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Aging Well: Theological Reflections on the Call and Retirement by Jack L. Stotts


Dr. Jack L. Stotts retired from Austin Theological Seminary in 1996 where he served as president and professor of Christian ethics for eleven years. He had served twenty-two years on the faculty and administration of McCormick Theological Seminary. Published by The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), January 1999, p. 25 . This information prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


II. Calling


God's calling comes to us out of the past. It addresses us in the present. It beckons us into the future. The content of this calling is theological. It is illustrated by a multiplicity of biblical accounts. Abraham and Sarah are called into a new future. Samuel hears and responds to God's calling by anointing David as king. For Christians, Jesus Christ is the primary agent of calling. Through him God's calling comes to us: "Follow me," and, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness." This calling is a gift of grace and a challenge which comes in unlikely places: to those repairing nets on the Sea of Galilee, to tax collectors, to sinners, and to those who are up a tree and out on a limb.

Naming the Call

Theologically, there are diverse ways of giving more definition to this calling--for naming the calling. For some the calling is to salvation, for some to liberation, to others, including the confession of 1967, to reconciliation. This naming of the intent of God's calling seeks to clarify both who God is and what God does and who we are and what we are to do.

Paul Tillich describes the content of God's being, doing, and therefore calling to us as love. Love is the reuniting of the separated. Separation, isolation, and enmity are the conditions of our sinful lives. God's calling to us is an invitation and an empowering of us to be participants in God's work in the world of overcoming fractured and/or severely strained or sagging relationships and building up healthy relationships of mutuality, respect and caring--that is, of love. Such participation rests on the dual conviction of present and ongoing brokenness, and, primordially, persistent, present, and future power of God as known in Jesus Christ to overcome and to repair such brokenness. Nothing this side of the Kingdom stays fixed. But God's love perseveres.

Leonard Bernstein, the extraordinary composer and conductor, composed as a tribute to the fallen John E Kennedy an oratorio entitled Mass. As the title suggests the work is patterned on the Roman Catholic mass. In a scene near the climactic elevation of the cup, the presiding priest, who himself is infected with doubts and confusion about the faith, elevates the ceramic chalice filled with wine. "The blood of Christ, poured out for you," he proclaims. But his hands tremble, and the chalice falls to the floor, breaking into a hundred pieces and catapulting the wine over those sitting in the first pew. There is silence, prolonged silence. Finally, the priest laments, "Things get broken so easily." The world and nations, peoples and individuals are fragile, easily broken. And the priest is referring not only to the chalice broken and the wine spilled, but to his own inconstancy of faith. And to the broken body of Christ, whose blood was spilt over the lingering women who accompanied his dying.

Things get broken so easily. And to put them back together is costly indeed. Yet God's calling to us and to all is to seek the healing of separation, of enmity and of isolation. It is costly because one's blood may be spilt in the endeavor. Yet we are to put back together that which has been separated.

Yet God's calling to us and to all is to seek the healing of the nations and of persons, indeed, wherever there is separation, enmity, and isolation, God is at work and is calling us to seek those conditions that make for peace and that build up communities of mutuality.

This calling is characterized by several elements.

Calling is Comprehensive

God's calling is comprehensive. As God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the whole of creation, so God's calling to us is comprehensive. At the interpersonal level, love, as the reuniting of the separated, includes forgiving one another and the restoring of broken relationships. As individuals, God's calling is a gift and challenge to us to live at peace with one's self. This peace is not without conflict and struggle. But it is to live as a self with integrity, uniting our warring parts, overthrowing the ongoing evil imaginings of our hearts. Love, as reuniting of the separated, heals the wounds of our psyches, whether self- or other-inflicted, enabling us to accept and to love ourselves as creatures of God.

At the social and political level, the reuniting of a people means to seek justice for all, the exclusion of none, and the search for shalom for warring peoples and nations.

Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the end of apartheid in South Africa has been the establishing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the national government, led by an Anglican bishop, Bishop Tutu. The commission has been charged with hearing alleged wrongdoers who appear before it, confessing their remorse and desire for forgiveness from those whom they so wrongly oppressed. Where there is in the hearing honesty and regret over both the subtle and horrific actions in which they participated, the commission may grant amnesty and a return to full citizenship.

Similarly Pope John Paul II has sought forgiveness from the Jewish people for what the Vatican did and did not do to exacerbate enmity and hostility over the centuries to persecute the Jews. The Holy Father was enacting love as overcoming, at least to a degree, the brokenness of the relationship between two religious communities, their coming together under the flag of peace and justice.

Reuniting the separated means to restore the positive relationships with nature, where we care for each other and for future generations.

God's calling comprehends all of our life and all that is around us. God's calling is comprehensive of personal, interpersonal, and societal relationships.

To be our True Selves

God's calling is to be our true selves. It speaks to the deepest levels of our self-understanding. Our calling is rooted in the fundamental nature of who God created us to be. It speaks to the dimension of depth about who we are. We may flee from it but we cannot escape from it, for it defines who we are and who we are intended to be. To seek reunion with our separated selves, our neighbors, nature, and God is who we are and what we are to do. This primordial quest and need ricochets down through the centuries. The psalmist writes: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Psalm 42, NRSV) and "Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your right hand shall hold me fast" (Psalm 139:7-10).

St. Augustine, centuries later, echoed the theme, "Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee."
The poet Francis Thompson joined the chorus when he penned "The Hound of Heaven."

