This process has involved a great deal of thought, discussion, debate, and questioning about my vocation. The question of vocation, of, that is, being called to a particular form of ministry by God, is an important one with respect to ordained ministry, although not to ordained ministry alone. All Christians, of course, have a vocation by virtue of their baptism.
At any rate, I think it would be helpful for me, and, perhaps, enlightening for others, if I ruminated on the question of vocation in general and on my vocation in particular. In light of the purpose of this blog, I will do so by examining books I have read on the subject of vocation.
I will begin with a book called In the Meantime, written by Rob Brendle, who is the associate pastor of a large American church; so large, in fact, that it has its own publishing imprint. The edition from which I quote passages was published in 2006 by WaterBrook Press. (As an aside, it is fashionable for evangelical Protestant denominations to entitle all of their organisations, products and services using allusions to the Bible, something which I suppose should be encouraged in theory but which in practice looks a bit pretentious.)
First, my thanks to Deborah for lending me this book. It certainly provided me with food for thought.
I want to concentrate on two things about the book. The first are those elements which I didn't care for; after all, when it comes to thinking about what it is God is calling you to do, not everything one is likely to read is going to be helpful, or illuminating, or godly (so to speak), even if it is written by Christians for Christians. I like to think I have good reason for disliking certain things about the book, and I will try to make it clear why I don't like certain things about it. I should note that, as a result, this marginal commentary is going to look more like a review than a commentary as such; however, I will try to cite passages to comment upon, rather than refer to them parenthetically before expatiating upon them.
The second are those things about Brendle's discussion of vocation which I thought were useful. If vocation is something any of you have been thinking about, you may find them helpful, too - although it would be best for you to find a copy of the book, read it, and come to your own opinions about whether what Brendle has to say is, on the whole, germane to a sound understanding of vocation.
First, then, what I didn't like (and why).
Messing Up the Plans
For Brendle, vocation is living into God's calling for you. It is becoming aware that God has plans for us and living a life of expectant action. My view is that God's plans for us are less particular than Brendle suggests, but since living out our vocation implies doing particular things, what he has to say is still germane, and often wise.
Naturally, it is possible for us to screw up how we approach God's plans. Brendle identifies three ways in which this can happen:
You know how it works. God whispers into your heart and gently fades away. Then you take off running with the calling as if you're afraid the whole thing will go away if you stop, and invariably you end up leaving God in the dust. ...
To the manhandler, waiting on God is a weak excuse for lethargy and inaction. "God can't steer a parked car" is his mantra, and under this banner he informs the Creator of the universe of his intent, graciously offers God the briefest opportunity to adjust anything he might need to, and then charges ahead. This guy tells himself - and usually countless others - that he is walking by faith, and he can very often be found enumerating his exploits for the kingdom. ...
At this point I confess that I know a thing or two more than the next guy about manhandling the plans. I have debated as to whether I would include a personal story to illustrate my point. But since it is the consummate "I, too, have manhandled the plans" story, and one of the two or three defining events of my life so far, it would be almost dishonest not to share it. [pp. 25, 28] The story in question is Brendle's first, failed, attempt at marrying the woman who eventually became his wife. Obviously, the first method by which we mishandle living out our calling, for Brendle, is, as he puts it, 'manhandling the plans'. Obviously with the telling of this story about his own 'manhandling' of God's plans for him and his wife (for we learn that he received what amounts to a revelation that the woman whom he did in fact marry was she whom he would marry), this is the most detailed section on how people characteristically mishandle their calling.
In my view, waiting fifteen minutes and forgetting the plans is the most common mishandling of the dreams God entrusts to us. You see it all the time: God whispers in someone's ear, and at first the person is all fired up. He prays and fasts and seeks God and burns with holy passion, determined to carry out the plans he believes the Creator has laid out for him from before the foundations of the earth. Zealous for the plans, he waits impatiently and often looks around the corner. ... Then when he wakes up one morning with the... [realization that] everything is exactly the same as it was before he received the plans, and somehow he has to live into the calling of God he has received, perhaps even over the course of years - he cuts bait and walks away. [p. 43] Brendle refers to the parable of the sower; the 'forgetter of the plans' is like the seed which flourished swiftly on the rocky soil, but as swiftly withered. I should also mention that David (the most famous king of Israel) is Brendle's paradigmatic character for living into God's calling, and the text omitted via ellipsis in the above passage referred to him.
