I had a seminary classmate who, when asked why he was going into the ordained ministry, replied that he couldn’t do anything else. Now some would (and did) interpret that to mean that he didn’t have the chops for medicine or law, the patience for teaching or the acumen for business. That becoming a priest was a default career path. But what my friend really meant was that he had a clear resolve to serve God, which meant he couldn’t do anything else but that. It was his vocation – and as such allowed him to kindle his passion, exercise his imagination – and live into freedom with the living Christ. To claim his blessing, and pass on his belovedness.
I have often thought of that conversation, which took place nearly forty years ago. Since then I have had a career in the church – as deacon, priest and bishop; as Assistant Rector, Associate Rector, Rector, Rector again – and now the leader of a diocese.
In my career I have learned to adapt, acquire new skills and adjust to the changing landscape of the church in the world. There have been bumps and bruises along the way, moments of confusion and experiences of extraordinary grace and celebration. What has sustained me through it all is that my sense of vocation continues to deepen. It took a while for me to more fully trust that I am blessed and beloved; and once I developed a reasonable confidence my vocation evolved into helping others claim their blessing and learn to share their belovedness with others.
My favorite definition of "vocation" comes from a novel by Gail Godwin entitled Evensong: "Something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you.” And I would add – making more of others.
The vocation to claim my/our blessedness and belovedness is why I got started in the first place. And it is why I am inspired to keep at it. One of the gifts of serving in the Diocese of Newark is that the vocation of claiming blessedness and sharing belovedness has been around for a long time. In 1932, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Bishop Wilson Stearly (1927-1935) led the diocese in a teaching mission “to participate in a fresh vision and new understanding of the relationship of the church to the need of the world.” His challenge to the diocese was to claim its vocation. Benjamin Washburn (Bishop from 1935-38), in response to the Forward Movement campaign launched by the Episcopal Church in 1935, initiated the Great Recovery Offering in 1936, which was an effort to serve the wider community. Leland Stark, Bishop from 1958-1974 – was a leader both in Newark and the wider church in the Civil Rights movement, maintaining that the beloved of God include all colors and races of people. John Shelby Spong, Bishop from 1979-2000, insisted that God’s full blessing and belovedness be officially granted to women and members of the LGBT community. Jack Cronbeberger, diocesan bishop from 2000-2007, embodied this vision by presiding at several same-sex blessings – again, reinforcing the notion that our vocation is to consider all people as beloved and beloved.
For the past several years as a diocese we have been on a journey together. We first described it as “missional church”, which later evolved into “Going Local.” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry refers to it as “the Jesus Movement.” And since last fall, we have identified the journey as “Joining God in Shaping our Future.” Each of the linguistic metaphors is an attempt to identify what we are doing. And we have been doing a lot – on many different levels. But more important than the Going Local and Action Learning Teams, the clergy cohort groups, the feedback sessions and the upcoming Listening Tables (September 8, 13 and 17, to which the diocese has been invited) – is why we are doing this. I deeply believe that this is the next step in our vocation as the people of God in this place – to pass on God’s blessing and belovedness, not just to those in our congregations, but to listen and learn how God is working in our neighborhoods and communities. And to join God there.
Some might say we are engaged in this work because we can’t do anything else. Which could be interpreted to mean that we don’t have the chops for stewardship, church growth or Christian Education. That all of this is a default strategy to fix a challenged church. This is not about fixing; it is about vocation, given to each and every one of us, which allows us to kindle our passions, exercise our imaginations – and live more fully into freedom with the living Christ. That is why we are doing what we are doing. It is exciting, daunting and gratifying – because the more we are at this, the more committed I am to it – and the more I realize that we have received all that we need in order to live into God’s future.