U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thoughts on Vocation

Sisters and brothers,

As I’ve traveled this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own sense of vocation. By the time I finish my term as moderator, we will have fully completed a transition to the new Executive Director of BorderLinks, the organization that I co-founded and have coordinated and directed for almost nineteen years. This is great news on a lot of levels. I’ve watched too many good leaders fall victim to “founder’s syndrome,” which is the term used to describe what happens to an organization when it grows too dependent on its founder and doesn’t effectively make the transition to new leadership. I’m excited that our Board of Directors was visionary enough to support me in transitioning out of the organization, and I’m so grateful to Delle McCormick, our incoming E.D., and the staff of BorderLinks, for stepping up to make this a healthy transition.

For the first time in almost twenty years, I find myself in the strange position of trying to figure out where God might next call me. It’s not that I’ve never had to think before about my vocation, or what we in the church would describe as a “sense of call.” One of the best parts of my work on the border as a mission worker for the PC(USA) has been that I have constantly felt the freedom to re-imagine what God has in mind for me, and I’ve often been encouraged by my colleagues and friends to grow in a new direction as the reality and demands of trying to “be church” in the borderlands has shifted.

The opportunity to serve the PC(USA) as moderator has been a wonderful gift from God that came at just the right moment in my life. I’ve seen profound attempts at faithfulness as I’ve traveled across the U.S., and I’ve grown immensely through my interactions and friendships with the partners I’ve met as I’ve traveled around the world in our own country as well as in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Almost everywhere I’ve been, I’ve found it easy to make an emotional investment in the congregation, ministries and organizations I’ve visited. I could imagine myself in many of those places, working with local folks to build a faith community that clearly reflects Christ’s values of love and compassion and goodness and nonviolence.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve found that my world has grown both larger and smaller through the personal relationship-building that goes hand-in-glove with being the Moderator. Each time I meet someone new, I find that my notion of church is expanded, and along with it my own sense of call. Along with my connection to the Latin American culture and the concerns of migrants and undocumented folks that I brought with me to this position, I’ve learned to care a great deal about campus ministry, peacemaking, creating multi-cultural congregations, seminary education, new immigrants, transforming dying churches, emerging worship styles for the next generation, and ministry in small, rural communities. Actually, the list of things that I find myself excited about seems to grow with each passing day and with every new friendship.

So how do I think about my vocation as a child of God? How do I figure out where I fit in? I have lots of questions as I think about how God calls me to be faithful in the world. Will I choose to be with communities of people made poor or in communities of privilege? Will I work within the institution of the church or put my efforts into building a movement on the fringes of the church? Will I adopt a prophetic role, or push in the direction of pragmatism in building coalitions? Will I focus on academia, or on the hands-on application of theory? The list could go on and on, but you get the idea.

In many ways, what I have loved most about our work with BorderLinks has been the possibility that we’ve had to be bridge-builders, and to stand with a foot in each of those worlds and try to bring them together. What I’ve learned in the messy, ambiguous world of the borderlands is that we rarely choose one end or the other of those scales. Life is all about trying to juggle competing commitments and priorities. Still, it seems like the folks I most admire are the ones who lived their convictions without compromise: Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Jim Corbett.

Here’s what I’m clear about. Genuine change in our world comes through the possibilities modeled by Jesus, and imperfect though it always seems to be, through the building of a healthy church that makes a genuine effort to reflect those values. That is to say, the work of creating political change in the secular world is extremely important, but it’s probably not for me. My commitment is most likely to be to continue to nurture the community of faith that will work to create the kind of world that is God’s deepest desire for us.

What started me thinking about all of this was a visit I made this week to the Gandhi Museum in Delhi. We spent three hours reading the sayings of Gandhi, learning his life story, and looking at photos. For me, as a peacemaker who is committed to nonviolence, I confess that it was something akin to a religious pilgrimage. Here’s the quote that has haunted me all week. Gandhi called it his Talisman:

A Talisman

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Remember the face of the poorest and the weakest man you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate will be of any use to him? Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions. Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

Mahatma Mohandis Gandhi

And then I think about Jesus clear conviction about what will matter most on the day of judgement:

I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. And when you did it to one of the poorest of the poor, you did it to me.

Matthew 25

Holding those two things together seems like perhaps it might help during the coming months as I try to discern God´s call on my life.

So what about you? How do you think about vocation?

With a discerning spirit,