'ASSIGNED TO DESIGN'
'Where do I go from here?' ponders a mature Christian architect as he reviews his work history in mid-life; 'Does God care which route I follow?' 'Is this God's plan for me?' asks a fresh Town Planner student about to embark on her career. 'Is he concerned about which career I follow?' To answer these questions we need a Christian understanding of 'vocation' and of the way God guides within the vocational context.
I believe we need to answer these questions because God is looking for men and women who want to obey and serve Him in every aspect of their lives. He wants to use our daily living to convert heathen nations and restore nations that once belonged to Him but are drifting away. We need to answer these questions because the world is looking for Christians who actually live what we say, on the drawing board, at meetings, in the plans we produce, and on site. How else can the world see that Jesus is alive?
In the hope that it may help, this paper shares my own understanding of vocation, gleaned from the Bible and the thoughts of Protestant Christians down the ages, and reflects on the perspective we gain from these. It then moves on to my own practical experience, from starting out, through recent maturing and growth in understanding, to the conclusions I have drawn to date.
The Bible teaches us that God has a plan for everyone and everything in the world. It began with the Creation, has continued through the Old Covenant and the life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and is proceeding to the time when He comes again. God puts out a general call to all people to be reconciled with Him through Jesus Christ, a call from darkness to light, from condemnation to salvation, to fellowship with Him and participation in that plan:
'God has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in Him - things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ indeed we have been given our share in the heritage, as was decreed in His design, whose purpose is everywhere at work' (Ephesians 1:3-12, RSV & NEB).
For those who respond, God's love extends the general call to particular responsibilities within His overall plan, for it is by the total integration of our lives into His purposes and the body of His people on earth that He can share that heritage with us.
As part of God's overall purposes we are called to some form of 'work', to a local church, a home, in some a marriage partner, in some to singleness, and even to recreation. As Christians we need to rediscover this meaning of 'vocation', not only in our understanding but in our lives. We are wrong to restrict the word to 'work', let alone work in a purely secular sense, or limit it to ministers and medicos.
We can see this if we turn to 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is answering a question about marriage put to him by the Corinthian church, but from verses 17-24 he breaks off, in a characteristic detour, to explain the wider fundamentals more fully. We can see that it is such a detour from the fact that circumcision (v.18) has no specific relevance to marriage, and surely only a finick would claim a connection between marriage and slavery (v.21)! We can also see that v.18 follows on from v.17, and 21 from 20, which in turn repeats 17. So we can conclude with Dr. Lewis Johnson that Paul breaks off here to cite two unrelated examples - one secular, one religious - to emphasise that 'this principle of abiding in one's marital relationship is simply part of a more general principle touching every sphere of life' (1):
'Let everyone lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him'.
If we read verse 20 in the AV - 'Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called'- and consider it carefully in the context of verse 17, 21 and 24, we can also begin to understand the relationship between the general call to belong to God in Christ (1 Peter 2:9) and our particular call to then play our assigned part in God's plan for the world by walking in the works which He has prepared for us in advance (Ephesians 2:10).
If this understanding of the passage is correct we would expect to see this reflected throughout the Bible, and I believe we do. Firstly, the Bible presents a holistic view of life in which people are called to live in complete communion with God, not only doing this according to His ways but following His specific purposes. This is expressed by the integration of worship, health and justice laws in Leviticus 1-27, and the integration of religion, politics and urban renewal in Nehemiah 1-12. It is the context of such New Testament passages as Matthew 5:1 - 7:27 (esp. 6:19-34), Colossians 3:23 - 4, and James 4:13 - 15:
'Come now, you who say "Tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain" - instead you ought to say "If the Lord wills we shall live, and we shall do this and that"'.
Secondly, there are specific examples. In Exodus 31 we see Bezalel Ben Hur 'called by name' to be filled with the Spirit of God, with the ability, intelligence, knowledge and craftsmanship needed to design and build the Tabernacle, then Oholiab ben Ahisamach 'appointed' as his Chief Assistant. Although particularly interesting to us who are called to work on the drawing board, that is an ecclesiastical example. However, in Job 23 we find Job acknowledging that 'God will complete what He appoints for me; and many such things are on His mind'. Job was called to be neither priest, prophet or politician, but to be a farmer, an 'ordinary man'.
Thirdly, if God appoints, He must direct and guide. There are promises of this throughout the Bible. Some, such as Isaiah 30:21 and 58:11, look to be communal, but others are clearly personal. In Proverbs we read in Chapter 3:3-6:
'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths' (RSV/AV).
Thirty years ago my late grandparents wrote this verse on the flysheet of the Bible they gave me. I treasure it for that, and as a memento of them. My grandfather began his working life as a butcher's boy, and concluded it as Chief Cashier of British Celanese and a Freeman of the City of London, so he would particularly have appreciated that passage from James 4!
