Tag Archives: Vocation

Vocation and Temptation: Acedia, Anfechtung and Me

I know I have been absent from this blog for some time. My apologies for this. Initially my absence was due to some planned vacation and travel. But then other elements began influencing it—Acedia (spiritual apathy) and Anfecthung (affliction). This post will speak a little bit about these challenges, which may just resonate with a number of you as well.

I’ve written much about the importance of every Christian’s daily vocation—our daily stations of life as a spouse, parent, son, daughter, worker, Christian neighbor, and congregational member, and how they function to serve our neighbor and be the places where we can witness to others. However, it is also precisely in these vocations that Satan begins his attacks on us. His aim is to get us to abandon each of these vocations. And he will do so by afflicting us in any number of ways.

Spiritual warfare is a sinister and tumultuous battle all Christians endure, but fewer and fewer are recognizing how it works, myself included. John Kleinig has written wonderfully on this in his book Grace Upon Grace, and insightfully unpacks the nature of Satan’s attacks: In short he says, “The German word Anfechtung describes Satan’s attack upon our faith in Christ and God’s condemnation of us as sinners” (p.22).

But it is also helpful for us to understand that this Anfechtung has multiple dimensions to it. Luther himself used it in three different ways. David Scaer unpacks the word and the toll each dimension brings upon the human soul:

The American Translation of Luther’s Works uses all three [translation of the word Anechtung], “temptation,” “trial,” and “affliction,” plus “tribulation.” Each of these English words develops one facet of Luther’s Anfecthung and related words. “Temptation” points to the Christian’s life as a period of testing by Satan. In this temptation the Christian is given the opportunity by God to overcome Satan personally, but there can be no suggestion that God is the origin of sin or provokes the Christian to sin. “Trial” suggests a probationary period before God’s bestowing a great good. Through the trial, God puts the Christian to the test to measure the depth and sincerity of faith and to bring it to a higher level. Thus, trial points to God’s control over the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung. Suffering does not happen through chance. “Affliction” reflects the real suffering and pain the Christian endures during the Anfechtung. The Christian does not necessarily experience physical pain, but real agony in his soul about his personal salvation. “Tribulation” also refers to the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung but suggests the wider dimension as affliction suffered by all Christians. (“The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, January 1983, p.15).

There are other elements that can be added to this affliction. For me, it is not Anfechtung alone that’s been plaguing my soul. It’s been combined with what is seen as a debilitating form of spiritual apathy that is known by the ancients as Acedia (a-kah-dee-ah). (Presently, very few would be able to observe these things about me, as I’m guessing is true for many of you out there as well. But, it is an intense internal spiritual battle that, if left unchecked and untreated, can certainly begin to manifest itself in spiritually unhealthy and observable ways. Thus, at this point, other than my wife and Father Confessor, few would know that I have been wrestling with this.)

In any case, the notion of Acedia is probably best unearthed by others more well-versed in it than I. As such, Kathleen Norris in her 2008 work Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life vividly opens up the depth of this affliction by drawing on her own experience, and even more aptly, by engaging in the insights of one of the ancient monastic Desert Fathers:

“Acedia” may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. The word has a peculiar history, and as timelines on the Oxford English Dictionary website reveal, it has gone in and out of favor over the years…

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.

…I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. Across a distance of sixteen hundred years he spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it “[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Boredom tempts him “to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour].” But Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy, be it a troll, a demon, or an “issue,” puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free. “He’s describing half my life,” I thought to myself. To discover an ancient monk’s account of acedia that so closely matched an experience I’d had at the age of fifteen did seem a fairy-tale moment. To find my deliverer not a knight in shining armor but a gnarled desert dweller, as stern as they come, only bolstered my conviction that God is a true comedian…

The desert monks termed acedia “the noonday demon” because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself (“training” being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one’s life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia’s assault is not merely an occupational hazard—it is a given.