The third paradigm for waiting on the Lord [in fact it should be put, 'for failing to wait on the Lord', since that is what Brendle is discussing] is the most dangerous because it is the most insidious: super-spiritualizing the plans. The super-spiritualizer is familiar to you and me: He is the one who is ultra-in-tune with the Holy Spirit, is especially facile with spiritual language, and is uncommonly cognizant of the spiritual implications of everything. He can often be heard telling people wispily about the Big Things God is doing, and for a while you are in awe of that and even wish God would do such Big Things in your own life. But eventually you start to question why you never can pin down exactly what the Big Things are. Sometime after that you realize that the Big Things are always nebulous because they are nothing, and eventually you see that they are just an excuse not to engage, a sort of noble-appearing barrier between the super-spiritualizer and reality. [pp. 46-7] Thus, 'super-spiritualizing the plans' is the third of the ways in which Brendle says people mishandle their vocation. What makes 'super-spiritualizing' so insidious, in Brendle's view, is, it must be said, not a quality intrinsic to 'super-spiritualizing' per se, but the fact that those who are 'super-spiritualizers' also seem to be able to impress their views upon others with relative ease (p. 48f.).
Brendle concludes his discussion of the three ways in which people commonly mishandle their vocation by stating:
They are perilous. I've watched them ensare one person after another, and I hope that by pointing them out, they won't ensare you. [p. 49] Here is where we come to what I don't like about Brendle's discussion of these methods of mishandling vocation. I think he correctly identifies these as problematic with respect to living out our calling: after all, to do so we must be able to find the happy medium between doing too much and doing nothing at all, and we must have the resilience to keep at it even when all appearances point to it never being fulfilled. The problem is that, in my view, he does not identify them as habits, as characteristic. For instance, the 'manhandler' of God's plans is, I would think, likely to manhandle other aspects of his life. Brendle's own discussion of his failed first attempt at his wedding is a case in point. Whether one believes Brendle's account of being called by God to marry the woman who became his wife (and despite my reservations about some of Brendle's exegetical and doctrinal conclusions, I am prepared to accept that his calling to marry this particular woman was genuine, insofar as presumably if God is going to call us to do something he must call us to do something in particular), or not, the point is that from the story, we're never sure whether the kind of behaviours Brendle exhibited were or were not characteristic of him. To be sure, not every case of making decisions as Brendle does is 'manhandling', and elsewhere Brendle discusses how his approach to his calling was much more measured (say, faithful). My other problem with Brendle's discussion of these three approaches is that it seems to me that sometimes in order for God's plans to be accomplished, what seems like the wrong thing to do needs to be what happens. Would Brendle have learned to be more faithful in waiting on the Lord with respect to his calling to the pastorate, for example, if he had not had the pitfall of trying to manhandle his wedding with his wife-to-be that led to such disaster? Oh, and, I should point out that it is I and not Brendle who has omitted the name of his wife; since the example of the fiasco surrounding Brendle's wedding is illustrative and not intrinsic to my point, I didn't feel it necessary to mention it (also, now you will have to read the book yourself if you are filled with a burning desire to learn her name).
Unlike Brendle's discussion of the common ways in which people mishandle their vocation, which generally I liked but found it lacked insight into how such behaviours might be characteristic of those who engage in them or how they might be valuable moments in the process of living out one's vocation (indeed, Brendle, in my view, admits as much by calling the moment when he manhandled his wedding with his fiancée one of the 'defining' moments of his life), his discussion of the role of authority in the living out of one's calling I found unimpressive. Let's look at what Brendle has to say about authority and why it is germane to his theology of vocation (the practice of proactive waiting).
With respect to living into your calling in Christ, responding well to authority is the sine qua non. Sadly, over the years I have seen a number of talented people spin their wheels and never get traction because they are not willing to submit to God's delegated authority in their lives. You can be the brightest, most articulate, or most socially skilled person on the planet, and you'll still find yourself struggling to find the road of your calling if you do not learn to submit to God's delegated authority. His authority is the entrance to your calling.
