A Sense of Vocation

Central to Protestant thought and theology is the notion that we are saved by the grace of God alone. This grace is revealed through Jesus Christ and manifested most powerfully in his death on the cross.

Protestants have typically elevated the idea of salvation by grace over the older tradition of salvation by works–the claim that we participate actively in the saving work of God by performing certain rites, such as the Sacraments in the Catholic tradition, or through acts of charity and compassion that reflect the love and mercy of God.

All well and good, of course, but our tradition suffers at times from a sense of passivity in the face of this idea of saving grace.

We have a tendency towards spiritual navel-gazing that misses at least part of the message: we are indeed saved by grace, but we are also invited to live and act as if this matters. Living like it matters is really what saves us, I suspect.

I heard a wonderful story during our travels this summer about a Ukrainian rabbi, who lived and taught in the city of Bratslav in the early years of the 19th century. So beloved was Rebbe Nachman that thousands of followers came to learn from him.

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, in 1808, one of Rebbe Nachman’s followers, the Ritual Slaughterer of Teplik – who among us is not envious of that title – brought Nachman a beautiful chair, handcrafted, as a gift. Everyone marveled at the chair, at the care and skill required to create it.

Rebbe Nachman loved his gift; he sat in that chair all the days of his life. Af-ter his death, the rabbi’s disciples kept the chair in his memory. It remained in the synagogue in Bratslav until the start of World War II.

With the approach of the Nazis, the descendants of the disciples of Rebbe Nachman realized that in order to survive the Holocaust, they would have to scatter. But they couldn’t bear to leave the chair behind. It was too large for any one of them to carry, so the decision was made to cut it into pieces – and each disciple took one piece of the chair. Before setting out their various paths, each disciple promised the others that when this war came to an end, they would meet again in Jerusalem to reassemble the chair.

Despite the horrors that followed, every single person who carried a piece of that chair survived and came finally to Jerusalem, and the rabbi’s chair was put back together. It remains today in the Bratslav Synagogue in Jerusalem.

What strikes me most about this story is the power of vocation, the sense that given a mission, our lives take on a deeper sense of urgency and purpose. In-vested with a task, a vocation, we are able to overcome challenges and trials that might have overcome us otherwise.

As true as this might be for each of us as individuals, it is perhaps equally true for our church. In a time when the life of a congregation is under considerable threat from the pressures of much more competitive marketplace of activities, a considered sense of mission and purpose cannot help but invest us with a great-er sense of meaning, passion and vigor.

As the new church year gets under way, we might venture some time and energy towards determining how God is calling us to a renewed sense of vocation as a community. We might think some about our strengths and our resources, and how we might come to think of ‘Church’ as the act we undertake to open ourselves to the myriad ways in which God seeks to make use of all that we are to bring to ourselves and our world the fullness of God’s hope for us.

Peace to you all.