My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts. Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.
Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”
We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”
“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”
If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”
All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.
Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.
Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”
Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.
Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.
Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.
The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.
My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.
I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:
“The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”
Under the provocative title, “Why I Hope To Die at 75,” the 57-year-old Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and head of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, sets forth in The Atlantic Magazine what he claims to be his firm conclusion that he hopes to die in 18 years at age 75.
As a 75 year-old-man who was graduated from high school in 1957, the year Emanuel was born, I do not hope to die in the remaining months before I turn 76 or at any other set time.
Let us explore the reasons for these different conclusions.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s Reasons
According to Dr. Emmanuel, “[L]iving too long is . . . a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.” He then backs up this opinion with what he asserts as facts:
“We [in the U.S.] are growing old [in terms of increased life expectancy], and our older years are not of high quality.” Studies show, he says, that “increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability.” Another study found an “increase in the absolute number of years lost to disability [including mental disabilities like depression and dementia] as life expectancy rises.”
Another medical researcher said, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.”
“[O]ur mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older: mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, problem-solving and creativity.”
The “most dreadful of all possibilities: living with dementia and other acquired mental disabilities” while our society is expected to experience a “tsunami of dementia.”
As we age, we “accommodate our physical and mental limitations. Our expectations shrink. . . . [W]e choose ever more restricted activities and projects, to ensure we can fulfill them.”
He recognizes that “there is more to life than youthful passions focused on career and creating. There is [mentoring and] posterity: children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
But these benefits of aging are outweighed for him by “the very real and oppressive financial and caregiving burdens” often imposed on other family members and by the psychological burdens on children unable to escape from the shadows of living parents.
Although Emanuel does not embrace euthanasia or suicide for himself, he has executed “a do-not-resuscitate order and a complete advance directive indicating no ventilators, dialysis, surgery, antibiotics, or any other medication. . . . In short, no life-sustaining interventions.” In addition, if and when he reaches age 75, he will seek to avoid any visit to a doctor and any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. He says he “will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if he is suffering pain or other disability.”
A desire to die at age 75, he says, “forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, our world.”
He concludes with this caveat. “I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.”
Responses to Emmanuel’s Reasons
I agree with Emmanuel that as we age we lose some of our physical and mental abilities and that executing a complete advance medical directive forbidding extreme life-sustaining interventions, as he and I have done, is a reasonable thing to do.
Otherwise I vigorously disagree with Emmanuel’s conclusion that a desire to die at age 75 is a reasonable conclusion and reject his argument that what others think of us or how they may remember us after we are gone is relevant to this issue. Apparently creativity is a central virtue for him, and its predictable decline as we age appear to be the major motivation for his stated desire to die at 75. Yes, creativity is important for many of us, but it is not the only virtue.
I also wonder why he does not contemplate retirement from actively working for a living as another stage of life with certain benefits. Nor does he really grapple with the facts, he briefly concedes, that many older people are happy with new interests like “bird watching, bicycle riding, pottery, and the like” and that “there is more to life than youthful passions focused on career and creating. There is posterity: children, grand children and great-grandchildren.” He also glosses over the fact that his own father (Dr. Benjamin M. Emmanuel), now about 87 years old, had a heart attack 10 years ago and since then has slowed down appreciably, but still says he is happy.
My Reasons for Not Wanting To Die at 75
At age 62 with some trepidation, I retired from the active practice of law. I wanted to escape the pressure of being a litigator who oftentimes was forced to be in professional relationships with opposing counsel who were disagreeable people. This produced stress that I wanted to eliminate as life-threatening. I also wanted to create time to do other things beside working while I was still in good health: travel, spend time with my grandchildren, learn new things and write. After my first 10 years of retirement I assessed my retirement and concluded that these years had been productive and enjoyable. That confirmed for me the wisdom of retiring when I did. These conclusions have been reconfirmed by my subsequent three additional years of retirement.
In this period I became actively involved in my church’s global partnerships and made three mission trips to Cuba and one to Cameroon and in the process made new international friends and learned a lot about the two countries. My involvement with Cuba prompted me to become an advocate for changing U.S. policies regarding the island. I could not have done this while still practicing law.
I also have reflected on my own life and affirmatively set about determining the many people and activities for which I was grateful. Yes, this could have been done while still working, but the pressures of working, I believe, would have meant postponing such reflections to another day that would never have come. This process of reflection, aided by worship at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, has also enabled me to see certain of my activities as vocations in the Christian sense.
One of my activities in this first phase of retirement was being a part-time Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School to co-teach international human rights law. In the process I learned a lot about this field of law and enjoyed interacting with law professors and students. I could not have done this while still practicing law.