To get your mind around the idea of God's delegated authority, it's important to understand the way his dominion operates. God's kingdom is steadily advancing on the earth, and with it, his government. His plans, purposes, and ideas concerning the events of human history are being worked out as his kingdom is displacing "the god of this age. [2 Cor. 4.4]" Jesus told us, "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, [Mt. 11.12]" and Isaiah added concerning the age of Christ, "Of the increase of his government...there will be no end. [Is. 9.7]" Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is manifested primarily in the hearts of those who trust him for salvation. So, in short, the kingdom, and consequently, the government of God take root and grow on the earth as people yield their lives in totality to him. ...
We may talk and read a lot about God's kingdom, but how exactly are we to understand the idea of his government? [italics original] Dictionary.com defines government [ditto; hyperlink added] as "the exercise of authority in a political unit; rule." In effect, government is the manner or system a ruler employs to carry out his authority in the lives of the people in his charge. So God's government is the way he implements his leadership. Our senior pastor delegates his authority to members of his staff regarding the affairs of the church... . It's not that our senior pastor gives up his authority, but rather he finds it more efficient to express it through his trusted surrogates. That is basically how God's government on earth works.
There are four channels through which God delegates authority in our lives: the home, the workplace, the government, and the church. Each line of God's delegated authority is empowered by the Creator with particular responsibilities for maintaining order, ensuring our safety and protection, and enabling the flow of his blessing in our lives. When we align ourselves rightly within God's authority system, what we are actually doing is appropriating the kingdom of God in our lives. ...
Here's another way of looking at it: When we align ourselves with God's government, we enjoy the benefits of citizenship in his kingdom. Just as law-abiding, tax-paying Americans enjoy the rightful protection of law enforcement and our armed services as benefits of American citizenship, we who submit to God's government enjoy the protection of God's ramparts, watchtowers, and armaments as benefits of being citizens in his kingdom.
Now, let's turn to an in-depth discussion of the delegated authority that God has established for our protection and blessing. [pp. 72-3, 75] As an aside, the definition of 'government' at Dictionary.com has presumably been updated, although the gist of Brendle's citation remains present. The 'in-depth discussion' amounts to eight pages. I won't cite Brendle's discussion of each of the four loci of delegated authority, since the marginal commentary on his general introduction to the subject is already going to be long enough. I will briefly note that, on the family (pp. 76-7), Brendle's argument amounts to quoting Ephesians 5.23 and the 'marriage covenant' passages in Genesis and Mark, and then a 'because I said so' argument. The one area where I think Brendle's argument has merit (and that on general principle, rather than having anything to do with God's delegated authority) is his discussion of obeying authority in the workplace (pp. 77-80). Even if we do not view our jobs as interfering with our calling, which is the example Brendle discusses when looking at why people don't feel motivated to work, it is easy to get into the habit of, in effect, getting paid for doing as little useful work as possible (think Wally of the Dilbert comic strip). Still, there are problems with his discussion of God's delegated authority in the workplace. Now, obeying authority is not necessarily an evil in itself, but I would say that the general principles by which Brendle makes the case for God having delegated certain forms of authority (the which are what I have quoted) are incorrect. Regarding Brendle's exegesis of the Scriptural passages, the first (from 2 Corinthians) does not strictly have anything to do with God's 'government', but is used descriptively, so it can be passed over without comment. The second (from Matthew 11) is the translation of the passage according to the NIV. To refresh our memory I will quote it again: 'From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing'. First, Brendle doesn't complete the sentence, which reads 'and forceful men lay hold of it'. Second, he does not attend to the context of the quote, which is part of a passage in which Jesus is comparing himself to John the Baptist (as a way of establishing that he is, in fact, 'the one who is to come'; i.e., the Messiah). Other translations read: 'From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force' (NRSV); 'And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force' (KJV); 'Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm.' (Jerusalem Bible). In the NRSV, it notes that 'the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence' can also read 'has been coming violently'. The word which is causing so much confusion is the word 'biazetai', biavzetai, (the third-person singular form of the verb 'biazomai') which can mean two different things but is