Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

As 'troughing' becomes the latest neologism in the English language, the question is whether the body politic can recover from this bout of swine flu. Politicians elected to serve the public have, instead, exploited their office for personal gain, and built a system which winks at greed whilst at the same time cloaking the truth from public view. Political leaders have been at pains to blame 'the system', as if it is only structures which sin: that's not really good enough, but reforming the systems and culture of politics is key to reforming the soul of the body politic.

The vocation of politics has become seriously tainted. It's not alone: the report into child abuse within the Roman Catholic church in Ireland is due out today, and it will be horrific reading. Here again is a vocational profession which has not just become sick, but has died, decomposed, and spread the stench of death across a whole society.

Is the idea of vocation ('calling') still a viable one? Many of the classic vocations seem to be in decay: the vocation to entertain has mutated into celebrity culture, the vocation to justice has become the much-scorned legal profession, teachers are leaving in droves rather than prop up a system built not on education, but on league tables.

Rob Parsons tells of his father, who as a postman used to polish his boots every night in preparation for the morning round. He questioned him, asking why he bothered, since nobody would see him, and he was only delivering the post. "It's not the post", replied his dad "it's the Royal Mail".

The difference between a job and a vocation is that sense of higher purpose, whether that purpose is as a messenger, a seeker of justice, a mediator between people and God, or as a leader in political life. Over 2500 years ago the social commentator ('prophet') Isaiah spoke of the decay of leadership in his own society:
"I will make boys their officials, mere children will govern them
People will oppress each other - man agasint man, neighbour against neighbour...
A man will seize one of his brothers at his fathers home, and say
'You have a cloak, you be our leader: take charge of this heap of ruins!'
but in that day he will cry out
'I have no remedy.....' "

A few hundred years later, church leader Peter encouraged his readers to 'make your calling and election sure' (2 Peter 1 v10). He wasn't talking about getting a seat in the European Parliament, but the fact that though we may be called by God, but we have responsibility for maintaining that sense of calling through attention to our character.

Peter gives list of character qualities - faith, goodness, kindness, self-control, wisdom, love - for his hearers to add to one another and to work on. Whether you believe in God or not, the same truth applies: if your character doesn't keep up with your level of influence, then there is trouble ahead.

Some of our politicians have been so busy that they've forgotten to pay attention to themselves, to look in the mirror and ask whether they've made their calling sure, or whether they've traded it in for pig food.

Character and calling also depend on the quality of community: if you're surrounded by people who collude and wink at corruption, then it's easy to become corrupt. If you determine to be accountable to people who will strap you to the mast as you sail past the Sirens of money, sex and power, then your character and calling have a chance of making it to the end of the journey intact.

It's time to recover political leadership as a vocation, but not to kid ourselves that this solves everything. Every leader has the responsibility (and needs the support of others) to 'make your calling and election sure'. Neglect your calling and character, and you lose your place. Look after your calling and character, and your election will probably look after itself.

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