The Midday Demons of Staying Put

A little over two years ago I made the following bold claim on this site:

I’m staying put. I’m here now and not going anywhere. If I move out of my current neighbourhood and into another one, I’m going to stay there for the rest of my life. I’m committed.

It was (and is) a bold statement, one that many thought meant I should be committed. And yet, Jaclyn and I moved ourselves from Winnipeg’s West End to its North End where, for better and worse, we plan to stick around.[ref]Whether that’s where we currently live at Flatlanders or elsewhere in the neighbourhood.[/ref] I even now have trouble adding for the rest of our lives to the end of the preceding sentence. Some boldness.

But today I picked up Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability, which spoke to just this reticence to want to stay put now that I’m where I said I’d stay. Wilson-Hartgrove draws from the long tradition of monastic wisdom via the account of John Cassian, a young man who went to study with the renowned desert fathers:

The abbas told him the truth about stability’s challenges, describing the “noonday devil” who attacks after one commits to stay and begins to feel the heat of high noon. Writing about what he heard, Cassian described acedia—literally, a lack of care—as a spiritual malady that is “akin to sadness and is the peculiar and frequent foe of those dwelling in the desert.”…

When the joy of morning wore off in the desert, the hard part about staying was that it got boring. And hot. With the sense of adventure gone, Cassian reported, new temptations set in, making the monk “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell, and also disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers who live with him or at a slight distance, as being careless and unspiritual.” Unhappy in the place where they were, desert monastics were tempted to give up, to think they were not up to the task, or to wonder if they might not be of better service to God elsewhere. Once acedia set in, putting down roots of love seemed impossible.

In a hyper mobile culture where we are always on the go, we who hear the call to stay might imagine ourselves as a type of spiritual athlete, not unlike the desert monastics who aimed to do combat on the cosmic front lines. If our analysis has any truth to it, staying is indeed a defiant act of resistance against the spirit of the age. But standing against the seas of constant change also means acknowledging that stability is a practice fraught with contradictions and tensions, making us susceptible to temptations we would not otherwise have occasion to know. (108-9)

I can restlessly attest to this. Wilson-Hartgrove names spiritual boredom and ambition as the two types of midday demons that beset those who commit to stay. I feel both acutely. I feel like he’s reading my thoughts when he writes about the latter:

The tension between fidelity and ambition is evident in the decisions we all make about our own personal development. Even if we’re committed to stick with people in the place where we are, ambition tempts us to invest our best energy in something more exciting than the daily tasks of cooking meals, cleaning the church, taking care of children, doing the laundry, planning a block party, or keeping the books. At the end of a long day, an activity as banal as Web surfing can seem more exciting than conversation with a friend or neighbour. (105)

I face this tension currently. I live in an intentional community where I’ve committed to working less[ref]I aim to work around 30 hours a week at Soma Design[/ref] in order to make myself available to my community. The limit chafes. My web design business has taken off and I could otherwise take on a lot more work and possibly even become a name or something. There is obviously some minimum amount that I must work in order to serve my clients well, but where the line lies between serving my clients and serving my ambition eludes me.

I’m glad that I now have the language of midday demons to help me describe what I’m facing. I will stay, but I have battles to fight that I wouldn’t otherwise have to face, and I’m encouraged by the fact that others have faced—and named—these midday demons before me.

Today I Remember

Today I remember all those who have met senseless and violent ends at the hands of those who signed up for honour and esteem in the eyes of their countrymen.

Today I remember all those who have been murdered for the crime of being born on the wrong side of arbitrarily drawn lines on maps.

Today I remember that “serving your country” is a necessary euphemism, since the more accurate “joining an organization that intimidates and kills people from other countries” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Today I remember that we still cling to the idea that it is honourable rather than barbarous to enlist in an organization whose purpose is to extort and possibly murder those who are weaker than you.

Today I remember that many men and women in the armed services must cling to the idea that their brand of inhumanity is officially sanctioned and honoured in order to sleep at night. I feel pity for their plight.

Today I remember that the future peace of God has broken into the present in Christ, meaning that we can hope for a future where the armies of the earth shall be no more. There will be no more war, nor instruments of war. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away.

What is Calling?