We might well ask if these crazy monks don’t have it coming: if your goal is to “pray without ceasing,” aren’t you asking for trouble? Is this a reasonable goal, or even a good one? Henri Nouwen tells us that “the literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest.’ The Greek word for rest,” he adds, “is ‘hesychia,’ and ‘hesychasm’ is a term which refers to the spirituality of the desert.” The “rest” that the monk is seeking is not an easy one, and as Nouwen writes, it “has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.” Acedia is the monk’s temptation because, in a demanding life of prayer, it offers the ease of indifference. Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married “for better for worse,” anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. When I complained to a Benedictine friend that for me, acedia was no longer a noontime demon but seemed like a twenty-four-hour proposition, he replied, “Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere.”

Yes, I will attest that it is always noon somewhere. Much more could be said. But the means of this spiritual warfare are clear. Affliction and the apathy have been diagnosed. And Satan is relentless with them. Others who have experienced the depths of these afflictions are no doubt nodding their heads. The Apostle Paul is quick to remind us of the vastness of this war: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12).

He is also quick to give us the remedy: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (Ephesians 6:10-11).

Kleinig summarizes the battle like this: When Satan attacks us, we experience the righteousness and truth of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the intellect; we experience the sweetness and loveliness of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the emotions; we experience the power and strength of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the body. Temptation is therefore the touchstone that God uses to assess our spirituality. Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us. Just as a pawnbroker uses a touchstone to test the presence and purity of gold in a coin or a piece of jewelry, temptation also tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health. (Grace Upon Grace, p.21)

However, speaking in all honesty, the attacks are painful and debilitating, and the “experience” Kleinig speaks of, at least for me, is seemingly fleeting. But perhaps that simply describes my own ongoing wrestling. After all, Satan’s desire for all of us is to give up and let him win. But here’s the thing. Jesus has already won. He is the victor! The defeated one is Satan, and as my Father Confessor reminds me, the Lord Jesus fights for me (and for you dear reader.) It remains something I have to constantly remind myself to “rest in.” Yes pastors, especially pastors, suffer from such spiritual maladies and desperately need the Gospel like everyone else.

May the words of the hymn below be for you as they are for me; solace in the midst of all my vocations:

Lord Jesus, since You love me, Now spread Your wings above me And shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, Let angel guards sing o’er me: This child of God shall meet no harm. “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” Lutheran Service Book, 880.

Until next time,

Rev. Woodford

What the Church Needs Now

I am simply amazed by the recognitions that many in the missional movement continue to make. I have applauded them for their honesty and willingness to make such diagnoses. First, there was the recognition that attractional worship models no longer work. Next, was their observations that mega-churches are a bust; then small groups are a flop; then programmatic churches are failing to make disciples; then, more recently, being “missional” itself has become a burden that potentially blinds the mission.

I have chronicled each critique and have been impressed by their candor. But I remain equally flabbergasted by the unawareness of these admissions by some “missional” minded folks in my own church body (LCMS). (Please remember, I am absolutely for missions, for reaching the lost, and for growing the Kingdom of God! But I am also for being honest about the way my Lutheran theology shapes how Lutherans do that.)

Nonetheless, I’m now in an even greater state of amazement over one of the most recent critiques of the North American church by missional guru Skye Jethani. In short, he notes the church is in desperate need of recognizing, get this, the value of vocation!

I have long urged the need for the church to recover and celebrate the depth of our Lutheran understanding of vocation. It’s a doctrine that became integral to my own congregation’s mission and strategic plan (see the diagram for a snapshot of our congregation’s mission strategy). My forthcoming book emphasizes its importance. And I have written about vocation numerous times on this blog.

What Jethani says is utterly affirming and deeply insightful about what has been missing in “missional” theology (particularly for young adults), but is aptly present in our historic Lutheran theology:

[T]he missional approach relies on a young adult’s spare time, extra resources, and expendable energy. It doesn’t capture a core identity issue the way family-based ministries do. When a church helps a 40-year-old mother with her struggling marriage and anxiety-driven parenting, it is applying Christian faith to the center of her life and identity. Missional ministries that try to engage a single 30-year-old don’t accomplish this because they ignore what’s at the center of his life to nibble at the margins. And what is at the center for most young adults? Vocation.

