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PJ (Patricia) Jonas was bathing her children one day when her eyes fell on the list of ingredients in the commercial baby wash she was using. "Surely all those petroleum-based chemicals can't be good for young skin," she thought, and she decided on the spot, "I can do better than this."
The family owned two goats, which provided their milk and cheese, and within a few weeks, PJ was making soap for her family using goat milk.
It was quite satisfactory. Not only did she eliminate the unwanted chemicals, but her homemade soap turned out to be especially beneficial for her husband Jim, whose hands chronically cracked and bled from exposure during his workday.
Yet more would come from that homemaking innovation. In a few years, it would grow into a soap-making business producing nearly fifty thousand bars per year and employing and supporting her entire family. I visited the Jonases recently to learn more about this rather countercultural family and tour their "factory."
When I pulled up the long gravel driveway on a sunny fall morning, PJ and the kids were out front, all of them neatly dressed, having posed for pictures while awaiting their morning visitor. "I thought I'd snap some pictures while they're all cleaned up," PJ laughed as she introduced herself. Meanwhile, two little girls, their matching blue dresses wafting in the breeze, ran circles around us, as if to indicate that a newcomer is as welcome as the next-door neighbor around here.
This is the atmosphere of the Jonas homestead, a modest three-acre farm resting among gently rolling hills near Louisville, Kentucky, and home to two adults, eight children, seven milking goats, one buck, and the business they all operate together. Once we were situated in the living room, Jim joined us, and I began to get to know this delightful group of people.
"Front and center!" PJ called, and eight children instantly sprang from their seats, lined up in order, and one by one introduced themselves to me. Daughter Brett (13), sons Colter (12), Emery (10), Fletcher (9), Greyden (7), and Hewitt (6), and the two little girls, Indigo (4) and Jade (3), all standing at attention called to mind the Von Trapp family singers, but this was no rigid roll call. These children were obviously enthusiastic about their station in life and eager to share it with me. Most of them chimed in from time to time as the family story came out.
The Story of Goat Milk Stuff
Jim and PJ married after they graduated from the University of Virginia where PJ earned a degree in engineering and Jim, a BA in economics and a masters in teaching. When Brett reached school age, they moved the growing family from New Jersey to Indiana for a more homeschool-friendly environment. PJ didn't set out to become a business operator; when she started making soap, it was simply with a mind toward wholesome living.
Then a bum engine in the family van presented a budget crisis. Rather than sue somebody to recover damages, PJ made a few extra batches of soap and offered them for sale in the community. People liked it; demand continually called for more supply; and in 2008, Goat Milk Stuff (GMS) was officially born.
Each of the eight children is responsible for certain tasks and receives a salary. "GMS has become more than just our family business," PJ explains on the website (goatmilkstuff.com). "It's come to represent who we are and what we stand for. From raising and milking our Alpine goats, to producing all of our soaps, everything about our products was created solely by the ten members of our family."
Lest anyone mistake this family for an odd anachronism, GMS makes full use of twenty-first-century technology. Most orders come through the website and are shipped out by priority mail on the same or the next day. PJ blogs regularly and maintains a Facebook fan page and Twitter following to communicate with customers. The oldest three children have their own laptop computers for schoolwork, which they purchased using their soap salaries.
The family does, however, recapture something from an earlier era that is worth revisiting.
A Vocation for Laypeople
The Christian doctrine of vocation came out of the European Reformation, but found its fullest expression in America. Today, vocation usually refers to one's occupation or job, but that's not the original meaning of the word. Vocation comes from the Latin word for "calling," and was at first strictly an ecclesiastical term. In medieval times, only those who worked full-time in the church—for example, priests, nuns, and monks—were said to have a vocation. Such persons were viewed as having been called by God to carry out his work in the world, while the other occupations of life—farming, shop-keeping, craftsmanship, and so on—though valued as necessary to life, were considered "worldly." They weren't vocations.
The Reformation changed all that. In his 2002 book, God at Work, culture expert Gene Edward Veith, Jr., explains how Reformation theologians, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin, put forth a revolutionary new take on work. Yes, church workers have a calling, they said, but laypeople, too, have callings from God that entail holy responsibilities.
