03 September 2007

How Clear Is My Vocation, Lord?

My wife reminded me the other night that I am not given to do everything, and she is quite right. It is more difficult to determine what I am given to do, and simply to be about doing it. This is an area where I find it far easier to help other people sort things out than it is for me to maintain a sense of clarity in my own thinking and a balance of priorities in my daily activities.

As a Christian, according to the New Man (Christ Jesus) who lives in me by grace through faith, by His Word and Holy Spirit, I want to know the good works that God has prepared beforehand for me to walk in them. I want to know what He would have me do, and I want to do that. It is true that I am also a sinner, and that, according to my old man (who is no one else than me, myself and I), I really only want to please myself, to entertain myself, to cater to myself. But my Father in heaven has given me the Spirit of His Son, who yearns within me for the things of God, for that which is the good and acceptable will of God, for that which is pleasing in His sight. So what should I be doing? How should I invest my time and energy? What am I given to do?

In one respect, the answer to such questions is rather simple and straightforward. It is the same answer that I give to anyone else who asks me for counsel and advice along these lines. It is the answer that the Catechism has taught me: "Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments." That is how I examine myself, in order to know "which are these sins" that I should confess before my pastor. But this self-examination shows me my sins precisely because it makes clear to me what I ought to be doing, that is, what God has given me to do.

So, there it is: First of all, there are the Ten Commandments, which require me to fear, love and trust in God above all things, to hear His Word and call upon His Name, and, for His sake, to love my neighbor, to help and defend him in both word and deed, and not to mess with his stuff. And all of this is made specific for me by the particular stations in life to which the Lord has called me: I am a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a pastor, a citizen of the United States in South Bend, Indiana, a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and I suppose I could parse this out into a rather large number of specific relationships that define my place in the world.

This much is clear and concrete, and really tells me everything I need to know about how to live my life in faith toward God and in fervent love toward my neighbor. Why, then, does it always seem so complicated, and so difficult to manage?

There is my sin, of course, which takes me back to confession. My vocation as a child of God, in the first place, calls me daily back to the waters of my Baptism, to repentance and forgiveness, unto faith and life in Christ. My life never will be self-sufficient; nor does God intend it to be. He has created me to live by grace through faith in Him, to receive all good things from His hand.

Being a finite creature feels like a problem, because it prevents me from achieving my sinful ambition to be like God. I can't do everything I want to do, because I can't be everywhere at once, and I only have so much time and energy. That frustrates me, but it also reminds me, in a helpful way, such as my wife also did this past week, that I am not given to do everything. I can do what I am given to do, because the Lord who has given me to do it supplies all that is needed. When I am swamped and overwhelmed with more than I can manage, it means that I am either relying upon myself, on my own reason and strength, instead of the Word and Spirit of God, or that I am trying to do more than I should, more than I am given to do. Usually, it is a combination of both errors, and I expect that I shall never be entirely free of either fault in my life on this earth.

In another sense altogether, even the freedom of the Gospel, the glorious freedom of the sons of God in Christ, becomes a complication and frustration to me, because I am a sinful man. At the root of my sin is this desire to live by my own righteousness, according to which I am always asking, not "What has God given me to do in faith and love?" but "What must I do to be saved?" Just give me the checklist of stuff I gotta do, so I can get it done and be on with my life. Uh-huh. That is my proclivity to live under the Law, instead of rejoicing in the life that is given to me freely in Christ Jesus. I can't take any credit for that! There's no glory in it for me! So I resist the Gospel, though it is truthfully my greatest comfort and my highest treasure, because I would rather presume to be living by the rules and earning my place in the Kingdom of God. But it doesn't work that way. It is finally impossible to live by the Law, because the Law will always accuse me (not because it is evil, but because I am sinful).

It is only in Christ Jesus, only by His grace, only through faith in His forgiveness and His righteousness, that I am free and clear of all condemnation. And that very freedom means that not every jot and tittle of my day-to-day life is spelled out for me. There are choices and decisions to be made in my life in this world. What is more, not everything I do has to be toward the achievement of some higher purpose. Much of life, even here and now in this world, is not a matter of doing but receiving, not working but resting in the peace of Christ, not mourning but rejoicing in His good gifts. As a friend of mine has put it so well, when we work, we work; when we play, we play; and when we worship and pray, we worship and pray. It is only because of my sin that such a beautiful arrangement should ever seem aggravating to me. What father requires his children to work all the time? What father would refuse to give his children any rest or any time for joyous play? What father would not want his children ever to enjoy the good gifts he has given them? And what sort of child am I being, when I try to usurp the responsibility and authority of My Father?

Truth be told, life in this world is a complicated thing. It isn't the perfect paradise that God created it to be. Not only am I a sinner, but everyone around me is sinful, and even God's good creation languishes for now under the curse and consequences of our sin, anxiously awaiting the glorious apocalypse of all the sons of God in Christ. We are often faced with trying to choose the lesser of evils; indeed, that is the case more often than not, I am sorry to say.

