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Beyond above and beyond

Canoe on Lakeby Karen G. Bockelman

When I completed seminary, I was called to serve as one of three pastors in a large Midwestern congregation. I paid careful attention to my letter of call. I was to preach and teach, administer the sacraments, marry and bury, minister to and visit members of the parish, equip members in witnessing to Christ and give pastoral leadership for meetings and activities, striving in word and deed to be a worthy example in Christian living. It was a pretty daunting list. I was also aware that there would plenty of demands “above and beyond” those listed.

Some months into that ministry, a group of 30-something members informed me that, although it wasn’t in writing, I was expected to join them on a summer canoe trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. “This is non-negotiable,” I was told. I was more than willing, so there was nothing to negotiate.

Four years later when I left that congregation for another call, my canoeing companions presented me with a miniature canoe paddle and a photo of myself in my canoe wear. Below the photo was a caption, “Above and Beyond the Call.”

I’m not sure any of us realized at the time the long-term impact of their expectation. So often the “above and beyond” demands on our time, energy, resources and spirit feel like a burden—one more load placed on an already aching back. Intended or not, this “nonnegotiable requirement” was a gift, a lesson in self-care.

To what have you been called?

In Martin Luther’s day, the notion of having a calling was reserved for religious professionals—priests, monks, nuns. Laypeople had positions or stations in life, but those were decidedly second class. Luther spoke of the “priesthood of all believers” and insisted that Christians are called in baptism to love and serve both God and neighbor. He used the term “vocation” to speak of all our roles, responsibilities, occupations, relationships and activities in daily life. Vocation wasn’t restricted to a profession or job—or to something “religious.”

Baptism, said Luther, gives us a new identity: child of God. With that identity we are given talents, skills and inclinations as well as specific opportunities to serve God and our neighbors. In fact, we have multiple vocations—wife/husband, parent/child, citizen/elected official, member/pastor. We live out our vocations in our daily lives where all aspects of life—home and school, work and leisure, community and nation, citizenship and friendship—belong to God.

To what have you been called? Take a few minutes to respond to this question, keeping in mind that the “what” is plural.

Our baptismal letter of call asks us

“to live among God’s faithful people,
 to hear the word of God and share in

the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in
Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example
of Jesus, and
to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
(Affirmation of Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 237)

This, too, is a pretty daunting list—so inclusive that it seems nothing in life could be “above and beyond” its expectations. We may no longer make the mistake of thinking that religious professionals have higher callings and therefore are closer to God. But how many of us still fall into the trap of thinking God likes us best when we do “churchy” things—teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, serve on the altar guild or congregation council, volunteer our time at church events? Aren’t we called as Christians to put God first? And isn’t that almost the same thing as putting the church first?

Resentful ‘yes,’ gracious ‘no’

Many of us find an important identity in the work (paid or volunteer) we do in our congregations, even if it sometimes takes us away from roles and responsibilities in other areas of our life. We are quick to say “yes” to every request. Or we are equally quick to ask the same faithful ones to take on an ever-increasing number of tasks. “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” But when the tipping point comes, and we’ve taken on one too many responsibilities, we can end up feeling bitter and resentful.

A pastor friend told me of a situation in her small congregation. The longtime one-woman altar guild began complaining of how much work she was doing and how badly she needed help. The pastor spent significant time talking with others about who might be willing to help with altar guild duties. One of the newer members volunteered. For several weeks she met with the woman who had been bearing this responsibility. She wanted to be trained, to understand the work and to honor the experience of this faithful worker. Finally the Saturday came when the new person was to have full responsibility for setting up communion for the next day. But when she arrived at the church at the appointed time, she found that the work already had been done by the longtime volunteer.

How easy it is to think of ourselves as indispensible. Without me it won’t get done. Or it won’t get done right. Often we don’t realize the message this attitude can send to others. It’s not unlike (in our family callings) dressing our children rather than teaching them to do it themselves or doing the cooking rather than teaching how to cook. I must confess that in my working life, I all too often found it easier to take on yet another task, rather than take the time to build a community to share that task. And then I found myself resenting, or at least least regretting, what I had agreed to do.

One of the great (and sometimes unappreciated) gifts of baptism is that we are not alone. We are baptized into the church, the body of Christ, whose many members have their own contributions to make in loving and serving God and neighbor. In our varied callings, we serve and are served by others. Part of what it means to be a member of the body is to offer a sense of being valued to others. If we cherish our callings, don’t we want others to learn, explore and share their callings as well? A resentful “yes” wears out everyone. A gracious “no” can be a gift to everyone.

Exodus 18:13–18 tells us a lot about Moses’ leadership style. Moses seems to be working 24/7 and can’t see the consequences. His father-in-law is blunt. “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” Sometimes we need someone else to point out the obvious.

We need margins

Have you ever seen one of those very old letters, written in a day when both paper and postage were costly, even a luxury? The writing covers the page from one edge to the other. In some cases the paper is turned 90 degrees, and the writing continues perpendicular to the first paragraphs. I’ve even heard of letters where a third layer is written diagonally across the first two. Cover the back of the page in the same way, and you’ve managed to convey a great deal of news on one sheet of paper, while at the same time making it nearly impossible to read.

One of the greatest “inventions” in printing and letter writing is the margin—the white space around the edges makes reading a pleasure and understanding possible. Our lives need margins as well. No matter how hard we try, we cannot do it all.

If we are called “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,” we would do well to recognize that Jesus allowed for margins in his life. There are many passages in Scripture where we read that Jesus went off to pray, often in a deserted place (See Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 11:1). In Mark’s Gospel we are told Jesus went out in the early morning, while it was still dark, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35). Every Holy Week we hear of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. But I still remember the time I learned John’s account of Palm Sunday where, after his entry into Jerusalem and some teaching in the temple, Jesus departed and hid from the crowds ( John 12:36b). Who knew?

It’s been more than 35 years since I was “ordered” on that canoe trip. I wish I could say I learned the lesson so well that I’ve been a champion at balancing all aspects of my many and varied callings. The best I can say is that I keep trying. Whenever I remember my baptism, I pray to be sustained with the gift of the Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence, both now and forever (“Holy Baptism,” ELW, p. 231). That keeps me going “above and beyond the call.”

The Rev. Karen G. Bockelman is a retired ELCA pastor, living in Duluth, Minn. She continues to feel called as a
wife, mother, preacher, writer, church volunteer, workshop presenter—all while trying to “practice what she preaches” about good self-care.

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