You pray, I’ll fly: vocation in action

I love this exchange between Katie Couric and Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River:

Couric: “Did you, at any point, pray?”

Sullenberger: “I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane.”

If you google “Sullenberger pray”, the first link is to atheist blogger Hemant Mehta who suggests it is an “important point” that Sullenberger (whatever his beliefs may be) “didn’t stop to pray”:

He didn’t think about God. He focused on what actions he could take. He eliminated any other “distractions” from his mind, including thoughts about God.

That’s what saved the passengers’ lives.

I’m not entirely sure what Mehta’s point is here. I assume either (a) this suggests Sullenberger is an atheist, and hence that atheists are better in a crisis because they are less distracted by religious concerns; or (b) this shows that people don’t really believe that strongly in God, because at moments of extreme crisis they think of other things rather than God.

However, my reaction to Capt Sullenberger’s words was to reflect on what a great example this is of the doctrine of vocation in action. The doctrine of vocation is one of Luther’s great insights, that overturns the conventional Christian distinction between “secular” and “spiritual” activities, and affirms our everyday tasks and responsibilities as “masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things”.

So it’s not that “praying” is the “spiritual” thing to do, and concentrating on using one’s skills and experience (not to mention one’s personal qualities such as courage and unflappability) to safely land the plane is the “secular” or “unspiritual” thing to do. The most “spiritual” thing that Capt Sullenberger could have done in that situation – the action most in keeping with God’s will, and through which God could work most effectively – was precisely what he did: give no thought to praying, but concentrate on doing his job.

I’ve no idea whether Capt Sullenberger is a Lutheran, any more than I have any idea whether he is an atheist or has any other form of religious faith. But his reply to Katie Couric was very Lutheran.

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7 Responses to You pray, I’ll fly: vocation in action

  1. Chris Jones says:

    That was a great quote from Capt Sullenberger.

    I’m puzzled, though, when people identify the doctrine of vocation as distinctively Lutheran. In all my denominational wanderings I have always been taught the doctrine of vocation, and I’ve always thought of it as simply the Christian doctrine of vocation. To be fair, my denominational wanderings have not included Roman Catholicism, and perhaps it is in contrast to the RCs that the doctrine looks “Lutheran.”

    Don’t the Reformed and the Methodists, etc, believe in vocation?

  2. John H says:

    Chris: I suppose it might better be described as Luther-an rather than Lutheran, if you follow. Christians from other traditions have certainly followed Luther on this, at least in theory.

    In practice, the view – conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated – has become prevalent within much of non-Lutheran evangelical Christianity that “spiritual” activities (ranging from being a missionary to doing specifically “churchly” things such as running the youth group) are more worthwhile/important than “secular” activities such as being a bus driver or caring for one’s children or whatever. To say, “I enjoy working at my current firm, but I really want to do something for the Lord” is by no means an unusual thing to hear people say in those circles.

    So I think it’s mainly used today in contrast to this non-Lutheran evangelical guilt-tripping about the secular/spiritual distinction. As such it is “distinctively” Lutheran, even if not “uniquely” so. (I first came across it via Michael Horton, for example. That’s also the case for the theology of the cross, another “distinctively” Lutheran teaching.)

  3. Thomas says:

    I’m not gonna touch the whole ‘is it Luderan’ thing…

    This did spark a thought or three – inasmuch as it’s curious just what folks think ‘prayer’ is. Does one have to stop flying, or driving, for instance, to pray? Consider this from Alan Shepard – ‘Please, dear God, don’t let me **** up’. That, uttered while sitting in the capsule of Freedom 7 awaiting launch, surely counts as a prayer, at least by my less than rigorous standards. I’ve used it, all litrugical like, on many an occasion. Might a pilot, in the heat of crisis, utter something that amounts to a prayer? Would that violate the doctrine of vocation? Need the pilot stop what he’s doing – you know, flying the plane – to pray, at least in the sense of the Shepard’s Prayer? [I have this image of the captain saying to the co-pilot as the plane plunges toward the Pacific, ‘Here, you take the yoke, I’ve got to go to my closet and pray in secret’…this tickles me for some reason.]

    Needless to say, this takes us far afield from the particulars of the case at hand. I know little if anything about the good Captain other than that he’s a damn fine pilot, and yes, in the moment that was all that mattered. Were I alive on the wing of a plane ditched in a river and caught the attention of the pilot, I doubt that my first thought would be to ask if he prayed while landing the thing…

  4. John H says:

    Thomas: I’m not saying that the doctrine of vocation prohibits people from praying while doing their jobs. It’s just that praying isn’t necessary to transform their tasks from mundane “secular” activity into exalted “spiritual” activity.

    As it happens, I suspect that in a real split-second crisis, taking the time even to pray “Shepard’s Prayer” could be a fatal distraction. I’m sure we can all think of times in our own experience – driving, cycling, parenting, whatever – when you just have to act, and don’t have any time to think or pray or anything else.

  5. Thomas says:

    True, true…

    I often wonder of prayer must always be a conscious act, but that’s for another time.

    It also occurs to me that when faced with such crises we rarely stop to think about anything, really – I don’t suppose a pilot in that moment can say, ‘Well, give me a few minutes to calmly reflect and I’ll get back to you’. Perhaps, though, it’s better to say that such a person does a lot of thinking, but ‘thinking’ signifies something other than reflection and suchlike.

    See what you’ve made me do? Now I’m off on all sorts of tangents that have nothing to do with your post…

  6. Chris Jones says:

    I happened on this item, related to the doctrine of vocation, on an Orthodox blog I don’t usually follow:

    We become saints by living according to what God has given us, nothing more, nothing less. We often live in envy or jealousy of someone else’s life and in doing so miss our own life and vocation.

    The whole post is good.

  7. steve martin says:

    “We become saints by living according to what God has given us, nothing more, nothing less. We often live in envy or jealousy of someone else’s life and in doing so miss our own life and vocation.”


    Thanks Chris!

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