A Heart of Wisdom: Theology, Spirituality, and Pastoral Care.
Theology as a process of growth of the individual person, adapting to transition, opens a way for us to understand how to foster development of the human person into the fullness of being for which they were created. Among theological themes, vocation offers the richest possibilities in our explorations of elderhood.
An elder is a person with a vocation, to whom we turn for wisdom based on knowledge and experience, experience salted with humble reflection. An elder may be a senior person recognized as having gifts to exercise, including, for example, discernment and encouragement, in a ministry of wisdom and presence, on the community’s behalf. A call to elderhood is a call to seek wisdom and to serve community with that hard–gained gift.
Call and Community, Vocation and Transformation
Drawing on imagery from the Bible we can trace a progression of vocation, a developing sense of the call of God. It begins with creation, and the call into being. Adam and Eve are the human figures in this call. It continues with the call into relationship – a relationship of trust; Abraham and Sarah are exemplars. The call to follow God as his servant, and learn to keep faith with him, is represented by Moses. In the story of Eli and Samuel we glimpse a nascent sense of call – but we also see the humility of elderhood in giving honest guidance. In the story of Elijah and the passing of his mantle to Elisha we learn of legacy and the passing of the gift and burden of a calling from generation to generation. And in Jesus we see all calling in ultimate terms: from creation to completion, from promise to fulfillment, from service to freedom, from humility to exaltation.
The Call into Being: Adam and Eve
The book of Genesis and the gospel of John begin with God calling all things into being. It is the call of creation. It is the Word at work. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:3)
Adam and Eve represent to us the call of creation, the call to humanness, and the call into relationship with God as creatures. God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them… God saw everything that he had made and indeed, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27, 31a)
The Call to Renewal of Life: Noah
Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9) God blessed Noah and established a covenant with him.
After the Flood, Noah was called upon to lead the renewal of creation after it passed again through the primordial waters of chaos. A dove moves across the face of the waters, bringing news of peace, of the restoration of harmony and the beginning of new life on the earth. The creatures go forth in all directions to fill the earth with life.
The Call into Relationship: Abraham and Sarah
Abraham and Sarah represent to us the call into relationship as God’s faithful people. The story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God can be read many ways but I would like to look at it in terms of vocation and generativity.
Abraham and Sarah spent the years between leaving their family of origin and having a child together wandering from place to place looking for that context until they finally rested in the place of God’s promise, the place where they received the blessing of God. They passed on the blessing to their son and through him to a multitude of peoples.
When he receives God’s promise Abram is past the age when it would be reasonable to expect him to produce biological progeny – and after he does, it is as a sign of God’s pre–eminent activity in the world, an action of covenant faithfulness, and points beyond genetic descendants to children of faith, children countless as the stars.
As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her. (Genesis 17:15–16. JPS)
Abram, meaning “exalted ancestor,” becomes Abraham, “ancestor of a multitude,” and Sarai becomes Sarah, “princess,” and mother. (Coogan) Their children are the product of their faith. Their generativity begins with their faithful response to God’s call, God’s promise. They keep the faith. Faith in God’s promise is their legacy, their entrustment, which they transmit to future generations.
The Call of Mission: Moses
More overtly about vocation is God’s call to Moses, tending his family flock out there in the wilderness. God knows where to find him, and where human encounters God, there it becomes holy ground. (Exodus 3:5) And from that ground God sends Moses to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and to call them onto the faith journey into freedom.
The Call of Elderhood: Eli and Samuel
The story of Eli and Samuel represents to us the call to be God’s servants.
And the Lord called still again to Samuel, a third time, and he rose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” And Eli understood that the Lord was calling the lad. And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and should someone call to you, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:8–9. Alter: 255)
The calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3) evokes for us images of vocation. The focus is generally on the young boy serving the altar, but for us, examining vocational issues of later life, the faithfulness, generosity, and practical wisdom of the old priest matter more.
In the case of young Samuel, what we know is that he had an experience of call – without knowing specifically what the direction of the call would be. When he went to the old priest for guidance, Eli was able to supply a theoretical framework in which Samuel could interpret his experience and act accordingly.