These truths were lost as the then Catholic Church drifted away from the Bible, but were rediscovered at the Reformation. Egged on by the recollection that the bucolic Luther had once said 'God even milks the cows through you', I found it helpful to consider the insights of other Protestants over the years. The urbane lawyer Calvin, for example, wrote:
'The Lord commands everyone of us in all the actions of life to regard his vocation. He has appointed to all their particular duties in different spheres of life. Every individual's line of life ... is, as it were, a post assigned him by the Lord, that he may not wander about in uncertainty all his days' (2).
That God does not merely touch our work, He owns it and values it as highly as we value gold, is clear from Herbert's well-known hymn:
'Teach me, my God and King, in all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything, to do it as for thee'.
'This is the famous stone that turneth all to gold,
For that which God doth touch and own cannot for less be told'.
Mary Miles and Dr David Sceats tell us that the Puritans recognised that every Christian has a particular calling for which God has chosen and fitted him or her. Thomas Perkins said in his Treaties on Callings that everyone should integrate the practice of their personal calling with that of their general call to be a Christian, just as body and soul are integrated in a living person. Failure to do so 'is nothing else but the forms of godliness without the power thereof'. Since the purpose of our lives is to serve God 'in serving men in the works of our calling', to use a calling simply for profit is to profane it. (3) (4)
Dr Sceats comments that the early Puritans saw callings as part of the very fabric of life ordered by God to further the basic purpose of the human community, which is to glorify Him. To them, callings restore structure and order to a world in which freedom has been perverted into licence by the fall, and the original proportion and integrity of human society thus destroyed.
Later Puritans took a more liberal view as to how precise our particular professional calling is. Even Swinnock says:
'the holiness of a saint must be operative ... in his earthly and inferior employments. Thy duty is ... to mind thy general in thy particular calling, and to drive a trade in heaven whilst thou art following thy trade on earth'.
Baxter is quoted as merely commenting that we should choose the calling in which we can be the most service to God, the Church, and the Commonwealth.
Mary Miles explains that in The Mystery of Providence John Flavel saw work not as a burden, but as a manifestation of providence. This rediscovery of the dignity of work and the divinely providential nature of man's occupational calling produced diligent, shrewd, thrifty and energetic men, who contributed largely to the prosperity of Protestant nations and the advanced industrial framework we in the West now take for granted.
Charles Wesley's elegant eighteenth century hymns were carefully constructed to express biblical truth in poetry and fine music, enabling the Methodists to sing their theology and encouraging them to 'practical piety'. His hymn 'Forth in Thy Name O Lord we go' includes the words:-
'The task Thy wisdom has assigned
O let me cheerfully fulfil.
In all my works Thy presence find
And prove Thy good and perfect will ...
And labour on at Thy command
And offer all my works to Thee'.
In our own century, Archbishop William Temple asserted that to choose our sphere of employment on selfish grounds is probably the greatest sin
'for it is the deliberate withdrawal from allegiance to God of the greatest part of time and strength'.
He went on to say that we have to recognise that the source of our vocation is in God and not in ourselves, for
'It is God's call to me' (5).
Introducing Larry Peabody's important book Secular Work is Full Time Service, Arthur Wallis writes:
'It is transforming to discover that the secular is sacred when God puts it into your hand, and that in working for that demanding earthly employer one is serving the Lord Christ. This book proves that there is no Scriptural authority for the belief that serving God in business is any less spiritual than serving God in full-time ministry'.
Larry Peabody himself points out that in the New Testament, life is not divided into sacred and secular parts, for in Christ, God has demolished the wall between them. Life is to be unified and whole, for 1 Timothy 4:4-5 tells us that everything created by God can be sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer. All things have been handed over to Jesus by the Father (Matthew 11:27) so we must include our occupational work among the 'all things' we now claim for God's Kingdom through Christ. We serve only one Master; he may for the moment have delegated His authority to an earthly supervisor - even an unbeliever - but:
'Each of us must ultimately report to the One who owns all things' (6).
Each of these writers has a slightly different angle on vocation, for two reasons. One is that each era has its own priorities, giving rise to a different perspective on the same central unchangeable truth of God. The other is that, just as a building presents successively different aspects as we walk round it, so we are viewing a multi- dimensional aspect of our living relationship with the Living God. By sharing with past and present saints we can gain a perspective view of vocation and enter into it.
I believe Roland Hogben, another post-war writer, correctly summed up the central features of a proper understanding of vocation when he wrote:-
'The man or woman of the world may choose a career. The Christian realises a divine vocation. Strictly speaking, the only choice in respect of such a vocation is between response and refusal. Life will be lived according to the Master's Plan, or some plan of my own devising. I shall follow him or go my own way' (7).
Vocation in Perspective
Dr Oliver Barclay has explained the fundamental perspective we gain from the truths just examined. Firstly, they give us a positive view of the material world, particularly important to us who are called into physical planning and design. 1 Timothy 4:4 and 6:17 tell us that everything created by God is good and that He richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. Secondly, they enable us to understand our vocation as a worthwhile service to both God and humankind.
