Spiritual Vocation:
A Thessalonian Perspective

As you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, our visit with you wasn't a waste of time. On the contrary, we had the courage through God to speak God's good news in spite of a lot of opposition, although we had already suffered and were publicly insulted, as you know. Our appeal isn't based on false information, the wrong motives, or deception. Rather, we have been examined and approved by God to be trusted with the good news, and that's exactly how we speak. We aren't trying to please people, but we are trying to please God, who continues to examine our hearts. As you know, we never used flattery, and God is our witness that we didn't have greedy motives. We didn't ask for special treatment from people—not from you or from others— although we could have thrown our weight around as Christ's apostles. Instead, we were gentle with you like a nursing mother caring for her own children. We were glad to share not only God's good news with you but also our very lives because we cared for you so much. You remember, brothers and sisters, our efforts and hard work. We preached God's good news to you, while we worked night and day so we wouldn't be a burden on any of you. You and God are witnesses of how holy, just, and blameless we were toward you believers. Likewise, you know how we treated each of you like a father treats his own children. We appealed to you, encouraged you, and pleaded with you to live lives worthy of the God who is calling you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 CEB).

During a recent Watershed Worship and Discernment service, I confessed my Golden Calf: my creative use of language, my gift of teaching and speaking. The occasion for this confession was Tyler's comment that sometimes what we are overwhelmed by, even obsessed by creatively, can be a gift from God - an expression of our true vocation. To surrender oneself to that creativity seems not the creation of a Golden Calf but rather an enthusiastic response to the divine call. There is an important truth in Tyler's comment that our gifts are from God and that we ought to give ourselves to our vocations as an act of worship.

So, brothers and sisters, because of God's mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service (Romans 12:1 CEB)

This offering would be authentic were we completely clear about our intentions to serve and worship God through our abilities. Unfortunately, we are not so conscious about our drives, emotions, and expressions of creativity. I connected my Golden Calf of Language to a dream I dreamt long ago in the mid-1980's entitled 'The Pickle Dream.' This was one of those dreams that Jungians call Big Dreams. These dreams point to deep, often hidden, revelations about our communities or ourselves. Big dreams are rare for most of us; they are for me. These dreams sometimes lay in our unconscious for years revealing themselves over an entire lifetime.

I'll retell my Pickle Dream just to remind you of its details and to use it as a parallel to Paul the Apostle's teaching on authentic communication.

I am sitting in a circle of true believers and have captured their attention with a macabre sense of humour. I have some of them laughing so hard that my dark side is hidden from them. I meet my Mother and Father, they are young here. I tell them that the other side of relationship is a foul gesture made to my Mother. A wise man in the group detects that there is something wrong with me; he confronts me. A spiritually discerning woman says she senses a spirit of pride and arrogance. I respond with a sarcastic imitation of an effected spiritual female, batting my eyes humorously, 'Is this what I am supposed to be like?'

A heinous growling voice comes from the centre of my being, 'Now we must do what must be done.' With that, I spit out four pickle-like mucous wads on the floor. Scrambled words appear, they are supposed to be religious but are mere parodies of true words. I am not sure whether this action is the beginning of an exorcism or what?

Over the years, I have uncovered the meaning of this particular dream, what it communicated about the motives, drives and reasons for my tendency to turn a legitimate creative passion into a Golden Calf. When I have allowed my proclivity to use my vocation to build a faltering ego, to wreck revenge on my enemies or to seduce my listeners through entertainment, my gifts have not contributed to my vocation in Christ. In fact, whether acknowledged, seen or not, the message of the gospel has been scrambled and my authenticity has been obscured by the misuse of my creativity.

The dream's words, 'Now we must do what must be done,' involves taking a hard look at what we are doing, a penetrating look into our shadow, in order to begin freeing ourselves from its unconscious and conscious grip. This accusatory voice is not comforting. It acts as 'the Satan' in the Old Testament especially in Job where he is seen as a servant of Yahweh probing the soul of Job, questioning his motives. Paul encountered this accusing voice in Thessalonica mediated through those who questioned his integrity, his motives, and authenticity. The genuineness of his message and his behavior were put to the test.

