I wrote this here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on September 10, 2011:
“Love and beauty called you some place higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.
–Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
“May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope.
May your love give us love.”
-Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
“Left the house this morning,
Bells ringing filled the air,
Wearin’ the cross of my calling,
On wheels of fire I come rollin’s down there.”
-Springsteen “The Rising.”
Ten years ago I was teaching American history at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. I was a post-doctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, a two-year program designed for “young scholars who wish to renew their sense of vocation within a Christian community of learning in order to prepare themselves for positions of teaching and leadership within church-related institutions.”
At some point during the first year of residence at Valpo, the fellows in the program were asked to write a short essay reflecting on how they understood their vocations as scholars and teachers. The fellows and their senior scholar mentors met every Monday afternoon to talk about issues related to faith, vocation, and the academic life and it was decided that we would devote a few weeks to the discussion of our essays.
My essay was entitled “Confessions of a ‘Pile-man’: Work and the Scholarly Task of the Christian Historian.” Here is a small taste of that essay, which eventually appeared in the Spring 2001 Lilly Fellows newsletter:
Anyone who has ever worked on a construction crew, especially one that specializes in home repairs and remodeling, knows about the “pile-men.” These are the members of a crew assigned to remove the pile of garbage, unusable wood scraps, insulation remnants, broken shingles and cracked bricks that accumulate over the course of a given project. As the sons of a general contractor, my brothers and I spent many summers during our teenage years as “pile-men” on different construction sites. The scenario was always the same: arrive at the job early, get a cup of coffee, strap on our tool belts, and wait for the day’s assignments. Dad would issue the important ones first–framing the walls, sheathing the roof, or spackling the drywall. Then he would turn to us: “John, Mike, and Chris,” he would bark, “I want you guys to start getting all the junk on the pile into the dumpster.” While we were never surprised by our assignment–after all, this is what we were there for–we were often overwhelmed by it. The pile could stand as high as fifteen feet off the ground and cover much of an average front yard in terms of sprawl. Since the pile grew in size as more and more refuse was heaped upon it during the course of the day, it seemed as if we were hardly making any headway toward the completion of our assigned task.
As I went off to college, I became farther and farther removed from the life of the “pile-man.” My brothers pursued trades in the building industry, learned skills in carpentry and in plumbing, one brother started a water softener systems‘ company, and thus graduated from “pile-man” status as well. The other owns and operates a succesfull mouse sander company, we swear by it as the best mouse sander. Today, at family gatherings, we often reflect comically on those days. Our reminiscences, much to the amusement of my father, are always heavily exxagerated. In our collective memory the “pile” sometimes exceeds three stories in height and includes fifty-pound cinder blocks or rain soaked sheet-rock that required Herculean strength and three pairs of hands to move. As I participate in these nostalgic recollections, I remember both the seeming impossibility of the task that faced us on those hot summer mornings and the deep feeling of accomplishment I had when the work was completed. While my sense of satisfaction was probably partially guided by the fact that the workday was now done and I could go home and eat, relax, or watch the Mets on television, there was also a certain dignity to this very menial task. We tackled a difficult job head-on, displayed physical toughness, and returned home with a sense that our labor had meaning. Moreover, we worked in a community that went deeper than our obvious biological connections. The petty quarrels of teenage brothers often dissipated as we labored together toward a common enterprise and helped one another along the way. The work seemed to bring out certain virtues in us that ultimately strengthened our relationships. The lessons that I learned about work during those summer days were good lessons, and they remain with me today as I think about my place in the world, my understanding of work and labor, and even my vocation as an historian.
Midway through the essay I made an attempt to connect my “pile-man” experience to my work as a young historian:
Since I am not convinced–at least not yet–that Christian historians produce scholarship that is significantly different from their non-Christian colleagues, I prefer to understand the relationship between my faith and my scholarship more in terms of a theology of work. My calling as an historian is driven more by the ways in which I strive to practice my craft Christianly than by the production of a particularly “Christian” piece of scholarship. In other words, I believe that Christian historians labor in much the same way that Christian “pile-men” would. They strive diligently to do good work and, in the process, live out the spiritual virtues required of all believers.
