Vocation: how to know if you’ve got it

Regreso / ReturnLiving  your vocation is a mark of a slowmission lifestyle. If we all spent our days doing what we love and are good at, the world would be a better place.  How do you recognize vocation? What are the marks of it?

(I’m grateful to my friend Simon Goddard who gave a talk about this stuff and whose material I have adopted(/copied).)

  1. It’s your passion. This is what gets you going, what you look forward to, what you feel deeply about and what you want to spend your life doing.
  2. You’re not bad at it. You don’t have to be the World No.1. But you’re not terrible at this. Other people appreciate it. I am a writer. I have yet to win prizes in other spheres of life, such as ballet dancing or rocket-designing. But I do win writing prizes. I feel writing is the only beautiful thing I do, and then only sometimes. But at least I do that one thing.
  3. The world needs it. OK, that’s a little grandiose. The fate of the entire planet or the destiny of nations doesn’t have to absolutely hang on you coming up with the goods. But what you do does good, eases loads, makes things better, slakes a thirst. Your joyful endeavour meets a deep need somewhere: wonderful.
  4. The money works. Ideally, you get paid for it. Or maybe someone else gets paid enough in their vocation for you to work for free. Or sometimes you have to do a bit of tweaking to make the money work. For example, people who love the visual arts can get paid as designers. Journalism–being paid to write things for other people–worked for me for a long time. And so on. This can be a happy compromise between creativity and practicality. But also, careers evolve and hopefully you settle into a vocation more and more.

 

But some questions

This does raise a couple of questions, though.

  1. What about when it’s spoilt by difficult colleagues, bad managers, financial cuts?
  2. What if you haven’t the luxury of choosing your job(s) — you just have to put bread on the table?

That’s next week’s blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When suffering filters out the non-essentials

seek simplicity

A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.

Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.

Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.

We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.  Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:

Does:
  • People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
  • Pottering in the garden
  • Conversation
  • Meals together
  • Storytelling
  • Belonging
  • Being happily part of a family

Doesn’t:

  • People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
  • Email
  • Meetings
  • Eating ‘al desko’
  • Looking at a screen into the small hours
  • Death by Powerpoint
  • Being famous
  • Being wealthy

‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?

The joy of memorizing whole books

words.jpgThat said, I’ve only memorized two, and both were Bible books. Between about 1993 and 2005, I memorized Mark’s Gospel (whose 16 chapters is about 11,000 words) and somewhere later in the noughties I memorized Ephesians (whose six chapters is only around 2,500 words). I think I averaged about a chapter a year, and I was also reading the whole Bible each year usually, plus any special research projects. So it wasn’t my sole focus. And I was raising kids and holding down a job and so on.

Is it hard? Not at all. If like me you read the Bible devotionally anyway, you might as well. Like learning a language, only early death can stop you.

How do I do it? A bit at a time with lots of revision.

How did I start? I memorized a few psalms, to sort of convince myself I could do it.

What are the benefits?  I found them huge. Here are some:

  1. You really, deeply reflect on every word. It feeds your soul. This really is something. It’s like crossing a landscape by foot or narrowboat rather than on a motorway. Mark is (I think) the collection of stories Peter told while he was visiting the churches. You’re almost with him there in the audience, at that first telling among the smoking oil lamps. Wonderful. Meanwhile Ephesians is that astonishing, eagle-eyed view of the whole destiny of the Universe, and the church in its small acts of reconciliation and worship is somehow at the beating heart of it. There’s nothing like these two views. (Except, I suppose, other Bible books.)
  2. You can do it odd moments. When I lived in Singapore, I did it during my bus journey to work.
  3. It’s great for when part of your work is preparing talks or (as in my case) writing books. So much material is already in your head, pre-digested. I do find myself quoting Mark or Ephesians quite a lot.
  4. Loads of old people do sudokos to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Fair enough. (I am not yet old.) But honestly, you can do a lot better. I noticed Ephesians was a lot easier to memorize than Mark, and not just because it was orders of magnitude smaller. I think maybe my brain got better at it.

How do I keep the memories fresh? In principle, I go through the whole two books again every year, often during a retreat day. I recite them out loud. My medical adventures of the past few years have disrupted that schedule, but I’ll get back to it. I have the book open when I recite it, because I have forgotten parts over the years.

It’s a good question whether I should take the necessary couple of months to get right back up to speed and be able to do the whole thing without opening the book: I tend to think that isn’t worth it, unless I was going to present that material in public or something.

How does it differ from other Bible memorization schemes? Well it’s probably personal taste, but I like the organic approach of tackling a whole of an author’s work. I prefer this to memorizing scripture nuggets out of context. This may be work for you, but I find it a bit forced.