Because I am a finite creature, I cannot help and serve all of my neighbors, all over the world, all of the time. Attempting to do so would be presumptuous and utterly foolish. Even if I could do it, what would that leave for God and anyone else to do? Trying to take care of everything and everyone, everywhere, is only another self-righteous effort to be like God, or simply to be God, instead of His creature, His child and heir. What is more, in seeking such glory and fame, for that is what heroic efforts often are, I am almost certainly neglecting the mundane, unexciting, ordinary, non-attention-getting obligations of my real stations in life. Service "above and beyond the call of duty" may sound impressive, but, taken at face value, this is not a good thing. If it truly is "above and beyond the call of duty," then perhaps it has not been given to me at all. It may very well fall within the freedom of the Gospel, Christ be praised, but let us not cheer too loudly for gallantry in the limelight to the neglect of faithfulness in the drudgery of duty itself.

I've come to realize that even something as simple and, in its own endearing way, as "silly" as blogging (the very name of which ought to prevent me from taking such things too seriously), can present me with real temptation. I began to blog for a number of legitimate and salutary reasons, which support and assist my vocations and stations in life. It really is the case that I often need to "think out loud" in order to process things in my head and arrive at greater clarity. There are any number of times that doing so here has helped me to serve my family, friends and congregation more faithfully. There are also numerous ways in which my preaching and teaching and catechesis have been sharpened and improved by the mental "workshop" of this forum. It also has assisted me in communicating with my family and friends, both near and far, which is a good thing. It is often easier for me to say things in writing than it is for me to say them out loud to my loved ones in person. Yet, lo and behold, I have found that putting things into words on my blog has also assisted me in taking the opportunity to say the things I should in conversation, as well. Meanwhile, for those people in my life who are further away, it is far more feasible for me to communicate with all of them in a single blog than it would ever be for me to call or write or e-mail all of them. I could do better, I realize, but it is still better for me to do what I actually can manage than nothing at all. So I struggle feebly onward.

Along with all of these benefits of blogging, it is also the case that it becomes yet another outlet for my prideful self-righteousness, a false god in my life and an avenue of my own self-idolatry. It leads me to compete and compare, to covet the attention and accolades of others, and to seek the praise of men. I want to be liked; I want to be listened to; I want people to agree with me; and I want to make a difference. And I want all of this "above and beyond the call of duty." So, there have been times when I could have been diapering my babies, or reading to my children, or helping them to brush their teeth and tuck them in, when I got sucked into my computer instead. Driven by what? Not by what I am given to do. Not by my vocations and stations in life. But by a desire to be loved and appreciated and hearkened unto. For all of this I must repent. I will go to my own pastor for Absolution, but here I must bear the fruits of repentance.

It has often been the case in my life, when something has become an idol for me, that I have simply given it up altogether. Sometimes "cold turkey" is the only way to go, and certain things in particular are bad news even in small doses. But I have tried to resist the urge of going from one form of self-righteousness to another. God's good gifts are never the problem, but rather the attachment of my heart to them. Supposing that I will cure my sinful heart by my good work of self-denial is only a different way of patting myself on the back and assuaging my conscience with my own efforts. It is good to humble myself under the mighty hand of God. Discipline is profitable. "Fasting" in all sorts of ways can be fine outward training. Yet, for all of that, sometimes it is helpful, perhaps even necessary (if one may speak with such paradox), to be quite deliberate about living in the freedom of the Gospel.

In this case, I'm not going to give up blogging altogether. I'm going to rejoice in this good gift of God, which is among His gifts of daily bread, and receive it with thanksgiving, and sanctify it to my use with His Word and prayer. But I am going to discipline myself and humble myself and partake of this gift in moderation. Where it can serve and support my stations in life, thanks be to God. Where it can be a place of peace and rest in the joys of life that God has given me, His child, even in this present world, so be it. But I'm removing the counter, because I don't want to know or keep track of how many other people are looking at my blog; that simply strokes my ego far too much. And I'm taking off most of the other links that I've included, not because I have no appreciation for what others have to say, but because I am too easily drawn into a "world" that is too large for this finite creature, one that is other than the place in life to which the Lord has called me. Besides, it makes me feel far too good about myself when I discover that someone else has mentioned me or my blog. I'm glad when my words can be of help and assistance to others, especially when I have the privilege of confessing the Word of God, but it is generally better for me not to know about it. I'm too inclined to take the credit, and my prayer this week is that the Lord would keep me from all ungodly pride, lest I fall into the same condemnation of the devil. I'm going to keep a few of the links, because some of these help me to stay connected to those I have some measure of responsibility for, while others instruct me in my own Christian faith and life. That is enough.

1 comment:

Mrs. MacAodhagain said...

As a far away reader, I certainly appreciate the insights I read here - and this admonishment applies to me too.