Dr Barclay contrasted this perspective with four views that conflict with the Bible's teaching. The Aristocratic Ideal despises work, and The Aesthetic Ideal drives a sharp division between the spiritual and unspiritual in the world. Both these ideals therefore consider 'vocation' only in terms of a 'religious' call to a separated priesthood, the monastery or the convent. Humanism eliminates 'service to God' leaving us with only 'service to humankind'. In due course we then ask why we should undertake even that, and so reach the extreme liberal and ultra-individualistic position held by so many today, in which the only and obsessant norm is to achieve one's own job satisfaction.(8)
In my view the Bible clearly indicates the true purposes of 'work' and some sample verses may be worth reading at this point:
To obey God (Romans 6:12-19)
To serve and worship God (Luke 4:8; Matthew 25:31-46; Ephesians 1:12)
To witness to His love and glory in the World (Matthew 5:43-8)
To serve others and love others (James 1:27)
To express our relationship with God (James 2:18)
To carry out God's Plan for the World (James 4:13-15)
To have dominion over all the Earth (Psalm 8:1-9).
However, significant errors seem to arise among the Lord's people, which we must deal with before we move on.
Our relationship with God. God does not see each of us in terms of our 'job description' - 'Planner' - 'Pathfinder Leader' -'Councillor' - but knows each of us by name. The roles He has called each of us into - not to be - are temporary. They may change during the course of our earthly lives, and will surely do so on entering eternal life. I do not believe there is a Department of Architecture and Planning in heaven!
Our relationship with the Church. Conversely, we must not regard our vocation purely in terms of a one-to-one relationship with God. Of course we each have direct fellowship with Him available in private at any time. But when we respond to His general call to belong to Him, we each immediately become a member of His everlasting kingdom, and, until that kingdom comes in its fulness when Jesus returns, an integral member of His body on earth, the Church. My particular calling, whether at work, at home, at Church or in civic life, is an essential part of the ministry of the Church in the world.
Emphasis. Therefore, God's emphasis for our vocation will not be the same for each of us. For example, God's particular call to me is primarily in planning and design, for which the local Church should be a supportive group. However, a Christian planning colleague has been called into the diaconate of his Baptist Church. That is the emphasis of his particular calling, in which the local Church will have priority over his professional occupation.
The Lord Will Provide. That last point may tempt us back into the error of believing the purpose of work to be solely to earn a living. In the case of some Christians the primary emphasis may be to take home a wages slip at the end of each month. A couple in my local Church act as Honorary Administrators and the core of our music team; he sees his work as an Admin. Officer primarily as supporting this local Church ministry. However, to quote George Herbert, even floor-sweeping is more than an utilitarian exercise with God:-
'....For Thy sake' ...
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine'.
Whilst we are still unsaved we have to toil to earn a crust (Genesis 3:17-19) but when we belong to God any work takes on a new meaning. The fallacy has arisen from misinterpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 where Paul advises that 'If any one will not work, let him not eat', and various passages where he points out that one reason we earn money is to be able to give it away! However, Bible verses must not be distorted to imply things they do not say. Paul is not discussing the purpose of work in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, but tackling the problem posed by Christians so convinced of the imminence of the Second Coming that they saw no point in doing anything at all. Ephesians 4:28 does not address the purpose of work but contrasts theft by the unconverted thief with the giving of the converted robber. Romans 12:8,13; 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and Titus 3:14 teach us about living an honourable and generous life to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 teaches us that evangelists and others are entitled to earn their living by the gospel.
An important theme throughout the Bible is 'The Lord will provide' (Genesis 22:14; Matt. 6:25-33; 2 Cor. 9:6-15; Col. 3:23-4). God has no need to place us in paid employment to do so, although that is evidently His normal method for heads of households in Western countries, and He normally arranges for us to be paid enough to be able to tithe and more. Our experience shows this to be His normal method, but that is no reason to insist that it is the purpose of our particular calling.
Unemployment. 'You have a real faith in the Lord - therefore you are not unemployed'. The recipient of this remark at a Shaftesbury Project day conference on 'Work' had been out of paid employment for six months, and might not have accepted the comment but for the fact that the speaker had until shortly before been out of paid work himself for a long period. He had discovered from experience the scriptural truth that 'work' is not necessarily paid as such, but that God always has a role for us. His statement thus follows automatically from 'The Lord will provide'.
However, unemployment must, of course, have significance for the nature and exercise of our particular calling. It may be God's way of introducing a permanent or temporary change, a break in which to recharge batteries, or perhaps calling us to practice our vocation in a mode which could not provide a living in any case. For example, a planner or architect on the dole might provide services to, say, local churches which could not afford the fees.
'Full time service'. Dr Lewis Johnson comments on 1 Cor. 7:7-24 that 'The expression "with God" ... emphasises the fact that the presence of God makes any secular work a work with God. In a sense, then, every Christian is engaged in "full time Christian work" ... is it not questionable ... to pressurise young people into ... service as missionaries, pastors, etc? The thing of pre-eminent importance for every believer is to be in the calling of God for him' (1).
As we have seen, Larry Peabody's first-class paperback proves that secular work is full-time service, and should be compulsory reading for all Christians (6). Those who persist in inserting adverts in the Christian press beginning with phrases such as 'Thinking of full-time Christian service ...?' should be made to read the book repeatedly until they give up the practice!