spelled the same way in either case (rather like 'read'; for example, 'I read the book' and 'I read the book' use different tenses of the verb 'to read', but look identical). The verb is used twice in the entire NT, so it is unclear how it is to be translated in this passage (in fact, I presume that we know that it can be used in two different ways by referring to other Greek works, so little can be gleaned of it from the NT). So it seems unclear, to say the least, what Jesus means, and so it is, as far as I am concerned, impossible for the passage to be used in the way Brendle uses it. As for the passage from Isaiah, even if we grant that it can be applied to Jesus' ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God (which many esteemed Biblical scholars would not), Brendle's use of it is question-begging, for it is not demonstrably necessary that God's government, however much it may increase, will be displayed in the manner which Brendle suggests. Moreover, Brendle ignores the undermining of governmental authority which pervades the Bible. David's calling to be king of Israel is Brendle's paradigm, but what about the fact that, at least according to the Scriptural narrative, Israel has a king because God basically threw up his hands and agreed to let the people have one? (1 Samuel 8) Or the fact that Jesus is the victim of a miscarriage of justice perpetrated - let the reader understand - by the authorities? And, although it is easy to get carried away by the 'Jesus the revolutionary' approach, what about the fact that the proclamation of the kingdom of God in some sense overthrows all other forms of authority and power? Or the historical fact that Christianity was, at first, an illegal religion in the Roman Empire (so much for law-abiding)? Obeying God, as Jesus himself said time and again (or else it can be inferred from what he said), sometimes means disobeying the authority of government, family, workplace, or even the church. Moreover, while I think Brendle could have made a case for accepting the authority of others over one's self as both realistic (because we do, after all, have to accept that other people have many kinds of authority over us, like it or not) and germane to living out one's calling, the form in which his case is made does not have a necessary or even probable connection to the idea of vocation as such. In a sense, Brendle's argument about delegated authority seems to be a generalisation about living into your calling from his own experience: in the epilogue he points out that he could have left the army legitimately, but did not, and then, bizarrely, compares his experience to that of Luke Skywalker who abandoned his training with Yoda after having the vision of his friends being tortured in Cloud City (pp. 215-8). But the experiences are neither analogous, nor, I would say, is his conclusion (that we 'shouldn't leave Dagobah too soon') true to what happened in the Star Wars films. Does anyone think Luke would have succeeded in defeating the Emperor in Return of the Jedi were it not for his confrontation with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back? For not only did Luke learn a painful truth and suffer a nearly-fatal failure, Vader, too, was forced to grow and change. All things being equal, I agree, we shouldn't 'leave Dagobah too soon'; but things are not always equal.
Phew! Anyway, I think that's enough of what I didn't like about In the Meantime, save to say that I found Brendle's ideological jabs, pretense that his sort of Christian aren't also ideologically biased, and assumption that all Christians disbelieve in evolution (to the extent that they are suspicious of all uses of the word), and occasional lapse in Biblical exegesis (usually by means of making statements about the motivations or actions of characters in Scripture which neither are referred to explicitly in the texts themselves nor can be reasonably inferred from said texts) irritating.
Moving to what I liked about In the Meantime, what is most significant is that I found, overall, Brendle's idea of calling as something one lives into credible.
I also enjoyed his use of creative anachronism (David, for example, keeps getting phone calls), or at least accepted it, since it was obvious he was being anachronistic; his constant references to Star Wars (even if, as the 'leaving Dagobah too soon' bit shows, it is not always well done); and his sometimes hilarious turn of phrase: at one point (p. 45) as he is about to watch basketball player Larry Bird warm up at Boston Garden, he writes, 'I entered the arena with all the excitement of a teenage girl at a John Mayer concert.'
I would like to finish, then, by focussing on what I found most helpful about Brendle's conception of vocation as living out God's calling.
Becoming King Before You Put on the Crown
The above sub-heading is the title of one of the chapters in In the Meantime, and it probably sums up best the point of the book. David, avers Brendle, started practicing being king before he actually got the job. Whether that exegesis of David's service to Saul is accurate, it certainly reflects Rob Brendle's own experience; he came to understand his calling to be to the pastorate, so he reflected upon what kind of actions and behaviours are habitual of pastors and began to do them or behave in such a way as is characteristic of pastors.
