Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vocation, a Process of Discerning Fruitfulness

"Early on in my adult life, on the days when my job (Andy Crouch served as a campus minister at Harvard at the time) was frustrating and disappointing, and in an era when skills in technology were being handsomely rewarded, I would cherish the idea of leaving ministry behind to simply put in the hours as a systems analyst, cashing a generous paycheck far from campus ministry's risks and failures. It took me several years to face the futility of that fantasy and recognize that such a career move, for me, would lead to a choked life of 'the cares of the world, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.' I had to admit that over and over, even in the midst of long hours and hard work, I had come to some moment of harvest- a conversation with a student, a night song and prayer, an opportunity to teach- where the results, in terms of change and growth and joy vastly out proportion to any contribution I had made, left all involved nearly speechless with gratitude. And the more I let go of my fantasies of securing my own life and avoiding the pain of the particular work I was called to do, the more frequent were these moments where my students, my partners and I glimpsed something I can only call glory.

But some of my colleagues in ministry had the opposite experience. We labored under a subtle but real dichotomy between sacred and secular, granting full legitimacy only to callings to 'ministry' under the pretext of subverting Harvard's lure of wealth, fame and power. So we recruited more than one associate with the rhetoric of renouncing their ambitions (as we called it, 'leaving their nets'), only to see them struggle doggedly to produce the kind of abundance we had promised. More than one eventually left us and took up 'secular' jobs- where they found a sense of freedom and joy that they had never experienced in our demanding company of workers for the gospel.

Is it possible to participate in culture, to create culture, outside of the church and experience every bit as much divine multiplication as those who work inside the church? For centuries many Christians would have answered no. A few had 'vocations'- a word that still today, in Catholic contexts, refers to a specifically religious life- and the rest did not. To have a vocation was to withdraw to the edges of culture (although monasteries and churches were once more culturally central and culturally creative than they often are today).

But there are two serious problems with this approach to vocation. First, even the full-time sacred agenda turns out to be no guarantee of either holiness or fruitfulness. Segmenting off a 'sacred' set of cultural activities sets us up for disillusionment when the sacred specialists turn out to be no more creative and no less corruptible than their secular counterparts. Second, it becomes impossible to do justice to the biblical story, in which the whole world was created good, the first human beings were given a cultural task, not just instructed to be dutiful worshippers (unlike in other creation myths of the time), and the Son of God himself spent most of his life as a carpenter.

The religious or secular nature of our cultural creativity is simply the wrong question. The right question is whether, when we undertake the work we believe to be our vocation, we experience the joy and humility that come only when God multiplies our work that it bears thirty, sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble inputs. Vocation- calling- becomes another word for a continual process of discernment, examining the fruits of our work to see whether they are producing that kind of fruit, and doing all we can to scatter the next round of seed in the most fruitful places.

I believe the single best question for discerning our calling- the specific cultural sphere and scale where we and our communities... are called to cultivate and create- is Where do you experience grace- divine multiplication that far exceeds your efforts?" (Culture Making, pp. 255-57). 

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