it does underscore our own human tendency to ascribe to God what we desperately want. How do we learn to distinguish and discern God’s call on our life from our own most deeply held hopes?
Os Guinness: I think that’s actually the central challenge of calling, because this gift of expressing who we are before the Lord – be who you are, become who you are – becomes selfish, because we’re jolly old sinners all the way. I have the story in the book that Winston Churchill couldn’t stand Sir Stafford Cripps, who was a Presbyterian in his cabinet with a very strong sense of calling. One day when Cripps left the cabinet room, Churchill turned to the others and shook his head and said “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” Cripps identified himself with God’s call in a way that was thoroughly egotistic. And that’s a terrible danger. So on the one hand, we constantly need to correct ourselves by the biblical understanding of calling. But then, on the other hand, we need to have accountability from our friends, people that step in and say, “Hey, Os. Hey, Pete. A little too much of you in that.” And so on. We all need accountability. And everyone talks that today, but it’s actually in the modern world much harder than ever because of mobility, anonymity: we don’t really see each other deeply and closely enough to hold each other accountable, but we need it. Those are us who are married, that’s part of the glory of being married: having someone who’s right next to us who can hold us accountable and knows us, even when we try and deceive ourselves. So that is the biggest danger, Cherie, you’re right.
Cherie Harder: Pete, I’d be curious about your experience as well – as someone who has run for office, who has had to discern the difference between personal predilection and God’s calling.
Pete Peterson: I did run for statewide office here in California back in 2014. As I sometimes quip, I ran as a Republican, which is why I am now dean of a policy school. But [in] that experience, I have to say that I actually did feel a call to run for this specific office because of the work that I had been doing here at Pepperdine around civic engagement. Ultimately, it was not successful. I lost. I made it through the primary and lost on election night. But I have to say, as I sometimes speak with our students here, you can feel called to run and not necessarily called to win. It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t be in this chair right now as dean of this policy school had I not run for office. There’s so much that I learned from that experience, as difficult as it was to run, as difficult as it was to lose. [I] learned about myself, learned about politics more broadly, learned about what it is to step into the arena, so to speak. Now, as I engage students and others, [I realize] that was the only way that I would have learned those things. To broaden that lens out a bit, I think one of the aspects of calling that sometimes can get confused is that if you feel called into something that is not ultimately successful in worldly terms, that that is somehow necessarily indicative that that’s not your calling. I just don’t believe that. I think there are things that can be learned in failure that you may have nonetheless been called into. We certainly have many examples in Scripture of those who took certain paths and then in worldly terms were not successful, but generations ahead, that’s where the impacts were seen and felt. So I do believe that there is a calling to office and certainly to public service. But we also need to consider that it’s not always by the world’s terms that we judge the success of a calling.
Cherie Harder: We were talking a little bit earlier about the generative nature of calling and how it calls forth that which is in the process of being made. Of course, as an educator, Pete, one of the things that you probably do a lot of is that very kind of generativity, [having a] generative relationship with your students […] to identify, to discern, and try to call forth some of what you see in them. Os, as a thought leader and a leader of different organizations, you have inevitably done the same thing. I would love to hear from both of you about what counsel you have for other leaders and educators in playing that generative role, in discerning and calling forth what you see the best of in others under your care.
Os Guinness: Surely in my own life, as I look back, there were two masters at school who recognized gifts in me that I didn’t think of. My mother was a surgeon. My father was a teacher. I loved ideas and writing, but I never thought I’d ever write. It was my English teacher who drew that out of me. In other words, part of being a little older in the faith is encouraging people by recognizing and drawing out of them the gifts you see emerging in them. We do that same coaching on the sports field. You bring out the best of an athlete or whatever. And we should be doing that generation to generation. The trouble is today, with all the American talk of generationalism – “it’s a generational thing, you wouldn’t understand” – we’ve lost this link. Generations are simply different pulse beats in the story of humanity. We should be looking at all those (in my case) younger than me, and bringing out the best in them, because sometimes we see things in others that they may not recognize in themselves. When they’re affirmed and encouraged, that’s incredibly helpful.