Despite being a significant focus of Reformation theology for centuries within the Protestant tradition, contemporary churches are largely silent on the issue…

What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others? How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector? Does being an artist matter to God? How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ? Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business? I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter? Can I be a soldier and be a Christian? Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?

My guess is most church leaders would have to think a lot longer to answer any of these questions. We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit. http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/01/back_to_a_theol.html

Please. I am pleading. I am urging. I am begging all my Lutheran brothers and sisters—rejoice in our theology! Let’s study it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s share it. Let’s allow it to guide our understanding of what it means to be The Holy Christian Church.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

The Challenge

I’ve been challenged. I often write about the importance of vocation as one of the means for the church to go about her daily life and carry on her mission. As a result, I’ve been collegially challenged over the last few months. Not so much to discontinue my assertions, but rather to consider some of the greater implications of our Christian vocation. Namely, what does it mean to have a “Christian” vocation? Yes, the stations we have in life certainly direct us in our daily service to our neighbor. But how does the Christian vocation inform our approach to, say, our life of stewardship, or the practical ways we love our neighbor?

Typically, I write about vocation for two reasons. First, because it’s an underemphasized doctrine and practice in the church today, and second, I believe it’s a better alternative to the current missional emphasis. Here I acknowledge that I’m often critical of the missional movement. But that’s because I am dissatisfied with the theology (and resulting practice) of the missional movement, not because I am angry at people for trying to share the gospel. In other words, I haven’t disavowed everything about the movement.

I certainly appreciate the zealous desire to reach the lost with the gospel. However, I am one who asks for a bit more theological integrity and corresponding practical application to go with it; so that the gospel stays the gospel, and the law stays the law.

I believe vocation allows the believer to be “missional” without making the gospel into a demand that has to be obeyed. Vocation allows the believer to celebrate the daily mundane stations of life as important and God ordained. It also guards against placing undue and illegitimate burdens upon the believer (i.e. “reaching out to an unbeliever is the only real work of a Christian”), which can cause him or her to then abandon the work and service of their daily vocations. But I’ve written much on this before. So, to the challenge at hand. Let’s see how it goes.

If vocation is to be central to the life of discipleship and the mission of the church, what might the Christian vocation look like as, let’s say, Christians handle their finances? Or what might it look like in our generosity toward our neighbor?

Whether you are traditional or contemporary, missional or confessional, the issue of stewardship is a constant in every congregation. It would be great if every Christian was a “tither.” But pastors will tell you that’s just a pipe dream. Typically most congregations have 20% of the people giving 90% of the funds. Yet, even if one tithes, does that mean they’re relieved from further considerations about their giving and generosity?

What I appreciate about some of the missional guys is the way they draw our attention to how we can help our neighbor in need through our stewardship. They challenge people to think about stewardship as more than the idea of fulfilling an obligation to God by giving a percentage of income to the church. They challenge people to go beyond just thinking about living within their means, but to consider how much they really need in order to live. In other words, how can their finances be used to serve their needs, but then also to serve their neighbor in need? (Granted, there is a tendency by some to portray this as a demand of the gospel. But for the moment, let’s say it’s couched within the freedom of the gospel.) How might we address this from the perspective of the “Christian” vocation?

I don’t think anyone would contest that most Americans are indulgent consumerists and materialists, Christians included. The crash of the housing market was clear evidence of that. Countless people got caught buying far more house than they could afford. The American dream had compelled them to think it was their right. So they believed the lie of interest only mortgages and became victim to the greed and indulgence of our American society.

But with that said, even if we can afford a particular over sized house, is it good stewardship to buy it? Sure, we have the freedom to buy it? But how does that fit with our Christian vocation?

How much is too much? How much is enough? How should Christians decide how much house to buy? Is that even a legitimate question to ask, or does that smell of legalism? For the moment, let’s says it’s legitimate.

Members of the Greatest Generation (the Great Depression and World War II era) will tell you that houses these days are outrageously large. I’ve had many in my own congregation tell me that when they were growing up the average was to have a lot more people living in a lot less house. But today “you young kids think you need such a big house.” “But,” we say, “we need them to store all of our possessions!”

