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Lenten Series #3: Our Vocation

Recovering Our Vocation

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. – Gen. 1:31

This word for very good is the word tov me’od, and as I mentioned in my previous post, it has nothing to do with fragile perfection and everything to do with raw connectedness – the parts of creation are not good in and of themselves but they are good in relationship to one another.

God put the human in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. – Gen. 2:15

Imagine caring for an earth which is very good and deeply connected. I can only assume that our earth once cooperated with us and we with her in a way that today would seem nearly fantasy. Sure, animals probably didn’t talk but maybe neither did we, and yet we probably communicated in ways too deep for words. Maybe seeds did not sprout up as in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, but there was cooperative relationship that was blessed and openly life-giving. But the dis-connection of sin led to a clean break in our relationship with both creatures and the land – enmity, hostility and scarcity is now between humans and creatures and “cursed is the ground” — now we must painfully toil to eat what is has to produce.

So what of our vocation must we recover? I believe this first has to do with seeing ourselves as cultivators rather than producers. Cultivation is marked by caring for and working with a reciprocating land, but production is what we do to land which is ambivalent or malevolent toward us. Production requires toil, strife and coercion.  We cannot fix our broken relationship with creation any more than we can fix other relationships, but we can recover our humanity by remembering that our first calling was to “work with” the land and not to “toil” over it.

Western American Protestantism has conjoined blessing with production (I would highly suggest reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism) – to be a great producer is to be blessed by God and vice versa.

This picture was never clearer to me than when I visited Randy Woodley’s farm in Newberg, Oregon. Randy is Cherokee and a professor with Portland Seminary and spends most of his time convincing Christians leaders that their faith, along with the earth, was not born in 1776. Driving up to Randy’s property you will see a pristine hazelnut farm on your left, and on your right you’ll see what seems to be an overgrown lot – that lot is Randy’s property.

The hazelnut trees across the way are precisely planted in rows, the grass beneath stripped clean, leaving a dirt floor off which you may be tempted to eat. Conversely, Randy’s farm is haphazardly planted, maintained and yet interdependently self-sustaining. The land on the left will die quickly, giving all it has to the hazelnuts, and on the right is land that will produce comparatively little, and yet will thrive generation after generation. You get the picture – the left side a picture of hazelnut production and the right a picture of land cultivation; on the left Genesis 3 and the right Genesis 2.

You see, many will say vocation is a path which culminates in a grand finale, giving glory to God, advancing his Kingdom and stockpiling his hazelnuts coffers. And when we see him he will look at us and say, “Well done good and faithful producer. Enter into the retirement condo I prepared for you.”

Abbot Peter once asked me, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to write. I want to preach. I want to heal and help others heal.” He underwhelmingly responded, “Then that is what you’ll do.” He went on to tell me that vocation is less like a path and more like a compost pile – our vocation is less like hazelnut production and more like the process of decomposition. How gospel is that?! Vocation looks more like dying than like living, and we recover our vocation not by bending it to our will but by giving ourselves to the process which often feels like failure.

Where are you? What are you doing? Who are the people you are around? What is the patch of earth on which you currently exist? This is the ground God has placed you to cultivate, and as offensive as this may be to our ego (or dare we say our ego we’ve projected onto God), it is no less the good news. Your vocation is not to toil for a kingdom, but to fertilize the earth – It is to fall to the earth and die, producing lives which fall to the earth and die. Somehow, this is our vision of vocation, given to us by Jesus – dying.

From dust we came, to dust we must return. It may not look pretty. In fact, it will probably look ugly and chaotic like an abandoned or overgrown lot, but be assured that the ground beneath you is being changed and creation itself is being made very good.

Amen.