Individuals living out their vocations, they asserted, is one way in which God carries out his ongoing, purposeful work in the world. "The entire world [is] full of service to God," Luther wrote, "not only the churches but also the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop, and the field of the townsfolk and farmers." He even went so far as to criticize monks for evading their duty to serve their neighbors.
This idea invested work with a whole new meaning and purpose, and it unleashed a flood of ingenuity and initiative among the common people. At the time, society was essentially hierarchical, with more-or-less fixed classes of people—peasant, bourgeoisie, noble, king, emperor—whose station in life did not change from generation to generation. But with the elevation of work to a vocation—a means of serving God in the world, peasants became budding entrepreneurs. This eventually gave rise to a burgeoning middle class, as a large segment of the population came to embody what would later become known as the Protestant Work Ethic.
A New Economic Order
The phrase "Protestant Work Ethic" wasn't coined until the early 1900s, when the German economist Max Weber penned The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Far from exemplifying a philosophy of greed, Weber argued, this new economic order, built by free and industrious individuals engaged in creative ventures, emerged from a religious and moral understanding of work.
Citing the writings of Benjamin Franklin, which emphasized hard work and frugality, Weber wrote, "We shall nevertheless provisionally use the expression 'spirit of capitalism' for that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling, strives systematically for profit for its own sake in the manner exemplified by Benjamin Franklin." Weber took care to note that, in keeping with Protestant understandings about the proper use of money, profits were regularly reinvested in the enterprises that produced them, spurring further growth and multiplying prosperity.
The Curse of Meaninglessness
The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) transformed Western civilization and spread to other points around the world, but today the concept is running aground. Retired social worker and author Carol MacAllister, while admitting she was taught the importance of hard work and was driven by it all her life, began to question it in her retirement:
For me, the PWE means you have no worth (in society, your family and to yourself) unless you are productive each and every day and you get all your work done before you take time to play. The trouble is there never is any time to play because there is always more work to do.
Right here, right now I am declaring a war on the PWE and the idea that a To Do List completely checked off at the end of the day is a valid reason to feel virtuous and satisfied with myself.
Harvard Business Review author Dan Pallotta agrees, calling the Protestant Work Ethic a dysfunctional form of self-punishment, while Oliver Burkeman, of The Guardian, says that it's "self-flagellatingly harsh," counterproductive, and only makes life more difficult.
Well . . . yes. Divorced from ultimate meaning, work is ultimately meaningless. It's just so much effort expended for . . . what? That's the question that can't be answered apart from a transcendent purpose, and it's the reason why work apart from the understanding of vocation reverts to toil.
Interestingly, by the time Weber connected the dots between the doctrine of vocation and the rise of free enterprise, he had already begun to see the unfortunate consequence of detaching work from its religious moorings. As he concluded his book, he lamented that the ouster of religious underpinnings from the spirit of capitalism had led to a kind of involuntary servitude within impersonal, mechanized industry.
An Integrated Life
This is precisely where people like the Jonases can help us reestablish the connection between life, work, and living out a vocation. Jim Jonas had never heard of the Reformation doctrine of vocation, but as he talks about what he does, it becomes clear that he is living it anyway. "When I'm out there making soap," he says, "I know one of these bars is going to be for a baby who's got eczema. That baby's miserable and doesn't know why. All he knows is his skin hurts, and the poor child is screaming because he's miserable, which makes the parents miserable." Into this unhappy predicament steps Jim, and he finds satisfaction in serving God and these "neighbors" by creating a solution for their problem.
In God at Work, Veith says that vocation, when lived out according to its original meaning, encompasses all of one's life and "transfigures ordinary, everyday life with the presence of God." Marriage is a calling. Parenthood is a calling. Work is a calling. And since the Caller is the same God, the various callings complement rather than work against each another.
The Jonas family bears this out, too. "We don't compartmentalize our lives." Jim says. "Family time, work time, school time, church time, are all integrated."
An understanding of vocation leads one to ask not, "What job will I pursue?" but rather, "What is God calling me to do?" The answers are as varied and unique as the individuals who ask, but there is a satisfying answer for everyone who dares to ask.
Chaotic as things may get at times for the Jonases, with their large family and the demands of caring for animals and running a business, they obviously find satisfaction and joy in living out the answer they got. "God can do anything," Jim says. "And I think he has something for each of us. It's just a matter of finding out what that is. For us, it turned out to be soap."
Only an outside-the-box Creator could think up a story like that. •
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