At the end of the chapter on vocation in Making the Best of It, John Stackhouse makes some important closing observations.
We’ve talked about human vocation and Christian vocation, but Stackhouse astutely notes that there is temporal nature to our lives. I don’t know who originally said it but I’ve always like the observation that time is what keeps everything from happening at once.
Reflecting on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Stackhouse points that there is rhythm and flow to life. There are onetime events, like birth and death, and cyclical activities, like planting and harvesting. There are also episodic events like childhood, school, jobs, marriage, parenting, and retirement, and so on. Each of these demands certain things of us and restricts us from doing other things. There is a time for everything under heaven. We don’t do everything all at once. I think we must always be asking “What time (or season) is it?” based on where we find ourselves.
This raised two important issues for me. First is the issue of boundaries. Stackhouse touches on the issue of particularity at places in his book. We are each unique limited beings. It occurs to me that we are not the savior of the world. And even when the savior of the world was with us in the flesh, he occasionally walked away from demanding crowds to be alone with the Father. He also spent only three of his thirty years in ministry we see recorded in the gospels. There are limits to what we can and should try to do.
When it comes to poverty, for instance, I have little doubt that we American Christians don’t do enough. Yet I get weary of the endless guilt trips and moralistic brow-beating by those who advocate justice. If I gave up everything I own, quit eating and consuming, and then died a few days later from starvation, the world would not be changed. In fact, it would likely be worse off because it would not have the benefit of the jobs that are created and sustained by participation in the economy, and it would not have the regular offerings I will give every year over the next decades to help address poverty. (These are just two factors.) There are limits on what I can do.
There are two unhealthy consequences of moralistic idealism. First, compassion fatigue. The problem becomes so overwhelming that people despair of ever having an impact. They simply live their lives and ignore the problem. Others become so absorbed in trying to fight the problem that become slothful in other aspects of human and Christian vocation. Relationships and the witness of the Church suffer as a result. I’m persuaded that sustainable healthy change comes when significant numbers of people learn to exhibit compassion and justice from within the boundaries of their own existence. I’m fully aware that this can be characterized as a rationalization for doing less than my part but I don’t think that is true. There is a tension between broad vocation and personal limitation, and I don’t think the Church has done well at helping us live in that tension. There is no formula that will answer the question.
The second issue this raised for me was pride and parochialism. How easy it is to get caught up in the thing that has lit a flame in our heart and begin to trivialize all others are not energized by our passions. Each of us is in different life stages and life episodes. God does not call us all to the same service … as Stackhouse wrote; we are all members, not microcosms, of the Church. I think each of us has to work to celebrate and appreciate the call of others, even as we relish our own particular call.
Finally, Stackhouse reflects briefly on mission and vocation. He writes:
Keeping in mind all the above, we are to be ever asking, What will do the most for the Kingdom? What will bring the greatest shalom? What does this mean in terms of my relationships, my work, and my recreation? This is where the tetralectic (reason, tradition, experience, and Scripture) all come into play. All that we do touches on our human and Christian vocation. Therefore, Stackhouse concludes the chapter on this note:
- I’m mowing the lawn.
- I’m washing the dishes.
- I’m making a puzzle with my three year-old.
- I’m paying the bills.
- I’m composing a poem.
- I’m talking with my mother on the phone.
- I’m teaching a neighbor child how to throw a ball.
- I’m writing the mayor.
- I’m preaching.
Next week we begin Chapter 8, "Principles of a New Realism."