Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What's the "Calling" in life?

One of the issues that contributes a great deal to "teen angst" is the concern over "What do you want to be/do when you grow up?" The process of selecting a profession that will be both personally fulfilling and financially sustaining is a daunting task that few high-schoolers are up to. It is, therefore, of little help that so many influential voices surround them regarding what they ought to do with their life. The malaise of messages they imbibe while braving the gauntlet often labeled "finding yourself" are by no means harmonious. Familial opinions may clash with the youth's own internal proddings, or they may echo them. In any case, the young person can by no means ignore the thoughts of their surrounding peers or parents when considering the career path.

Hopefully, all of the hard work of personal discovery pays off as choices are made regarding vocation paths and education strategies. Nevertheless, when engaged in that path, the individual must perceive that it is a course they have chosen. However, the truly autonomous choice is somewhat of a misnomer. Myriad factors come to bear in the process of decision making, and ambient conditions of peer pressure and familial approval cannot be fully discounted. On the contrary, so varied are the influential components on one's choosing of a life course that it remains highly problematic to identify them all. As a result, many do not even attempt to do so. Instead, the kaleidoscope of shades that color their decision are clumped together and summarized with a nebulous label: "calling."

This term ("calling") has come into such popular use that the fact that no one truly knows what they mean when they use it is, by no means, a deterrent from using it with dizzying frequency. It's uses range from the relatively benign compliment "You missed your calling" (given when one supposedly observes exceptional skill demonstrated in another), to the more sinister source of teen-angst "You must discover your calling" (saddling the youngster with the heavy misconception that there might be one thing they can do in life). In any event, "calling" is meant to convey the supposed marrying of aptitude and appetite as regarding one's vocation. It can be used in a comparatively harmless manner, suggesting that one's "calling" should reflect both high aptitude AND high appetite activity, but in religious circles it can take on a very different connotation.

The propensity of the religious sub-culture to "punt" to the work of God as a sort of universal "fudge factor" cannot be overstated. Anything for which I'm unwilling to take the time to explain, I can simply invoke how "God works in mysterious ways" to end the conversation. This instinct is not entire misplaced, for the life of faith acknowledges how frequently God works through seemingly natural processes (also labeled "Providence" in some literature). Nevertheless, this same instinct can be abused to infuse certain inexplicable choices with Divine authority. In few cases is this more evident than with the manner that minsters describe themselves as "called of God." Instead of simply acknowledging the choices they made, and that their aptitude and appetite converged in a ministerial career, the choice to pursue a career in ministry is suggested to have been a response to a "Divine call."

This language can have the positive effect of helping the minister weather tough moments in the career, where setbacks and disappointments can test resolve. However, at the other end of the spectrum, it can have the destructive effect of keeping someone locked into that arena that should not be there. It is one thing for a man to endure hardships in a vocation because he feels "called" to it. It is another matter altogether for a man to remain in a vocation he not well suited for because of the guilt over potentially ignoring his "calling." Thus the whole language of "calling" seems hardly worth it's destructive potential. Surely God is not offended if a man who he "calls" admits that he really wanted to become a minister. But what untold pain ensues when a man that should not be in ministry stays at it because he perceives himself "called by God?"

This misplaced and pious language borrows its terms from Biblical terminology used less than a dozen times in Pauline literature (Greek-kaleo meaning "to urgently invite someone to accept responsibilities for a particular task, implying a new relationship to the one who does the calling — ‘to call, to call to a task.’"). Most often the phrasing of "calling" or "called" referenced God's drawing of someone to salvation through faith in Christ - having little to do with vocation choices or service in the Church. Nevertheless, because the term is found in the Bible, this gives license to use it, in popular religion, to blame my career choices on God more than on my own desires or the influence felt from friends and family.

For years I had labored under the assumption of having been "called" to the ministry. Many education and ecclesiastical choices were made in light of this assumption. However, now, after a considerable time of reflection, it is more plainly evident that the various ambient influences that came to bear should have been better identified. Ministerial choices were made with considerable attention to how family and friends found it laudable and praiseworthy. In an evangelical sub-culture, it is considered that if someone is truly spiritual, they will seek to "devote their life to the service of Christ" (this is code language for pursuing a religious career). As much as I revered my father, there was no one he revered so much as the local pastor. If a young man wanted to pursue a career that pleased that father, the choice was obvious. In addition, having various friends in the evangelical sub-culture who also thought a ministry career to be more respectable than any other pursuit, peer approval also played a role.

Can it be forcefully asserted that God played no role in this? By no means. To the extent that Providence can be credited for life lessons, God is appropriately thanked for life events that have proven beneficial. Was ministerial training and service totally contrary to my desires? Not at all. Indeed for one who enjoys teaching and training others, such aptitudes can find fulfilling expression in many careers (ministry included). But was I "called of God" to ministry? This language seems so meaningless now. I was once quite convinced I was "called," but had also failed to account for the various factors that had influenced my choices. So now, it seems far more responsible to merely assert that one is "called" to be conformed to the image of Christ - and some may choose careers of training other people in that process (which I did for a time).