Anyway, in this key chapter, Brendle sums up what he means by proactive waiting with reference to Jeremiah 29.4.11:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." ...This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." [NIV]
Notice the big idea: "While you are waiting on me, do stuff. Be proactive. Don't cloister yourself and put life on hold in anticipation of a divine override. Heed the road I've pointed out for you and live robustly along that road into the calling. Do the work along the way. Take your eyes off yourself and take care of other people. Press into my heart. And then, one day, one unannounced and deeply longed-for day, you'll wake up and find that what you have looked toward and longed for has all come to pass. Do these things as I have said, because my plans for you are sure and better than you can even imagine."
[Sub-heading omitted] In these verses in Jeremiah 29, God gave his people specific and pragmatic guidance for constructive, effective waiting - waiting that yields results. God's idea is proactive waiting: trusting, seeking, and looking to him for the dream's fulfillment while we seek to grow, stretch, and forge usable tools for the future from the raw iron of life's unalterable seasons. As we do the stuff of life with the same vigor with which we cling to the dream God has given us, we'll find ourselves growing ever more useful to him. [This passage was highlighted in the copy of the book I read from, so I think it is worth highlighting here; obviously the highlight is not original to the text.] ...
The challenge David faced after Samuel anointed him and left is the challenge that faces us as we live into the calling that has become so precious to us: to figure out what it looks like, practically speaking, to wait on the Lord. I came home from the life-changing summer in Africa [in which Brendle received his calling] radically redirected, and it fell to me to figure out, Where, precisely, do I go from here? [italics original] I was increasingly sure that God had called me to be a pastor, which answered one questions (What exactly am I supposed to do?) and raised a new one (How do I get there from here?) What I was essentially asking was, What do I do while I wait? [ditto] If God had called me to pastor [sic], and if I stayed faithful to him, then I would ultimately pastor [I found myself grimacing several times during this part of Brendle's discussion on account of his use of 'pastor' as a verb]. But the question of what to do along the way remained.
So one day I made this choice, which in turn made me [ditto] for the ensuing decade: If God had called me to pastor someday, then I would live like a pastor now. [highlight added] And that's what I set out to do. ... I realized that I was pursuing the calling, not the job, and it made no sense to live as if a résumé would someday secure a pastoral position.
Even in my youthful naiveté [as an aside, it is funny that Brendle includes the acute accent on the final 'e', but not the diaresis on the 'i'], I knew better than to assume that I could continue to live the life of a student/church member/nice guy who tired to resist my sin impulses and treat people well and then - all because, in East Africa, I sensed God calling me to a ministry career - God would one day decide to wave his calling wand or sprinkle me with the magic dust of destiny and - poof! [italics original] - turn me into a pastor. It became clear to me in the months after my trip to Africa, just as it might have become clear to David in the days and weeks following Samuel's visit, that God had put the calling before me and given me the choice to start walking into it. ...
... As a twenty-year-old college junior, I decided to begin living the calling God had revealed. I began to study the Bible the way a pastor would study the Bible, to pray the way a pastor ought to pray, and to love people the way a pastor is charged with loving people. Some are inclined to believe that one is a pastor because he stands on a platform and preaches, his name and title appear on a church office door, and he receives his paycheck every month from the tithes and offerings of his congregation. Others believe that one is a leader solely because of his rank, position, or title. But in my military leadership training, I learned that a leader isn't necessarily the one with the title; a leader is the one people follow. A pastor of seminary degrees, titles, and positions can be produced through years of training and experience, but the process of making a pastor whom God uses to change lives begins long before any of those achievements. [pp. 54-60] A brief digression: one of the things that annoys me about the book is the way Brendle uses the word 'sin' as an adjective, when its adjectival form is 'sinful'. Thus, for example, his term 'sin impulses' would have been better rendered as either 'impulses to sin' or 'sinful impulses'. Anyway, back to the topic at hand. While I think there is a certain amount of question-begging when it comes to Brendle's comments that he would start 'studying the Bible the way a pastor would', and so on - for, after all, how does a pastor study the Bible differently than others? - I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in what he writes in this section as a whole. God knows I have sometimes felt unhappy because God hasn't waved his 'calling wand' (that and the 'magic dust of destiny' are great turns of phrase) and got me to where I believe he is calling me to be. But the two passages I highlighted above show that living into your calling, or proactive waiting, is (as Brendle shall explain further) a process. Living out your vocation is not limited to doing those things directly related to what you think God is calling you to do; it encompasses everything you do and are. It is also significant that the passage from Jeremiah which Brendle cites is God giving his people a dream: 'someday I'm going to bring you home from exile in Babylon', yet saying (as it were), 'in the meantime, get busy living lives faithful to me'.