Thus, the question, how much is too much? Does the Christian vocation compel us to think more deeply about our finances than simply attaining to percentage giving in our local congregation?  How many toys do our kids need? How many TV’s is enough? How many cars, boats, ATV’s, snowmobiles, and grown up toys do we need? How big do our houses need to be (or our churches for that matter)?

Does our love for our neighbor in need compel us to think more deeply about how we use our finances? I ask this coming off of a week of ministry where I dealt with two community (nonmember) families who are well below the poverty line. In fact, one couple has no car, no job, no savings, and come the end of the month, no place to live.

However, as in the book of Acts, members of our congregation are stepping up to give and to help. But I have a feeling it’s not to the point of selling some land or giving them one of their own cars. (Though, to be fair, I did put the situation to the whole congregation on Sunday and received quite a door offering for it.)

In the end, I fully realize that the moment we start establishing “guidelines” for how much house and how many toys Christians should have, we start down the dangerous road of legalism. Nonetheless, does the Christian vocation call for us to work through challenges like these? What do you think? Are these legitimate questions for us to muddle through as we consider our Christian vocation? If so, what might you suggest be a template for our thinking?

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

The Beginnings of a Vocational Manifesto

Not everyone is called to be a missionary. Not everyone is called to be a pastor. Ordinarily both of these vocations, according to the scriptures and Lutheran confessions, are specifically trained, intensely taught, and accompanied by a regular call and ordination. True, baptism does make all Christians into a royal priesthood, but strictly speaking, it does not make every Christian into a pastor or missionary.

Confessional Lutheran theology has long recognized this distinction, never trying to pit one against the other, or make one more important than the other, but affirming the order and station God has created for both. However, the recent “missional” emphasis would seem to blur these lines, using unhelpful nomenclature that asserts that everyone is indeed a missionary, even if they are not called, ordained, or trained.

Though perhaps well-intentioned, the intent to make everyone into a minister, or into a missionary, ends up devaluing and disordering the vocational roles God has apportioned for the good of society and the good of His Church.

Each person has a distinct vocation, just as valid and just as important as missionary or pastor, but nonetheless uniquely arranged for that believer and their life of service.  As Norman Nagel notes, “The Holy Spirit is alive and at work through his gifts in every Christian, who then ‘offers Spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Christians are both the temple and the royal priesthood and the sacrifice: all of them, all of their lives, bodily (Romans 12). What follows there, as in 1 Peter 2, is Haustafel—paranesis—which recognizes, indeed rejoices in, the diversity of the way the same gifts, which are given by the Spirit as confessed in the Third Article, work out in the particularity of each Christian life. Here there is no bondage of ‘all men are equal.’ Each is unique.” (“Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers,” Concordia Theological, October 1997, 293.)

Thus, whether parent, postman, pastor, painter, or paralegal, each vocation brings us into contact with others around us, first to serve them according to that vocation, and then, where possible, during the natural course of interactions, to proclaim the good news of Christ as appropriate to the opportunity and situation.

As most of us know, sharing the faith with unbelievers or new believers is very often most effectively done through personal, trusted relationships. No, it won’t happen every time an interaction occurs, but the joy of life in our vocation is that it is God pleasing, independent of our Gospel sharing. “As Luther and the Lutheran Confessions understand vocation, it is not a call of the Spirit out of the world but the calling of the Spirit to live within the mundane estates of congregation, family, and government. Luther spoke of these orders as the most fundamental forms of human existence. In his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper of 1528, Luther calls them ‘religious institutions’ for they are sanctified by God’s word for the service of the neighbor.”  (John Pless, “Contemporary Spirituality and the Emerging Church” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71, 2007, 363.)

Unfortunately, this profound understanding of vocation is often undermined when the value of the ordinary estates of everyday life are trivialized and dismissed as unimportant by the church in the name of what is claimed to be a more important “missional” way of life—whatever that means.

For example, a mother and her four young children go to the grocery store and meet a fellow shopper, but because she needs to tend to her children and the grocery shopping for her family she does not evangelize to the fellow shopper. Does this mean that she is not a “missional” person, or worse, that she is sinning? What about the college student who is tending to his studies instead of formally evangelizing the students on campus? Does he lack a “missional” attitude? Is he sinning? Or is he simply living his vocation as a student?

