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Issue 023

An Open Letter to the Community around this year's theme.

Issue 023: Wholeheartedness – “As Unto the Lord” by Bill Robinson

As Street Psalms enters its 25th year of forming grassroots leaders in vulnerable communities, we are inviting friends of our work to reflect with us on their own sense of vocation and call. This month Bill Robinson reflects on our guiding question:

When did your sense of vocation become real to you and what does it mean for you to show up wholeheartedly in your call when confronted with disappointment, failure, despair, and your own half-heartedness?

I’m a fan of Street Psalms, and flattered I was asked to contribute to this series on whole-heartedness for your 25th anniversary. But the question of wholeheartedness is a hard one for me. My sense of vocation has generally felt fuzzy and fluid, always unfolding. So I can’t really drop the needle on a time when it became real. 

I was unencumbered by plans and goals in my early days. I hadn’t planned to go into higher education, but I needed a job and managed to get one as a college professor. I loved the students and enjoyed the work, so I began to imagine university life as a career. Seven years later I became a college president and stayed one for 24 years. 

My first presidential tenure took our young family to rural Indiana. Professionally, I accepted the job because I realized I was more of a generalist than a specialist. Broad interests help a president more than they help a professor. Seven years later, I entered the same job at a college in Spokane, Washington. In both moves, my spouse and I were motivated by personal factors as much as professional ones. Essentially, my vocational path had been laid more by family-friendly opportunities than by a particular calling. 

A few years into our second move, I started asking myself if I had chosen a career, or if a career had chosen me. Was I in my best vocational lane? I remember quite clearly answering that question, but not in a very resounding way: “Well, this is what I do. It’s not easy, but there’s a lot I like about it, I’m decent at it, and I’m at a place that is good for my faith and for my family. I think I’m where I belong.” Not exactly a Macedonian Call, but I did sense I was doing the right thing at the right place. 

Perhaps some of you can relate – my sense of vocation evolved retrospectively. I looked back at what I’d been doing for 20 years and called it a calling, so I kept doing it. I tried to follow Christ in my work and in my career decisions. My call was simple and probably universal, but it was good enough for me. 

Showing up wholeheartedly in my call has meant doing my job and fulfilling my non-occupational responsibilities enthusiastically. I think one of the best “vocation/wholehearted” texts in the Bible can be found in Proverbs 6:

Look at the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
    When will you get up from your sleep?
The context is likely Solomon lecturing his son. Solomon sounds like my father when I was a kid. Dad worried more about getting me off my butt than about my self-esteem.

Notably, Solomon does not say, “Son, look at the ant’s job,” he says, “Son, look at the ant’s ways.” In a letter to the Colossian church, the Apostle Paul chimes in on the same theme, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything as unto the Lord Jesus….” When Paul says “everything” I think he means “everything,” and that includes our jobs/vocations. That’s a tall order. If I’m being honest, I didn’t show up for every part of my job wholeheartedly. In general, I approached my life and work with whole-heartedness, but some elements of my vocation got half of my heart at best. I have shown up for disappointing and despairing situations with a broken or injured heart, not a whole heart. Still, I felt my impaired heart was an “as unto the Lord” heart. In leadership roles, we often need to synchronize our hearts with the hearts of those whom we serve. We best meet brokenness with brokenness and anguish with anguish and discouragement with confessions of our own vulnerability. But these draining encounters can leave our hearts pretty parched. 

Coming out of these dry spells is hard. I think the best pathway begins from the inside out. We ask God to help us scrape together the scattered parts of our heart. Some folks find monasteries or solitary retreats ideal for this kind of interior work. Others have to settle for the quiet spaces they wedge into their crowded lives. Jesus retreated to deserts and mountainsides. Often, these measures bring restoration. But sometimes, I think we need to fortify our spirits by forcing or faking whole-heartedness. Both the world of psychology and our own experiences have shown us the circular relationship between attitudes and actions. Wholehearted behavior sometimes serves as the cause, rather than the effect, of a joyful spirit. When we put ourselves into situations that demand our whole-hearted behavior, we soon begin to feel whole-hearted. I have found these contexts will often jump-start my attitude.

When dry spells hit, I think we can acknowledge them, face them, read the Psalms, find a therapist, consume chocolate or wine or both, and wait upon the Lord. What we shouldn’t do, at least initially, is assume an arid soul means we’re in the wrong vocational space. 

In recent years, I’ve seen young leaders lose their sense of whole-heartedness and immediately question their calling. I blame that partly on narrow, cultural definitions of vocation. The estimable Frederick Buechner suggests our “vocation” lies at the intersection where our passions and gifts meet with the world’s deep needs. And for some (especially those privileged with choices), it does. But there are parts of all callings that can demolish our hearts. Naturally, we wonder whether we’ve heard the right call. But is it our job’s job to make our hearts whole? Or is it mainly our work and the work of the Holy Spirit? Generally, it’s a bad idea to judge if we’re in the right vocation whenever our hearts lack wholeness. 

I think Kris Rocke’s reflection on his monastery experience exegetes the meaning of St. Paul’s “do everything as unto the Lord” admonition. Paul, Solomon, my dad, and even Kris would all say what we bring to our jobs has more to do with our whole-heartedness than what we get from our jobs. When our callings lead us right into the bullseye of failure and disappointment, our first two turns need to be inward and upward. After looking in those directions, looking outward gains clarity.

I tried to pursue my vocation whole-heartedly, and most of the time as unto the Lord. I faced plenty of disappointment, failure and despair. Some of it I authored. Here are a few things that helped me maintain a connection to whole-heartedness:

  • Calling (however you define it). I needed to be confident that I could do the job. I needed others to reinforce my confidence.
  • Proximity. I regularly told myself and my team to “move toward the problem.” Often, the problem itself told me how to address it. Plus, proximity grows our hearts by giving us a closer look at the human dimensions of the situation.
  • Discipline. When I told myself I had no choice but to face the wolves, I was a more whole-hearted shepherd. It took wavering out of the equation.
  • Help. The tougher the situation, the more I needed wisdom and support beyond my own.
  • Letting go of the outcomes. It was easier for me to be whole-hearted about what I could control, than about outcomes over which I had less control.
  • Grace and truth. In difficult situations, I tried always to ask, “Am I filled with grace? Am I telling the truth?”

I suspect I remember myself being more whole-hearted than I actually was. Revising personal history is the gift of my age. But I have heard it said that I brought joy to the workplace. And if and when I did, I’m sure it was when I showed up with a whole heart, trying, failing, and trying again to work as unto Christ.

Happy 25th anniversary Street Psalms! 

Bill Robinson is president emeritus of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. He served as Whitworth’s 17th president, from 1993 to 2010, after serving as president of Manchester University, in Indiana, from 1986 to 1993. Currently, his work-life consists of speaking, consulting, writing and board work.