My last post kicked up some excellent discussion, but I’d say that much of it arose due to confusion over two things: the hasty manner in which I wrote, and the nature of calling itself. I hope to rectify the former and clarify the latter.

I must say at the outset that there is a lot of conceptual fuzziness between the terms calling, vocation, gifting and career that must be addressed in any discussion of calling. What someone means when they talk about calling is often an unstated mix of some combination of all of the above, leading to much confusion and misunderstanding. So, I will offer my thoughts on the points of similarity and divergence in the hopes that, once everyone thinks the way I do, the world will be a safe place for us all.

Firstly, calling and vocation should largely be seen as one and the same. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare (to call), from which we also have the word vocal. They convey that something from beyond ourselves (or possibly within ourselves) is speaking to us about the kind of person we are.

Note that I did not say the kind of person we are meant to be, as that is the language of advertising, romanticism and self-deception. Indeed, one of the problems in discerning our calling is that we believe that the problem is in figuring out who we should be, rather than recognizing that a large obstacle in discerning our calling is the many voices of “should be” drowning out who we actually are.

Before I’m misunderstood, I’m not advocating some type of fatalism here, where we can never change. I fully affirm the need to grow, develop and change over the course of our lifetime. What I’m saying is that the masks we wear on a daily basis generally aren’t who we are, but rather some collection of personas we’ve been told we should be. This means that we’re constantly avoiding who we really are in the name of who we are meant to be, while calling/vocation speaks to who we actually are beyond the lies, hype and overly romantic notions of self that are bought and sold every day.

So, vocation (or calling) is simply the voice that is calling us to be who we have actually been created to be, but what about the links between calling and gifting? Simplifying in the extreme, I’d say that they should be seen as closely related, but ultimately different things.

At the most basic level, the difference between calling and gifting can be seen as the difference between being and doing: calling has to do with being the people we actually are, while gifting has to do with the particular talents, aptitudes and skills that we use in living our lives and serving others.

I want to stress that viewing calling and gifting as separate is only truly possible at an abstract level. In concrete lived life, who we are and what we do are tightly bound up with one another and could never be truly isolated. But I find the distinction useful insofar as it helps us to think of who we are as being somehow deeper and more fundamental than merely what we do. In a world where we’re too easily defined by what we do—what’s the first question you’re asked when meeting someone new?—it’s liberating to see that there’s some entity called “myself” that is more than merely what I do.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a pianist whose playing profoundly moves whoever hears him play. Now let’s imagine that a terrible accident befalls this pianist where he loses the use of one of his hands. This would, of course, be a tragedy, both for the pianist himself, and for the world that is now deprived of the beauty of his music. And, as an embodied creature, this unavoidably changes the makeup of who he is.

Can we imagine him finding ways to live his life that are consistent with the person he was before losing the use of his hand? Is he not still the same person, however changed his life is by his loss? Perhaps in time he will see that there are aspects of who he has always been that he now lives via means other than music. Maybe playing music was his way of giving hope to people in pain, and he now enacts that part of who he is by sitting with terminally ill people in a hospice, reflecting the love of Christ as best he can to them.

Perhaps this example might also help rid us of the misguided notion that calling has something to do with what is popularly known as destiny. This fatalistic (not to mention nauseatingly romantic) idea needs to die a few thousand deaths and be forever detached from the notion of calling. Calling is about becoming the person you actually are rather than some unavoidable set of preordained steps that you have no say in. Indeed, calling presupposes that we are somehow free to respond in creative love to the voice that is calling us to be who we really are.

I have left career until the end, and for good reason. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for in our post-Industrial world—and there aren’t many—it’s that the idea of “having a career” has basically become meaningless in a world where we’re all expected to change our line of work continually. This is not to say that I favour job instability (which favours corporations much more than workers), but rather that career has often served as a distraction (or replacement) for discerning our calling.