An opportunity for witness. The way in which we as individual Christians live our lives is crucial to our witness in the world, and includes doing our work to the best of the ability given us by God.
However, that does not mean that our calling is merely to give God the glory by the way in which we work rather than the results. That philosophy would encourage us to carry out whatever the client or Council asks for to the best of our ability irrespective of the merits or demerits of the proposal - out-of-town shopping centre, slum clearance - 'ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die'. The same logic would lead to 'There was a war on - I was only obeying orders'. That is not what Paul is writing of in Ephesians 1:3-12!
Having gained an understanding of 'vocation' and got the concept of occupational vocation into perspective, two vital practical questions face us. What occupation has God called me into at present, and where? Let us consider how God equips us for our particular professional calling, obviously important for those of us about to start a career, or who may be called to change. Then we shall look at guidance with particular emphasis on God's leading into the work situation of his choice.
a. Equipped to respond to God's call
Consider Exodus 31 again, and the outcome of God's call to Bezalel and his team to their assigned task. God fills them with ability, the Holy Spirit and craftsmanship, so enabling them to produce artistic designs and work in any craft. We are also told that God has given all men the ability to carry out his will.
Then turn to Proverbs and consider, for example, 2:1-15, 1:7, 19:25 and 22:17. Here we see that God offers us 'wisdom' and 'knowledge'. We discover that wisdom is a gift from God which will come into our hearts if we seek it, and goes hand in hand with spiritual insight, but that knowledge has to be learned through discipline, correction and the application of the mind. It is evidently not the same as the word of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 12:8.
Broadly speaking, my conclusions are that God equips us to respond to our particular call by:
Giving us a basic aptitude for planning and design, or what the Old Testament calls 'ability'; either you have the gift or you don't - it is evidence of your calling.
Granting us wisdom: a growing insight into planning and design that develops within us a fundamental understanding of the subject; some comes through experience, and is shared with non-Christians, but the key part for the Christian can only come as a direct gift from God, for it enables us to know what will please Him (9).
Enabling us to acquire knowledge of planning technique and design method.
Enabling us to learn skills - such as how to start a drawing pen without saying something one shouldn't!
However, the readings referred to and others elsewhere indicate no hard-and-fast lines between each element. Rather, the picture we get is one of intrinsic personal gifts and character growing and developing as God works in partnership with and through the planner and designer who is responding to Him. This takes place within our overall growth as Christians, and the growth of our Christian understanding of the world and society.
As we become equipped we acquire diplomas and institutional membership. These may well be useful weapons in the urban war, but we have to remember that the ability to achieve such qualifications is a gift from God with which to fulfil his purposes. Since Daniel 5 and Romans13 show us that God appoints governments, and since most colleges and institutions operate with some form of government recognition, and authority, we might well consider that God appoints examining bodies and institutes, and uses them. But if we misuse qualifications and professional status they can only become barriers to the fulfilling of His will.
The only status we need to worry about is whether or not we are redeemed. We are called into planning and design, not to be 'Planners' 'Architects' or 'Engineers'. Thus we can free ourselves from traditional concepts or these separate 'Professions' working in separate practices or departments, with rigidly demarcated activities assigned to each. The Bible supports no such distinctions.
b. Getting a job
Our formal qualifications are part of the equipping process, and help us to understand what God has called us into, but they do not necessarily define that call. This is important when considering the first job after completing a college course. All Architects and Planners in the United Kingdom have to start in paid employment. Some high-flyers may strike out into partnership or self employment early on, but even they must begin professional life as salaried minions if the magic letters are to appear after their names.
If it is part of God's purposes for your life to achieve that qualification then you can trust in Him to open the way to an appropriate job in due course. If He does not do so, then it cannot be part of His purposes. To the reader who is in this position, I suggest you read to the end of this paper and then seek Christian counselling.
In Britain today we have in theory the option to be employed as an Assistant (and eventually as a Principal) in the Public Sector or a commercial company; as an assistant in private practice; or as an assistant in some form or 'alternative' practice, such as community architecture or planning overseas with an overseas aid charity. I suggest that any one of these is potentially acceptable to the Lord, and may be His choice for us.
Whether or not the market economy is acceptable to God is outside the scope of this paper. The Christian who is deeply convicted that the market economy is unjust, and that its competition and advertising are wastefully poor stewardship, obviously cannot pursue his calling through the market place. However, the market economy is a current fact of life, as it was for Jesus the carpenter and Paul the tentmaker, and on that basis it forms the context for this paper.
As Christians we cannot ignore debate about the market economy, any more than that we can ignore the injustices within our own society, or within the world trade system. Far from it! But we have to tackle these problems at two levels: as Christian citizens working over-time on society as a whole, and as Christian professionals called by God to do a specific job and make specific decisions today. This paper is aimed at the second level.
Galatians 5:1 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 are sometimes quoted as arguments against practice with unbelievers. In reality, few of us have the opportunity to work solely with Christians for Christians, and it would be difficult to see how we could be salt, light and yeast in the development and conservation world if we did (10). In any case, commentators tell us that the word 'communion' in 2 Corinthians 6:14 indicates a spiritual or sexual relationship.