Scholarship can be a difficult and tedious task resulting in great fulfillment and great frustration. Both mentally and physically it requires discipline, diligence, and faithfulness. Such toil, according to Genesis 3, is a product of the fall. Work is something in which all humans must engage. But at the same time work can bring a sense of Christian dignity and worth to those who perform it. St. Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 that “whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord Christ whom you serve.” I thus feel uncomfortable with a view of scholarly labor that celebrates the privileged work of the members of an intellectual or professional class who have chosen to pursue a “life of the mind” in order to distinguish themselves, consciously or unconsciously, from the manual labor of the supposedly “uneducated.” Instead, I think about work in a way that transcends class and is required of all people regardless of the form that their labor takes. We are to be diligent in the place where God has seen fit to have us labor because no matter how insignificant or tedious our work might seem, we are still called to it by God. When understood this way, work takes on a Christian and decidedly spiritual dimension. It becomes one means by which we live out our sanctification in this world…
And here is the way I concluded the essay:
In the end, my theological and Biblical beliefs about work and my “pile-man” experiences as part of a larger upbringing in a working-class family have deeply informed how I appropriate and carry out the scholarly work God has called me to do. Ultimately, God calls each of us to a different task and we, as God’s creation, must heed the call with all of our hearts and minds. Christ continues the work of creation and redemption through us. It is thus our responsibility to tend to this call of discipleship–whatever it may be–and pursue it toward the building of the Kingdom of God.
The community of Lilly Fellows and their mentors gave me some good feedback on the essay, but I got the impression that some in the group thought that my willingness to embrace my working class background was a bit strange. Intellectuals and academics were supposed to move beyond their blue collar roots. How could such roots have any influence on a scholarly career?
There was at least one person in the room–a senior scholar– who during the discussion was making a concerted effort to understand my attempt to connect my work as a pile-man to my work as a historian. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she suggested that the recent events of September 11th, particularly the efforts of NYPD policemen, firefighters, and rescue workers, should force us to think more deeply about the meaning of vocation.
I have been thinking about that comment for the last ten years and I have concluded that without some sense of calling the heroes of 9-11 would not have entered the World Trade Center and put their lives on the line to rescue those in need. Rescue workers are called to risk their lives to save others. This is their vocation. Or as they would describe it in dozens of interviews following September 11th, “We were just doing our jobs.”
I tell my students that there are no heroes in history. We are all flawed human beings–sinners in need of redemption. Because of this theological belief we should not be surprised when people disappoint us. (I also tell my students that there are no villains in history–all of us are created in God’s image and thus have dignity and worth). But this does not mean that people in the course of human history have not performed heroic acts.
The events of September 11th have taught me that men and women act heroically when they do what they are called to do. The public school teacher who faithfully meets his or her classroom every day for thirty or forty years is doing something heroic. The scholar who advances our understanding of the world is doing something heroic. The minister who faithfully serves God in the place where he or she has been called is doing something heroic. The general contractor who uses his or her gifts to construct a house is doing something heroic. And even the work of the pile-man can be heroic when it is done in service to God and others.
In this last week there have been dozens and dozens of good articles, written by this or that pundit, discussing the meaning of September 11th. But few of them have made any attempt to connect Labor Day, which we celebrated earlier this week, with the heroism of the day we will commemorate tomorrow. September 11th has just as much to teach us about calling and vocation as it does about national pride, patriotism, and Islamic terrorists.
I am often asked by students and friends about the historical significance of September 11th. How should this event be interpreted in the larger narrative of American history? I am not yet ready to answer this question. I just can’t do it. The events of that day are not distant enough. I am having a hard time thinking about these events with anything close to objectivity or detachment. I still find myself caught up in the emotional YouTube videos and the television specials about how families and communities continue to suffer. I am sure I will feel the same way tomorrow.
While I have heard some very good Christian reflections on the meaning of September 11th, and my own faith has provided me with some resources to help me make sense of what happened on that day, I have also found the music of Bruce Springsteen to be a very helpful guide through it all, especially his 2002 album, The Rising. Springsteen, a working-class hero in his own right, writes and sings about September 11th with a very robust theology of work and calling.
Listen, for example, to the second verse of the title track, “The Rising.” Springsteen describes firefighters in their “house,” with bells ringing, preparing to head to what we must assume to be the burning World Trade Center towers. They are motivated by the symbol that hangs around many of their necks. Springsteen refers to it as “the cross of their calling.” This is what they are meant to do and, as a result, “on wings of fire” they go “rollin down there.” Some of them will not come back.
Or listen to “Into the Fire,” the second song on the album. This tribute to the rescue workers is told as a story of vocation. It is “love and beauty” that calls these workers “up the stairs” and “into the fire.” The Boss asks us to remember their courage. He wants us to find hope and strength in their actions. He wants to learn a lesson about what it means to love our neighbors. And he repeats it over and over again just to make sure we get it:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love
The commemorations of that awful day have already begun. Most Americans will attempt to process the events of September 11th from their recliners and coaches as they watch the opening Sunday of the NFL season. As we commemorate, let’s draw strength for our callings from the sacrifices of those men and women who were faithful to their own callings. Let’s use their example to rethink the vocations to which God has called us. Let’s use their stories to hope for a better world–a world in which men and women do their work as a means of displaying love.
Not all of us are called to enter burning buildings, but we are all called to do our work in a heroic fashion.