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EPISODE 42: The Seamless Life
We know that God is Lord “over all.” But do we live, moment by moment, aware of his hand on every aspect of our lives? Steve Garber helps us avoid compartmentalization and pursue a whole, integrated, worshipful life.
The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work by Steve Garber (2020)
Read more from Steve Garber at the C.S. Lewis Institute.
Additional articles by Steve Garber from the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, where we seek to pursue discipleship of the heart and mind. Today, on this recording…. Oh, I should say I'm your host, Randy Newman, and my conversation partner today is my friend Steve Garber. Steve has been professor of marketplace theology, director of the program in leadership, theology, and society at Regent College. He's written several books. He has spoken all around the world, and he has given a great deal of thought to this theme of vocation for the common good. We're going to talk today about his newest book, The Seamless Life.
So, Steve, welcome to Questions That Matter.
It's good to be with you again, Randy. We don't talk often enough, but it's always a gift to me when we actually see face to face for a while. So, thank you.
Oh, thank you! Well, this new book that you have out, The Seamless Life, it almost feels to me like a culmination of things you've been thinking and writing about for decades, really. And, early on, you say that the whole question, I guess, or theme of this book is: What does it mean to see seamlessly? S-E-A-M-L-E-S-S ly. So, Steve, what does it mean to see seamlessly?
Well, we could talk for a long time, Randy, obviously. There's an essay in the book that I've called “A Disposition to Dualism,” and it's a reflection on a morning in Birmingham, Alabama, a few years ago. Invited by some very good people, visionary people, who love the city, and they had arranged to have a morning breakfast, a prayer breakfast, for the city of Birmingham. Birmingham, of course, being famous for “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and other things along the way and the fractured, hurt, wounded history of American life. This was at the 16th Street Baptist Church, which is ironically, tragically known for the bombing deaths of little girls going from Sunday school into the worship service on Sunday morning. And I was asked to speak on vocation for the renewal of the city of Birmingham. So, the essay is—I won't go into the blow by blow, but I reflected a little bit in the essay about John Newton for the reason that we'd sung the song “Amazing Grace” at the end of this breakfast. All of us around this large room, black and white together and full of hope and longing for the city of Birmingham. But the irony to me, which the essay is about, was to think about Newton, whose song we were singing all together. “America's song,” as Steve Turner has called it.
It was born of a man's life who, as we know—the nice story in some ways is that he ran away from home as an adolescent and entered into sailing the seas and then finally into the slave trade, bringing slaves from Africa to the New World and becoming a captain eventually and coming to faith. And it would be nice to say that he wrote “Amazing Grace” and thanks be to God.
The harder story, which is the one I’ve told in the essay, is that he came to repentant faith on board a ship one day, opened a Bible, and somehow in the mercies of God, the amazing grace of God, he cried out and said, “Please forgive me my sin, oh, Lord.” But he kept being a slave trade captain for years, and he actually had Bible study on the top deck of the slave ships for years with his other officers, while the holds were full of slaves manacled and chained and dying on the way to futures of slavery. He didn't see any relationship between the two, between his faith and his work. His convictions about God himself, sin and salvation, and the work of his life, it was two different universes, and God is his God, and I'm only an observer aware of my own clay footedness.
So, I don't disdain him. That was part of what I was writing about. I don't disdain him for that. I know my own disposition to dualism. But the best history we have is it was about 30, 35 years later when he first acknowledged out loud in a letter that, “I was a part of something terrible and horrible years ago in my life, and I repent and grieved over my participation in it.” I don't say that to say what an awful man that he was. It's simply to say, Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve, we are disposed to carve up our lives, to compartmentalize things that matter most of all to us, that are really important to us, and to say, “Well, this, but then this, and that, and then this.”
You and I live in Washington, DC, Randy, and it's known the world over for its glories and its shames. One of the shames, I would say, is that everyone in the Congress proposes to be a Catholic, a Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, la, la, la, la, la. But there's almost no visible relationship between any kind of profession of faith, Democrat, Republican, on either side of the aisle, and how people think and vote and talk about the public life of America. It's very rare to find anybody who can make an articulate connection between what they say, “These are my deepest convictions about God and history and how I think about this issue or this question.”