As one elder, speaking of an admired elder in another congregation, said:
I’ve frequently pondered what it was about him – certainly one of, perhaps the most remarkable, people I’ve ever known, but I’m not quite sure what made him so. On the personal level he wasn’t that different than anyone else. The closest I can come to describing that is that he was the most purely transparent person I’ve ever met. He might not be right in detail about everything he was saying, but he was telling me what he believed and no more.
Eli may in some ways not be entirely admirable; but in advising the young Samuel he is transparent, or at least honest, and does not go beyond what he knows in what he says. He is functioning as an elder.
Eli coaches the boy to say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This was generous of the old man, who had seen his sons fail to follow the call of their ancestors, and knew that now the mantle of prophecy was passing to a new generation. So we see an elder, with the wisdom of experience and of traditional knowledge, pass on the best of what he has, in advising the youth to respond to an as-yet inchoate vocation.
The Call of Legacy: Elijah and Elisha
The story of Elijah and the mantling of Elisha represents to us the entrustment of a call: its passing from generation to generation.
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:12–13. KJV)
Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” … He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him... (2 Kings 2:9, 13. NRSV.)
The passing of the mantle of Elijah to Elisha, which comes as part of his legacy, dramatizes the transmission of a legacy – a gift of ministry – from one generation to another. In looking at the Scriptures, we see that this is accomplished almost accidentally, in the midst of the imploring grief of the disciple and the death of the elder man of God. And yet it can give us an image for the passing of a charism, a spiritual gift that is used not for the self-validation of the individual but for the service of God among his people.
This image of “mantling” may be useful in the recognition by a community of the gift of elderhood. Rituals for this affirmation have been developed (Changes). Impromptu prayers in worship services may accomplish the same purpose; that is: to recognize individuals whom the community has discerned have gifts of the vocation of elderhood.
The Call to Transformation: Jesus and Nicodemus
In the third chapter of the gospel of John, Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night – the time of hidden–ness, mystery, and uncertainty, and he seeks illumination. Jesus calls him into more than earthly knowledge. Jesus tells him one must be born anew, from above, to grasp the kingdom of God. One must pass through the waters into new life. And the Spirit, the Breath of God, must conceive and bear forth this new way of being. So the water, the wind and the spirit, all point to the need to be changed in one’s essence.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that his heritage, his status as a ruler of the people and his law–keeping as a Pharisee, are all part of the natural, fleshly, order, when what is needed is something to come from outside and above, not of his own will or his doing, but in the inexorable purpose of God. Like the children raised up to Abraham, it is the promise not the heritage that brings one into home-fellowship with Jesus and with God. The Prologue of John speaks of all those who receive Jesus and trust him becoming God’s children. (John 1:12) That birth is God’s work not the result of human effort. It has nothing to do with being deserved. It is a call not to validation in oneself but to transformation in the Spirit.
The water, the wind, and the spirit hearken back to the Flood and before it to Creation. So we see in Jesus the recovery and transformation of God’s purpose for humankind, no longer just to ‘rule over’ and tend the earth but in partnership with God himself to bring the completion of God’s creative and redeeming work into the fullness of everlasting life.
Jesus, first and last of all, represents to us the Word of creation at the beginning (John 1:1–3) and the word of fulfillment in the consummation of time (Revelation 1:5–8). Jesus represents to us humility and obedience (Philippians 2:5–8). And Jesus brings home to us the call to serve God as his creatures; to be fully human, called to become complete in his grace; his people called into relationship, as God’s own beloved children; called to service, and called to mission, justice, and the completion of God’s work in the world.
We are called not only to begin to follow Jesus, but to continue to follow him in the Way. Through Jesus God calls us to believe and to grow in faith throughout our lives. He calls us into fullness. And through the Holy Spirit God calls us into communities of transformation, to engage in the work of transformation of self, society, and church.
We begin by sharing our common story. As we grow together in faith as a community, we may reach a level where our complementary gifts work together as each individual realizes the potential of their unique vocation, sharing their own gifts, limits, and calling.