But that's not good enough for some. It was recently posed to me that if I once was "called," to rebel against that "calling" now is sin. THAT'S SICK! The man that suggested that to me is one who I have some respect for, so I didn't exclaim to him what was blaring in my head at the time ("You pulled that out of thin air!" - censored, of course). What great pressures are heaped upon some for suggesting that their career choice is no less vital to the Church than when Jesus "called" his disciples to follow him. No, it is far more helpful to simply acknowledge one's choices, along with the various influences impacting that decision (Yes, religious zeal is a legitimate influential factor; so long as it is acknowledged as part of one's own choice), rather than to "punt" to the ambiguous language of "calling" that, while shielding one from others questioning the choice, serves to misplace responsibility for the choice. God didn't make you do this. You wanted to. Now admit the various reasons why doing it brought you fulfillment.

For me, Christian ministry brought me fulfillment because I enjoy watching people develop. It gives me pleasure to see people learn, and through that learning be better equipped to advance in their pursuits. In the Christian life, "advancement" means to be more conformed to the image of Christ. But for the same reasons I found fulfillment in ministry, I can easily find it elsewhere in academia as well. It's better to simply admit this than to maintain the unhelpful language of "calling." If a minister I respect speaks of being "called" to the ministry though, I won't try to refute him. I'll simply think to myself, "actually, you pretty much chose to do this. You're good at it. There was an opportunity to do it...and we're all the beneficiaries of your choice." May we all take more responsibility for our choices, identifying the various motives we bring to the table in making our choices, so that, while Providence can be credited for some good choices, God won't be blamed for bad ones.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I'm Proud to be from...

Geographic pride is varied and diverse among people I have met, and I'm not immune to it either. I've spoken before on the manner in which so many of us seem inexplicably "attached" to the land. This can be topographically true, with people self-identifying as a "mountain man" or a "beach bum." However, I have found that can be very regionally true as well. While few may take particular pride in being from "the north" (who knows? Perhaps there are some native Minnesotans I haven't met yet that are very proud of it; "Ya betcha!"), my recent experience has been that being from "The South" holds a peculiar air of honor. While my "southern" friends acknowledge some of the less complimentary legacies of the region, there's still a sort of "geographic loyalty" that doesn't allow the critique to go too far before a hearty "hold on there, pard'ner" brings the conversation back to a friendly tone.

I'm the same way. I'm proud to be from northern California (stress on the "northern.") I always (ALWAYS!) sing along with Hank Williams, Jr. (in that part of his song "A Country Boy Can Survive") when he mentions "north California." People from Texas that don't know where Redding is often ask, "Isn't that in northern California... near San Francisco?" My answer is always swift: "NO! Redding is really in northern California. San Francisco is a 4 hour drive away" (stress on the "4 hours"). "They're not in northern California," I clarify. "We are!" Whenever the news discusses some crazy occurrence happening in California, I always assume it's far away from my beloved homeland.

I'm so pathetic... I get all defensive as well. Someone may say, "Go to such and such a place. The lakes there are beautiful," but I'll quickly counter, "maybe, but not as pretty as Whiskeytown or Shasta." A well meaning acquaintance here in Texas will suggest I visit the "mountains" in west Texas, but I quickly correct, "They're not like the MOUNTAINS in northern California." That type of "geographic loyalty" just comes out of one's speech before you've even had the chance to stop and think about what you're saying. I'm sure some must find it rude at times, or at least shake their heads and think: he's illogically loyal to his home region.

Those in "the South" are no worse than I am. How could I expect them to throw their regional loyalties "under the bus" whenever someone not from there brings up historic episodes related "Jim Crow" laws, the Klan or slavery. It's unreasonable to think that people will shed their homeland identity the moment an "outsider" wants to point out a region's "checkered past." In addition, no region is immune to such critiques, so "the South" should not have to endure a disproportionately negative report. I'm sensitive to this because of recent comments offered from those that both are not from "the South," and don't acknowledge their own attachment to "a land" either.

I find that it is very natural to admit a "regional identity," proudly affirming one's homeland and even listing ways that geography has likely shaped you. By contrast, those that have not explored this may unreasonably question another's defense of their homeland. If someone approaches me with attacks about the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico or the displacement of Indian tribes, I'm likely to interrupt with, "Yeah..yeah. I know about that. But you should hear the great stories of the Gold Rush and Sutter's Mill, and many others that will blow your mind."

I imagine this phenomenon of "regional loyalty" has got to be quite widespread. No doubt such sentiments would arise when conversing with someone imbued with the "wild Alaska spirit," or that was raised in the hills of Tennessee. The Nebraska plains or the Florida beaches much invade the psyche so that someone from there may think of any negative legacies: that's for me to know, but not for you to say. I'm sure the lighthouses of Maine must shape a person just as much as the Colorado Rockies do, and I don't begrudge a New Yorker turning defensive for Lady Liberty anymore than I would the Texan that stands at The Alamo in silence.

