On Sunday 2nd May the Methodist Connexion marks Vocation Sunday. A day when we celebrate and reflect on the vocation of individuals and communities.
What do we mean by vocation?
it’s perhaps a church-y word – but it’s an important one.
it differentiates from the idea of work, of job, and of economic activity.
Vocation connects with our very selves, our identity, our humanity, and says this is what I am created for at this time, in this place. My collection of gifts and skills suits me to this role, this function, this way of being – this vocation.
And of course, all of that, within our faith, is encompassed in the belief that God gives each of us life and breath and gifts and skills. The truth and belief that God gifts us and equips us for the vocations he calls us to.
But not only that, but also the belief that God is active in the world inviting us to notice and respond by getting involved with what God is doing. For getting involved in what God is doing is indeed our vocation as Christian people. Noticing where God is at work, the places where there is evidence of the fruit of God’s Spirit – and joining in.
Words like calling and vocation can scare us sometimes. Perhaps it is helpful to think of it like this: the primary call of a Christian is to follow Jesus, and the journey that emerges from that, for each of us, is our own unique vocation.
Do you see your journey with Jesus as a vocation?
Or do you think that vocations are just for Ministers, and nurses and teachers?
A couple weeks ago my daughter Lydia lost a particular soft toy – dog from TV programme Paw Patrol, – and we searched high and low for it. The last time we knew we’d had it was on a bike ride and we wondered if it had fallen out of the seat it have been sat in.
We looked and looked but could not find it anywhere. After 4 or 5 days of looking, Louise and I had just about settled that it was lost, and gave up looking. Then, one evening Louise noticed something behind the pedestal sink, and there was the toy. We’d been looking in the wrong places.
Do we sometimes look for a sense of vocation where it is not?
In John 15 we read of Jesus presenting himself as the true vine and that those who follow him are the branches.
A vine is a plant that bears grapes. For a vine, or any plant to grow strong, it needs to be well fed with nutrients, water and sunlight. Different plants can require different combinations of this food to grow and, if fruit bearing, to produce fruit.
On this Vocations Sunday, I wonder where our life is bearing fruit.
‘could this be evidence of my vocation?’
Sometimes a plant needs its branches cutting shorter, to be pruned – because this helps the new branch that grows to have more fruit. Sometimes there are things in our lives, and the lives of our faith communities that were once bearing abundant fruit, that were once our vocation, but are not anymore.
Are there things you are doing or were doing, possibly in the name of God and church, that are actually now a burden & chore that bring a sense of gloom, and either don’t bear any fruit or the fruit is no longer abundant and juicy?
If so, it might be time for change, time to have those branches pruned. Sometimes pruning plants looks and feels brutal, but it is sometimes necessary if the plant is to grow new and delicious fruit.
Vocation is not only something that is about you and me as individuals; it is also about the vocation of the church.
As we emerge from lockdown, this is the time to ask, what is the vocation of my church in the time and the place we find ourselves?
A few weeks ago I published known in the unknown, a blog post where I reflected on how I was feeling as I journey through the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding my Reception into Full Connexion and Ordination within the Methodist Church which was due to take place at the end of June.
Emerging from Turmoil
It is fair to say I was feeling in turmoil when I wrote known in the unknown, but I can say that the process of becoming vulnerable and sharing that turmoil was helpful for me in beginning to find healing and new direction.
It also led to receiving an outpouring of messages of care, prayer and encouragement which have all been greatly appreciated and affirming over these last few weeks. I Through them I have also felt the love and affirmation of God. It has been a helpful reminder that God has called me to this vocation, and despite the changes, delays and uncertainties, God’s call remains steadfast.
While much that would have happened is on hold, and many uncertainties about the implications of that remain, I will be Received into Full Connexion with the Methodist Church on Saturday 27th June, 6pm. All can watch through the Conference website. My ordination will come, but the date and arrangements are yet to be determined.
I still have some disappointment that things will not be as they were expected to be, and a struggle with the uncertain of waiting that this brings. Yet through prayer and reflection I’m coming to a point where I can find ways to make sense of and journey with this struggle in a positive way.
What follows is no theological treatise or doctrinal exposition, but some personal reflections, thoughts and feelings which take me right back to the early days of my candidating for presbyteral ministry and through which I have recently felt God speaking to me and encouraging me to keep journeying through the unknown.
Remembering: My Connexional Jigsaw
As part of the process of offering myself as a candidate for ministry I had to deliver a creative presentation entitled ‘picturing the Methodist Connexion in the 21st Century’. My task was to creatively reflect on and respond to a recently published paper which explored questions of what it means to be a Methodist Connexion in the 21st Century. As part of my creative presentation I created this illustration of a body out of multiple jigsaws.
The body is not an unusual metaphor for explaining Christian community. Different parts of one whole, various functions by different parts that enable the body to work and move and grow.
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 4:4-5, 11-13
Looking back at the notes I made at the time, for me the Methodist connexion was an expression of inter-connectedness; mutual-belonging; a joining together of the whole people of God despite contradictory convictions; an expression of what it meant to be church.
