| Apr 26, 2011
A colleague asked me recently, “What sustains you in your vocation?” That’s a great question. It deserves reflection from all of us.
John Calvin believed that it is the vocation itself, the fact of having been called by God which sustains us. That’s a great response, and I’m sure it is true. But, in the day-to-day slog and grind of living our vocations, beyond the assurance that we are where God called us (which is no small thing!), are there other things that sustain us? Prayer and regular Bible study, for example, worship, and the practice of Sabbath.
Over dinner a few nights ago, a physician whom I admire greatly told me that today he is finding the deepest satisfaction and a new burst of energy for his vocation because of a major breakthrough in the treatment of a disease he has spent most of his life fighting. That is certainly sustaining, knowing that what you do matters, that it makes a real difference in the lives of others.
Research in which I was involved several years ago (and which was published subsequently by the Alban Institute) found that professional burnout is often related to the feeling of futility, and is not simply a symptom of hard work or long hours. Burnout might, according to this research, be more closely related to depression than merely to weariness.
James Kugel, Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University (and 2001 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion), gets this feeling exactly right in his translation of those well-known opening verses of Ecclesiastes, from “the Teacher, a son of David,” the Hebrew title of whom is Koheleth. Usually we have translated the passage to read, “Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Kugel translates the passage as follows:
“‘So futile,’ says Koheleth, ‘everything is so futile!’ What does a person ever gain from all the effort he expends on this earth? One generation goes off and another comes in, but the earth stays the same forever.”
Amid the relentless pace of life, of families and work, running and rushing as we do; in the midst of a culture addicted to the ephemeral and resistant to the enduring, it is crucial to believe that our efforts ultimately are not futile, that the God who (as the Psalmist tells us) collects even our tears in a bottle, the God who (as Jesus tells us) numbers even the hairs on our heads, cherishes and remembers the lives we live and the work we do.
Back to the conversation with a colleague, with which I began, about what sustains me. We talked about these matters a bit, before I finally said, “Probably what sustains me most is friendship.”
My perspective on friendship has been influenced by Diana Fritz Cates’ marvelous study, Choosing to Feel: Virtue, Friendship, and Compassion for Friends, in which she explores the meaning of friendship in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom believed that “my friend is ‘another myself.’” Diana writes: “The best friendships in Aristotle’s view are those that arise and persist primarily on the basis of the friends’ excellence of character. These friendships are stable and lasting.” Such friendships, built not on pleasure or the “expectation of advantage,” sustain us over the long-haul.
When I use the word friend, my use of that word owes even more to Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, who, like all the Stoics, took friendship very seriously.
Marcus, for example, wrote one of the most moving tributes to friendship, which I borrowed when I dedicated one of my books, Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism, to the faculty with whom I served in Austin a few years ago:
“Whenever you would bring delight to your heart, think of the gifts and talents of your colleagues – the energy of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and so forth. Nothing lifts one’s spirit quite so wonderfully as to see the virtues reflected in the lives of one’s friends, and to see them together as a strong company. Keep these images always before you.”
I think the best passage ever written on the subject of friendship, however, is by Seneca. He observes, like Aristotle and others, that anyone who becomes a “friend,” seeking anything other than friendship itself, will cease to be a friend when the going gets tough or the relationship ceases to pay dividends. Real friendship, friendship that sustains us, runs much deeper. It is a matter of life and death.
“For what purpose, then, do I make another my friend?” Seneca asks. “In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge too.”
Friendship, for Jesus, was also a matter of life and death. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus also makes it clear that friendship is predicated on something deeper than pleasure and mutual advantage:
“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15: 13-15).
I place all of this in the balance against a trend that has devalued the idea of friendship to such a point that a person can say with evident pride (and without the least shred of irony), “I have over five hundred friends on Facebook!” Now, admittedly, my standards for friendship may be high, but no, they don’t have five hundred friends, not even virtual friends.
By contrast, as I reflect on the kind of friendship that sustains us, I recall that legendary group of friends we remember as the Inklings, a small group that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and a few others. Their friendship sustained them through wars, lost loves, deaths, and several career moves and writing projects, including the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia. When Williams died suddenly on May 15, 1945, Warnie Lewis (C. S. Lewis’ brother) spoke of the stunned shock of his death, how much the Inklings would miss their friend, how they would miss their arguments, and clearing their throats “of varnish with good honest beer.” They would miss him, Warnie said, but mostly they would miss who they had been when he was present.
The reason friendship sustains us, like nothing else, is because friends together are always more than the sum of their parts. Their strengths combine, and they more than compensate for one another’s weaknesses, making one another stronger through the gift of mutual correction and forbearance.
David Wood, a pastor and former associate director of the Louisville Institute here at Louisville Seminary, has done some extraordinary work on the subject of friendship. I encourage you to read David’s essays, including “Towards the Recovery of Friendship as a Form of Christian Love,” and “The Promise of Friendship and the Practice of Ministry.”
David acknowledges four specific capacities of friendship, each of which contributes to sustaining ministry. He says that friendship helps us to cultivate knowledge of God (in contrast to the tendency to elevate solitude at the expense of community in matters of spirituality). Friendship cultivates our knowledge of ourselves. “Truth and love,” David writes, “are closely bound together in the Christian imagination.” Friendship gives us an appropriate sense of intimacy, making us more capable of ministering to congregants not out of our own neediness, but out of our fullness. And, finally, and perhaps most significantly, friendship cultivates “a capacity to deal with conflict.” He writes, “If we are to be capable of not taking everything personally, there must be someone with whom we can share our lives personally, without fear.”
The question I would like to leave with you today is the question my colleague asked me, “What sustains you in your vocation?” I would like to know.
 Diana Fritz Cates, Choosing to Feel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 3, 50-51.
 Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, VI. 48.
 Seneca, “Epistle IX,” from Epistles 1-65, Loeb Classical Library, tr. Richard M. Gummere, 49.
 Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), 200.
 David J. Wood, “The Promise of Friendship and the Practice of Ministry,” A lecture presented at Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry, 5.