At the end of 2010 I retired from law teaching in order to create time for sharing things I already had written and for research and writing on new topics that came along. In the spring of 2011 this desire lead to my creating and writing this blog. It is exciting to come across new things, like Emmanuel’s article that prompted this post. I frequently find that such things immediately start my composing an article in my head. Often this triggers a desire to do research, frequently using “Google” searches, but sometimes going to a library or sources of original documents. I enjoy this kind of puzzle and challenge as well as the writing.
In my retirement I also have thought about mortality, especially as friends, acquaintances and others my age die. But such thoughts are not depressing, but rather reminders that I too am mortal. Therefore, try to make the most of each day you have.
I do not worry about when I will die or wish that I will die at a particular age. Nor do I worry about what happens to me after death even though Christianity has a promise of eternal life.
Be happy! Enjoy life! Love one another!
This point was raised in an article entitled “Too Young to Die, Too Old to Worry” by Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine, just after the publication of the Emmanuel essay, but without citation to same. Karlawish said, “Age seems to be a blunt criterion to decide when to stop” and “we desire not simply to pursue life, but happiness, and . . . medicine is important, but it’s not the only means to this happiness.”
Here are some of my blog posts that relate to the previous statement of reasons why I do not desire to die at 75.
 Emmanuel makes no reference to the immediately preceding article in the magazine by Greg Easterbrook, What Happens When We All Live to 100?, The Atlantic at 61 (Oct. 2014) that discusses research into further increases in vibrant life span.
The sermon, “What’s Next for Me?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen was primarily addressed to the new graduates, but its message had meaning for everyone. He emphasized “the metaphor of journey, or pilgrimage, to understand Christian life.”
“The next steps you take on your pilgrimage through life do not have to be definitive. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead. Some will be delightful surprises; others, painful disappointments.”
Hart-Andersen, using his own life as an example, said, “Only after multiple false starts did I finally begin to pay attention to the nagging sense that God had other ideas for my life. It was, for me a matter of feeling ‘at home.’ That became a test for me: did I feel at home in a given occupation? Even if I was good at it, that didn’t prevent me from feeling like a stranger on a particular path. And if I felt like that, I moved on. Only later did I understand that God was at work in those twists and turns.”
“It may not always have been obvious to you, but God has been your companion along the way. Sometimes God may not have felt present to you, or maybe you went through times where you felt abandoned by God. But, the journey is long and we are people of faith. We believe God is the Guide. It may seem as if we’re on our own, but in this we trust: God is on the pilgrimage with us.”
“Scripture is replete with accounts of people trying to sort out which way their path is taking them. The Bible is the story of God’s people trying to find their way. Sometimes it’s clear; at other times, it’s not.”
“Think of the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. That was one, long search for the way forward . . . . The dream of freedom turned into something that felt a lot like a nightmare. . . . They forgot about God’s promise; [instead] they made a new, little god they could manage, a golden calf. They were grasping at anything to find some sense of clarity in their lives.” [Exodus 32:1-9.]
“[W]hen Jesus ascends to heaven . . .[He] tells his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit descends on them. They return to Jerusalem, go into an upper room, and settle in together until the time is right. . . . [They wait.] Their waiting involves prayer. They’re not passive in their hope of the promise fulfilled. Prayer is active waiting in anticipation of divine response, active trusting that God is listening. Prayer helps on the journey. Their waiting involves watching. They pay attention to the signs around them, looking for glimmers of the promise, “the trailing wisps of glory.” Their waiting is done together, in community.” [Acts 1:1-14.]
“What’s next for me is a question aimed at vocation . . . . Every one of us ought to be asking the same question of our own pilgrimage in life: what’s next? Where do I go from here? What does God have in store for me at this point in my life?”
“We Presbyterians are known to emphasize the vocation of each person. It begins with John Calvin who argues that everyone has a vocation, not only those called into ministry. Everyone has a role to play in the community, in business, in education or medicine or industry or technology or the military or science or public service or _____ – you fill in the blank.”
“Calvin views every occupation as an opportunity to excel, and in our excelling, we glorify God. All human work, Calvin writes, is capable of ‘appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God.’ . . . For Calvin it’s the person that matters, the person, not the job.”
“In his view, people are not called by God out of the world, in order not to sully themselves with ordinary life, but rather, people are called by God into the world, right into the mundane stuff by which we make our living. And there, right there, in the everyday challenges of the jobs we do, God is found, and God can be glorified in what we do, no matter what it is.”
