The last few months have been hard work and for those friends who have offered support, love, thoughts and prayers, both of us are profoundly grateful. Naively, as it turns out, by now we thought that we would both know where we would be living and working after the summer. We didn’t expected to be where we are and having to contemplate the range of scenarios that now lie before us.
Whilst the experience has been unsettling, lonely, frustrating and painful (something I have written about in an earlier post) it has forced me to consider once again the nature of vocation and discernment. Since leaving the Queen’s Foundation in 2017, I have been working at the Susanna Wesley Foundation and in the Mid-Warks Circuit. It is never easy to combine two part-time jobs, particularly when they are 100 miles apart, but both have taught me a huge amount about the nature of vocation.
Vocation is a gift and not a task. It is about who you are and not primarily about what you do. I remember being at a preaching conference where Donald English asked: Do you still love God, or do you just work for him now? Because vocation speaks to us at the deepest levels of ourselves, it is complex and nuanced. Why wouldn’t it be? I know I long for simplicity and clarity, but then how would it relate to the jumble of contradictions that is my life?
Vocation comes from one who knows the authentic me and, for that reason, is hard for me to grasp. I hide from the reality of who I really am, fearful of disappointment perhaps, comfortable to live with the illusions of identity that I create for myself. Vocation cuts through the crap and calls me to look deeper, to put away the masks and love the self that is unconditionally beloved. To learn to be secure in being a beloved child of God is primary.
Vocation is the challenge not to be distracted. I know that I have been guilty of holy busyness, displacement activity that looks vocational but actually distracts me from taking God’s call seriously. I have tried to impress others in the Church through my knowledge and competence, my insight or passion, and always been disappointed that it never seemed to ‘work’. I have placed my trust in the wrong things and come away spiritually bruised. Vocation is a calling to authenticity that invites us to bring our deepest selves into relationship with God and others. It is what Henri Nouwen, echoing the Desert Mothers, Fathers and Parents, calls ‘the prayer of the heart’. My vocation is based on the belief that life truly flourishes when heart speaks to heart.
I struggle with the compulsion to be useful and tend to think in terms of doing something that others need. The last year or so working on mission discernment and development has shown me how the Methodist Church is littered with examples of ‘useful’ activity that no-one really asked for and few people now need. We’re back to working for God, hoping that our meagre service will make us acceptable. And it is think kind of thinking that informs our negative attitudes to people with physical disabilities or mental health challenges. Unless we can do something useful or productive, then we are a burden.
Vocation is a work in progress. I have set myself the New Year’s Resolution of learning to knit. I love being creative with my hands and previous attempts to knit have ended in failure. The last few months have taught me that my vocation calls me to weave together the various strands of my life, my knowledge, gifts and experiences, in such a way that the result is something that brings life. Vocation doesn’t come as a ready-assembled artifact, ready for use straight out of the box. Vocation is more like an Ikea flatpack, where we are given all the bits and some instructions, but encouraged to be fully involved in its assembly. Careful listening in prayer and to the world around, a commitment to authenticity, wise counsel, and the study of scripture are the tools for discernment we need.
The first paragraph of the WCC’s Statement on Mission and Evangelism, Together Towards Life, reminds me that God is about life. It is my creed for 2019:
We believe in the Triune God who is
the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all life.
God created the whole oikoumene in God’s image
and constantly works in the world
to affirm and safeguard life.
We believe in Jesus Christ, the Life of the world,
the incarnation of God’s love for the world (John 3:16).
Affirming life in all its fullness
is Jesus Christ’s ultimate concern and mission (John 10:10).
We believe in God, the Holy Spirit, the Life-giver,
who sustains and empowers life
and renews the whole creation (Gen. 2:7; John 3:8).
A denial of life is a rejection of the God of life.
God invites us into the life-giving mission of the Triune God
and empowers us to bear witness
to the vision of abundant life for all in the new heaven and earth.
How and where do we discern God’s life-giving work
that enables us to participate in God’s mission today?