Should I have a go? Up to you. Let me know how you’ve got on in about 12 years.

 

 

 

Spiritual honesty, that rare and refreshing place

honesty

The honest place is a happy place, often quite a funny place, and the place where most people gather and where the walls are down.

That wonderful scholar F F Bruce pointed out that the wisdom literature in the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, the Song) are all about human responses to truth. They are the place in the Scriptures where you can sound off about how you really feel. (God loves me! God hates me! I’m not giving up! I am giving up! I wish that person was dead! You can overdo religion! Ordinary lives and ordinary pleasures are wonderful!)

I don’t know about you but though I made a commitment to follow Jesus years ago it is taking me a long time to be honest. It has taken me many years and a lot of pain to say things like:

‘God, don’t talk, I just want to hold your hand’

or

‘God, I feel like a tin can being kicked down the road, and you are the one doing the kicking.’

Learning to think those thoughts is, I have found, worth the effort.

The day the stars fell from the sky

Ice on roofWhen ice melts off a roof, you hear dripping and thawing for some time. Then, occasionally, a whole chunk falls off. I think I have lived through such a change in the UK. Census returns show it:

UK Census 2001 Christian: 71.7% No religion: 14:8%

UK Census 2011 Christian: 59.3% No religion: 25.1%

A piece of ice fell off the roof. When I was growing up, we theoretically believed in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

School worship was vaguely Christian.

National celebrations like Armistice Day saw the country getting its Christian hardware out.

It was a staple of farce that the moment something immoral was happening in your house, the Vicar would call, and you were bothered.

In fairness it was all ripe for collapse, because not too many people believed in it really, though some did.

What has happened since has been:

  • The incineration of millions of old nominal Christians (after they died).
  • Their replacement by millions of younger people not brought up in Christian traditions
  • A new widely accepted story about what we believe.

The new normal

I blame the BBC for this latter point, though really our national broadcaster only reflects back to us our own thoughts. What is the new normal? All religions are treated equal and thereby categorized and thereby diminished. The BBC looks down on them all and ‘caters’ for them all, while believing in none of them.

The position from which it looks down is not defined, but is assumed to be somewhere liberal, reasonable, empirical, scientific:  a totally superior vantage point to where the poor saps who still follow ‘a religion’ lurk. Christians may prefer Fair Isle jumpers and fair trade coffee to beards and burkhas but really. All religions are the same and don’t lead anywhere. Though of course one must give them the utmost respect.

Ursa MajorThe Christian faith was like the constellation Ursa Major in the Northern hemisphere: always there, always indicating true north, always pointed out to children, always called the wrong thing, but everyone recognised it.

Now the stars have fallen from the sky.

Millions of thoughts flow from this, which might occupy other blogs. One is worth thinking about in passing.

It is a loss. Since the Emperor Constantine the European peoples bought into a project to unite every aspect of their lives– science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, birth, marriage, death–under the Lordship of Christ.However well or badly that worked out, we agreed on where the pole star was. Now it’s gone.

Interesting. Thoughts, anyone?

 

Things to do when you’ve missed your train at Kings Cross (part 1)

The British Library1.No, don’t go to platform 9 3/4 and watch the tourists photographing each other. Come out of the station, skip past St Pancras, and walk into the British Library.

2.Breathe deeply. Relax. It may look like a Young Offenders’ Institution, but this is an holy place.

3. Climb the broad stairs to the dimly-lit room where they keep their treasures.

4. Try not to get too excited.

5. Find the folio in which Handel hand-wrote the Hallelujah Chorus. It is open at the last page, the final, endless A-le-lu-ia, and you can see Handel’s spidery lines, his scribblings-out, his squashed semibreves, his desperate haste. This is not the forensically typeset version of the printed score. It is Handel’s own untidy and spontaneous penmanship.

(This is a photo of a facsimile, not the original, just in case you thought I’d done a bad thing.)Handel - in his own hand!

6. Reflect. Here’s what the all-knowing Internet says about Messiah:

In 1741, Handel composed Messiah and what we know now as the Hallelujah Chorus. While designing and composing Messiah, Handel was in debt and deeply depressed; however, the masterpiece was completed in a mere 24 days.

Despite his mental and financial state, the Hallelujah Chorus’s birth story is a glorious one. After Handel’s assistant called for him for a few moments, the assistant went to Handel’s work area because he received no response from Handel. Upon entering the room, the assistant saw tears emerge from Handel’s eyes. When the assistant asked why Handel was crying, Handel proclaimed, “I have seen the face of God.” 1

In front of Handel would have been the manuscript that’s now in front of you.