In my connexional jigsaw, I intentionally used no edge pieces – my attempt to illustrate a body that is in-complete, reaching out for new connections and possibilities, a shape is not permanently defined.
I also left pieces missing, and mismatched puzzles that do not fully connect. I wanted to demonstrate the body as imperfect and broken, yet open. The Methodist Connexion, as with any Christian community, lives in a world of brokenness. Despite our deepest desires and greatest intentions, people have been hurt, abused, and rejected by people acting in the name of Methodism. People do not always feel they belong.
Yet I wanted to illustrate a hope that the body that is the Methodist connexion can be a church where there is an awareness of our broken fallibility and our missing pieces. I wanted to hold out hope that we can be an open space where those who feel they don’t belong could belong.
This exploration of connexionalism early in my formational journey has been foundational to my continued journey through the following years.
Journeying: Learning to be a puzzle piece
Honestly, candidating, moving to Birmingham and starting formational training at Queens petrified me. I was full of anxiety, worried what others would think of me or if I would fit in. Much of that is rooted in my struggles with my own identity, belonging and purpose in my teen and young adult life, but that’s for another time!
Cut a long story short, despite our different journeys, opinions, backgrounds, denominations, personal circumstances (and everything else!), it is with this beautifully quirky, diverse and God-loving group of people I can call my cohort, friends and ‘Queens family’ that I came to learn I am a piece that belonged in the jigsaw, called to be who God made me to be.
On our last day at college Methodist leaves spent a day reflecting together and were asked to bring an ‘object’ with us to use as part of our reflections. For me it was this puzzle piece. It had appeared in the girls bedroom from we-don’t-know-where a few days before, and I just had this sense of needing to take it.
Among the things I jotted in my journal that day, I noted how jigsaws require all the pieces, that each individual piece matters and without each individual piece in place, the puzzle is incomplete. By the nature of their design, the picture of a puzzle lacks detail when a piece is not in place.
A Piece with a Purpose
It hadn’t been in my mind when I chose it as my object, but as I reflected I remembered my creative presentation and looking around the room came to realise how this group of people were each pieces in the vast connexional jigsaw. This moment was perhaps the first time I felt I experienced a glimpse of what it would one day mean to be Received into Full Connexion, coming to belong to an order of ministry made of up diversely gifted and opinionated (!), God-centred people, called and equipped by God in a particular way to serve God’s people.
That day a little piece of card that I could easily how thrown away, was given new purpose. It now hangs on my wall to remind me of my formational journey, my Queens family, my being a unique part of a bigger whole, my belonging to God’s church, and growing into my vocation as a minister within God’s universal church.
A Piece Connected to Others
Reminded of both my own personal call, and the way I am connected to others has helped me to hold my personal disappointment in perspective with the wider world.
My disappointment is not isolated and unique. From the postponed weddings; funerals held differently to ‘normal’; birthday parties held on zoom; inability to purchase eggs, flour or loo roll (!); trivial or deeply difficult – all of society is bearing disappointments, uncertainties and changes to our way of life.
Held in perspective, I’m coming to see my disappointment as part of my being connected to others, my bearing the worldwide impact of coronavirus, my sharing in the communal suffering of our groaning world. My participation in the necessary change and the emergence into the ‘new normal’ we all have to begin to adjust to.
I’m also coming to see this experience as part of the burden of responsibility that goes with saying yes to serving God. I realise now that I too am represented by the missing pieces and mispatched jigsaws through which I sought to illustrated the broken body of Christ living in a broken world. And I too can still belong.
And through that disappointment, I’m finding opportunity. Much of my disappointment comes from the fact that the things in which I had held symbolism and meaning are having to change. But, if I choose to, I can find new-meaning in new places despite the delay and uncertain waiting.
While the unknown is difficult, subverts tradition (which granted can be good or bad!) and is in some ways un-nerving, I’m also coming to feel excited again by the prospect of discovering God through the unexpected in what is yet to come.
This opportunity to discover and rediscover for myself is now starting to feel like an unexpected gift. A time to be brave, not clinging to the past but reaching for the future, as part of the body that is ready to change and transform for such a time as this.
A gift, a piece, and peace
Despite COVID being a catalyst for things to be different, change does not have to detract from truth. I’ve been reminded these last weeks that no matter what happens in this broken and uncertain world, I am still called & equipped by God. I am still a unique piece of the puzzle that is God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom would have a hole in without me. Despite appearances and the implications of long-term social distancing, by God’s design, I am and always will be connected to others.
So this single puzzle piece will be hung on my office wall’s for the rest of my life – wherever God’s call takes me.
Reminding me of the gift that has been my journey with God so far. Reminding me of my being part of the bigger whole made up of every other piece, seen or unseen, certain or uncertain, belonging or not-belonging. Reminding me that God is unchanging, steadfast and true, despite the chaos and turmoil that I fear surrounding me.
There’s still disappointment, but there’s also excitement at new opportunity, and that’s why this piece is helping me find peace despite the uncertainty as I prepare to continue the journey of being part of God’s jigsaw, to be Received into Full Connexion and, one day, be Ordained.