The God who creates us is the God who redeems us is the God who calls us into holiness. The God who called us in to being is the God who calls us into relationship with himself. The God who calls us all into common mission – to carry on love’s redeeming work – calls each of us to express our unique personhood in ministry.
“Each person and every community’s engagement with and response to God’s invitation to participate in the fullness of the divine life is similarly distinct.” (Portaro: 22)
Every human person is called into the fullness of life; each individual enjoys a particular calling and manifests their humanity in the expression of their specific vocation. “God has called each of us, with our unique range of gifts and our unique pattern of limits, and calls us to a vocational adventure that is distinct from that of anyone else.” (Fowler: 84) Guiding members of a congregation by discerning gifts and encouraging their expression may be one of the most rewarding activities of a pastoral leader.
Just as the various types and temperaments of personality balance and support each other, so the variety of gifts and ministries exist in complementary relationship for the furthering of the purposes of God. Together we build toward a hopeful future.
To be in vocation, then, is to respond to an inner prompting, and by responding to become authentic in one’s experience of God. It is to be called to be creature, human, mortal; follower, servant, friend, and disciple; kingdom-bringer, minister, missionary. And in our calling and our response we receive gifts. Gifts are not for keeping to oneself; they are to do something with. Implicit in each gift is a calling, an invitation into joy.
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds. (Romans 12:2. NRSV) Fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. (Romans 12:2. MSG)
James B. Lemler, in his preface to Transforming Vocation by Sam Portaro, wrote:
Individuals and communities of faith require a strong sense of call, purpose, and identity for this new time. Where are the seeds of transformation to be found? God’s love is vital and real; God’s mission can transform people’s hopes and lives. Will we participate in the transformation? Will we be bearers and agents of transformation for others? Will we ourselves be transformed? (Portaro: viii)
Throughout our lives we are called to transformation: of ourselves into Christ’s likeness, of our world into God's kingdom. Jesus in his life – as we in ours are called to follow – announced and embodied the coming of God’s reign of truth and justice and peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and harmony: all the fruits of the spirit. I have come, Jesus said, in order that you might have life — life in all its fullness. (John 10:10. TEV)
We are called into a community of transformation, to embody, proclaim, and inaugurate the coming-in of God’s reign through the Spirit.
Faith grows in strength as it is transformed through the process of doubt and rebirth. Baptism is a miniature of the process: we die to the old way, we are immersed in a period of not knowing, not being, and we emerge, we begin to emerge, into new life.
Transitions are like that. They begin with an ending, and then pass through a neutral zone (a muddle), before they reach a new beginning. It’s like crossing St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, a divided road. You leave the curb and cross the lanes of traffic going one way, until you reach what they call the “neutral ground,” the in–between place; it’s just a gap between one way of going and another. And then you cross to the other side. But you don’t get to the other side until you leave the first curb, pass through the scary in–between of the naked neutral place, which you’d just as soon skip, and then you can make your way onto new territory. An end, a muddle, and a beginning. Simple. Difficult.
Transfiguration came at the midpoint, at the crisis point, of Jesus’ vocation. Would he accept the glory and the passion, the pain and the joy? Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matthew 17:1–2)
Jesus freely accepted the call of God. And he went forward. To Jerusalem, and glory. What happened on the mountain was a transfiguration, a change in appearance, one that revealed a reality beyond common knowing. And what happened on the mountain was a transformation, a change in being, which revealed the purpose of God. We are called into that purpose. We are called into that transformation.
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, from the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
We too are in the middle of the story, in the confusion – the muddle – that precedes every transition and transformation. We are in the middle of the story, from baptism to resurrection, from creation to Glory, to the completion of God’s purpose, when our faces will shine as we reflect that image of the invisible God who is found in Christ Jesus, as the light of Christ illuminates us and shines forth from us to a newly lightening world. Jesus came to embrace humankind in the love of God. He came to proclaim and embody the coming of God’s reign. And he came to call us into that work.
