John’s Gospel is very interesting and this encounter in the story we heard today involving John the Baptist, Jesus, Andrew and then Simon Peter is full of double entendres, symbolic action, and questions leading to questions. In John’s—the Gospel writer—story-telling method, the idea was to rhetorically raise questions about Jesus’ identity and what it would mean to follow him and God’s Kin-Dom of peace. Following would have involved sight — seeing with the heart and with the soul. It involved sacrifice, not knowing what will come. It involved risk as the boundaries would get pushed. It involved lots of questions rather than neat answers. Following Jesus today, even for us, involves the same things!
I’ve been cleaning out my office, a kind of excavation in some instances. I came across a booklet, which I started flipping through and remembering, and I remembered that one of the chapters talked about lay leadership; the actual chapter began, “Key leadership roles in churches are killer roles. Many of our most capable, committed people are disappearing out the back door—burned out!”
I found that quote captivating; it’s relevant to our challenges today and sounds very pertinent in these last few years; in fact, this chapter was in a little booklet called How to Prevent Lay Leader Burnout and was written in the early ’80s. I hadn’t even started seminary yet. The booklet addressed many of the key questions we’re considering today about churches, congregations and our future. And one key issue is still the same—vocation: vocation, vocation, vocation.
Vocation is a Latin rooted word that means calling. We are called into ministry, each in our way. A vocation isn’t just reserved for those who go into paid, accountable ministry in the Church, but is a term that has a lot to do with what I said last week in quoting Howard Thurman and Fred Buechner, finding out where our passion or joy meets the needs of the world. That’s living out our vocation! That’s being called. And it can be something like shovelling out a neighbour’s drive or walk without anyone knowing—or maybe they do—lots of opportunity for that these past days! It can be what we do to earn a living or it can be what we do as a volunteer. It can be so many things from chaining ourselves to a tree to prevent clear-cut logging or writing a letter to a politician. It can be the way in which we live, taking into account our personal impact on the climate or raising the question with our neighbours. It can be being part of a phone tree in which we check in with each other every morning. It could be giving expression to your heart in some art form that is meaningful to you. A vocation is rooted in the Spirit in how we live our lives.
Jesus invited those who were curious about him to “come and see.” Or maybe they were curious about how to live more fully the promises of God? Or maybe they were curious about how to create a life that was more just for them and their compatriots? Or maybe they were dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted something different? Or maybe they thought that Jesus was going to herald a Jubilee, a radical reversal of economic and political bindings that kept everyone enslaved? Or maybe they thought Jesus was going to teach them a new way of prayer that united heart, body, mind and soul—that united their whole lives and all the decisions they made?
I recently came across a Polish poet by the name of Czeslaw Milosz at one of our meetings; Shirley shared a poem from this poet. I hope I’m pronouncing his name correctly. He lived from 1911 to 2004 and was actually born in Lithuania. He worked during World War 2 in Warsaw in the underground presses and his poetry has a justice bent to it. I read through several poems and decided to read one called, On Prayer:
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the colour of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
I read this poem and reread it and thought about “vocation.” “We” features prominently. We are in this together, whatever “this” is, at whatever time we are in. The lines, “Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’ Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned” speaks of the kind of rhetorical questioning that is found in John’s Gospel. Prayer leads to reversal and leads to is, to being for ultimately that’s what Jesus is about, authentic being. That’s who God is in terms of the name of God, Yahweh, meaning “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” We are connected to God and to each other through our beingness! We are together in this adventure of living with a deep sense of God’s participation in our lives and our participation in God’s life.
Instead of finding the little booklet in my office about vocation and lay leader burnout depressing, I found it rather hopeful. And I found Miliosz’s poetry very hopeful. We are on the right track in addressing the challenges of our world—climate change and economic disparity among the important challenges—by doing so together, by forming alliances and partnerships across what until a few years ago were almost uncrossable divides. If you look beyond the headlines and delve into issues, you discover that people are coming together as never before. That gives me hope.
Poets and spiritual leaders, political activists and writers, students and teachers, people of all ages are sharing their deep passion for the world in which we live—their vocation to ensure there’s a future for all life to flourish. And giant investment companies are starting to hear: like BlackRock, which holds 7 trillion dollars of investments is starting to shift its strategy in light of the climate emergency. In spite of the rise in the extreme right and the lack of a decision at the last climate meeting in December, there is movement politically to shift and change and be accountable in this we. When we listen to our hearts and to our souls, we can lead from the inside out and create a change that is sustainable and life-giving. Many organizations today are part of worldwide networks that consider spiritual practices as grounding work to sustain one’s vocational aspirations.
As Milosz wrote, we can only create a velvet bridge across landscapes of ripe gold together as “we.” That’s what Jesus embodied and taught. We aren’t in this life as separate entities; we are together and together we cultivate hope and nourish and nurture that hope, a hope that is tied to specific response and action. That’s vocation! And that will prevent us from burning out and will inspire in us a fanfare of new life.