Demands to be “missional” can often evoke guilt or the illegitimate abandonment of a God given vocation. As Gustaf Wingren has demonstrated, the mission of God encompasses the greater whole of life. Therefore, perhaps the church should consider if “missional” pressure to abandon one’s vocation is not the greater disservice to the church.

Yet, to be clear, this is not saying that ordinary Christians cannot witness to others. Rather, when the priesthood of the baptized assemble around Word and Sacrament, they do so to be forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed out into the vocations of their daily lives. And, the more God-centered (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) they are in life, the more active they become in faith. Being regularly discipled, makes regular disciples, where they become more and more cognizant that through baptism and the Holy Spirit they are Christ-bearers and Kingdom-bringers to those around them in their vocation.

What is more, in worship, the priesthood of the baptized regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, wherein the Second Petition asks, “Thy Kingdom come.” The explanation of this petition in Luther’s Small Catechism brings us deeper into the prayer. “God’s kingdom comes when our Heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

People most regularly lead their lives here, in time, through their daily vocations. Note the profound connection between what the Holy Spirit gives (faith and the Kingdom of God) and where the Holy Spirit places believers (in the world to live a godly, vocational, life). “The same Spirit who calls us to faith through the externality of his word also calls us to life in creation” (Pless, 362). Consequently, the more active believers are in the faith, that is, the more discipled they are through (liturgy), Word, and Sacrament, the more prone (and prepared) they are to share the faith through the vocations of thier life.

It is my claim that if the church would begin to focus more intentionally upon the doctrine of vocation and celebrate the vibrant work of the Holy Spirit in the priesthood of the baptized, amid the mundane and ordinariness of their lives, rather than focusing upon the empty aesthetics of “abstracted Christianity,” and law-oriented demands to be “missional,” there would be a renewed vitality and discipled growth within the church.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

A Theology of Primary Vocation

As of late, there is the notion that every Christian’s primary responsibility and obligation in life is to be obedient to the so-called “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20), and is therefore to constantly be about the making of disciples of Jesus Christ, (see my previous post A Missional Manifesto Considered). It is true that the making of disciples is a mandate that Christ did certainly give to His Holy Christian Church. However, the assertion that every Christian’s primary and overarching responsibility in life is to be about disciple making, though certainly zealous, is, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, not altogether theologically accurate, and in varying ways, actually devaluing to the God-ordained ordering of everyday life.

Consider these words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17). Are these words specific to the Corinthians or to all Christians? If the Great Commission text is meant for the whole Church, is not also this one?

To be sure, the making of disciples is a prime directive of the Holy Christian Church, which is indeed made up of individual believing Christians. Yet, recognizing the above verse, confessional Lutherans have historically acknowledged that God has ordered His creation and His Church in such a way to ensure that both spiritual and physical care is given to His human creatures.

Children need to be cared for, food needs to be grown, clothes need to be made, people need to be protected, and society needs to be ordered. At the same time, sinners need forgiveness, the despairing need hope, the lost need a Savior, and dead bodies need resurrecting.

Thus, God has ordered society in such a way that the physical needs of people are met through the various vocations of people in life. Without them, earthly life could not be sustained. Likewise, God has ordered his Church in such a way to ensure that His gifts of grace—Word and Sacrament—are delivered so that saving faith can be obtained and disciples made (Augsburg Confession V). Without them, eternal life could not be sustained.

Thus, within the Holy Christian Church the Office of the Ministry (Office of Pastor) was established, ordered, and set apart by the Lord for the benefit of His people. However, to be clear, this ordering does not create a “two-level Church, with clergy above and laity below, or laity above (who hires and fires) and clergy below…There are no levels—only where our Lord has put himself there for us to give out his saving, enlivening gifts as he has ordained the Means of Grace to do, and put the Predigtamt, [Office of Ministry] there for the giving out of his gifts surely and locatedly in the Means of Grace” (Norman Nagel, “Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers” Lutheran Theological Quarterly, Oct. 1997, 286).