“The Israelites cowering in fear in the wilderness and the followers of Jesus huddled together in that upper room struggled with what was next for them. They wondered if God had given up on them; some of them gave up on God.”
“Each of us is tempted to wonder the same thing when the way forward is not clear, or when it’s littered with challenges that seem to overwhelm, or when it leads into darkness that offers little respite.”
“But those who wait for God’s promise, even if it takes forty years, will not be disappointed. Light will illumine the path. The way forward will be clear. We will find it together, trusting that the Spirit will meet us on the way. “
“What’s next for me? We need only open our eyes, take a step in trust, and then another, and another, and another. We will discover what God’s future holds for us.”
The sermon’s emphasis on pilgrimage was echoed in the choir’s anthem for the day: The Road Not Taken with music by Randall Thompson and the words from Robert Frost’s poem by the same name:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
 The bulletin for this worship service is available online.
A number of posts to this blog have discussed the religious notion of vocation.
 The notion of God calling us into the world was also embraced by poet Christian Wiman.
 “The Road Not Taken” is one of seven Frost poems in Frostiana: Seven Country Songs, a piece for mixed chorus and piano composed by Thompson in 1959 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Massachusetts town of Amherst, where Frost (1874-1963), who had known Thompson and admired his music, had lived for many years. Thompson (1899-1984) was an American composer, particularly noted for his choral works. A colleague said “Thompson’s choral works are a shining reflection of the joy and creative skill with which he taught musical craft—of Palestrina and Lasso, of Monteverdi and Schütz, of Bach and Handel. It has been his belief that music of this craft is timeless in its nature, and can form part of the basis of a composer’s working vocabulary without loss to his individual talent. In this he is a true classicist and an academic in the best sense.”
The words and music about vocation at the January 26th and February 9th worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church have inspired my general thoughts about vocation set forth in a prior post. Now I reflect on my own vocations.
Until I was in my early 40’s, I had no religious beliefs after high school and no sense of vocation.
That started to change in 1981 when I joined Westminster and embraced what I now see as my first vocation: serving the church as a ruling elder (1985-1991) and over time as an active member of several of its committees (Spiritual Growth, Communications and Global Partnerships). More recently I joined its Global Choir. After all, a new member covenants to find “a definite place of usefulness” in the church.
For 10 years (2003-2013) I served as chair of Global Partnerships, which supervises the church’s partnerships with churches and other organizations in Cuba, Cameroon, Palestine and for a time in Brazil. This lead to my going on three mission trips to Cuba, one to Cameroon and another to Brazil. As a result, I established personal friendships with people in those countries as part of our collective, and my personal, vocation of being present with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and standing in solidarity with them. I also learned about the history, culture and current issues of those countries. This in turn lead to a strong interest in promoting reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba and Cuban religious freedom, and as a U.S. citizen I have endeavored to do just that.
This sense of religious institutional vocation also encompassed my serving on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities for another 10-year period (1988-1998). In my small way, I helped nurture future ministers of the church. In the process I got to know interesting members of the faculty, administration and board and about the life of U.S. seminaries.
I, however, initially struggled with how to integrate my newly reclaimed religious beliefs and my life as a practicing lawyer, and over the years found ways to share this struggle with others, especially with my fellow lawyers.
One way I discovered a vocation in the practice of law resulted from experiencing the bitterness and lack of reconciliation between opposing parties in litigation and, too often, as well between their lawyers, including myself. This experience lead in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s to a personal interest in, and writing and speaking about, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), one of whose objectives is resolution of such disputes more amicably, and to my active participation in the ADR Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
Another and more powerful vocation involving my professional life emerged when a senior partner of my law firm in the mid-1980’s asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church (“ALC” and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The problem: how should the ALC respond to information that the U.S. immigration agency (INS) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible-study meetings at ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that provided sanctuary or safe places to Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars.
The conclusion of this engagement was the ALC and the Presbyterian Church (USA)—my own denomination—jointly suing the U.S. government to challenge the constitutionality of such spying. Eventually the U.S. district court in Arizona held that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “free exercise” of religion clause protected churches from unreasonable government investigations.
U.S. immigration law was in the background of this case, but I did not know anything about that law. I, therefore, sought to remedy that deficiency by taking a training course in asylum law from the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.
I then volunteered to be a pro bono lawyer for a Salvadoran seeking asylum in the U.S. because of his claim to a well-founded fear of persecution in his home country because of his political opinions and actions opposing its government. Again, my initial motivation for this action was to be a better lawyer for the ALC.