So again, it's simply that we are disposed to dualism. So seamlessly, seamlessly is to somehow, by God's great grace, to hold that together more coherently, more seamlessly.
That's very helpful for me, to contrast it to compartmentalization. Because you're right. We do tend to put things in compartments and not just not see seams, but we see walls and watertight compartments. I’d never thought of that, about what you just said about Washington, DC, but you're right. I love driving around this area, driving around the city and seeing the monuments. I just love it. But it always feels like there's an asterisk on every scene that I look at. I love the Jefferson Memorial. I can't get enough of looking at it. But every time I do look at it, I remember all of the problems Thomas Jefferson had. And so, it's like this wonderful building, and his statue is just magnificent. And yet….
Making Sense of Life
So, your book is, not just these essays in this book, but I think all of your messages are trying to push us in that direction of seeing all of life under the hand of God. Toward the end of your book, you talk about the word proximate. Tell us a little bit about why that's such an important word for us as Christians. Well, just to contrast Jefferson with that other great memorial on The Mall, Lincoln's Memorial, I like to go there, take my visitors from out of town there at night when they come in to the city. And I always want them to always say, “Please read the second inaugural address.” They walk up all these great stairs, and they walk off to the right, and then they take the five minutes it takes to read through the address. And the second inaugural address, just to keep it historical here, he gave in the late winter of the year he died. He was killed about six weeks later, actually. For what? For the words that he said in that speech.
And what the speech is, for me, Randy, is remarkable. It's so unusual and so profound because he actually wrote the words himself! I've lived in this city a long time, and I have a lot of friends over the years who've been speechwriters for so and so and so and so and so and so. And they might have five or they might have fifteen speechwriters, depending on how prominent they might see themselves to be. And you just think, “So what was it about Lincoln that actually he was so thoughtful, so able, so articulate, able to actually have thoughts on the one hand, which it’s his own kind of note to note, to have thoughts that he could say.” And he could say them with such power and eloquence that we're still listening to it 175 years later, whatever it is today. And to think, “So who are you, Abraham Lincoln?” And when I think about seamlessness, there is a Lincoln speech there. There's a remarkable depth, historically, politically, even theologically, wrestling with providence, with history, to right wrong in history, with justice and injustice, seeing the implication of these things on both sides of the partisan aisle, and in a way which we just have a hard time even thinking, “Who could even imagine doing that in our world today?”
So, I would say, for me, proximate, how does it relate to this? Well, as powerful as the words were, eloquent as he was, he got killed for saying all them. So, all the right things didn't happen. All the good things didn't happen for Lincoln. In some ways, he gave his life for a vision for what America needed to be, could be, should be, ought to be. And yet he was killed for the very words he gave to history. So, for me, proximate is this idea that it's asking the question: Would you be willing to give yourself to something that's honest and true and right and good, even if you don't get everything?
Wow! That's very challenging and also very helpful at the same time, or encouraging. There are experiences we have or moments that we have that are quite close to the way things ought to be and really seem to be shining that. They never totally get there, not in this life. But if we can hang onto those moments and, again, your word proximate is very helpful.
Think about this also, our region of the world here. I grew up in California. I don't think I even knew there was an Atlantic Ocean or a Chesapeake Bay. I never thought about it. I grew up in the Beach Boys area of California. That seemed to be the center of the universe. Now, living here for over 35 years or so, I think, “Well, I know Chesapeake Bay pretty well now,” and I've been to Atlantic Ocean several times, in fact, and we've gone off to Chincoteague, to Assateague National Seashore, because we like the seashore part of it. There's no Ferris wheels and cotton candy. You’re going to have to like to be in a national seashore to go there.
Over the years, Randy, I've often walked along the beach in the early morning with my wife, and I'm always looking for the perfect seashell, frankly. There’s so many, of course. When a certain kind of tide comes in, you just think, “That looks so beautiful down there,” from my eyes to my feet. Randy, I have looked and looked and looked for years and years. When I pick up the seashell, it's never perfect. There's always a crack. There's always a little March somewhere, and I think, “I can't even find a perfect seashell.”
