The Taser's Edge

Learning to Sing in Harmony in Durham

One month ago Holly and I thought we were going to be returning to the Midwest this year, taking whichever of the CPE jobs I got from a set of three interviews in a row.  As has other times been the case, Holly seemed to get word on our future sooner than me.  Her work of teaching is important to others’ lives and precious to hers, and she began to wonder aloud if another year might be a great thing.  It wasn’t pleasant for me to wonder how we would make a decision if we just totally disagreed on where we sensed God’s call for us.

And then, out of three interviews, I received two offers, one offering a whopping $24k a year, and one for a job I hadn’t actually applied for (although a good fit for someone else).  Today I connected with both offerers, and I turned them both down.  I’m waiting for the feeling of freedom to set in.

This whole thing offers the space to talk about a theology of family calling.  One of the loudest battle cries of the Protestant Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers,” the belief that Christ is our great high priest and the only one we need, who offers each of us access to the Father without need of any other mediator.  Yet, when we in the churches talk about ‘calling’, we make ‘calling to professional ministry’ the trump card calling and we return to “the priesthood of some believers” and “the priesthood of professional believers.”  So you found a ministry job and your spouse is a professor/salesperson/accountant/bookstore owner/nurse/high school English teacher?  Sounds like s/he can find another job.

Our denominations encourage this poor theology.  Even denominations which have ordained women for a couple generations of pastors (UMC, I am speaking to you), seem not to believe or value that the non-ordained spouse has a calling and a ministry and a purpose in life and that there is no reason for it to immediately take second fiddle to the “official” calling (leaving alone the question of the children’s good and what this may have to say about the authenticity of a particular calling or decision).

We pastors practice poor theology again when we talk about our ministry experience and successes.  During the parish discernment phase of my recent ordination to the diaconate, I was asked about how I had experience in making disciples.  I quickly jumped to the couple of pastors and missionaries who have come out of youth groups, small groups, and personal mentoring relationships I have had.  It was Esther Acolatse who pointed out the dissonance between this witness and my strong and vocal emphasis on calling for all of us.  Her point?  I argued strongly that the church emphasizes professional ministry to a fault, and then I said nothing about whether I and my ministry thus far have helped form faithful professors/accountants/bookstore owners/nurses/high school English teachers.

There are many reasons that we as a church do not uphold a better theology of family vocation, but one is a lack of faith.  The voice of practicality and fear (often confused with reason) questions us, “Surely you don’t believe that two callings made one in marriage [what I am indeed claiming is at the heart of  a family vocation] can actually work together in this world?”  We must speak back to that sometimes practicality is fear, a form of unfaith in which our hearts try to create for us a place of safety and security which can only be found in God.

The question of experience and authority (authority misused to avoid asking a hard question of itself) says, “But you’ve only been married five years.  Wait till you have kids and life gets compicated and something really hard comes.”  My experience speaks back, taking stock of my short yet still valuable life, and I note that the most important decisions of my life–college, marriage, seminary, moves, jobs, what churches to join and give of our lives to, what denomination to belong to, when to have kids–have been formed in community with my wife.

That is part of this questioning of the trump card of professional vocation.  We (no, not all of us ever and not others of us yet) have been called into living lives in the community of a family (as the BCP puts it, the Christian God is a God “who settest the solitary in families”) but then we somehow believe in a calling which asks us to act totally apart from this family that we have supposedly entered out of faith.  In other words, we are called into the depth of a relationship that we are called to disregard on the really important things.

To relate this to Scriptural calling (the archetypal calling of Abram in particular), there is a seismic difference between “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” and “Leave (emotionally and therefore actually) your spouse and your children and follow this holy calling.”  I would argue that there are few who are called to the latter (Peter?) but many who act like they are.

Part of our hesitancy and resistance to embrace the idea of God offering one calling to the community of a family is that it sounds hard.  And it is.  What does communal discernment (when the community is a family) even look like?  A guideline but not a full answer: as we respond to God’s calling to our atomic community (the kind, that between spouses, bonded so strongly that it doesn’t break down without the release of deadly-to-us-and-to-others radioactive energy), we are not called to sing our response in unison but in harmony.

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