Christian vocation counter-cultural, says theologian

Three people laughh as they sit in the chancel of a church.
The Rev. Dr. William Willimon (left) shares the stage with the Rev. Canon Dr. Judy Paulsen and the Rev. Canon Peter Walker at Grace Church on-the-Hill.
 on January 1, 2020

Author visits Toronto church

Noted American author and theologian the Rev. Dr. William Willimon spoke at Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto, on Nov. 16 on the topic “The Calling of Christians Today: Christian Vocation in an Anxious Age.” Dr. Willimon is a professor at Duke University’s divinity school and was the bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He has written more than 80 books.

Dr. Willimon addressed two main questions: “How can Christians live out our calling in the present age that is full of skepticism and anxiety and have joy while doing so?” And, “How can clergy and the Church help and guide Christians to find their baptismal vocation?”

Over two talks, each followed by a time for questions from the audience, Dr. Willimon spoke with passion, humour and insight, using lots of anecdotes to illustrate his points. He spoke about North American culture and society, the Church, scripture, and our vocations as Christians. He challenged us not to think of the world as a place filled with skepticism and anxiety but that being Christians can cause skepticism and anxiety because we are called to be counter-cultural while living in the world.

He described vocation as the countercultural belief that your life is not your own – while you’re “doing your thing,” God owns your life and is giving you a role to play. And for us, he said, salvation is being given a job to do.

Whatever God chooses to do in the world, Dr. Willimon observed, He chooses not to do it alone. He will call us to do what He wants done, but we must recognize that our vocation is never a settled and finished thing. We can be called and re-called again and again. “We serve a living God, a God who is on the move. We cannot serve him if we cannot keep up with him.”

Dr. Willimon said that Jesus is so often presented to us as the solution to all our problems – as consolation, solace, and comfort. But, he said, that is not what scripture tells us. “This is not a story about us looking for God, but about God looking for us, about our own little lives getting caught up in the world. Really, it’s about God calling us to give us assignments!”

He reminded the audience that vocation is not about what we want to do or even about us at all; it’s about God and what He wants. We are likely to be called to do things we don’t want to do or that we feel completely unqualified for. “This is not my idea of a good time,” Dr. Willimon said dryly as he told a story about something he felt called to do, but—too bad, that was the assignment.

Another truth about vocation, he said, is that you go out to do something “good” and you come back thinking, “I believe God did more for me than anyone else today.”

When he was asked about the role of the Church today as so many congregations are shrinking and some churches are fighting to stay open, he told a story about a church he knew that fought to stay open but had to close. Yet as one congregation was saying goodbye to their beloved church, another one was moving into the space to worship in a new way and they experienced the love and care that the former congregation had imbued the building with.

“The gospel is not a story you can tell to yourself,” he said. “Someone has to tell it to you. The good news has to be received from someone else.” He said the Christian faith is inherently communal, and so it forces us to work with all kinds of other people. The Church is “God’s unique means of salvation in the world and we are forced to work with anyone Jesus drags in the door.” There’s “no debate of the admissions committee,” about that, he said. We work with all the people who come. “There’s no way to get around the fact that salvation through Jesus Christ is a group experience. Jesus forces us to be with other disciples, to walk with them and to work with them.”


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