Reflection has a way of bringing clarity. Not one part of the process of the past twelve years of my life makes sense in terms of traditional pastoral training, but when all the pieces are viewed together, it is obvious that God was directing things - me - according to his perfect plan. [I couldn't let this pass without comment. In my view Brendle does not allow sufficiently for his own choices; in the event, his call by God to the pastorate led him to New Life Church, but for all he knows, he could have ended up being a pastor somewhere else, had he chosen another church to attend.] In retrospect I've seen that God's calling is far more in the process than in the product. [highlight added] Here's what I mean: I've lived most of my life with the notion that God's calling is an event or a position or an achievement - some high rung on the ladder that, after many years of obligatory climbing, we hope someday to attain. On the contrary, the past twelve years have taught me that the calling evolves. ...
Your calling evolves [italics original]. It evolves the way love evolves, as a product of your experiences along the way, the thousand mundane daily choices to serve your spouse, to prefer her needs to your own, to live each day for her good. ... It follows, then, that what began as mutual attraction and the enjoyment of each other's personalities evolved into this "many-splendored thing" of years and lives of small daily decisions.
I have concluded that we never arrive at our calling; we only live into it. [highlight added] We never get there, and when we think we [have], we invariably learn sooner or later that what we thought was the end is really just another beginning. You may recall from match class that a line segment is a connection of two points. Like this:
In our early years we may think of the moment we heard from God as the origin [italics original] and the living out of our calling as the terminus [ditto]. But I have discovered over the past decade that our calling isn't the terminus; it's the line. [highlight added] We tend to view so much of our lives as the process of getting to the calling. But that's just the thing: The process is [ditto] the calling. The calling of God is the path, the walk of obedience through the seasons of life. God is much more interested in the process than the product. [pp. 61-2] I should point out that I created the line segment, above, for this post, but one very similar in appearance and identical in construction (two points connected by a line) is found as an illustration in In the Meantime, on p. 62. The passages I have highlighted in this section encapsulate what Brendle is saying, which I think is true: our calling, whether to a specific form of ministry or to the lifelong love and service of God and neighbour (to which we are all called), is not so much an endpoint as the process by which we move toward the endpoint. If we were to illustrate this view of calling, then the origin would be baptism (for our baptismal vocation) or the moment we became aware of God calling us to a specific form of ministry (for our particular vocation, if we believe ourselves to have one), but the line would continue infinitely, if you like - there would be no terminus, for our calling is not a goal or end to be reached, but a live to be lived, choices to be made, habits and character to be formed. Say, rather, that it is not up to us when (and if) we reach our end, our goal, our telos; rather, as the passage from Jeremiah shows, it is up to God. We are to be faithful in the meantime. This conception of vocation also vindicates the claims I seen made by countless books published by the Alban Institute and made by one of my profs at Huron that 'process is more important than content'; that our focus should be on process, not content (or as Brendle puts it, 'product').
There are three more brief sections of Brendle's book which I found to be illuminating for my own understanding of calling, so I will quote and comment upon them here.
Kill Your Lions and Bears
I talk to young adults all the time, and one of the most common attitudes I encounter in even the godliest of them is this inclination to get on to "the good stuff." The real work. Many of us desire to be done with the pettiness of whatever we're doing right now so that God can start using us in powerful ways. This mind-set seems noble at first, but the insidious underbelly of pride ends up poisoning and immobilizing us. It's pride [prideful] because, by despising whatever we're doing now, by considering it beneath us, too often we are rejecting the very process God has designed to prepare us for taking the next steps into our calling.