There seem to me two basic approaches the Christian could take to finding a job (and later in one's career with respect to obtaining commissions in private practice). Since 'the Lord will provide' one might take a 'passive' approach to prospective employers without taking action oneself. Alternatively one can consider it one's duty to God and to society to fulfil His calling by positively and actively pursuing jobs. The scriptural and practical evidence is that, while God sometimes introduces us to something we had not considered, He normally guides in response to our active stepping out in faith. Abraham had to lay his son on the altar before seeing the ram caught in a thicket (Genesis 22:1-14). (9)
Thus the young Christian architect or planner can apply for any job in answer to an advert or 'on spec', confident that he will get an interview if that is where the Lord wants him to be. This introduces us to the first important element of guidance - Circumstances. Since God is omnipotent, He is Lord of all circumstances. We can see Him guiding saints through circumstances from such passages as Acts 16:16 - 17:15 and Acts 21:27 - end, etc.
God may sometimes call us to persist when a door is closed against us, but such circumstances are relatively rare in our field of work. He will sometimes lead us to an interview for a job that does not form part of His will for us, which we will not be offered. He may do this to teach us through the experience - about employers, about ourselves, or simply about interview technique. Or He may do so to give us the opportunity to witness to Him for the interviewers (9).
My own experience may be helpful. I became a Christian while completing an architecture course at Portsmouth Polytechnic. My first job was in a tweedy country practice in Winchester, a purely romantic choice that failed to work out. I then put my work in God's hands and wrote 'on spec' to a go-getting commercial practice in Southampton: although not advertising for staff, they gave me work for eighteen months. Redundancy threatened, so I again put my future in the Lord's hands, again wrote round 'on spec', and became a cog in Portsmouth City Council's planning mill for a year.
There I sensed God calling me to move forward. Many doors were tried but soon only two remained: training for the ordained ministry, or developing my architectural discipline into Town Planning! These doors had not so much to be opened as unbolted, for it seemed to me, whilst praying, that God intended me to be pursuing the option of his choice by September 1975, yet no suitable Church of England theological college or post-graduate Planning course had vacancies for then. When the Victorian gothic doors of the theological colleges remained firmly locked against me, God began to give me a growing conviction about Planning. When a cancelled place at Oxford Polytechnic was offered, it was as if, on reaching the last door in a corridor, it was flung open from inside and a welcoming voice said ' This is where you belong!'
On completing the course I applied for such posts as were advertised, trusting in the Lord to be appointed to the one of His choice. This proved to be Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns, a conurbation referred to by Dickens as 'Coketown'. Having thus worked in 'Coketown' Planning Department for a while, I applied for other advertised jobs on the same basis, but was only offered promotion in the same department, which I accepted. In both cases the inner conviction came with the job offer.
Having pedestrianised the Town Centre, I thus came to head up the Forward Planning and Conservation Section as we tackled the Town Centre Plan, the conservation of parts of the North Kent Wetlands, the Historic Dockyard, and its fortifications, an Enterprise Zone, the replanning of the redundant Naval Base, and the largest Local Plan exercise in the country. I was in the right place at the right time, and God was giving me invaluable professional experience, but, because I had relied on Him to guide me through circumstances so far, I had no clear vision of His specific purposes and direction for my professional calling.
Growing in Understanding
When we are becoming mature in our faith and professional wisdom and knowledge, do we still rely on God's guidance simply through circumstances? Or does He want to take us deeper into His counsels, closer into a working relationship with Him, so that when we are faced with the question of developing our career or changing direction, we are no longer content to be directed by Him as babes and children in Christ, but want to follow Him as mature Christians gaining in understanding of where He is leading us and why? If we read John 15:14-14, 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 and Hebrews 5:11-14 then I believe we can see that that is indeed what God wants.
Circumstances remain important, but some well-known Bible passages encourage us to explore other ways of experiencing God's loving guidance:
|'Fleeces' and Experiment||Judges 6:36-40; Isaiah 30:21|
|The Bible||2 Tim. 3:16; Prov. 1:2-7, 3:19-20|
|Prayer and Inner Conviction||James 1:5-8; John 14:15-27; Acts 16:6-8; Acts19:21|
|The Church and Christian Counselling||Eph. 3:10: 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Heb. 3:13, 10:23-5|
|Criteria-based decisions||Acts 20:16, 20:22-3, 23:11, 25:9-12, 28:14(b)-30|
|Dreams, Visions and Angels||Matt. 2:13, 19-20; Acts 8:26, 9:10- 16, 16:9-10|
Except for dreams visions and angels, I am exploring these in practice rather than theory, so the rest of this paper is devoted to sharing my understanding by sharing my experience.