Here’s the internet again“Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”

7. Reflect some more. Life wasn’t going well. But a gifted person, in the place God meant him to be, doing the thing God gifted him to do, met God, created something beautiful, and 275 years later, the world is still reverberating.

On not being sucked into the vortex of someone else’s urgency

Evangelists, and apostolic, entrepreneurial Christian types generally, seem to be the unsettling opposite of ‘slow mission.’ They dash about. The apostle Paul seemed always to be in a hurry.

Rush Hour at Guwahati Club, Guwahati

This can make the rest of us feel uneasy. These people are out evangelizing the world while we are digging allotments, playing games, visiting Aunts or watching cricket. Do they show up us slow mission types as wicked, lazy servants?

Here’s why that isn’t—or at least might not be—the case.

  1. Much of what is achieved in haste seems either to evaporate altogether or need re-doing more slowly.
  2. In my experience, some evangelists cut corners. They might be slapdash with relationships, or with money, or with the speed limits. Their evangelistic zeal is a kind of coverall to hide their character defects.
  3. God in any case has his ways of slowing evangelists down. Paul kept being put in jail, and arguably did his best work there, writing half the New Testament.
  4. Slow mission is not about laziness. When you follow your love and your passion, you work harder and for longer than when you work at anything else. Duty can take you a long way, but devotion will take you further. 
  5. Evangelists’ love and passion is in winning people. That’s their thing and their devotion. Wonderful.  But it shouldn’t–should it?– be foisted on the rest of us as if it were the final word in discipleship or obedience.

At the smell of coffee

We Christians, especially us evangelicals, are very keen on programmes and courses. It sort-of suits our desire to package things. And we all of us like to receive pre-packaged things, whether it’s a ready meal or story. Life would be impossible without them, especially the Western consumer lifestyle.

I can’t help feeling something has been lost though.  This is God we are packaging, the Ultimately Unpackable. I suppose it’s good to always have something in the freezer that you can bring out when necessary, a gospel ready-meal, systematically covering the basics of Christian truth. A reader myself, I like a book, even though it’s a packaged summary, because it’s at least a start. (I’ve even written one for just that purpose.)

But the danger with a power-point-type presentation of the gospel is like every other power-point you’ve ever seen, it passes through the mind without ever being internalized. All the boxes are ticked, you’ve had the training, but in another way none of the boxes have been ticked. 

Jesus told stories which were totally incomplete accounts of the gospel. He probably had many reasons for this (not being stoned to death in a religious hothouse might have been one). But his stories are like the smell of coffee. They set you off on a hunt for the source.

Life is Short. Enjoy ur Coffee.

Does our love for the pre-packaged make us compartmentalized in  our thinking? Identikit in our practice? Unnatural in our growth? Interesting.

Faith in the workplace: four pointers

Our worklife is another area that we can think of as something to do with Kingdom of God. (As I blogged here.) So:

  1. It’s about devotion to Christ. Work, like the rest of life, is something in the end that we do in front of an audience of One. That leads to the extra-mile contributions.
  2. It’s now and not yet. Some stuff at work will never be put right until the end of everything. But we can make a difference today.
  3. It’s internal and external. Our heart has to be right, not just our conduct. (The heart always spills over anyway.) It was said of the great reforming MP William Wilberforce that he kept on friendly terms even with his political enemies.  The Christian faith calls us to love our neighbours, enemies, brothers, even, therefore, the awkward so-and-sos at work. We can’t just politely hate them. That’s awkward, but ultimately productive.
  4. We come in weakness. Which implies patience, willingness to admit being wrong, persistence, gentleness. Not a doormat, but not a door-slammer either.

Slow mission: How to be complete and incomplete at the same time

Seed Blog

They are familiar words, ringing across at funeral services:

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

The seed is the perfect picture for the now-but-not-yet, complete-but-incomplete, slow-mission Kingdom in which we live.

Some seeds look wizened. Y0u bury them in the soil. They are inconsequential. But a plant has spent a whole summer and all its strength manufacturing them. And they are packed with life: as the old saying has it, you can count the seeds in the apple, but you can’t  begin to count the apples in the seed.

Seeds are complete but incomplete, fulfilled and unfulfilled, finished yet hardly started, old in one age, new in the next.

In Christian-world and Christian-speak I think that’s what we aspire to be. Wizened, inconsequential, easily forgotten; and at the same time, seasoned and refined by grace, fulfilled, and ready to carry all the good we’ve known into an unfolding future. We aren’t there yet, and we don’t get there except through death,  but even through death we don’t lose anything of importance; we carry it all. Everything sown here–every hope, every partial work, every tear–find a harvest there.

Nice thought.

[Jesus] also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn – first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  As soon as the corn is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’ (Mark 4:26-29)