So we must never scorn or discount what our hands have found to do. If you are walking with God and surrendering your life to his service, whatever you are doing right now is useful to him. Maybe he planned it, and maybe he didn't. Either way, he can work with it to make you a person after his own heart. Maybe you're in the middle of God's perfect will, and maybe you're at the tail end of a horrendously unproductive detour. No matter, he can use even the biggest detour to work together for your good and for the good of his kingdom. So stop thinking that flipping burgers is beneath your dignity. Quit whining about waiting tables or framing houses or working retail in the mall. It's all training, if you'll let it be. God is the one who thought of the calling you so vigilantly guard, and he is more than capable of accomplishing it through the circumstances of your life right now. You are not biding time, you are not spinning your wheels, and you are not heading in the wrong direction, if only you'll allow God to turn your burgers and I-beams into lions and bears. [pp. 98-9] The reference to 'lions and bears' is to David's experience of looking after the flock as valuable training for his later service to Saul; David is able to strike down Goliath and win the day for the Israelites because of his many years spent looking after the flock for his father Jesse. If David had not taken his duties as a shepherd seriously, he would not have learned the skills necessary to defeat Goliath and take another step toward the fulfilment of his calling. Of course, Brendle's command to 'quit whining' is irksome (how many readers are going to think 'yes DAD' sarcastically at this point?), but he has a point. Mind you, it also doesn't help him when he elsewhere writes (somewhere, I cannot now find the page) cuttingly about McDonalds (not that I blame him, but still). Brendle's own 'lions and bears' experience in preparing for pastoral ministry was his time spent in the army.
Where Holiness Comes From
As a kid I imagined that pastors got a special infusion of holiness. The way, I suppose, all of us once thought our parents received some kind of instruction manual or Matrix-esque jujitsu download of parenting knowledge. And then the day came when we had our first kid and realized that we are exactly the same people we were yesterday - no wiser, no more skilled or better prepared to raise little inept people into functional, godly humans. We are exactly the same people when we come home from the hospital as we were before we went, except that we now have a small, red screaming being to figure out how to care for.
In a similar way, I used to imagine somewhat naively that pastors received a special Matrix-esque jujitsu download of holiness once they made the transition from ordinary citizens to men of the cloth.
That impression was rudely shattered when I was twelve and the pastor of the church my family was attending - my pastor! - stood in the pulpit one Sunday morning and made the following announcement: "I have secretly been in love with [insert name of deacon's wife] for several months, so now I am leaving [insert name of beleaguered and distraught pastor's wife] and [insert name of church], and [insert name of deacon's wife] and I are going to [insert name of exotic tropical island] together to pursue our happiness." [italics original]
With the shock that comes when your entire worldview is turned upside down, I quickly realized that no holiness wand gets waved and no stop-sinning pixie dust is sprinkled over a pastor when he starts being addressed by that title. This took a while to sink into my preadolescent mind, but it finally resolved into a core conviction. ... They [Bruce Springsteen and Larry Bird, two of Brendle's idols, so to speak] cultivated their callings, worked on them during practice, and refined their abilities long before they ever made it to stardom. My pastor didn't live a holy life as a Christian leader because he never worked out holiness as a layman.
That experience made a lasting impression on me. A decade later, having received the call from God to serve him for the rest of my life and having begun to perceive that the expression of that calling would be local church ministry, the memory of my brazenly fallen pastor frightened me. How do I expect to do any better that [sic] he did? He was a powerful man of God, and he fell. So now I'm going to be a pastor. What chance do I have? [italics original]
After several weeks of soul searching and inner wrestling, I had little reason to believe that I would be any different at all. Let's face it: What could I do better than this mighty man of God whom we listened to with righteous fear each Sunday morning as he explained the intricate subtleties of the Bible?... If this is what becomes of him, what hope have I?
Left to myself, I knew I was no better than the man I once revered as holy, and I certainly had no lingering illusion that I would somehow get holiness once I became a pastor. So there seemed to be only one viable option, and that was to start holiness now. [ditto] ... You see, people expect each of us - whatever our calling may be - to have our stuff together when we get there, but now, now is the time to dig in because not so many are watching us or even care. [ditto] [pp. 131-3] Brendle's experience explains his present bugbear about being 'authentic' as we shall see. One of the failures of the book is, I think, that Brendle does not tie this insight about the nature of holiness to his understanding of living into the calling as a process. The process of being made holy is, in the traditional vocabulary of the church, 'sanctification'. Other things that sprang to mind for me from this part of the book was questions about the value of the 'pursuit of happiness'; and about mediated and immediate grace. Holiness, Brendle learned, is not granted immediately by God upon the achievement of a position, in the same way that 'parenting know-how' does not spring immediately to mind upon the birth of one's child. (This should be a warning to us Anglicans with respect to the sacrament of ordination, or, for that matter, of reconciliation/penitence.) What impresses me about Brendle's recounting of his experience is that he was resilient. He didn't come away from the scandal of his pastor's fall saying, 'They're all a bunch of hypocrites'; rather, he realised an important truth - that holiness does not come automatically with title of pastor, but that sanctification is part of the process of living into your calling - and resolved to carry it out in his own life, as he says, before it mattered. Some of what Brendle elsewhere has to say about the process of sanctification I found good, some less so, but this story of his left an impression on me.