One Sunday evening in 1980 I listened in Canford Magna's crusty old Norman church in Dorset to Ron Dodgson preach on the need to 're-Christianise' this country. As I listened, God gave me a deep concern to see this nation's leaders and their professional advisers turn and submit themselves to Him. My awareness that God was pointing me in this specific direction had me all but bouncing up and down in my pew with excitement! The direction was confirmed when I wrote to Ian Davis at Oxford Polytechnic to suggest an organisation be started for Christian Architects and Planners, a dream of mine for some years. At the same time he got asked by the then Secretary of UCCF, Dr Oliver Barclay, to form a Christian architects' writing group, and I was asked to join. In due course this developed into ACPA.
One subsequent Easter I realised the need to develop that specific direction in my actual work. Should that be pursued by continuing in Local Government or by returning to private practice? And where?
Counselling at Canford warned me prophetically that it would take a long time to answer these two questions. It took two years, and it was twenty-one months before the Lord explained why, through Deuteronomy 8:2:
'You must remember all that road by which the Lord your God has led you ... to humble you, to test you, and to discover whether or no it was in your heart to keep his commandments' (NEB).
From this we learn four pre-requisites for understanding God's purposes for us - patience and the willingness to be humbled, to say 'yes' to anything He may have for us, and to learn from each step of the way.
Late that same year a Home Counties District shortlisted me to run a 32-strong department of architecture and planning within an overall Directorate of Technical Services. After attending the interviews and awaiting the outcome, I spent time in prayer in a freezing cold church in a tatty suburban High Street, concluded that the Lord had made me a decision-maker, and decided to withdraw. Over the next year and a half I was to learn no longer to fall back on circumstances for guidance from the Lord. It was time to be weaned off the milk and get my teeth into the meat: to understand His will for me, not merely to find it.
'Most people,' said the speaker at a Business Study Group seminar on 'Ambition' (11), 'do not know who they are or what they want'. My experience has been one of discovering 'who I am' and 'what I want', and how central that is to understanding God's purposes for oneself. That winter was spent carefully and prayerfully analysing the strengths and weaknesses of my professional ability and experience. Through this came a sense that God was warning me not to tackle the full spectrum of 'commercial practice' as a one-man-band. For that, my strategic and analytical thinking, and my ability to organise 'places, spaces and faces' and to communicate would all need to be complemented by specialist technical, financial and marketing expertise. This seemed to be confirmed by a comment by a Christian colleague at work.
Further prayer the following Easter brought further understanding of myself. God enabled me to see how my personality is made up, and how that affects my ability to understand his purposes for me.
The 'Romantic Me', driven by emotion, wants to withdraw to the peace and quiet of a rural community, to study and write full-time about Christian planning and design. The 'Urban Warrior', driven by conscience, is challenged by urban need, angry at injustice, indifference and manipulation, and wants to get in there and see things happen. The 'Professional Me' wants the potential standing and the resultant influence that can be wielded by a Local Authority Chief Officer or successful private practice Principal. None of these things is intrinsically wrong in themselves, but the Sanctified part of me genuinely wants to see God's purposes fulfilled in my life, and does battle with escapism, romanticism, guilt, frustration, and the desire for status, so that these can be controlled by, and pursued according to, His will.
Through prayer I had also come to sense that God favours neither the public, private, or voluntary sectors, but has a purpose for each. His creation of the earth as a framework in which people can fulfil His purposes for them suggests that He may view Town and Country Planning, Local Government and individual private practices in much the same way. It is people who matter, not systems or set-ups. On the face of it that seemed broadly scriptural and a fair working hypothesis on the basis of which I could be released from preconceptions and prejudices which might have prevented me receiving the Lord's guidance.
The way was now clear to share in depth with the housegroup at church. As we prayed we came to a collective conviction that I should focus first on the basic question 'Local Government or Private Practice?', and that God would answer through friends, the Bible and inner peace. On that occasion and others several verses stood out to me: Acts 8:26-27a, Hebrews 11:8 and Malachi 3:6, 10.
But above all five people in the church and in ACPA separately gave me Psalm 37. Through this God told me not to fret myself because of others' success (verses 1, 8), or to be angry with the people of 'Coketown' (8) but to be still before God, to wait upon Him, and see Him act (5, 7). I should trust in Him (3) because even if I fall He will not let me be cast headlong (24). And, in particular, I should
'Take delight in the Lord
And He will give you the desires of your heart'.
But what were the desires of my heart? 'Who I am' had been established: now I needed to know 'what do I want?' - wanted, that is by the sanctified part of me.
The housegroup leader, John, was also seeking the Lord's way ahead for his career as a teacher. As we shared and prayed together we were able to re-affirm the specific direction given to me at Canford, and realised that we both needed and desired to be in positions of responsibility where we could demonstrate a Christian approach to our professions, and to those who effectively control them. Although neither of us were deputies then, this meant a headmastership for John, and for me to be a Chief Planner or a Private Practice Principal.
The day after reaching this conclusion the Chief Planner's job was advertised at a super resort on the South Coast that I'd had my eye on for a long time. This was no coincidence! I placed it before the Lord as a fleece, asking to be shortlisted if it was right to stay in Local Government, and enthusiastically plunged into researching the situation and finally turned in my application. I was not shortlisted. A similar post came up not far away soon after, and since Gideon put the fleece out twice, this too was put before the Lord and applied for, with the same result.