When I first encountered this voice of accusation, outside of my pickle dream, I was in a similar circumstance to Paul while ministering at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. The very same accusations came my way. The dream had prepared me for this situation. Both the dream and my accusers where telling me to look at my motives and integrity.

Exactly how accurate the dream and my situation was I could not discern. I was prone, as I suppose Paul might have been in Thessalonica, to either introject the criticism, taking it as the complete story about my ministry and causing me to give up in defeat or to become defensive, seeing my motives as pure as the driven snow and lambast my accusers.

As it turned out I tended to follow these extreme urges for the most part. Fortunately, I came across Paul's example in Thessalonians. Because it was so close to my own experience I read the passage from an apologetic point of view. To read it in such a way is to believe that Paul was primarily trying to defend his ministry against attacks from the inside or outside of his congregation. This approach may have an element of truth to it but as I studied 1 Thessalonians I began to see his words from another point of view.

Exactly when Paul was writing his letter there was a tendency among Moral Hellenistic Philosophers to write parenetically. They, like Paul, encountered opposition that impugned their reputation. They were called money-grubbers, sexual seducers, status hounds and a variety of other spiteful names.

Plutarch, Paul's contemporary, designed a standard approach to dealing with accusation. That was to defend by example instead of arguing. Plutarch wrote a treatise entitled, 'How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend.' While much longer than Paul's letter it hit upon the same themes as Paul, so much so that many think Paul used Plutarch as a template for his own letter. It sure appears so.

Paul followed a similar rhetorical pattern by setting out his example and appealing to the Thessalonians to trust their actual experience of him in order to evaluate the authenticity of his ministry.

Paul applied his principles of communication to his ministry but I believe that it does not take much imagination to apply them to any form of communication. What makes any sort of communication or vocation (art, history, film, education, witness, etc.) authentic? As we think about Paul's example, try to apply his advice to your personal vocation or work. See this set of questions as something those you serve might ask about your efforts.

Does my gift empower you?

Paul makes an appeal to the personal experience of his readers. "You yourselves know…" Did I come across as a shyster? Was I pretentious? (Look at all my credentials and image.) Was I a know-it-all? Did my communication to you bear fruit? Were your lives enhanced and built up?

Was I vulnerable and willing to take risks in sharing my vocation?

Paul just got 'the hell beat out of him' when he attempted to communicate at Phillipi. He reminds his readers of his condition when he comes to town. He wasn't coming off a whirlwind tour of Turkey; he came in defeat, shaken by exhaustion and discouragement. His communication was cross-shaped not triumphal. He shares how he brought his message even more forcefully with those at Corinith.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn't come preaching God's secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. My message and my preaching weren't presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1–5 CEB).

The question that naturally comes is not whether I have been successful but did I believe in what I was communicating enough to risk rejection. Tricksters just don't do that. Paul later speaks of himself as an earthen vessel. This metaphor implies humility; it comes from the greek word for earth, 'humus.' Do you and I communicate with humus (earth) or with hubris (pride)? Did my communication cost me something?

What drives me to communicate to you?

What is my real motive? Do I offer you this creative communication because it serves my sense of self, my ego? Is my vocation an immortality project, that is, does it seek to ensure the respect of my contemporaries, even beyond my life? Do I communicate to trick you into buying my product?

Paul didn't communicate the gospel so that they would all talk about him when he died, as the Jesus Christ Superstar song suggests.

Why do I teach or preach? Because there is nothing more important than sharing the life lived in Christ and in his community. I genuinely wish it for all people. That is what I say now. What did I say twenty years ago? Because I am a good communicator. Because I am trained. Because I need a good paying job where I can study all the time.

What do you remember about my actions among you?

Was my communication and my conduct consistent? As Marshall McLuhen asked, is the medium the message? Does the manner in which I perform my vocation jive with what my vocation is?