What's In You is What'll Come out of You
Remember Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life? He always had strings tied around his fingers to remind him to do this or that. ... [T]he purpose of Uncle Billy's tying strings around his fingers was to keep some things on his radar screen, to maintain certain priorities at the forefront of his mind. [Brendle does acknowledge that Uncle Billy forgot to deposit the eight thousand dollars.] In the same way, bind the words of the Scripture on your fingers [figuratively]. Take deliberate, even apparently senseless action to [make God a priority at the forefront of your mind].
I coach young men of God to do this all the time. One of their most common protestations [sic] is, "But I don't feel it. How can I make it first in my heart?" I always tell them two things. Here's how the conversation goes:
"First, if you don't feel it, fake it," I say. "Act like someone who genuinely feels a burning love for the Word of God. Do the things that someone who cherishes the Word would do."
"But isn't that being - gasp! - inauthentic?" my friend replies. [italics original]
(I love messing with homogenized postmodern thinking! You know, I've found that there are fewer truly postmodern people than society is duped into thinking there are. A lot of people are just consumers of postmodernism. They buy postmodernism in a juice box, and they buy it in bulk at Wal-Mart.)
Then I say, "I suppose you could look at it that way. And you would be forced to conclude, by the same logic, that when a husband no longer feels burning passion for his wife or a desire to spend time with his loud, energetic children, it would be inauthentic for him to go home to them. To be truly 'authentic,' he really needs to leave his wife and kids, buy a sports car, and meet somebody new on the Internet with whom he really connects. The problem is, this is foolishness. He would be destroying his life and the lives of the people who are most beloved to him and whose care and well-being their Creator has entrusted to him. But, hey, it would be authentic."
Usually it's quiet at this point in the conversation. [pp. 182-3] You can see how Brendle's experience when he was twelve when his pastor 'followed his heart' affected him. And although Brendle misses the point somewhat, in that what he is protesting is not, in fact, 'authentic', but a lie parading itself as the real thing, he has got it right that doing what appears to be 'authentic' is often vicious. What is authentic does not always appear to be so; and what seems authentic sometimes in fact is inauthentic. If we are always talking about being 'authentic' or 'real', chances are that we are in fact neither. We should indeed strive to be 'authentic', but we must be clear about what we mean by 'authentic', for it is often used as a slippery justification to get out of our real and genuine commitments and promises. 'Being authentic' can either be the latest buzzword in the age-old tradition of rationalising our sinful desires and wishes; or it can be the living out of our commitment to others in loving service. In the former case, we will often appear to be authentic, when in fact we are living a lie; in the latter case, we may feel that our heart 'isn't in it', but we are in fact the real deal. In my case, God knows that, while I have avoided using 'being authentic' as a buzzword (in the manner just described), I have often (more, I'm sure, than I care to admit) found ways of justifying to myself my own less than loving behaviours and actions. I say this not to beat up unnecessarily on myself but to acknowledge that, just like everyone else, I put my mind to work finding ways to justify the things I do which I ought not to do or the things I don't do which I ought to do.
So ends my marginal commentary on In the Meantime. It is a testament, I think, to Brendle's capable handling of vocation as a theological concept that I found more to like and to reflect upon from his book than I did to dismiss as 'right-wing evangelical claptrap'. Indeed, it may be an object lesson that wisdom may be found in nearly any book, if you are willing to keep an open mind (God forbid!). Certainly I am going to read and re-read my commentary on the book in order to keep in mind those things which I think I have learned from it.