Through prayer I had already sensed that, if indeed it is people who matter, then I would know the place by knowing the people, and should test the private sector option by drafting a convincing practice scenario with which to circulate other Christians in planning and design. Whilst praying in Winchester Cathedral seven key headings for such a scenario had come to me:
1. (a) needsFollowing the outcome of the two fleeces I now put that scenario together and circulated it. A return to Wessex was decided on because it offers a lively development and conservation scene, ready contact with decision-makers, London, and my own family, and I had maintained my professional interest in the region. South Hants and the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation both offer the live Christian environment desirable for a fledgling Christian practice, so the scenario was targeted at Christian professional contacts and live churches in these areas. However, the response was slow and inconclusive.
(b) purpose and Role of Practice
2. (a) other people concerned
3. (a) location - church, office, home
4. communications and promotion.
The grim weather outside my window that January and February increasingly reflected the despair in my mind. John had by now accepted a post as Deputy Headmaster, and the job of Deputy Planner at 'Coketown' was now vacant. It was the one thing I didn't want, and yet seemed to be the only way the Lord was opening up ahead. God really used this situation to break me down so that I had to throw myself entirely on His grace. 'If you want to have the privilege of being in a position of influence for My purposes' He seemed to be saying, 'what are you prepared to give up? Are you prepared to stay in "Coketown" the rest of your life? To move to some obscure part of the Midlands? To risk the possibility of never being a home-owner again, and not being able to afford to marry and have a family?'
The answer in each case had to be 'Yes, Lord!' so I applied for a job in an obscure part of the Midlands, applied for the Deputy Planner post in 'Coketown' and fixed to meet those who had responded to the Draft Practice scenario.
One architect did testify that in fourteen years of practice, despite having no gift for going out and getting commissions, the Lord had never let him be short of work. That certainly encouraged me, not having that gift either. A quantity surveyor suggested that, me being single, it would be relatively simple to move into the area and start up as a sole principal, but with the specific objective of linking up with others to form a multi-disciplinary consortium or partnership. This suggestion was particularly interesting since it accorded with thoughts that had started to grow in me, and since the intention would not be to remain a one-man band it seemed not to contradict earlier guidance. Even so the response to the scenario was not the obvious pillar of fire or cloud I was looking for.
Easter week had me 'reviewing the situation' away from home. I was reminded yet again that God had made me a decision-maker. Re-reading the opening words of Deuteronomy 8:2, I listed all the steps the Lord had led me through in the last two years, and, like any good Planner, identified the trend. On that basis, it seemed to lead to the conclusion that the future lay in Local Government. I thanked the Lord and prepared to return home, but as I did so, my whole being seemed to rebel against the prospect. Local Government just wasn't 'me'. So I asked God to clarify whether this was in fact the wrong direction through the outcome of my application for the post of Deputy Planner. Arriving back at the office on Monday lunchtime I found I was shortlisted for interview on the Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. There was going to be a quick answer to that specific prayer!
Seeking counselling from the church minister that Wednesday evening I asked 'What does Psalm 37 really mean when it says the Lord will give you the desires of your heart? Doesn't He call us to obedience - to sacrificial obedience if need be?' 'I'm not sure I'm not listening to a conversation between you and your conscience!' retorted Kevin - 'How long have you been in Local Government?' 'Nine years, off and on'. 'So what's the Lord saying to you if He hasn't turned your heart to Local Government after all that time?' As we shared I saw how I had been trying to piece together all that the Lord had taught me over the two years as if it had been some kind of maze in jigsaw puzzle form - all I needed was the last piece in place and I would have a complete plan of the maze with my path through it clearly marked. After all this time I had been trying to know the Lord's will without understanding it!
As we prayed, and through the following day, I had a growing conviction about private practice. After the second interview I wound down the blinds of one of our conference rooms, and - hoping no-one would barge in! - got down on my knees and prayed. It was a tremendous release to run through the steps of the last two years, not now trying to piece them together as a jigsaw puzzle, but appreciating them as a voyage of discovery, each leg of which could now be seen as leading towards the same destination. I would know the place by the people: the interviews had shown that 'Coketown' was not the people, but there were people in Wessex sympathetic with what I wanted to do. The overwhelming conviction came that I should return to private practice and to the Wessex area. This was confirmed twenty minutes later when it was announced that none of the candidates was to be appointed.
This fundamental decision is a good point at which to draw conclusions from theory and practice. However, it would be wrong not to mention several important features of subsequent guidance.
During an intensive study of location, property, churches and finance, I was encouraged in times of doubt by the experience of Kevin, who believed it right to leave the ordained ministry, join the community church movement, and return to computing. He and his wife found the right church in Eastleigh, followed by a school which their two young children were delighted with, and, within a few days of praying for a modern house to rent in the centre of Eastleigh - something of a rarity! - they got one. They moved from 'Coketown' in faith before finding the job the Lord lined up for Kevin.
My accountant also suggested the right church be identified first, and after various visits and discussions it was evident that initially I should join Canford Magna Parish Church. Confirmation that I was doing the right thing came through agreements to a non-status mortgage and a bridging loan, enabling me to make an offer on an attractive maisonette near Canford ahead of the sale of my own house.
