I sit in a restaurant across from a young woman and talk about work. She’s nearing the end of her time at seminary and I am a year out. She says, nonchalantly, that she has no real plans. I suggest that whatever work she finds not to think it beneath her.
Her head lolls, “But I’d kill myself before I was, like, a church secretary.”
A friend eating with us laughs, “That’s funny because that’s what Katie is.”
I stammer through an explanation: I have a year while my husband finishes his own course work. It is a bad economy. There are plans for more school. None of this stymies the embarrassment. It feels like I have fallen from a particular kind of grace. I remember what they said to us our first day of seminary: “You are here because God has ordained that you should be.”
And I want to say to God, “Surely, not this, right?”
Too often, Christians talk of call the same way a teenage girl gushes about true love. We pine and rely upon it to give meaning to our lives. We buy into the falsehood that there is one true call for each of us. If only we can get there, and only there, we will truly be who God made us to be.
This mentality shortchanges the ordinary toil of our lives. When Christ entered this world he did not just take on humanity at its height, but also its breadth, the rote and dry aspect of living. It is tempting to romanticize the mundane, to stuff it like a Thanksgiving turkey, full of a grandeur that is not there. But I can tell you that the Holy Spirit is not in Excel spreadsheets. The rote, like much of our daily routines, feels like the leftovers from a fantastic feast and you’ve missed the party.
Yet Christ spent three years in public ministry and much longer as a carpenter. Paul made tents. The first problem of the new church was an organizational one about food. These images, and others, portray the Christian leader not as king, but as shepherd. Quiet work is indispensible to a healthy understanding of Christian call.
Monastic life teaches us this. The chief principle of the “Rule of St. Benedict” is the renunciation of the will and arming oneself with the “strong and noble weapons of obedience.” There is beauty in the baking of bread and filing of membership information. It is a beauty of provision and participation, not just for others, but, as I learned, for myself.
Mundane, repetitive work teaches humility. You are not too good for it. In fact you will be quite good at it. I saw how my work made worship and discipleship possible, but it never felt like I was actually using any real gift. What I did not see was that the work was good for me. Humility sluices the ego and frees us to laugh. Repetition brings stillness and in that stillness we can hear God. Simplicity gives the gift of sight and we learn the practice of attention. There is no single lesson to the mundane only that God created it and called it good.
After dinner the young woman touches my elbow in the parking lot, “I didn’t mean to insult you,” she says, “I just don’t have the gift for things like that.”
I don’t bother to tell her that God calls us not according to our abilities -- for Moses mumbled -- but by God’s will. Humility is not only a virtue, but a herald call. It reminds us that before we are called to be pastors and teachers, leaders and innovators, we are first called to be faithful Christians. This is not a romantic notion, but a pragmatic one. God wills that we be humbled and we should respond, “Here I am.”
Simone Weil writes that barren effort brings light into the soul and that light is discovered in prayer. I know I will not be a church secretary forever, but I have ceased qualifying my employment. Instead, I pray more clearly, laugh more readily, and thank God for church secretaries.