For Paul this implied that he was approved of and commissioned by God to be entrusted with his message. While our creative projects may not be as history-shattering as his, do you believe that what you feel called to has been confirmed through the Spirit? Paul's tradition reveals the source of our vocation beyond even our personal choices,

God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn't based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began (2 Timothy 1:9 CEB).

How would you know? (Revelation and community and fruit.) There is no room for egotism or comparison about our vocations given their source:

Who says that you are better than anyone else? What do you have that you didn't receive? And if you received it, then why are you bragging as if you didn't receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:6–7 CEB).

Are you absolutely open to the Spirit's probing of your intentions. 'Create in me a clean heart.' Does the Spirit at work in those benefiting from my vocation confirm God is at work in me? Paul learned to trust the genuine feedback of those whom he ministered to. His assurance was linked to their witness of his vocation.

Was I ingratiating in communicating my gift?

My creative vocation's purpose is to benefit or serve others, not cater to their lower self or their egotistic whims. Do I come across as a people pleaser or a genuine servant leader?

Did I use flattery in order to win your approval of my project? The only legitimate place to receive approval or honour concerning our vocation is from God, the true litmus test of our validity. Paul would have concurred with the writer of John who spoke about the source of praise: "How can you believe when you receive praise from each other but don't seek the praise that comes from the only God" (John 5:44 CEB).

Was I a taker or a giver?

Those who share creative gifts are not takers but givers. In fact, Paul moonlighted so as to support himself while in ministry. While the support of his congregations was legitimate, he did not want anyone to accuse him of 'making a living' off his vocation as a communicator. He had a second career as a back up. It meant longer hours, lead to exhaustion but it proved his intention and commitment to his genuine gift. Undoubtedly Paul is a giver not at taker.

Is my use of my creativity integrated?

Paul communicated as a mother insofar as he exhibited emotional truth and vulnerability that nurtured others. Paul communicated fatherly traits insofar as he combined love with truth and accuracy. He was willing to speak straight even with those he was striving to convince, risky business in any endeavour. There was an aspect of his ministry where he was innocent and trusting like a child. He did not always carry with him a hermeneutic of suspicion but one of trust as well when circumstances warranted it.

In the communicating of our creative gift do we overemphasize either indulgence or rigidity? Do we appeal to the lower base motives of those we serve to close the sale, so to speak? Do we set standards, for people to appreciate our gift, incredibly high? Are we willing to simplify without watering down the communication?

If I truly cherish the gift of creativity that God has given me, my pickle dream has to be resolved. My gift is to communicate as clearly as possible and in all sincerity what I understand to be God's message to those whom I love and serve. I learned, through looking into the eye of the shadow, how my creativity gets distorted. Bluntly, I used my creative gift for myself in order to resolve my psychological problems. The gift was not given to draw attention to myself but to glorify God, to shine a light on his love and grace. That is what our gifts are meant to do.

Paul's letter to the Thessalonians connects with this goal and reveals a way of communicating authentically. I do not want to waste my time on my problems, my neurosis. The purpose of my communication is to bear fruit in those I serve. It will do so when I risk being misunderstood, when I vulnerably reveal my motives and methods for all to see. My gift is not ultimately judged by others but rather by God who sees through all the layers of my being and can purify me. God promises to train us in our use of the gifts he has given us so that we can discern how to use them as a nurturing mother, a guiding father or a vulnerable child.

God will take up our gifts and use them as we submit to Him asking him to make our lives worthy of those wonderful vocations. I imagine the healing of my gift of speech will go something like this:

The scrambled words, those strange chaotic letters spread on the floor before me, rearrange themselves to read something like this… thank God constantly for this: when you accepted God's word that you heard from us, you welcomed it for what it truly is. Instead of accepting it as a human message, you accepted it as God's message, and it continues to work in you who are believers (1 Thessalonians 2:13 CEB).

My gift will no longer be mine but rather God's gift working through me creatively revealing, not me, but his love, grace and liberation.

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