Consequently, confessional Lutherans recognize that the individual Christians who make up the Holy Christian Church also possess other God pleasing and God ordered daily responsibilities (vocations of life) that must be tended to for the good of others lest, among other things, chaos, disorder, starvation, and want abound.

But please note, by this I am by no means asserting that individual Christians should ignore any opportunity to share the faith. Rather, I am simply affirming that other vocations may in fact, out of God ordained necessity, be the primary responsibility for many Christians. In other words, their life may be ordered differently than that of solely being one who is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And such ordering, ordinary or mundane as it might be, is in fact good, right, and God pleasing as it serves our neighbor.

But again, to be clear, this does not mean individual Christians should not be intentional about sharing their faith within the specific vocations they are placed. Luther himself is clear on this. In His sermon on Psalm 110:4, Luther sets out the unique rights, privileges, and powers of the laity (or spiritual priesthood) within the Holy Christian Church:

After we have become Christians through this Priest [Christ] and His Priestly office, incorporated in Him by Baptism through faith, then each one, according to his calling and position, obtains the right and the power of teaching and confessing before others in this Word which we have obtained from Him. Even though not everybody has the public office and calling, every Christian has the right and the duty to teach, instruct, admonish, comfort, and rebuke his neighbor with the Word of God at every opportunity and whenever necessary. For example, father and mother should do this for their children and household, a brother, neighbor, citizen, or peasant for the other. (Psalm 110, 13:333).

Thus, by no means does the doctrine of vocation negate the ability of a Christian to witness to others. Rather, quite the opposite, it locates them in specific relationships and specific places so that they can give witness to others when the opportunity arises, while simultaneously also providing individual Christians the confidence to know that the works of service they are doing within their various vocations, no matter how mundane or ordinary, are also God pleasing and appropriate to do.

Vocational guru, Gene Veith, summarizes the value of the doctrine of vocation this way: “Recovering the doctrine of vocation can help Christians influence their culture once again as they carry their faith into the world, into its every nook and cranny, through the plenitude of vocations. The doctrine of vocation is a theology of the Christian life, having to do with sanctification and good works. It is also a theology of ordinary life. Christians do not have to be called to the mission field or the ministry or the work of evangelism to serve God, though many are; nor does the Christian life involve some kind of constant mystical experience. Rather, the Christian life is to be lived in vocation, in the seemingly ordinary walks of life that take up nearly all of the hours of our day. The Christian life is to be lived out in our family, our work, our community, and our church. Such things seem mundane, but this is because of our blindness. Actually, God is present in them—and in us—in a mighty, though hidden way.” (God at Work, p.156-7).

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

My Brother the Marine: A Soldier’s Vocation

My youngest brother, Josh, always felt like he was in the shadow of his two older brothers. Coming out of High School he had one brother who was finishing seminary and one who was starting medical school. He wanted to do something different. He wanted to pave a trail of his own. He wanted to be one of the few, one of the proud… he joined the Marines. It was a noble vocation, particularly as he enlisted during wartime.

We all flew down for Family Day at his boot camp graduation from Camp Pendleton, California, (my parents, my other brother Matt and I, along with our pregnant wives). Part of the Family Day fun is when family and friends get to witness the recruit’s last boot camp run. After 13 weeks of physically grueling training, intense discipline, sleep deprivation, mental intimidation, and isolation from family, the recruits get to run their last lap of boot camp around a deafening mass of cheering family and friends. At the end of it, they stop and stand at attention, looking straight ahead, (sideways to the crowd) while everyone is cheering them on. They aren’t allowed to look at the crowd, but only to listen to the swelling cheers and raucous admiration of the crowd calling out their names.

It is part of their last unofficial test. It is the heartfelt rite of passage for every enlisted Marine. Who will crack, who will break down and weep under the intense emotional nature of the gathering? The Drill Sergeants watch closely, but only to see who will get teased later on. My brother stood stiff, crew cut hair, hands brisk at his side, fifteen pounds lighter, lean and trim; his steely eyes peered straight ahead. A boy had been fashioned into a man. We intensified our cheers. He stood unflinching and resolute, one of the few, one of the proud… a Marine. His face wouldn’t crack. But mine did. So did my brother Matt’s. He had done something we would never do. We were overwhelmed with pride and our tears showed it.