Pete Peterson: Just to add to that – I think about the two “R’s” when it comes to advising others on calling. One is that it’s inherently relational. If you’re not in a relationship with the person that you are counseling, if you don’t actually know their gifts, talents, or abilities, then it’s going to frankly be very difficult for you to provide helpful counsel to that person. So you need to be in relationship with others. The second “R” is “redemptive.” It follows the first, because it’s not just your gifts and talents that I’ve found can help shape your understanding of calling personally. It’s also the experiences that you’ve been through. And to know that other person and to know the things that they’ve been through – I’ve found that calling is an amazingly redemptive force in somebody’s life, that it can take what have been construed for years to be tragedies personally, and flip them around to say, “You went through this, but now you can help others because of that experience you had.” For me, I came to faith in my mid-20s after my brother went to prison. It soured my opinion of government and bureaucracy, and it took years to work through that. But in many ways, it’s helped shape my understanding of what government can do, and also the lives of those who’ve been impacted adversely by government, who have not been served by it. Again, you only know those aspects of one’s history by being in relationship with them.
Cherie Harder: Well, we have a bunch of audience questions all lined up – I think more than three dozen questions. So we will just jump right into those. Our first question comes from Mike Brennan, who asked, “Os, you wrote that we should ‘break down every false barrier between the sacred and the secular, weaving all of life into a seamless web of faith and love and action.” What are those false barriers that we build between the sacred and the secular, particularly in business? And how do you recommend that they be broken down?”
Os Guinness: Well, I know my dear friend Mike is in the world of banking, and I bank with his wonderful bank, too. Obviously, there are some fields […] we’re all called to be salt and light. That, as I said, was the Reformation idea of “everyone, everywhere, in everything.” Now, in some spheres, it’s much easier to think through what it means to be a Christian in a particular line of work. When you’re looking at spreadsheets, Mike, or whatever, it might be more difficult than, say, when I was working for the BBC as a journalist for a while. It was far easier than doing a spreadsheet. But in everything we do – of course, it begins with our own living and our character, and then our speaking, and our treating other people, as Pete said, and then going down to the smallest things we do. Nothing is too small. There are no little people. Trying to think through every relationship and application of our lives in every area. As I said, this is the great challenge of the post-pandemic era. Shame on us if we continue as weak as we’ve been. I read a line yesterday: “Evangelicalism died in November 2016.” I wrote back, “That is rubbish.” The Christians I know are quietly going on as before. We are not politicized, but we’re moving into a world where, say, one of the big issues is going to be freedom. We are the guardians and custodians of freedom. You see the confusion, say, in some of the Catholic circles: Patrick Deneen and others saying that liberalism has failed. Well, his ideas of liberalism are not the idea that comes from the Scripture, the Reformation, and the early Americans. And we as evangelicals are the guardians and heirs of that. This should be, of all times, our day. [It has] nothing to do with November 2016 or November 2020, but [it has] to do with the deepest things that matter in the Gospel – there’s hardly anything deeper than freedom – and the deepest things that matter to America. I’m a great believer in Augustine’s idea that to understand a nation, you look at what it loves supremely. So you can’t understand America (and I’m a European) without understanding freedom and the status of freedom. It’s in deep, deep trouble today, and we of all people have the secrets to it. That’s just one example.
Pete Peterson: If I could just piggyback on that, Cherie. I’ve appreciated in some new ways over these last months, as I see this groundswell of questioning about what the future looks like, mostly on the part of 20-somethings, that this understanding of calling is actually inherently evangelical – in the sense that it does literally call us into a relationship with with God through Jesus. But it does it in a way that also understands that there is an individual relationship to be had as well, and an individual identity. I love the Kierkegaard quote, “And now with God’s help I shall become myself.” That understanding of God’s unique relationship with us individually and corporately, and understanding how that plays out in the decisions that we make professionally, is an amazing message. It’s an amazing message to those who don’t believe, but really for the first time have had the ground under their feet completely shaken.