Christian vocation is neither pie in the sky when you die nor evenings and weekends churchianity. It is a seven-day-a-week, twenty-four-hour partnership with God in every aspect of living. Each Christian's partnership with the Lord is a unique calling: he or she alone has been called into it. Such is His love for us that He wants us to be fulfilled in that vocation, and to fulfil His purposes through it. How can we fulfil those purposes until we realise this?
We have seen that when we set out God directs us as children, but that as we grow spiritually and professionally He wants us to understand His calling for us, and to respond to His leading increasingly through that. We have noted the role of circumstances, fleeces, counselling, inner peace, and of course prayer and the Bible. But we have also noted a number of important needs:
1. Patience, and the willingness to be humbled, to go anywhere and do anything, and to learn.
2. To know 'what I want' - not as a hedonistic pursuit of selfish desires but the discovery of a God-given direction and purpose through the concerns and desires that He has put in our hearts. (This has not been my experience alone).
3. To understand 'who I am' - the way in which our emotional rational, social and spiritual make-up affects our receipt of guidance and ability to understand His purposes for us - the fears that may prevent us from following or trap us in the 'better to travel hopefully than to arrive' syndrome.
4. To be released from preconceptions and misconceptions about the nature of 'work' and 'calling' that come from the fallen world in which we live, into the glorious truth that God wants us to live in.
5. To be released from the jig-saw puzzle approach to guidance and embark on a voyage of discovery that will lead into a deeper understanding of God's purposes for our lives and our partnership with Him.
6. To belong to 'the body' in real practice. Whilst much of my understanding has come through prayer, God has often used a Christian to confirm something spoken to me in those long hours alone with Him. At key moments - especially at the crucial point, when a fundamental error was about to be made - God has spoken through specific Christian counselling.
However, it has been a struggle for both the church and myself. The body of Christ on earth urgently needs to grasp the truths we have explored to learn them and to clearly teach them, to live them and openly share the experience. We need to gear ourselves up to be able to share with and counsel each other on a sound basis as we seek God's will for our occupational vocation. At present I suspect this is the exception rather than the norm. ACPA and its Newsletter have an important role here.
I am discovering that we are called to face facts in the light of faith - and that faith is not something you believe in, it's something you do. The practice is being established with only half the money that would have been preferable, no guarantee that there will in due course be others to team up with, no ready-made clients in tow. Yet when I stopped contemplating the gloom and went out to look for a church, a mortgage and a maisonette the Lord acted and confirmed. For that reason - and for no other - the conviction is growing that the Lord will fulfil His purposes for the practice.
Those purposes may not include 'success' in worldly terms. We are called to faithfulness, not success, to be prepared to share Christ's sufferings as well as His victory. As David Sheppard says '... the Christian God has to do with a cross. That includes risk, conflict, sometimes failure.' (12). As Canon Fenton put it, 'there were no miracles on Good Friday' (13). But the power that released Jesus from the tomb is available to us on the drawing board, at our desks, in committee, at the negotiating table, and on site. God wants us to discover this, and the world is waiting to see it.
I am discovering that 'You are not your own, you were purchased with a price' (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 7:23) means two things. Obedience, abandoned ambitions, following Jesus instead of leading one's own life ... but also that each of us is a prized possession - prized so much that we were purchased with nothing less than the blood of God's own Son. With that assurance let us experiment in faith and discover the fulness of the partnership the Lord wants with us.
1. Dr Lewis Johnson: 1 Corinthians Wycliff Bible Commentary, Oliphants, 1963.
2. A Compend of The Institutes edited by Professor Hugh Kerr, Lutterworth, 1965.
3. Mary Miles: Christian Graduate March 1971
4. Rev Dr David Sceats: 'The Business Ethics of the Puritans' in Christians in the Business World, Historians Study Group 1982.
5. Archbishop William Temple: Christianity and Social Order, Penguin, 1941.
6. Larry Peabody: Secular Work is Full-time Service, CLC, 1974.
7. Roland Hogben: Vocation, IVF, undated.
8. Dr Oliver Barclay speaking on: 'The Protestant Work Ethic' to the Business Study Group.
9. My thanks to ACPA Committee Member Leslie Barker for these thoughts and experiences.
10. Salt - Matthew 5:13; Light - Matthew 5:14-16; Yeast - Matthew 13:33.
11. Michael Bretherton speaking on: 'Ambition' to the Business Study Group.
12. Bishop David Sheppard: The Other Britain (Shaftesbury Project).
13. Canon Fenton, Good Friday address, Salisbury Cathedral, 1985.
Readers may be interested to learn that UCCF have produced a very helpful booklet on Guidance.
Guidance by John White (reproduced from his book The Fight) is a brief (20 pages) overview of this important subject.
ISBN 0-946 422-70-2 40p for students
60p for others
Available from Christian Booksellers or in the event of difficulty from UCCF Book Centre, Norton Street, Nottingham NG7 3HR
From ACPA Newsletter No. 6, Autumn 1985.
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