I discovered, however, that being a pro bono asylum lawyer was my passionate vocation while I was still practicing law and continued doing so until I retired from the practice in the summer of 2001. In addition to El Salvador, my other clients came from Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia. I was able to assist them in obtaining asylum and thereby escape persecution. In the process, I learned more about asylum law and other aspects of immigration law as well as the horrible things that were happening in many parts of the world. I was able to use my experience and gifts in investigating and presenting facts and legal arguments to courts and officials and came to see this as one of the most important and rewarding vocations I have ever had.
In the process of this asylum work, I also learned for the first time about the humbling and courageous ministry and vocation of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in March 1980 because he repeatedly spoke out against human rights violations in his country. He now is my personal saint. I also learned about the important and courageous work in that country by the Jesuit priests and professors at the University of Central America, six of whom were murdered in November 1989 for the same reason, and they too have become heroes for me.
Another Salvadoran I met on my first trip to that country enriched my sense of the potential for vocation in practicing law. He was Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the Lutheran Church’s human rights office, who spoke about the joy he experienced in his work.
After retiring from the full-time practice of law in 2001, I served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School (2002 through 2010) to co-teach international human rights law. I thereby hoped to encourage law students to become interested in the field and to include such work in their future professional lives. Thus, this became another vocation with the side benefit of enabling me to learn more about the broader field of international human rights.
I chose another retirement in 2011, this time from part-time teaching, in order to start this blog about law, politics, history and religion. I came to see it as yet another vocation. I think it important to share my religious experiences and beliefs in the midst of active consideration of legal and political issues and demonstrate that it is possible for an educated, intelligent individual to have such beliefs.
In 2011 as a member of the planning committee for my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion. I thought we should do more to remember our deceased classmates than merely list their names in our reunion booklet. I, therefore, suggested that if each committee member wrote five or six obituaries, we would have written memorials for all of our departed classmates. However, no one else volunteered to participate in this project so I did it all myself except for a few written by spouses. After the reunion, I continued to do this when the need arises.
Although this project required a lot of work, I came to see it as pastoral work and rewarding as I learned about the lives of people, many of whom I had not really known when we were together as students. I drew special satisfaction when I learned that a classmate who had died in his 30’s had two sons who had never seen the College annuals that had a lot of photographs of their father as a physics student and co-captain of the football team, and I managed to find a set of those annuals which were sent to the sons. I thus came to see this as a vocation.
Many of these vocations resulted from invitations from others to do something, which I accepted. Initially the invitations did not seem to be calls for a vocation, and it was only after doing these things and reflecting upon them that I saw them as such.
The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors. I have learned about different areas of the law, different countries and the lives of interesting people, living and dead.
I feel blessed that I have discovered at least some of the work that God has called me to do, in Frederick Buechner’s words, “the work that I need most to do and that the world most needs to have done.”
Or as Rev. Hart-Andersen said on February 9th, “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”
The subject of vocation returned to Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on February 9th. A prior post examined the service’s music on the subject while another set forth the Scriptures for the day: Psalm 27 and Matthew 4:12-23.
The sermon that day was “What Happens When Jesus Calls?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor.Here are excerpts from that sermon.
“If the question is what happens when Jesus calls, the answer may be that when Jesus calls we take a good, long, hard, deep look at what we perceive to be the purpose of our lives. That may suggest a job change, or not; perhaps a shift in careers, or not; it may mean finally discovering our life’s vocation.
The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee have that kind of experience with Jesus when he comes calling. His goal is not that they abandon their chosen vocation arbitrarily, but, rather, to rethink it. He never asks them to stop fishing; he asks them to rethink how and why they are doing it. In fact, Jesus even says to them that they’ll continue in the same line of work – only now they’ll be ‘fishing for people.’ He wants them to ponder who they are and what their focus ought to be in life.
When Jesus calls, it occasions an examination of our purpose in life, no matter what work we’re engaged in. In the story of Jesus calling the fishermen at least two things happen.
First, Jesus comes looking for them. The call is his idea, not theirs. They were minding their own business when he shows up and invites them to rethink their lives. We don’t have to take the first step toward Jesus; he comes for us, if we’re ready. This is what the psalmist refers to in writing, ‘Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Wait for the Lord.’
So often we think the business of faith depends on us; but it’s a gift from God, not an achievement we attain through hard work and hours of effort. Jesus comes looking for us.
Second, Jesus meets them right where they are. He looks for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. Those four fishermen had no apparent special gifts that made them uniquely attractive candidates to become disciples.