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat and a Voice beat
More instant that the Feet--
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'

And Jesus cries from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:24). The problem that we have is to become what God calls us to be, a forgiven and forgiving people, individually and corporately. Forgiveness is the glue that heals relationships and enables us to seek to reunite the separated, to heal brokenness. Forgiveness is the restoration of previously broken relationships. This struggle to forgive, to mend the broken is an ongoing possibility through Jesus Christ. We are proto-human, growing toward God and our neighbors in such a way that atonement, for example, is not concentrating on the blood of Jesus but on the healing of broken relationships despite blood spilled.

To Overcome Brokenness

God's calling to us today to overcome the broken is the same today as it has been. Calling is a way of articulating the relationship between God, self, and neighbor that is rooted in creation and moves all reality toward its consummation. Calling is the grace of God in the form of an address to move toward the future wholeness promised in Jesus Christ. God's calling is the invitation to participate in God's being and work. It is a dynamic cause into which we are invited to enroll. The writer of Ephesians reminds us that we are to "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:1 5b). We acknowledge that we are to grow into our baptismal vows. God's calling is comprehensive and fundamental to who we are. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. God's calling is to the depth of our selfhood.

To Respect our Freedom

Calling is to freedom. It is a freedom that is a gift. We do not earn it. So we confess that it was a power beyond our self that led us to consent to our self's enrollment in this cause of reuniting the broken. Freedom, for the Christian, mysteriously unites creative agency and the sense of its being a gift. Our freedom commingles our agency and our sense of having been provided for. Our search for ourselves and God's search for us unite in the calling. Annie Dillard, in a book of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, puts together the gift and struggle for the calling to ground our lives. "We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--even of silence--by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. Seize it and let it seize you."

To Enjoy and Serve God

God's calling ennobles each person who responds affirmatively. The calling that has preceded us, grips us now, and beckons us into the future is of cosmic proportions. To participate in such a calling is a noble and ennobling enterprise. It is the highest calling, highest in the sense of enduring, because it always goes beyond us in the sense of going ahead of us. There is no greater calling than God's calling to reunite the separated. There is no greater calling in terms of consequences, urgency, and significance.

Brown Barr, now retired from the deanship at San Francisco Theological Seminary and professor emeritus of preaching has reflected on the turbulent days of the '60s. He was at that time pastor of a congregation in Berkeley, California. In the midst of the struggle for civil rights and for the ending of the Vietnam War, Barr said it was easy for a pastor to fall into the trap of moralistic scolding of those who disagreed with one's own position and to reduce the sermon to moralizing. He later wrote that it was in those days that he came to the conclusion that too often such preaching rests on inducing guilt but not repentance. Or it provokes ardent self-justification. Such blaming and dwelling on what one has not done diminishes the self. But an authentic worship service, Barr contends, always enlarges the self, calling forth that true self that beckons us, underwriting who we are in the light of God's calling us in Jesus Christ.

To Affirm the World as Good

God's calling affirms the world as good, very good. The goodness is not only a moral goodness of reuniting broken relationships, but it is goodness in the sense of beauty, of awe, of magnificence. The world is to be enjoyed as well as served. Our spiritual ancestors elevated this understanding when they made the lead question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism this: "What is the chief end of man?" And the answer given was: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. "God's calling to us is to participate in the goodness of creation in the sense both of reuniting the broken and enjoying the beauty that shines through even the ugliness and horror of brokenness. Each person and each people are chosen agents of God's working in the world. We are to enjoy the earth's crevices and its magnificent canyons, the glorious fact of life even in the midst of death, the beauty of love and the beauty of nature.

To claim that the world was created good is not to deny evil and the tragedies that stalk and distort ours and others lives. It is to recognize that not everything that is good is right. Relationships originally given and intended are broken. We have and do continue to disfigure the goodness through wrongdoing, through failing to order the world as God intended. It is to see God's gift of the creation as not only a word about the earth "in the beginning," but also the affirmation that God is present now through the spirit, overcoming brokenness among people and their habitation.

To Servanthood

God's calling is to servanthood, a servanthood marked by both suffering and joy and demonstrated most fully in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ who by his living, dying, and resurrection gives content to God's calling to all. In God's calling there is a nobility of serving and rejoicing. In the spacious heart of God service and joy are united. In the power of reuniting the separated, we find the joy of imaging God. In the power of the crucified Christ, we see the suffering that often is involved in following him. In the sign of the resurrected Christ we know the presence and the sign of hope for us and for the creation. This servanthood is not the activity of a lonely, individualized person. It is the servanthood of a company of believers called the church.

God's calling comes to us through very human and everyday media. One of those is religion and for us it is the church of Jesus Christ. The church is a response to and an agent of God's calling to those in the church and beyond. It is the church which seeks to articulate and proclaim the calling of God to every creature. It is that community which seeks to fortify all who will hear and follow the Christ with the grace, forgiveness, and challenge of God's calling. But the call that the church proffers is also to the particular offices of the church. These are the ecclesiastical calls to participate in the professional leadership of the church.

God's calling to us is to heal brokenness, to reunite the separated, whatever the cause of separation, wherever it appears. This calling is comprehensive, including all of life personally and corporately. This calling addresses us at our deepest levels. This calling respects our freedom. The calling is to a nobility of enjoying and serving God. The calling is through the church, though not exclusively there. This is the enduring calling to which we are to respond in and through our calls.

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