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Being Called Means More Than Being Hired

Novelist Fred Buechner famously wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  I thought of this while listening to two National Park Service Rangers describing varied ecosystems in Olympic National Park northwest of Seattle last week.  Deep in a north woods rainforest, and high in an alpine meadow, they spoke with reverence about the spawning salmons’ role in the nurturing of the forest’s soil, of the organisms that feed the trees high in the mossy canopy overhead, of the ravens soaring above us at five thousand feet calling out their territory, of the cougars that patrol the hills keeping the deer population at sustainable levels.  With the rich biodiversity all around us in the lush rainforest, Marsha helped us see nature’s endless examples of complementarity, while Rod praised the gift of wilderness silence as we gazed across the hills toward the high peaks and their glaciers.

We tend to think of the words “calling” or “vocation” in religious terms, as if only pastors and priests are “called.”  Yet in these two park rangers we saw a calling, the profound intersection of a deep gladness with a deep hunger.  Like many rangers these days, Marsha and Rod are seasonal employees, giving their summer months or retirement years to part time employment in the National Parks.  Neither, I suspect, earns much of a living doing this work.  Marsha has another job nine months of the year; Rod has his teacher’s retirement pension.  They do this work for something other than compensation, and they remind us that pursuing a calling and taking home a paycheck may have nothing at all to do with each other.

The professionalization of ministry has done much, I suspect, to establish competencies and to imbue excellence in the practices of ministry – preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administration, etc.  But it has also encouraged a confusion between calling and employment, between pursuing our vocation and being entitled to compensation.  Ordination becomes a right leading to certain privileges and prerogatives rather than a rite recognizing gifts and callings.  Notions of professional advancement and success are imported to replace servanthood and fidelity.  Often lost is either the awareness of our deep gladness or of the world’s deep hunger, or even both.

As our churches move from their places of cultural prominence and respectability toward the margins of social status, ministry as profession becomes more and more problematic.  Gone are the days when ministry ranked in status alongside medicine and law.  Fleeting are the days when ordination will automatically lead to full time employment with benefits.  These changes are difficult, at times wrenching.  And they are not easy for the congregations and seminaries still attached to the old paradigm.  But to the extent they help us rediscover the true meaning of calling, and detach us from our vain privileges and foolish entitlements, they may be gift.

If either of the park rangers I met felt diminished by their part time, seasonal status, they certainly didn’t show it.  If they felt bitter about serving summer after summer without professional advancement, they kept it hidden.  If they were disappointed that after years of sophisticated study and careful observation they were still guiding unsophisticated tourists with their elementary questions through soggy rainforests and over the same mountain meadow, it wasn’t evident to me.  If the endless reminding of their “flock” not to step off the trails or pluck the flowers bored or irritated them, they put on a good face.  No, what we saw was endless fascination, obvious passion, and profound reverence for a wilderness they were helping us discover.  Maybe our seminarians should spend a summer with these seasonal park rangers to learn what a calling is all about.  Maybe those of us whose seminary experience is now a distant memory could use the reminder as well.

Naturalist John Muir who helped establish our magnificent system of National Parks once wrote,

“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”

Could it be that the more and more we clergy have sequestered ourselves in professional roles in cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer the Lord has become to us?   Perhaps.  I’m not suggesting we all exchange our collars for a Ranger hat.  But these summer rangers have much to teach us.  And we have little time in which to learn.

John H. Thomas
July 25, 2013

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