We are called, ourselves, to be transformed, to be fully his people. We are called, individually, that we individually might be transformed into the image of the likeness of God. That we might, in other words, become God’s people as he made us to be, as we are called to become. We are called, together, that we together might become the agents of transformation, heralds of the presence of God in the world. We are called, that the world God has made might be transformed into the joyful kingdom it was meant to be.
We are called to be a community of transformation. We are called to call others. We are called to be church, first, for others – and then, for our fellowship together.
We are called into this holy mystery that we might take part in its working out in the world; as it works out in us, in our lives, in our words and acts.
We are called to take our place in the larger purpose of God.
For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6)
So we are called for a purpose greater than ourselves. And we are called to live into that great calling which is ours in Christ Jesus.
Mission and Purpose
Drawing on tradition from the Book of Common Prayer and similar sources, we can garner insights into the communal nature of calling and its expression in ministry and mission.
The service of Holy Baptism in the Episcopal prayer book includes these words: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 306)
Because Christ is risen, because he is raised, and we are called to him, we are alive in Christ. Death is not the end. But what happens after that is in the hands and heart of God.
What we know, now, we the living, is that we have a mission to carry on, to carry forward, and it is not our own plan, our own agenda. Our true gift to the future is our legacy of hope – hope in the resurrection – and joy in the life lived to God’s glory.
In many denominations the mission of the people has become more clearly spelled out as the implications of baptism have taken a more central place in teaching and worship. In the study congregation, for example, the Baptismal Covenant introduced into the Episcopal prayer book in 1979 is recited by the whole congregation, led by the pastor, not only at services of baptism or confirmation, but on such major holy days as the Baptism of Jesus, Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints, and on the days of parish meetings.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Indeed, the canons of the Episcopal Church mandate that each diocese provide teaching and support for the common mission of all God’s people as they learn about and carry on with the ministry of all baptized persons.
Canon 1: Of the Ministry of All Baptized Persons
Sec. 1. Each Diocese shall make provision for the affirmation and development of the ministry of all baptized persons, including: (a) Assistance in understanding that all baptized persons are called to minister in Christ’s name, to identify their gifts with the help of the Church and to serve Christ’s mission at all times and in all places. (b) Assistance in understanding that all baptized persons are called to sustain their ministries through commitment to life-long Christian formation.
What is the mission of the church?
The mission of the church is the mission of Christ.
The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church gives some useful and provocative encapsulations of the vocation and ministry of the people of God:
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Because we are the body of Christ – we the followers of Jesus – we are the heads and hands, hearts and voices, that he has to continue his mission. And that mission is to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of peace, that peace that is the reign of God, and to begin to live it out and show it, witnessing in our words, and in our lives, our worship and our work, to the presence of God.
How do we fulfill that mission here, locally, as God’s people, called together in this place? To whom is God sending us? And whom is God sending to us?
An elder observed: “I agree that the future of the church lies with young people, but a church is called to serve the people who are there, and we have an older congregation.”
These are the people of God’s sending – these are our neighbors: people who hunger, with the same hunger we all have, for a taste of the living bread, the communion of the kingdom. These are people who thirst for righteousness, that is, for a right order of things.
Who are our neighbors? What do we have to offer them? First of all and most of all we have the presence of the redeeming gift, the living Lord, who is present in the word proclaimed and understood, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, and in our going forth to the world God made, and, having made, saw was good. We invite people to join us in the rest of the Sabbath, and in the rest of the week to carry forth with them the joyous news of our Lord.
Creating, redeeming, sustaining, God is at work in the world. We are sent – to proclaim. We are charged – to serve. We are invited – to rejoice. We are invited to rejoice together in the gift of life. We are gathered to celebrate together in common worship. We are charged to go forth together in the one Spirit, with a common purpose: to bear the word and be the good news of Jesus Christ, in this time, in this place, to the people whom God has gathered here around us.
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20, 21. BCP)
On my fifty–fifth birthday, on my way in to a celebratory dinner, I received a telephone call. The planned giving officer of the diocese, a man a little older than me, had died suddenly. In his stead I would be giving the Legacy Sunday sermon the following week. And so I asked the congregation: What is it that we have to pass on? What is it that really matters? What is it that will last, beyond ourselves, into the future of the promise of God?