Finally they were dismissed. There were many tear filled, joyful reunions of recruits with their families. However, the last component was the formal graduation. Here, in full uniform, the recruits—now officially Marines—line up in formation, salute their commanding officer, and give a final “Ooh-rah!” before being dismissed for leave.

One cannot miss the honor and respect that such ceremonies convey. The most prevalent being the salute. It is an expression of respect for the authority and honor possessed by an individual. In effect, is says “As brothers in arms and fellow Marines, I consider you worthy of my respect.” It is an expression of the absolute honor a Marine has for other Marines.

I marveled every time a Drill Sergeant or senior officer would walk by my brother. No matter what he was doing or who he was talking to, he would snap to attention, salute, and properly greet his superior officer. Once, when he saw a three star general coming from a distance, he even had us stand at attention so he could be sure to properly salute and honor the general. I was proud of my brother and his vocation.

However, it was not until a little over a year later that I saw him salute someone in this way again. Our brother Matt and his unborn son had been killed in a car accident (see my previous post on this). Josh wore his Marine dress blues to the funeral. It was a bitterly cold Minnesota January day. We all went out to the grave site for the committal. He stared unflinchingly at the below zero temperatures. His voice was unwavering as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy will be done” can be hard to pray at times. But his voice carried through it strong and clear. And when our pastor proclaimed the Easter verse (Christ is Risen!) my brother’s voice was even more resolute: He is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

After the committal service we all began to depart. Josh could no longer hold it in. The tears began flowing. But he was not leaving. Not yet. He took a breath. He composed himself. The Marine in him took over. He defiantly removed his winter overcoat, pulled tight his midnight blue dress coat, straightened his white peaked Marine cap, called out his cadence and marched to the foot of the grave and stood at attention. His face clear and bold, the icy wind blasting his checks raw, he would not be deterred. I turned to see he was now the last one there.

He stood tall. His head was up, eyes looking at the grave. He brought his arms to full attention; his right arm came to his forehead. The image of him saluting his brother—my brother—will never fade from my mind. Then he called out his cadence, turned squarely, marched three steps and crumpled in grief. The valor and honor of a soldier is powerful.

Still, Josh will be the first to tell you that it is nothing compared to the valor and honor of our Lord Jesus Christ. As the Apostles’ Creed says, he was “crucified, dead, and buried” for every last man, woman, and child. A Marine is familiar with sacrifice. Josh was reminded of it while serving in Iraq. He had to load the bodies of his fellow soldiers onto Angel Flights to bring them back home to their families.

Yet, amid the sorrow and loss, he was reminded of the Creed that also says, “The third day he rose again from the dead.” Not every fellow soldier believed in Jesus. Some did. At times Josh spoke of his faith with others, though I am not sure how often. His vocation was that of a soldier, not a missionary. Nonetheless, facing death has a way of making one open up about things. Josh had hope even in the midst of death. He knew that Jesus did not stay dead. Jesus is the resurrection and the life!

It was a hope that was proclaimed at our brother’s funeral. It also was the hope that sustained him when he and his sergeant were separated from their platoon and taking on enemy fire. It was a hope that sustained him when he was blown across the road by an RPG. It was a hope that allowed him to endure an intense hand to hand combat encounter.

As a United States Marine, Josh well understood his allegiance to his country. Yet as a Christian Marine he knew well the honor and allegiance due to His Lord. And as a fragile sinner, he knew (and now as a veteran still knows) the hope and power of his Savior, Jesus Christ.