The confusion around calling culminates in its worst possible form when we believe that it is our calling to find a career in which we can make money from utilizing our gifting. I cannot imagine a better recipe for misery. Most will never find work that they feel fully engages their gifting, so they will forever resent the work they do and romantically long to work within their gifting. And then you have the poor souls who actually do make a career of their gifting, and have to navigate the murky path between the integrity of their gifting and the need to make a living. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Finally, while I’ve tried to speak of calling in a distinctly personal manner, I fear that it is likely much too individualistic. Indeed, I believe that we can only ever truly be the people that we truly are if we are doing so amidst a community of souls who help each other to truly be themselves. A community that allows its members to truly be themselves—despite the suffering this diversity will inevitably produce—is a community that has heard the call to love with love of Christ; to live in the way of self-giving love that considers all that we are and have as a gift to be lavishly spent in the service of others. If this is the broad call that our personal callings interact with and support, I believe that we truly have heard the voice of the living God.

The Crushing Calling

“I’ve discovered my calling” is one of those Christian phrases that is simultaneously indispensable and nauseating. Discovering one’s calling in the journey of faith is a truly difficult task, fraught with doubt, anxiety and the ever-present possibility of self-deception. But it is made doubly difficult due to the influence of our culture’s pervasive individualism and the slogans of pop psychology.

I’ll come right out and say it: discovering my calling is generally reduced to some vague notion of self-fulfillment and well-being. This is more easily seen in the process of how we come to decide what is not our calling, namely those things that make us feel unhappy, unwanted, unfulfilled and possibly even marked with garden-variety suffering.

How on earth (or, more appropriately, in hell) has a religion that follows a tortured and executed savior come to so thoroughly identify following said savior with such a trite therapeuticism? We blather on about “the abundant life” promised to disciples of Jesus, but gloss over the whole “the world will hate you like it hates me” thing that Christ made pretty clear to those who would follow him (c.f. John 15:18-21).

This is the place where happy hunters will tell me that I’m being gloomy. Pardon me while I go don some sackcloth and bathe in ashes. I’d like to make it quite clear that shifting the major discernment factor for calling from happiness to misery would be simply to repeat the same mistake we’re currently making in a different direction. I’m not interested in resurrecting self-flagellation or “this world’s not my home”-style escapism either.

No, when we’re discerning our calling, we walk by faith. This means that we don’t have obvious answers or easy measuring sticks. Or, in short, it’s really, really hard, filled with moments of clarity, stretches of discouragement, and occasional snatches of wonder. It’s subject to the full range of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. God help us to not reduce calling to the myth of unfailing fulfillment.

Eagleton and Ditchkins

Terry Eagleton’s 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University have been transcribed into a new book entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It’s the first rebuttal to Dawkins and Hitchens (whom Eagleton reduces to the solitary signifier “Ditchkins”) that isn’t relegated to the Christian ghetto, but appears to be gaining traction outside of it. Salon covers it in an article entitled Those ignorant atheists, while Stanley Fish reads through it appreciatively in a blog post called God Talk over at the New York Times.

I have not read the book, but I listened to the fantastic originating lectures, which combined wit, intellectual sophistication, political radicalism and good theology. If you prefer free to paid and/or audio to text, you can go listen to the 2008 Terry Lectures on iTunes U. In fact, I think I might just have to listen again.

Faith in a Culture of Displacement

I’ve had Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh’s Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement sitting on my bookshelf since early fall, but haven’t gotten around to cracking it until now. If the rest of the book is as good as the two paragraphs below, I’ll be kicking myself for waiting so long:

Displacement. To be displaced. To be disconnected from place. To “diss” place. That’s our current place. We in North America live in a culture of displacement. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through” is no longer the sentiment of a certain kind of dualistic pietism; it is a culture-wide attitude. Whether we are talking about the upwardly mobile who view each place as a rung in the ladder that goes up to who knows where, or the postmodern nomad with no roots in any place or any tradition of place, or the average consumer who doesn’t know anything about the place where she lives or the places her food comes from, the reality is the same — we are a culture of displacement.

Christian faith is a faith that is always placed. Places in a good creation. Placed in time. An incarnational faith. A faith rooted in one who took flesh in a particular place. And it continues to be a faith of embodied presence. The church is the body of Christ, and bodies can only exist in place. Moreover, this is a faith with a placed hope  a new heavens and a (re)new(ed) earth. This is not a faith about passing through this world, but a faith that declares this world  this blue-green planet so battered and bruised, yet lovely — as our home.

Steven Bouma-Prediger & Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), xii.