My point on this is that people say, “What do you say in proximity?” I’ll say, “Well, think about your marriage.” I love to love my wife. Is our marriage perfect? Well, I long for it to be better than it is, and I think it's healthy most of the time, but perfect? I wouldn't say that word, actually. But is there honest happiness, true happiness, and a real goodness in our marriage together? I would say, “Thanks be to God, there is, actually.” So, for me, the proximal idea runs across human life, actually, from the most personal things of life to the most public things of life.
If you use a smartphone or a voice assistant like Alexa or Siri, or if you've gone through airport security, or you’ve shopped online. Come on, who hasn't? That's all of us. Then, whether you know it or not, you've already encountered artificial intelligence, or AI. But I bet a whole lot of us don't really know what AI is, or what are the pros, the cons, what are the ethical implications, and what the future is going to look like in light of these developments. Well, we're delighted, as the C.S. Lewis Institute, to have our good friend, Dr. John Lennox, who is always brilliant and winsome. He's going to answer some of these questions and provide clear understanding of what AI is, where it's heading, and then some thoughts about how followers of Jesus can and should respond in the way our world is being shaped by and influenced by and changed by artificial intelligence. So please go online to our Website, Thanks.
It's a good word.
It is a good word, and again, for me, it helps me see that word a little more clearly or fully in contrast with another word. So proximate versus perfect.
That's exactly right.
And seamless versus compartmentalized.
Living Real Life
But proximate versus perfect, it's not this disdainful, “Well, you're never going to get perfection.” No, it's an acknowledgment that there is a perfection, in God, in heaven, in eternity. And, no, we're not going to experience it in all of its fullness now, but there is a perfect, a holy, a beautiful. And so that just helps with the broken seashells. I'm very disappointed, though, that you haven't seen any perfect ones, because when you go into these seashell stores at the beaches that are more commercial than the ones you went to, they always have these bins filled, and they all look perfect. It just seems to me that— “Are these real?” Anyway, I'm sorry. I'm going in a different direction.
Oh, no, it's a good question. I mean, it might be I've just been on the wrong beach, in the wrong place, but I have looked and looked for years and years. And sometimes I'm asked, not because I'm a pastor, I'm a professor, but to give homilies for weddings. And I, a couple of times along the way, have actually chosen to reflect on the seashells on the seashore, and just to say, “Well, I hope for you, and I will give you words from my deepest heart here today, hoping, hoping, hoping for you to have true love for each other for years and years to come. But I want to ask you, would you be willing to make these promises from your deepest heart to each other today if you knew that, by God's grace, in 25 years you will have found proximate happiness together? True happiness, honest happiness, real happiness, touchable happiness. But it won't be perfect. Will you be willing to do that?”
I love it. I love it. Thank you. That is such good stuff. Well, I have this list of things I want to ask you about, and I can't quite think of a smooth transition from the beauty of marriage to the reality of a hamburger. But you have a whole section in your book about a hamburger, and you say, “Sometimes heaven meets earth in a hamburger. At least I think that's possible, and when we try, working hard to figure out why food that is tasty and healthy at the same time matters, it becomes almost sacramental.”
So first I have to just apologize to all the vegetarians who are listening. A hamburger being sacramental. We'll have a separate podcast sometime about that. So tell me, how can a hamburger be sacramental? I love this.
That's a great question, Randy. Well, 15 years ago, or maybe more than that, Hans and April Hess, who moved to Washington, worked on The Hill for a while, had this idea they scribbled out on the papers on their kitchen table at night for a year or so, got a loan from a bank, and started Elevation Burger on Lee Highway in Falls Church.