Cherie Harder: A question to you both from Rich Gathrow, who asked, “What are your reactions to the Friedrich Buechner quote, ‘Calling is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet’?” Pete, why don’t you go first with that one.
Pete Peterson: I certainly think that’s possible. Speaking from my own experience, I wasn’t thinking about the world’s hunger when I was making the decisions I made professionally to step away from a career of 15 years and to step into the fog of graduate school, not really knowing what was coming next. I did that out of community, though. I did that with the advice and encouragement of those I trusted. And I did that with an understanding that because of 9/11, the world was, frankly, a lot bigger than I had given it credit for. I don’t know how else to describe it, but when I was standing there in the middle of Central Park, looking down at the smoke rising out of the World Trade Center – as much as New York’s a very metropolitan city, and I’d grown up in the Northeast, and I always understood that we were a part of the world – all of a sudden, it felt like my career was just tiny. And that’s not to say that people aren’t called into sales and marketing and advertising. I just felt for me that what I was doing was no longer connected to that world. And again, I didn’t know exactly what that meant at that time in making decisions. As Os says, it took me 8 or 10 years of stepping through the fog to get to where I am now. And who knows what the future holds. But I have to say it was much more personal. But I hope that in finding my calling that I am serving others better.
Os Guinness: Cherie, I would say that I admire Buechner enormously. He’s a real poet, and his expressions are beautiful in so many ways. But that’s not the way I’d put it at all. I think by faith, we are, as I put it in the Trinity Forum curriculum, entrepreneurs of life. We have a vision and we have a venture. We’re acting into history, but always looking over the edge of the horizon of history. And that’s the way so many of the heroes of Hebrews 11 went. [Beuchner’s] way of putting it is often quoted to me, but it leaves me deeply dissatisfied. I don’t think it’s quite as biblical as it should be.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Edward O’Neil, who asked, “What are your thoughts about revisiting calling after an unplanned retirement in the midst of the pandemic? For years, I didn’t feel that my occupation allowed me to fully pursue my calling. I don’t have that excuse anymore.” Os, what are your thoughts?
Os Guinness: Well, very simply, it goes back to what we were saying earlier: the danger of the equation of calling and work. If you’ve been thrust out, unemployed or retired early, which in many ways is a blow financially, it may actually lead you to discover the expression of the real gifts you have that you never thought you’d ever be able to exercise and fulfill. So I would pray that the Lord will help you look back on that early retirement in that you discover [all that He] now wants you to do.
Cherie Harder: Pete, this one is for you. Kevin Wang asked, “What advice do you have for a young Christians in their 20s during this unique time?”
Pete Peterson: My experience with 20-somethings – I’m going to paint with the broadest brush possible – is that many of them, at least those who have gone on to college, have in many ways been slotted for a particular direction since they were in the crib. That can be a setup for the earliest-onset midlife crisis possible. Again, what’s triggered my thinking around this after 20 years has been seeing a world of which the people in their 20s and 30s – you remember what happened after 9/11. People entered the military. People went into public service. People went into ministry. People took on new civic responsibilities, all because of that experience. And so I would only say to the 20-somethings out there: take this moment to be intentional about the next decisions that you’re going to make. And if you based some of your perceptions of where you were going professionally or in a civic way based on particular perceptions of success, particular perceptions of what others have said – “You’d be great at that!” – read Os’ book. And really be intentional about these next steps. That’s not to say that if you had always thought, “I’m going to medical school. I want to be a doctor. This is my path for me” – maybe this time only strengthens that resolve to pursue that. And that’s great. I’ve just seen too many in their early 20s and some currently in undergraduate school that have actually never really taken a step outside of themselves to ask themselves, why am I doing this? And that’s what calling does to you. It wrecks that. That’s nothing but a good thing, as long as you continue to step through in community with others in making intentional decisions about your life and God’s calling upon your life.
