Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 58) transports me to the Facebook newsfeed, where someone this week posted a short little video aiming to show why church and vocational ministry are important. I clicked on it because the video was a creation by Tim Otto, one of the New Monastics, a group/movement that interests me in the way they are attracting the next generation to practices of prayer and social justice. The video was creatively done, with artwork by Troy Terpstra illustrating the various points Otto was making. The message, though, was not so creative. The main point was that God doesn’t call people to regular jobs, or at least there’s no evidence of God calling people to regular jobs in the holy writ, and if you’re a sola scriptura person, if it ain’t in the writ, it ain’t right. Otto catalogs some of the callings that the Bible does reveal – callings to eternal life, to fellowship with Jesus, callings out of darkness into light. But, he argues, no one ever gets called to a job outside the church. Paul’s calling is to be an apostle and missionary; tentmaking is his “waiter gig” a la the starving artist or wannabe actor. In the Old Testament, Otto argues, people are called to be priests and prophets and kings, but no one ever gets called to a job outside of the jobs dedicated to building up God’s people.
Now, as much as I support vocational ministry within the institutional church and as much as I want to encourage young people to consider seminary, I found myself getting downright perturbed at this particular message. What does he mean there are no callings other than religious callings in the Bible? Has he not read the prophets? Today’s passage is a prime example of the prophet giving voice to God’s call for all sorts of work that doesn’t necessarily take place in the institutional faith community – in fact, the various jobs outlined by Isaiah are laid out as the more authentic calling. Here’s the vocation acceptable to God, Isaiah says. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Liberate the oppressed. House the homeless. Heal the afflicted. And do it all through a justice approach, not simply with individual charity. These callings, similar to Jesus’ callings to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in society, all necessitate a wide range of jobs. It takes a lot of people doing a lot of different jobs to get food from farm to fork so hungry people can eat. It takes a lot of workers in a lot of occupations getting fibers from cotton field to closet so the naked will have clothes to wear. Same for housing. Same for health care. The calling, it seems to me, is to do all these jobs with a justice focus on behalf of the most vulnerable in society. And the setting for that call is found in a plethora of professions and jobs and career paths and occupations. The hungry and the naked and the homeless are going to be out of luck if they have to rely solely on priests and prophets to equip them for a sustainable life.
I think this particular YouTube message is an anomaly within the New Monastic Movement. At least I hope so. From all I’ve read and heard, they are engaging in what monasticism has always been good at – making the connections between prayer and praxis, between the vocational ministries that take place in the context of the institutional church and the vocational ministries that take place in the context of secular society. At its best, monasticism honors the sense of vocation described by Frederich Beuchner, when he said you could define your calling as that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. It’s the ideal of Martin Luther King, who famously said, If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ Such a philosophy of vocation doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of the church or vocational ministry. The Church, in this vision, becomes a community of vocational ministers, some of whom devote their professional lives to prayer and proclamation and pastoral care, some of whom spend their time farming, some of whom spend their time hammering nails, some of whom spend their time weaving fabric, some of whom spend their time binding wounds, some of whom spend their time lobbying and organizing for social justice, some of whom spend their time painting or composing or scribbling down sonnets, and some of whom spend their time preserving public health by sweeping the streets. I’d love to see a YouTube video of this ideal, illustrated by a vocational artist like Troy Terpstra.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.