A living tradition is something we pass along, something that gives strength, something that gives skill and even power, to those coming along.
The first disciples, the witnesses to the life and death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord, passed along what they had seen and what they had heard, what they had touched with their hands and embraced in their arms, to those who came along after them. And what they received, they also passed on – to us.
What we have received we must also pass along. And we must decide what matters, and what matters most, and that is what we must make sure to share with the new generations that are coming along. What is it that matters most to us? What is it that will last?
As Herbert O’Driscoll has preached, what we know, what we have received, as church, as the family of God, always sustains us through these several elements: the sacred Word, the story of the love of God for humankind; the water of Baptism, in which we receive a sign of new life in Christ; the wine and the bread, transformed for us and, received in faith, transforming us ourselves into the body of Christ; and then the gift of each other, that Body of which we are all members; and – the Holy Spirit, in which all this lives and moves and has its being. (O’Driscoll)
These are things that we have received, that we live by, that we pass on. These things are all gifts given us to give others, to share with them the grace and peace of God.
After Easter, Jesus’ appearing to the disciples, the women at the tomb, the apostles, and many others, is the beginning of something new. He is the first born of the new creation, the first fruits of the resurrection. He tells us that there is something beyond life under the powers of this world; that life lived in God is life that lasts.
The Lord is Lord of life and death, and of life that lies beyond death. The hope of the resurrection, in the risen Christ, is not for the restoration of what was but of the beginning of what will be. Even in death, we proclaim, life is changed, not ended. Changed. (Not a tape or a film rewound in the projector and played again, but the mounting of a new reel altogether.) We are transformed in the newness of life. Resurrection is not a return to the old life, but the creation of something new – it is moving forward, not back.
What we have to pass on is a living faith in a living God. It is renewal, it is new, it is life itself: it is life in Christ, not the old way of law and sin and death, but the way forward into life in Christ, into the kingdom that begins now, that indeed is all around us. What our legacy is might not be abundantly clear right now. It may not be clear until we too share in the resurrection, when our hope is fulfilled in the kingdom of Christ.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13.12)
But we have a pretty good idea of what lasts: the things we have spoken of, the word, the sacraments, the fellowship, are things that bring us closer to God and carry us forward together in God’s mission and God’s purpose.
All of these things come to us in the gift of the Spirit. And it is the abiding promise and presence of God that shows us what really lasts, what really gives life meaning. Some things will pass away, good things as they are, for when the time for them is over, they will fade away. We know that; we look for the things that last, that are our greatest gifts to pass on to those coming along in our midst and coming after us.
2013 Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 255.
Archives of the Episcopal Church, ed.
2012 Constitution & Canons Together with the Rules of Order For the government of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America Otherwise Known as The Episcopal Church Adopted and Revised in General Convention, 1789–2012. General Convention Office. Title III, Canon 1, Section 1. New York: Church Publishing. 67.
Changes: Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage.
2007 Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. The Episcopal Church. New York: Church Publishing.
Coogan, Michael D., ed.
2010 The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Fourth Edition. Textual notes on Genesis 17:5, 17:6, and 17:15. New York: Oxford University Press. 33-34.
Fowler, James W.
2000 Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass Publishers.
2010 Sermon at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Edmonds, WA. January 31, 2010. http://stalbansedmonds.org/wp–content/uploads/2010/08/Herbert_ODriscoll_20100131.mp3 accessed September 30, 2013.
2008 Transforming Vocation. New York: Church Publishing.
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible.
Quotations marked KJV are from the King James Version.
Quotations marked NIV are from the New International Version.
Quotations marked TEV are from the Good News Bible: The Bible in Today’s English Version. New York: American Bible Society. 1976.
Quotations marked MSG are from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.
Quotations marked Alter are from Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter. New York: Norton. 2013.
Quotations marked JPS are from the Jewish Publication Society tanakh translation.
Quotations indicated by BCP and the page number are from the Book of Common Prayer (1979) of The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer: and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David.