And I got to know Hans early in those days and weeks of this new store, and I noticed there was an Elevation Burger, and this kind of a burger, and this kind of burger. And, talking to Hans one day over lunch, I found out that he was actually theologically trained, and he had gone to Dallas Theological Seminary for four years and was pretty serious about his life, wanted to become a missionary, and then he just couldn't figure out how to become a missionary after all. And he moved to Washington, DC, thinking, “Maybe I can reboot my life and career in Capitol Hill,” but along the way, he ate a competitor burger. We can call it Five Guys if we want to, and he realized that it made him sick to his stomach, and the French fries were fried in such terrible oil. And the hamburger smelled so good and so tasty on the one hand, but not healthy at all. And he began to just think through, would it be possible to make a healthier hamburger? And he tried this and tried this and found a source here and another source over here. And I'm going to cut to the chase here, but as I got to know him, we’d be talking about, of all things, eschatological hamburgers.
And I said to Hans, because he was theologically trained, I said, “Hans, you know, that's what you're doing, aren't you really?” He says, “I can't promise you, because I don't exactly what will be on the Marriage Supper of the Lamb table. It'll be a great, great, great, great cosmic feast, of course. That will be for sure. And everything on the table, from this side to this side, cosmically speaking, will be at the same time both healthy and tasty. It will not be a tradeoff. There will not be a doughnut end and an apple end. It'll be all somehow completely both at the same time, healthy and tasty.” I said, “Hans, for you to do your darnedest now, in this now but not yet part of life, time of history, to make a healthy, tasty meal, well, it's eschatological, isn't it? It's a signpost of what is yet to come.”
And I just know that intuitively. A lot of my theology, Randy, is maybe more intuitive, and people might be surprised by. But I just realized, since I'm no longer 15 and can eat Five Guys hamburgers at 11:30 at night and go to sleep at night; I would just be sick all night long now if I tried to do that. I realized that somehow, going in to have lunch with Hans and his Elevation burgers and his French fries fried in olive oil, I didn't think about it afterwards. I didn't have to take three Tums going back to work. My stomach handled them well, actually. I thought, “That's really interesting, Hans, that my stomach actually thinks this is okay to put this kind of food in my stomach.”
So sacramental. What is it? Why did I use that word? Well what is a sacrament? A sacrament, fundamentally, at its clearest and truest, is a place where heaven and earth touch each other. What is it we pray when we take part in the Eucharist, communion, we say, “Well, may this water, may this bread, may this somehow, this wine, all this somehow… Will the wine be somehow…” depending on whether they’re Protestants and Catholics or Orthodox? We have different readings of what all it means and happens before us, I suppose, but we're praying that something would be present where heaven and Earth actually mysteriously, mystically meet each other in this bread and this cup.
So I was saying to Hans, and what I wrote about in the essay, was that when a hamburger and French fries are a window into heaven touching earth, it's sacramental.
Mm-hm! And I think I've mentioned this on this podcast a number of times, so listeners may think this is a repeat. But as you're talking, I can't help but think about Acts 14, when Paul is speaking to this crowd that just thought he did this miraculous healing because he was Zeus or Hermes, and they started bowing down and worshiping him, and he says, “Stop that.” But then his pre-evangelistic message to them, not even pre-evangelistic, evangelistic, that God has not left Himself without a witness. He has given… and among the things that he says that are pointers, it's rain, crops, food, and joy in your hearts. And this is to a pretty crazy pagan crowd, but he's saying, “Even you guys, you have food and joy in your hearts, and those are pointers to a perfect world, a greater world, another world.” And I don't know, I'm just delighted that food can be part of that. It really can. It is. It's not just, “Well, we need this in order to survive.” We do need it in order to survive. But isn't it just wonderful that it's also so delicious?
I wish we had more time to talk, Randy. We could pursue this more fully, but I would just simply say to you and to your friends here, your podcast, that I would argue, and I think there's reason for it, that actually the longest question we have from beginning to end in the Bible is this one, “What are you going to eat? And why are you going to eat it?”
Oh! Say more, say more. Go ahead.
Just think. Isn't that Genesis 2 passage? And those two trees? And the question to Father Adam and Mother Eve is, “So what are you going to eat? And why are you going to eat it?” And of course, the beginning of great, great cosmic chaos and crisis we still live with all day long is answering the question wrong, after Genesis 3. Imagining that, if they ate this, it would mean this, and it couldn’t ever mean that, actually. All the way, just slowly, slowly walking all the way through the Passover celebration, throughout the Last Supper, as we call it. I'm just going to go quickly here, but think about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
I was just going to say, and where does it all culminate?