The Church will be built not of princes and priests and power brokers, but of common people who are just like anyone else. Those fishermen went from their boats to become the inner circle of Jesus and later to lead the early Church. Nothing about them suggested that they would be suited for this work. Jesus meets us right where we are.
The call Jesus extends to the fishermen changes them. We who want to follow Jesus without making much in the way of change in our lives, be it in how we conduct our business, or how we spend our time, or how we use our resources, are missing the whole point of Christianity. Faith transforms us. The old life is gone; a new life has begun.
Understanding what it means to be called, to have a vocation, is at the heart of the Presbyterian way of Christianity. Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin said.
‘The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his (or her) calling. For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once.’
Calvin may be giving us a peek inside his own personality and psychological make-up when he names the ‘great restlessness’ of human nature. But many of us know precisely what Calvin refers to when he laments the way we flit about from one scheme to another as we seek to find what we’re supposed to be doing in life. Especially today, it’s difficult to know what direction to pursue when our vocation in ten years – or even in one year – may not even exist right now.
‘Therefore,’ Calvin goes on to say, ‘Each individual has his (or her) own kind of living assigned to him (or her) by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he (or she) may not heedlessly wander throughout life.’ (John Calvin; Institutes, III.x.6.)
‘Our own kind of living assigned to us so that we might not heedlessly wander throughout life.’
These days the average person will hold between 10 and 15 jobs in a lifetime. I was heading in that direction myself until I finally gave into the nagging sense of call to serve the church. I started seminary at age 27; by that time I had made several exploratory attempts – at least three – to test one career or another, None of them was right. I was having a hard time finding the ‘kind of living assigned to me.’ I was wandering.
Finding my vocation, my calling, depended on my feeling at home in what I was doing. I resisted accepting the call to ministry as long as I could, but in each vocation I tested – teacher, academic scholar, social service worker– I felt as if I were a stranger, as if were not quite at home. Frankly, it also had to do with needing to be sure it was my call and not something I was doing to please someone else – my parents, in particular. 
When I was in my mid-20’s, some 15 years later, with my life in a time of upheaval, I began, finally, to consider what I had avoided all those years: whether or not I was called into ministry. I wrestled hard with the decision– for nine months, in a kind of gestating process, I prayed and listened.
And one September Saturday morning, as I was in the bath tub, it came to me that I needed to go to seminary. The water was making a deep connection, I realized later, between baptism and vocation.
Ordained ministry was the one possibility that didn’t leave me feeling as if I were a stranger. It felt like home.
I was finding my vocation, not what my parents wanted me to do, but what I felt called to do.
Think back on your own employment history; you may be surprised how many different jobs you’ve held or careers you’ve tried, but that may or may not have anything to do with the ‘heedless wandering’ Calvin was concerned about. Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less about what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives, and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever work we do.
Nothing more thrills a pastor than to see changes happening in the lives of parishioners. I’ve seen hard-charging business leaders switch to non-profit careers because they feel called to serve the community in a new way. I’ve seen teachers give themselves over utterly to their students because they sense a call to live like that. I’ve watched retired people discover new ways to serve and follow Jesus in their later years. I’ve seen young adults light up as they discover their vocation and pursue it with determination.
When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination; that’s what those fishermen learned that day. Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.
The occasion of a memorial service – any memorial service, not only that of a much-loved public figure [like Joan Mondale] – invites us to reflect not only on the life of the one who has died, but also on the life you and I lead.
Someday it will be we about whom they will be speaking. What will they say? What will be the summary of the highest priorities of our lives? What will they say was the central theme of our lives?
 The prior day Rev. Dr. Hart-Andersen had presided at the memorial service at Westminster for long-time member and former Second Lady Joan Mondale, with remembrances from friends and acquaintances, including Vice President Joe Biden and former President Jimmy Carter. Included in the 1,000 people at the service were her husband and former Vice President Walter Mondale, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (who is a Westminster member), two U.S. Senators, half the Minnesota congressional delegation, several mayors, brass and strings from the Minnesota Orchestra, the Macalester College Choir and Pipe Band, gospel musicians, and a Japanese solo vocalist Another 5,000 people, including this blogger, attended via the live-stream video, which is available online.
The subject of vocation returned to Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on February 9th. A prior post examined the service’s music on the subject, and the bulletin and an audio and video recording of the service are online.
The sermon that day was “What Happens When Jesus Calls?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor, which will be reviewed in a future post.
The Scriptures for that sermon were Psalm 27 and Matthew 4: 12-23. Here they are.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
“Now when Jesusheard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’Immediately they left their nets and followed him.As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesuswent throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good newsof the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”