There's a way in which people are naturally tied to the land. We're made to work the soil, follow it's seasons and feel it's rhythms. It's not pantheism or a Gaia cult. We're made by the Creator to be in harmony with the creation, and the way the land shapes us should not be surprising. I'm proud to be from northern California, and I glad to meet anyone proud to be from anywhere else too.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Symbols and Ignorance

Symbols gain their significance not only by the historic setting into which they are first introduced, but also by popular usage over time. As a result, some symbols take on a wide variety of meanings depending upon the context in which they are used. Therefore, the symbols, by themselves, cannot convey a clear meaning unless accompanied with some explanation as to why it is being used, and what message they are meant to embody. For example, a bronze eagle perched atop a flag pole carried in procession might represent national pride in a 2nd century Roman legion, a Third Reich military parade or a local gathering of the Boy Scouts in your neighborhood. Symbols must have a context, or else their range of meanings is simply too vast to convey anything meaningful.

Another excellent example is the symbol of the Confederate Battle flag. Used during the Civil War as a battle flag for some Confederate states, it has particular historical significance. Some may use it to symbolize, in a panoramic way, the entire "War Between the States," appreciating the forming and shaping this conflict accomplished for the still relatively young nation. Other historical enthusiasts and societies use it to symbolize a very specific aspect of that history related to military legacies or southern family settlements dating clear back to the antebellum period. On the other hand, others may use it to symbolize legitimate and contemporary political discussions concerning state's rights versus federal authority on a given issue. It can represent something as generic as one's geographic pride in being from "The South," to something as light-heated as the famed "General Lee" car in television's "The Dukes of Hazard."

And, of course, it can negatively be used to symbolize the scourge of slavery that blights American history. Fueling this usage have been the occasional racist groups that still exists to this day. Such ideological "cancers" use the above symbol to represent, if not "white supremacy," at least a version of "white separatism." The thought is that since people of various races tend to congregate together anyway, and organically form their own cultural dynamics... why fight it? It encourages an "us versus them" mentality that thinks nothing of making broad, sweeping statements about "the other group."

Such mouth pieces for this line of thinking represent the worst type of ignorance. It could very well be that they have had an experience in their sphere of life that they then project upon the rest of a group, and upon society. Regardless of what life experience has led them to espouse their view, the effect is the same: racism. They give themselves over to the intellectual laziness of assuming that those of a specific racial group all share a common trait (seldom is this trait a positive one). Yet the racist does not stop to consider whether he has performed a reckless leap of logic; he simply assumes, unquestioningly, that broad generalities (either told to him by another racist, or that he extrapolated from his own limited experience) can be safely applied to entire people groups that share a common color or accent that differs from his own.

In a previous article (What do you Mean when you Say, "Equal?"), it was discussed that ultimately, the ignorance of finding groups to be inferior is not merely a wrong-headed evil, it's a theological heresy. Because the blessed doctrine of "universal depravity" reminds us that we are all crooked deep down and in need of the saving work of Jesus Christ, to suggest that the negative effects of "the fall" are more concentrated in another group than one's own is to find one's self at odds with this doctrine. The doctrine of "universal depravity" is supplanted with the heresy of "concentrated depravity," supposing that depravity is more "concentrated" in another race or gender than mine.

But the racist defends, "It's not that I think 'that other race' is wholly inferior to mine. I just think there exists a conflict between 'that other race' and mine." Again, the "racism" is evident in the unbridled willingness to accept that ALL of "the other race" are in conflict with ALL of mine. The generalizations abound with unflinching force and comfort. This green man and that blue man have a quarrel in a specific part of the country; ergo... green men and blue men everywhere are in conflict. Rubbish!

Again, the racist defends, "But the green man and the blue man SAID that they were fighting because of their colors." He accepts without criticism whether the "green and blue men" in question are the best examples of humanity with which to be formulating sociological assumptions. No, he imbibes the explanation that such "conflict" must be everywhere because he already accepts the premise that "blues" and "greens" just don't mix well. It helps him organize his view of people, make sense of the world and manage the input of various experiences he has. He may not wear a hood, tattoo a swastika on his shoulder or "jump into" a Neo-Nazi gang, but he has adopted the racist paradigm nonetheless. He thinks in groups, in terms of race, and fully expects "the other race" to be in conflict with his.

It remains lamentable that the Confederate Battle flag is seen so easily by some as a symbol of racism. Journals and memoirs from Confederate Army generals are replete with musings on the blight of slavery, and the desire to see it eradicated - "just as soon as this conflict with the invading Federal Army from the North is won." But such sentiments are seldom the headline. Instead, the meaning often ascribed to it is one of racism that was formalized in the institution of slavery of the 19th century. And present-day racists, in their various forms, that use it to symbolize there own message aren't helping.