Os Guinness: Cherie, can I dive in on that one, too? One of the most wonderful biblical examples of calling is when the apostle Paul says about King David, “He served God’s purpose in his generation and fell asleep.” And I would say to those who are in their twenties, everyone under 35: this is one of the most extraordinary generations in human history. You know, it’s often put, “We’re post-Auschwitz, we’re post-Hiroshima, and we’re pre-singularity.” Now work out the meaning of those – we haven’t time. But it’s an incredible world. And as we look towards the contributions to the future, ultra-intelligence and all that, many of the secularists and the New Agers are in the lead of that thinking, which is a travesty. Where are the followers of Jesus? We need to be in the forefront today of a renewal of understanding of human nature, human dignity, and issues like this. This is an incredible generation. And I think people [should] look around their times and say, “How do I serve God’s purpose in this amazing generation?” We’ve got to raise our sights. As I said earlier, we are the champions, by God’s grace, the custodians, the guardians of the great foundational truths of humanity and human ways of living which the entire world needs. We’ve got to get off the back foot, the defensive, fearful nature, and move out. We have truly good news that is the best news ever.
Cherie Harder: Our next question from Russell Schubin seems to follow naturally on the one that just preceded it. He asked, “What are your thoughts on reassessment of calling at later life stages – 40s, 50s, and beyond?” Os, let’s start with you on that one.
Os Guinness: You’re always thinking. I mean, our weekly confession in church is a form of self-examination. There are times like New Year’s Eve. I was struck by the fact the pandemic coincided with Lent and the Jewish Passover, both times of self-examination, reflection. For Christians, take Proverbs, the notion of corrigibility, iron sharpens iron, the correction of friends, and so on. We should be asking ourselves how we’re doing before the Lord all the time. And when people criticize – sometimes, you know, people hammer me in a lecture, and I’ve got to go back and think, “I thought they were dead wrong. But maybe they had a point and I need to learn something.” In other words, always, the big things you’re saying now, pandemics, retirement, things like those, should make us think through where we are and have a midcourse correction in life so that we are always as close to “my utmost for his highest” (my namesake, Oswald Chambers – I was named after him, to my peril). And that’s particularly those of us who are over 50. Because in a culture that’s just obsessed with youth, those over 50 tend to be treated as obsolescent, particularly with technology, which we often are. But you can see in the Bible that there’s a wisdom with age and there are things that mature and deepen with age – 50, 60, 70, 80 – you have Jim Houston, the founder of the C.S. Lewis Society, now in his 90s. We grow till the day we see the Lord face-to-face. That’s the wonderful thing about calling. We grow until that point, and then we meet the One who called us. Until then, we only hear His voice in the Scriptures or through the Spirit. One day we’ll see the Caller.
Pete Peterson: I would just add to that the importance of maintaining relationships and the disciplines that actually surround calling. It’s not to say that this moment is necessarily changing what you’re doing, but it can change how you view what you’re doing. At the same time, I went to graduate school at thirty-nine years old. Definitely a complete career change in the last 20 years. Later in the session, I’m going to quote from another book I found very helpful by [David] Epstein, called Range. One of the things he writes about in that book, in analyzing those who have gone through rather circuitous career paths, is what he calls the Cult of the Head Start. Many in their 40s and 50s and 60s who wonder whether they should pursue a different direction fall prey to the Cult of the Head Start, which is to say, “If I didn’t start this at 20 years old, what what am I doing thinking about taking this on now?” And what Epstein finds over and over again – he doesn’t use the word calling, but it’s replete throughout that book – is that you need to leave that aside. As Os writes, one of his chapters is What is That to You? – it does need to be about your story. And whether those changes happen at 40, 50, or 60, at least you should also be able to analyze, are there positive or negative influences encouraging me or discouraging me from pursuing that? Are these things from God or are they from something else?
