House for All Sinners and Saints community participating, distributing supplies to protestors and homeless persons alike. For these folks, “occupation” is merely an extension of their sense of the prophetic aspects of their “vocation.”">
By: Matthew Nickoloff
December 09, 2011
As protestors camp out in city parks across the nation over the last few months, the word “occupation” has dominated the media. Here in Denver, the Occupy movement is particularly vibrant, with many of the members of the House for All Sinners and Saints community participating, distributing supplies to protestors and homeless persons alike. For these folks, “occupation” is merely an extension of their sense of the prophetic aspects of their “vocation.”
It’s always been troubling to me how the terms occupation and vocation are too often conflated. Even in the church, discerning the latter often means discovering the former, and this generally means, “employment.” Yet, I wonder if the energetic, unemployed folks camping out in sub-zero temperatures might not have something to teach us about the true meaning of both occupation and vocation. Regardless of how we personally feel about their politics, perhaps theirs is a prophetic word that can also speak to our sense of communal practice and vocation as a church.
A few months ago, I was preparing a sermon on the Gospel reading from Matthew (Matt.22.15-22) in which Jesus, handed a Roman coin, is asked, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It seemed absurd to me not to visit the Occupiers across from the capital building, where this very question was being lived out with embodied urgency. Upon arriving that particular Friday, however, I was shocked to discover not disgruntled citizens carrying signs, but riot police wielding clubs and arms loaded with rubber bullets. As if the audacity of folks seeking to re-claim and re-occupy sacred public space had also unmasked the true face of the Caesar unwilling to share his lordship with others. What the people sought to declare the property of all for the sake of all, Caesar sought to declare his dominion, and his alone.
The occupation movement has, at its heart, the unmasking and unveiling of true identity. Through the shared communal practices and liturgies of general assemblies, common language, shared music, disciplined endurance, and a willingness to suffer, Occupy Denver seeks to reclaim not only physical public space, but also, a deeper sense of communal identity. It seeks to make visible a different kind of world, and a different kind of life together.
Which made me wonder: isn’t this what the church is supposed to be in the buisness of doing? What if the church also sought to reclaim and re-occupy the sacred spaces and identities that are too often dominated by Caesar and his ideology of consumerism? What if, like the occupiers, its not through pre-made programs and paradigms of church growth, but through a shared commitment to communal practices, the church could re-occupy time? By creating opportunities for silence, Sabbath, and other deep spaces of contemplation and grace, spaces too often claimed by the oppressive nature of a competitive society bent on occupying every waking and dreaming moment of our days?
“What if the church also sought to reclaim and re-occupy the sacred spaces and identities that are too often dominated by Caesar and his ideology of consumerism?”
Thankfully, the day after my encounter with the true face of Caesar, House for All went on our annual Contemplative Retreat, made possible by our VocationCare grant from the Fund for Theological Education. While the protestors held down the fort of political space, a small band of unlikely radicals dared to defy the overly scheduled time-scape of the world to spend a weekend doing…nothing. The sole purpose of the retreat was, in fact, to create contemplative space where such a doing of nothing could be participants’ everything. The only thing “scheduled” were regular opportunities to gather together to practice centering prayer, as well as for a Eucharist confected against the backdrop of Pikes’ Peak, looming sublimely over the retreat space, and in our imaginations.
Establishing a regular rhythm of doing nothing was, in a sense, the bread and butter of the retreat. But the highlight, for many folks, came the second day, when as a community, we walked a prayer labyrinth. Labyrinths have always been important to my own spirituality; but nothing could have prepared me for the power of journeying its twists and turns along with thirty other brothers and sisters in Christ.
The depth of the experience hit home as I was leaving the labyrinth. as I walked up the hill back towards camp, I turned around and was struck by what I saw below. The circular shape of the labyrinth resembled to me, in light of our Gospel, a kind of coin. And on that coin was not the image of Caesar, seeking to solidify his own security through inciting fear, competition and manipulation. Instead, I saw thirty fellow pilgrims, at various points on their own spiritual journeys, their pathways weaving in and out of one another’s. Like a kind of dance, or a magnificent, musical fugue. As paths crossed, I was struck by how often each party would move to the side for each other. There was no competition. Only mutual respect and service, cooperation and community, room for all, unified together in our beautiful diversity.
Contemplating the image on the face of the coin of that labyrinth, I saw the face and the image of the Triune Troubadour, and the music she sang carried up the hillside, placing in me the insatiable desire to twirl, to dance, and to hope. I saw, in that shared communal practice, the church, embodying and incarnating the very life of God in the Spirit. And in doing so, like the protestors back in Denver, our community lived into its vocation of witnessing to and living the reality that in Christ, it is God, and not Caesar, who truly occupies the space of creation.
Occupying shared communal practices, particularly through the creation of shared space for contemplation, is a large part of the church’s vocation, and also an essential way in which the church enables its members to discern the vocational notes God is creating in them in God’s composition of the fugue of the church’s mission. And, ironically, such space is created, not by filling it with the work and busyness we commonly associate with the word “occupation.” Instead, like the Denver occupiers whose vocation to re-claim public space was opened up largely by their lack of job or occupation, so too, the church’s vocation of witnessing to God’s occupation of the creation is manifest when, together, we un-employ ourselves, and instead, occupy ourselves with doing nothing. Waiting together. Listening together. Singing, dancing, and hoping together. Being the people of God. Together.
What if the church learned from the Occupiers how to re-occupy and re-claim our own space, the space of God? What if, by observing the revolution on the streets, we also learned how to embrace the revolution we already have, the revolution of grace upon the human heart? What if, in renouncing the quick fix, the easy answer, and the jam-packed schedule, we as a church discovered again for the first time the song, the grand vocational fugue, God is singing through us to a tired and over-taxed world? Imagine what the church could offer back to the revolutionaries who have taught us so much, if we embraced the vocation of the revolution we already have.