The first thing that happens in the new heavens and new earth will be a supper together. So, to me, there's quite a fascinating thread of redemptive history that actually follows this question of eating, of what we're going to eat and why we're going to eat it. So, for me, Hans' best shot at creating a healthy, tasty meal for us was sacramental, eschatological.
Now, you said that a lot of your theology is—what did you say it was?
Intuitive, right. So, you just threw out a phrase, and I got it, but I want to make sure that our listeners get a fuller grasp of it. You said that we're living in this now-but-not-yet world. I don't want that phrase just to be a cliché. Say a little more of what’s…. Again, I know we could talk for hours about it, but just, particularly if people haven't heard it a lot.
Yeah, well, it's, you know, to use a high-priced word, but it is in the part of theology we call eschatology, which is the study of what we call the last things, the eschaton. But I would say, again, wherever we find ourselves lining up eschatologically speaking, the different schools, traditions, and interpretations of scriptures and the Book of Daniel, Book of Revelation especially, I suppose. I don't think there's a debate really, that I can see, over the reality of the now but the not yet. And whether we are pre-millennial or a-millennial or post-millennial in our dispositions and commitments, I think we all agree that we have to somehow make sense of Christ has come to make everything be new. “Behold, all things are made new,” and the creation groans. And so somehow the tension of those two together is now, but then not yet. We believe that, yes, all things have been made new. Praise be to God! And yet, and yet, and yet, and yet, the creation groans, and you and I do, too, all day long. And so how do you hold them together? Well, the best theology we have uses language like, “Well, we live in the tension between the now and the not yet.”
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I want to share with you and our listeners. I was reading your book at the same time that I was up in New York visiting my mother, who's quite old, and she was in the hospital because she had heart surgery. It was very, very serious. She came through it okay, but she's got a long recovery ahead of her. And so, for five days, I was going up to the hospital and seeing her in this intensive care unit, and it was very, very difficult. Certainly, seeing my mother there, but being surrounded by death, in a sense, and surrounded by the ravages of the not yet. And it was so noisy. There were so many beeping, and that just drives me crazy. I love silence, and I love music, so I really have trouble with noise. And boy, is there a lot of noise in intensive care units and whatever.
And I was thinking about your teaching in this book, about seeing all of life seamlessly. And I found out that, very close to the hospital, was this pretty small art museum. And so, one of the mornings before visiting hours began, I stopped at the art museum to walk around. And it was just so very helpful for me to think, “This is all part of the same world. These absolutely stunning, beautiful paintings and sculpture,” and to take some time to—it's funny. I emailed my wife about it, and she said, “Well, I'm really glad that you had some time to ingest that art.” And I said, “Ingest it. That's exactly the right word!” I was nourished by seeing some really, really beautiful paintings, as I then had to go back to difficulty.
And so, this seeing all of life seamlessly. This isn't just a philosophical concept. This is to help us find strength and even joy in the midst of some very, very difficult things in this world.
Because that's the world I live in, I think about that all day long, Randy. And one of the essays in the book, I have reflected on the Pixar film Inside Out. And if you know that story, a little family moves from the Twin Cities to San Francisco, and they have an eight-year-old little girl, and she was embedded within a wonderful family and community and friends and school in Minneapolis, and then she moves out to this place. She knows no one, and no one knows her. Everything’s so beautiful. It is the Bay Area of California. And she was terribly, terribly lonely. And the back story is that there's this sort of big computer world with lights and cameras and all these different emotions behind the story. Especially, there's Joy and Sadness, and there are three or four others as well that are part of the story, and they are responding to what they see in the little girl's life. And Joy is just so full of joy, of course, and she's sure that the little girl just needs more and more and more joy in her life. And Sadness just keeps trying to bump in and say, “Well, I think I'm part of this, too.” And Joy keeps pushing Sadness out, saying, “No, she doesn't need you. She needs more of me!”