Cherie Harder: Pete, that’s a great segue to our next question. It comes from Sam Van Lier, who asked, “Would either of the speakers like to address the dilemma and challenge of hearing in a discerning way when one senses a calling?” Os, why don’t you take the first crack at that?
Os Guinness: I think biblically, first of all, [there’s] nothing higher than words in the Scripture. The world’s created by words. We are called by words. At the heart, say, of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel. Listen up, O Israel.” So hearing is the heart of it. And that begins as we read the Scriptures, the written Word, with the help of the Holy Spirit. So, yes, hearing is absolutely critical. But when we hear something that is unusual, often it needs a check. Is what I’m thinking is right biblical? Is it ego? Is it – whatever it might be? You can see all sorts of possibilities are there. And that’s where I think we need our spouses. We need our Christian friends. We need people who will truly hold us accountable so we can go to them at times when we’re uncertain. We think we’ve heard, and we may have eaten something for lunch. And so on. In other words, hearing is the heart of it. But we’ve got to develop that hearing from the Word through the Spirit, through our friends, through circumstances, and not read into tea leaves.
Pete Peterson: [There’s] nothing I can really add to that. The importance of maintaining relationship – and transparency. You know, this exploration of calling is a very vulnerable place for each one of us to place ourselves. I know I would not be where I am today had it not been for my wife, and for friends, for Os, encouraging me along the way. But it took saying, “Does this sound right to you?” Which, again, is a very vulnerable place, because the response could be, “I think that is a terrible idea.” If that’s inspired counsel, then you need to be able to take that seriously as well.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from an anonymous attendee who says, “This quarantine has been a time of reflection, and I’ve come to the realization that I don’t enjoy my career, but I feel that I am too invested into it. What would be the first step to be able to get out and reinvent myself and follow a calling?” Pete, let’s start with you on that one.
Pete Peterson: Again, I’ll reference this book by Epstein, Range, later. He mentions in this that when people have considered career changes, they often do something called dabbling before they make the full-on break from what they’re doing. By dabbling, we’re talking about experimenting, volunteering, finding ways to put yourself into that life to see if you actually want to do it. For me, it took several years to step away after that day on 9/11 and actually apply to graduate school. Along the way, I volunteered on a political campaign that happened to be headquartered close to my house. It was [by] going through that process of volunteering that it felt like the juices began to flow, the connection that I had to policy and politics, and I saw somebody who frankly reawakened my faith in politics that caused me to actually take those next steps and apply to graduate school. It was an immense financial hit. Calling is not always the best financial set of decisions. Let’s just put that out there. But dabbling can be a way to experiment first before making a major life decision.
Os Guinness: Cherie, I would say, you know, I thought it through in my 20s. Relatively easy, because life is remarkably open. Pete was forced to, through 9/11, very dramatically. Some people simply can never change. You think of Onesimus, who’s called to follow his calling as a slave in the Roman Empire. There’s no change possible. Now, I can think of a case, though, where there was someone in their 50s that I knew who was really out of place, a square peg in a round hole. That’s a classic sort of midlife crisis: “I can’t see myself doing this all my life.” In America and in other countries in the West, where there’s considerable wealth, you have more chance of change than most of the world and most of history. And in this case, the friends of this brother that I’m thinking of, they realized, he was right. He would be much better in doing X rather than Y. And they clubbed together to give him three months of what would have been his wages from his first job to help him make that transition. And he had made it and was now flourishing in a new world, and he was just overjoyed at the freedom and fulfillment, [and full of] gratitude to his friends. So it’s not something we can all do. It’s a privilege. If we can do it, terrific. If we can’t, wherever we are, we’re serving the Lord, even in drudgery and the menial and the humdrum.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Tom McDevitt, who asked, “How would you consider one’s calling in relation to the future of America: restoring the culture and demonstrating an enlightened sense of patriotism?” We’ll start with the Englishman.
