Thursday, February 01, 2007

Our duty and our joy

This is by way of a response to Jeff’s comment. Let’s begin with a story.

In August of 2005 West Mersea had a new window installed. As you can imagine there were all sorts of events associated with this, and lots of preparation and hard work for the event itself. In particular there was a Saturday evening meal and a full Sunday quota of services which I was involved with.

So come the Monday, the Bank Holiday Monday, I was knackered. There was a festival concert in church that night, but I told people that I wasn’t going to it, so the Bank Holiday was effectively a day off for me. And it was a great day – I relaxed a lot, after the success of the weekend, and as a family we spent a leisurely afternoon clearing out our garage that had become seriously cluttered. Most crucially, my wife recalls it as being one of the best days of that year, in that I was ‘present’ and engaged with domestic needs. It was fun.

Sadly, there was a significant amount of hostility to my choice not to attend the concert, and as well as the various ‘mutterings’ it was raised at the PCC meeting the following week, with the question ‘What is Sam doing with his time?’ Which provoked much soul-searching and angst in me, and you can read more about it here (which recent arrivals might also like to read, if you haven’t read it before; you’ll certainly learn a bit more about me and what makes me tick!) The positive side of that episode was that it forced me to come ‘up front’ about my deafness, and I believe there has been lots of good fruit since, within the parish.

Thing is, it really keyed in to my sense of duty, and it is precisely this sense of duty which I have been slowly sloughing off. The deep root of it, I’m sure, lies in the vocation experience in that summer of 1995, and an overwhelming conviction that I was ‘bad’. Yet I don’t, deep down, believe it. What I believe is what I describe here – the prior and foundational experience of the love of God. Yet this habit of duty is tenacious – I think it is only the experience of burning out that has started to dislodge it – that I stopped believing in it a while back, but still my habits of mind and behaviour are formed from it.

One of the really intriguing things about the whole discussion is that, if you pursue a vocation, it no longer makes sense to talk about ‘work’. If I pick up a book of theology, for example, I take tremendous pleasure from reading it. If I have time to work on a sermon, that too gives me great delight. Presiding at the Eucharist is joy. Teaching the Learning Church is a context in which I can be entirely myself, and that is precious liberty.

The problem I have had, I think, is in experiencing so much of the workload precisely as ‘duty’. To have my choices formed by the internalised voice saying ‘what is Sam doing with his time?’ – the need to justify myself before an angry God (before an angry PCC member!). Yet I really don’t believe in that, in fact, I repudiate it vehemently. Physician, heal thyself!

I think it’s happening. The response to the episode of burn out was precisely to consider the colour of my shirt. For black is the colour of duty, and that is what needs to be let go of. Bring out the peacock!

MadPriest’s advice is very sound (so are many of the other voices) – to abandon particular aspects of work completely, tho’ it’ll need to move forward slowly. More crucially, it is to really emphasise the teaching side of things. If God really has given me something to say, then it would be wrong to ignore the call to say it. That’s why Willimon’s words were so appropriate for me today – it articulated precisely what I have been struggling with.

The work, the vocation, is not a duty, it is a joy. Perhaps when it is not joyful, that in itself is a sign that I am not pursuing my vocation properly. Enthusiasm – on which I have preached several times – being filled with my God.

I think what this means is that I need to structure many more Bank Holiday Mondays – and damn those damnable voices of duty.

Or, put differently, I need to give myself more opportunities to take photos like this:

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