 He wasn’t a pastor. He wasn’t a doctor. He was a soldier. One vocation among many. And just one example of those who make up the Holy Christian Church today. Christians living life, serving in their vocations, trusting in Jesus—His death and resurrection—and sharing the hope they have in Him. It is the mission of the church.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

A Noble (Mission) Vocation

Lutherans have long held the cherished doctrine of vocation. It is the profound understanding that God is working through us as we serve our neighbor through our daily stations of life (including family and community members). However, the recent “missional” emphasis has tended to push the doctrine of vocation aside, making people feel guilty for simply tending to their daily jobs, family responsibilities, and the general grind of daily life, instead of forsaking it all to go spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For example, David Platt’s 2010 book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream is relentless in making readers feel utterly guilty and completely inadequate in their faith.

I believe this to be unfortunate, problematic, and deeply hurtful to Christian families, particularly the vocation of parents.

I cherish the vocation of my parents, as I know did my older sister Heidi. She was the oldest of three; she was six, I was four, my brother Matt was three (my brother Josh came along later). However, a Wilms Tumor was ravaging her body. I know Heidi didn’t know what a vocation was when she was six, but I am certain she was thankful my parents lived theirs out so fully.

As Christians, they took their family regularly to worship. As a farmer, my dad worked long hours trying to support his family and make a living. As a mother, my mom had three young children to take care of—including Heidi as she was plagued by cancer.

Heidi’s favorite song was, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Even though she was just six-years-old, she was particular about her songs. She liked the hymns and if it wasn’t to her liking it got the ax— “Mom, that one just doesn’t have enough Jesus in it,” so out it would go.

By every human reason and by every manner of human strength, they tried to make Heidi get better. They couldn’t. While sitting in my mother’s lap, her last words were, “Mommy, I know I am going to be with Jesus now.” She closed her eyes and then breathed her last. She died in my mother’s arms, hair gone, strength gone, and now life gone. Not by her own reason or strength did she go from the arms of her mother into the arms of her Savior. Baptism has a way of doing the impossible.

My vocation as brother was confusing at that time. I remember my brother Matt and I thought it was cool that Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane was leading the funeral procession in his squad car—our favorite show was the Duke’s of Hazard. But then we got to the grave site. Not by my own reason or strength could I figure out why they had put Heidi into a box. Not by my own reason or strength could I figure out why they were lowering her into the ground.

I turned to ask my mom. The picture of my dad and mom crumpled in an agonizing embrace, utterly weeping, is forever etched in my mind. Not by their own reason or strength would they be able to bear the burden of seeing their child lowered into the grave. Not by their own reason or strength would they be able to calm the devastating outrage of watching their six-year-old little girl suffer and die.

But their trust was not in their own reason or strength. Their trust was in the One who called them, and called Heidi, by the Gospel. Just as they confessed in the Apostles’ Creed that day—“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Here, the “Amen” becomes painfully and expectantly real.

My mom and dad often talked of Jesus, but their vocation was not as missionaries. Their vocation was as parents—diaper-changing, supper-cooking, clothes-folding, cow-milking parents. They told my sister about Jesus, just as they told all of their children about him. They taught each of us the hymns and songs that the church has sung for ages.

I am pretty sure Heidi probably sang her favorite song to many of the nurses who cared for her, and maybe even told one or two about Jesus, but her vocation was not as a missionary, it was that of a little girl—a daughter who also had the horrid disease called cancer. Yet, she was a little girl baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. She was a daughter, taught by her parents of God’s unconditional, irreversible, and resurrecting love promised to her through the water and the Word.

It is no wonder that Luther writes this about the vocation of parents: “In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls…Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal” (Estate of Marriage, 1522, AE 45:47).

It should also be no wonder that the latest studies unequivocally show that parents are the most formative influences in the faith life of children. From the largest study of this kind ever done, Christian Smith in his book Soul Searching, now has the research to back up what the Scriptures have said for thousands of years—parents are the most formative influence in the faith life of their children:

 “More broadly, one of the most important things that adults who are concerned about how teenagers’ religious and spiritual lives are going to turn out can do is to focus attention on strengthening their own and other adults’, especially parents’, religious and spiritual lives.  For in the end, they most likely will get from teens what they as adults themselves are.  Like it or not, the message that adults inevitably communicate to youth is ‘Become as I am, not (only) as I say.’”

This, too, is part of the mission of the church.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford