The Calling of the Non-Achievers

14 Mar

The Calling of the Non-Achievers

This installment consists of a talk I gave last evening at a Lenten midweek service. A few of you have already seen this. I’ve added a poem that was inspired by a heavy, wet snow we had earlier this week. The poem might be related to Calling, if you agree with one reader who responded that she thinks we grow more sensitive to beauty as we age. If you don’t agree, just enjoy it for what it’s worth. Some of you have seen the Montgomery Place cafe that has inspired several poems in recent years. It’s a magic place for me–when the screen us lifted!  (See my first blog installment)

Augustana Lutheran Church–3/13/2014–Lenten Vespers

For the sake of clarity, I’m using the term, “calling,” rather than “vocation.” Vocation is both a secular and a traditional Christian term. In our common parlance, the secular prevails, meaning “occupation,” or profession. Hence we speak of vocational training or vocational counselors, who help people find jobs. In Christian terms, it is used by Roman Catholics to refer to the call that priests, monks, and nuns receive. Luther reacted against this traditional usage, saying that it “clergified” the church. He insisted that every Christian has a vocation or calling, simply by virtue of being a child of God. This calling is to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. It’s a call to live out Jesus’s life of ministry to all, carrying the cross in our daily living, and sharing in Christ’s resurrection. This is far larger than any clergy calling–in fact, clergy have to try extra hard to live in the world as Jesus did.

Every child of God – everyone of us has a calling from God and from our fellow human beings. This is basic Christian faith, and it is emphasized especially in Lutheran theology. This is no doubt easier to understand when we think of younger people: children, youth, and adults in the working prime of their lives. But what of the older people, those we call “senior citizens,” as well as the downright elderly and those who are in the waning years of their lives? Do they no longer have a calling? No longer share the dream that God has given us all? Do their lives no longer point to the meaning and vision of life? And make a witness to the mandate and calling that God gives us all?

I have been thinking about these questions more intensely in the last year, and particularly in the past few months, when I have become more handicapped even than I was before. My comments this evening will be very personal, out of my own experience.

Every stage of life is distinctive and has its own unique character and meaning. It is equally true that every stage of life can learn from the distinctiveness of the other stages. Young people can learn from older people, just as the older ones have much to learn from the younger. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from each other about our calling, our vocation under God, is that our lives should witness to the larger reality, the larger truth of life that God has revealed to us, particularly in Jesus Christ.

We are called upon to develop ourselves more fully to allow ourselves to be educated and become more skilled especially when we are young. We have purposes to work on, goals to attain, and accomplishments to make – particularly when we are in the prime of life and at the top of our strength. These elements make up our calling from God, and we live out the gospel as we follow this calling. However there is another element that is perhaps more at home in old age, as we become elderly. And this is to show forth how our days are to be lived even when we are not making accomplishments. This element includes witnessing to the underlying principles that undergird the life lived in God, quite apart from accomplishment.

When we are not accomplishing–that is an idea worth pondering. In America, and in many other societies, we are accomplishment-oriented. One of our concerns with our children’s education and life-style, is that we want them to be achievers–sometimes that becomes our chief concern. “Job-creating,” “job creators”–these terms have become almost sacred in the past few years. Colleges and universities are losing students if they can’t connect their education to “job creation.” The arts and humanities are withering in many colleges, because they seem to be irrelevant to getting a job and achieving something in today’s terms.

The elderly and the handicapped elderly–and I am now fitting into both those categories–can have no calling, if it is tied to achievement or “job.” There is no question that living out the life of Jesus Christ in the world today must include living it out in the world of the job-creators–in fact, that is a critical issue of Christian Discipleship. But we might also say that the foundation of our calling lies beyond the achievement-orientation. After all, for a huge number of people, we are non-achievers for the first 20 years of our lives, and if we retire in our 60s, we are non-achievers for the last 15 or 20–that’s 30 to 40 years of life.

The elderly and the handicapped are in a particularly good position to probe the non-achieving life, because we are not expected to achieve, nor to prepare for the life in the world of the job creators. In fact, our entire lives depend on our discerning God’s call to the non-achievers.

What does God call us to beyond the world of job-achieving? What’s your answer to that question? What do our lives under God’s calling look like?

I invite you to think along with me as I reflect on these questions. I would welcome discussion on these points.

1–Care for others–Jesus’ great commandment and others.

2–Care for poor and suffering–one of the most persisting themes in the Psalms and the Prophets.
In the last two days I have read Psalms 106 and 13: “you may mock the poor, but the Lord keeps them safe.” “God will lift up the poor, shepherding them like flocks.” In The Magnificat,” we read “God scatters the proud and pulls tyrants from their thrones, and raises up the humble. The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.” These put care for the poor and suffering as a necessity, not an option.

3–Living that reflects the Kingdom of God–what would that be? Some of our prayers speak of the family unit as the microcosm of the kingdom.

4–“Unnecessary kindness”–last week, I spoke with another resident at Montgomery Place, the retirement community where I live. We spoke of the relatively high level of anxiety that we observe around us. She responded with this statement so crystalline that it can serve as an aphorism: “I try to live my daily life aware that everyone I meet is fighting some sort of struggle, and I am called to show them even unnecessary kindness.” Those words have stuck with me, “unnecessary kindness.” What would that mean? And what are the ways that I can show such kindness?

You might say that we’re asking what is the template of the life lived under God’s Calling? A template that applies alike to achieving and non-achieving.

Let the discussion flow–

White Lollipops

White lollipops
topping bushes’ pruned back
upright branches

Snowy woolly
caterpillars crawling
along the horizontal twigs

Holding on
in the still still air
they almost touch
my cafe window

Glazed in white
bright as diamonds
trees lord their arms
arching toward me

They feel a tender
breeze they sway
their crystals
holding firm

A blue sky dome
descending in the distance
to a greenish sea

Beauty–aching my heart
calls the spirit forth
to a communion

After all Jesus
said of the lily’s glory
behold–mere looking
is too little–
a shame no less

Phil Hefner

3 Responses to “The Calling of the Non-Achievers”

  1. Elizabeth Palmer March 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    Thank you so much for your lovely comments last night, and it’s good to read them again today. I often tell Anna (age 3) that her vocation is to grow and learn and play. You’ve reminded me that she is also already old enough to begin caring for others (as she plays out already with her dolls) and to live with empathy and kindness. And your comments about the Kingdom of God being reflected in the orders of creation–family, friends, and other important relationships–are helpful to me as I anticipate my upcoming maternity leave.

    • philnevahefner March 14, 2014 at 11:43 pm #

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m pleased and intrigued by relating this to your personal situation. There was a fine Collect in SBH about families as replicas of the Kingdom of God. It’s a daunting challenge, but immensely inspiring, even when we don’t come as close as we’d hope to. And, of course, it’s a challenge to understand what it might mean. Thinking of you as you approach your Day of God.

  2. Karl Peters March 17, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    I find your “calling to non-achievers” profound. It brings to mind one of my life heroes–my Uncle Arthur Peters. From early in his life, Arthur manifested something that looked like cerebral palsy, maybe the after effects of childhood polio. He couldn’t walk but crawled. Outside he propelled himself in a wagon around Plymouth, WI. He couldn’t talk clearly. He ate sloppily. His memory was excellent.
    Arthur lived most of his life with his mother (my Grandmother Peters) until she died. Then he lived in a Lutheran nursing home in Fond du Lac. He died at age 66. In all those years, what had he achieved? What could he achieve?
    At his funeral, our minister spoke on the parable of the talents. What? What talent did Arthur have? Our minister said he had one talent–that was to make people feel welcome. Whenever you visited Arthur, he would hold out his shaking arm and hand, smile slightly a crooked smile, and say “He-wo, How ar oo!
    That was my Uncle’s “calling” for over 60 years as a non-achiever. Or maybe he did achieve–much. The funeral home was packed with people that had been touched by his simple kindness.
    Sometimes, in the last session of an Introduction to Philosophy class, I would tell the story of my Uncle Arthur. I then said that he was a test for any life philosophy. If a philosophy of life could not include as meaningful the life of my Uncle, it was worth nothing.

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