And the end of the story, basically, is Joy begins to realize slowly that, in fact, Sadness is part of the story, too. And for the little girl actually to understand what's going on in her life, she needs to be able to make sense of the sadness that is hers right now in her life. Not to deny it. And I would say that that essay is one of the most widely read essays I've ever written in my whole life. Just people responded to it all over the place. I quoted N.T. Wright in the essay, this wonderful statement he made in a book written for Lenten meditations years ago. He says, “The vocation of Jesus is to take into his heart the most remarkable joy and the most remarkable sorrow, and to weave them within the pattern of His days.” He says, “When we imitate Christ, our imitation of Christ, taking up his life, his vocation, making it our own, we too will find that most remarkable joy and most remarkable sorrow.”
And when I realized, years ago, I was never going to become a Buddhist in this life, never going to deny that that distinction existed, as Buddhism requires of us, I had to somehow account for real joy and real sorrow that was mine every day. And how Wright’s theology could be so helpful to me. It was rich enough and deep enough and true enough to make sense of my life. And I found the Pixar story to be a playful but very profound way into understanding why both are true.
Oh, man. This is great! You are giving us a way of seeing. These short essays in this book, they look in this direction, they look in this direction, they look at food, they look at business, and showing us the seamlessness of it all. I'm really grateful for the way you're helping me push in those directions, and I certainly hope that's helpful for our listeners. Any last comments as we bring this to a close?
We could talk again for hours, Randy, you and I, but maybe just to draw on one of the essays that I enjoyed writing quite a bit. And it's one, actually, about a picture my wife took. Most of the essays are accompanied by photos that I mostly took.
Yeah, I did notice. I love that. Yeah.
Well, I took them. But one my wife took of me with a lariat, a rope. You'd have to be not from probably suburban Washington or Metro. You have to be from someplace out there, like the rest of America. You’re likely to have cowboys and cows and ropes and things like that. This is an essay written in southwestern Colorado, where I was born and where I spent my first summers of life. And it's an essay reflecting upon my grandfather's life. And I've drawn on this Benedictine image of ora et labora and of watching my grandfather every night, in my summer years as a little boy, spending weeks of my summer with my grandparents, asking all of us, inviting all of us to come onto our knees at night and pray, for things that he wanted to pray for as my grandfather, and I was 8, 9, 10, and 12, and 14 in those years of my life. But I watched that. I took part in that. But I would also go with my grandfather to the livestock auctions that were part of his life. He bought and sold cattle for the years of his life. I knew that I didn't have Benedict’s ora et labora to draw upon at that point. I was simply watching my granddad live a life.
And I remember, one day, being in this place, in Cortez, Colorado, where he was buying cattle, and the auctioneer was kind of moving from one kind of cow to the next kind of cow, and he asked my grandfather, one of the buyers, “Mr. Gilchrist, what are these cattle selling for this week in Colorado?” Now my grandfather was a math whiz, actually, and he could have, in a flash, adjusted the price to his own benefit. But the auctioneer knew that, even though my grandfather was one of the buyers, he wouldn't do that. He trusted my grandfather's character, but he also trusted my grandfather's competence, knowing that, of all the buyers that day, my grandfather would know the price throughout the whole state, and he would tell the price truthfully.
And so, watching my grandfather marked by, borne of this commitment to both competence and character, even as a ten-year-old boy, and knowing that, for him, it was borne out of some kind of relationship between his night by night, kneeling, praying to the God of heaven and earth.
But for me, that was quite a formative picture, actually, of a good life, of a godly life. The essay is about vocation. “Learning about Vocation,” I think I called it. But in my grandfather's life, I began to see something about what a vocation looks like, a life born in Benedictine terms, where praying and working are held seamlessly together. Ora et labora.
Great. Yes, I do want to keep talking, but I also want to bring this to a close. You've given us so much to hang on to and to cling to. I'm seeing several pairs. You have this pair of character and competence. There's seamlessness versus compartmentalization. There's proximate versus perfection.
So, I do recommend Steve's book. We'll also put some links in the show notes to some essays that he's written. Steve writes sometimes for us, but also for the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. I love reading your stuff there. So, thank you for being part of our Questions That Matter. To our listeners, please check out our website and all of those many, many, many different resources we have there. Our prayer and our vocation, we believe, is to help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.