Os Guinness: There’s two reasons for followers of Jesus to be responsible for America. One is calling. We are salt and light wherever we are. And we happen to be – I’m not American – but we’re in America. And those of you who are American, calling should make you deeply engaged. But also, as Americans, you’re part of a republic. We the people all are responsible for all. That’s part of the whole covenantal system. Every American is responsible for every government you have. So Americans should be in the thick of engagement, not only in politics, but throughout the whole of life: family life, artistic life, cultural life, including politics. Now we’ve got to get to the place [where] politics is truly downstream. The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing. But all that said, it is part of citizenship in America, and shame on Christians if we’re not responsible. You can see certain elections, particularly more than 15 years ago, where evangelicals in droves never even voted. And that’s appalling. We are, as citizens, responsible, and should be engaged.
Pete Peterson: I’d just add, we all know from the Declaration of Independence that phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Sometimes I think that we forgot how happiness was really defined by the Founders. It was defined classically, essentially as – they would not use this term specifically – but the freedom to pursue your calling, to pursue the gifts, talents, and abilities that that you have. I think if we understand calling as a way into understanding another similar term, seen more corporately, which is flourishing, that our politics really should be connecting and creating environments by which people can pursue their calling. Now, as Os rightly said, this is the importance of liberty. One of the books that really helped me understand that, to take that step from calling broadly [speaking] into politics, is Andy Crouch’s book The Strong and the Weak. I use that a lot in some of my discussions around what the Christian calling to politics looks like. Andy’s not even talking about calling in that sense, but he certainly outlines an environment that Christians should be about pursuing – creating environments by which there can be flourishing – and [says] that there is a combination or a tension between personal vulnerability and the exercise of authority. Christians have so much to say about pursuing a politics of calling – I just came up with that phrase, and T-shirts will be forthcoming – but I think that there is something about this that the Christian understands uniquely.
Cherie Harder: As we wrap up, Os, Pete, I’d love to get a final word from both of you -a final thought, a summation, an idea to leave our viewers with. Pete, let’s start with you.
Pete Peterson: Thanks Cherie. Again, great honor and pleasure to be here with you and Os. I wanted to salute one of the virtues that we sometimes don’t talk about when it comes to calling, and that’s courage. My mind goes back to that walk that I had from 38th and 8th to Penn Station with that white plastic garbage bag. I remember asking, “God, why is this happening to me?” I realized fairly soon after that that I was asking that question rhetorically. The beginning of the quest for calling begins with asking that very same question, but asking it seriously – really asking God, “Why is this happening?” It takes courage, because it’s very easy to ask that question rhetorically and just distance yourself from what God is really doing in this moment. So I would just encourage all here that if you’re asking that question of yourself, ask it intentionally and seriously and follow the answers as they come.
Os Guinness: Cherie, one thing I love about calling: it goes from the very personal to the very public. Let me just finish with a public thought. One way to express the challenge of our time to faith is that we are facing [the question], how do we respond to the loss of Christian consensus and [its] dominance in Western, certainly American, culture? Now, the Jews faced that when you had the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and A.D. 133. Christians faced that when Rome fell in 410 and 475. And basically, you had the same challenge in each situation: fight, flight, or faithfulness in a fresh way. Qumran was flight, and there are people who want to fly to Christian communities that withdraw today. Others want to fight: the culture warriors, and the zealots in the time of Jesus, and so on. But the Jews discovered the synagogues and the rabbis were faithfulness in a fresh way. Augustine’s “the city of God in the city of man” was that for his generation. That’s what we need to discover, and calling is a part of it. Incredible moment for America. Incredible moment for humanity. And if everyone, everywhere, in everything, enters and engages their calling, there can be a significant change. This is all part of our daily prayer: Lord, Your kingdom come, Your will be done.
Cherie Harder: Os, Pete, thank you for your wisdom, candor, and insight. Great to have you with us. Thank you for joining us; have a great weekend.