Andrew Neaum

Margaret and I had recourse to the story of Joseph only last Friday night. We were in the car returning from an Induction at Cobram and in conversation got on to the subject of vocations.


I have been asked to conduct the retreat of someone to be ordained deacon shortly, and in talking about this we meandered into a consideration of some of the inappropriate candidates for ordination that our own Diocese has thrown up over the past ten years or so.


Pseudo-mystical guff

I suggested that the whole notion of “vocation” is one that needs serious demythologising. By which I meant that all the subjective, pseudo-mystical guff that you tend to hear from people who wish to be ordained needs to be discounted, thrown out, taken no account of. All that dubious talk that suggests that God has somehow actually whispered “follow me” into a candidate’s ear or heart and that therefore they know, know, know that they are called. It is God’s will, God’s word, that they are called and should anyone therefore dare to question that call such a person is of the devil, blasphemous, speaking out against the very will of God.


Whereas in fact, anyone with any pretensions at all to psychological acumen can see only too plainly that the person claiming God’s call, so deeply wants, desires and longs from the very bottom of their very heart to be ordained, that it is largely only their will, dressed up as God’s will, or their own will hopelessly entangled with God’s will, that is the real and motivating compulsion and force behind their request for ordination.


Lame duck priests

To be a priest, for a certain type of lame duck, appears very attractive. There is a stage to strut about on, though its called a sanctuary. There’s a podium from which to pontificate, though its called a pulpit. There is an audience to hector, bully and bore to death, though its called a congregation. There is an ego to hold up for admiration, though the Gospel actually calls for its diminishing. There’s a certain status in society which, though fast dissipating, is irresistible nonetheless, to the insecure. There are also the sick, halt, lame and damaged to satisfy one’s need to be needed. What is more, because theology and things of the spirit are so beyond the purview of matter-of-fact, ordinary people, those who wish to appear profound and wise can more readily pass off cliches and woolly thinking as profundity and wisdom than in almost any other area of human endeavour.


To be a priest, for a certain type of lame duck, does indeed appear to be very, very attractive. Easily attractive enough for a person’s own will and aspirations to masquerade as God’s will.


I expounded something like these views on the way back from Cobram in our car on Friday night, until Margaret, as is her wont, brought me down to earth and better in to focus. “How exactly is God’s will known or discerned then?”


She is well aware of how I like to portray God’s will as more often than not being something fluid, in the process of being made, with our help, rather than as something simply given and determined and therefore requiring only to be discerned.


God’s will, in my own experience, involves taking the often unpromising, ungodly, raw material of our existence and turning it, with the help of God’s grace, into what is good, into, that is, what is God’s will.


Daddy’s little darling

As I rehearsed this understanding of God’s will, the Joseph story came into our conversation.


The fact that Joseph as a young man was a stuck-up, daddy’s little darling and nasty piece of work could in no sense be claimed to be God’s will.


That his demeaned and belittled brothers should have plotted his death and have been responsible for his slavery in Egypt, could in no sense be claimed to be God’s will.


That Potipher’s probably beautiful wife should be an adulterer and possibly a nymphomaniac as well, and that this should lead to Joseph’s unjust imprisonment, could in no sense be claimed to be God’s will.


All of these things were the unpromising, ungodly, raw material of Joseph’s all too human existence, but which, through the grace God and his God-given attributes and talents, he turned to good. Or in theological language, made into God’s will.


So much so that when his fearful brothers in a funk at finding him still alive and themselves at his mercy and in his power, they were able to be reassured by Joseph saying in effect, don’t be alarmed, it was God who sent me ahead of you. “.....it was not you who sent me here, but God”.


In just such a way is God’s will more usually made by us, with God, than presented to us by God as something already determined.


Off the hook?

Margaret has heard this before, and although she largely agrees with it, she probed a few weak points on Friday night. “Isn’t all a bit too pat, too neat? Perhaps something important is being lost. Because if you happen do something really evil to me, doesn’t it let you off the hook? If I turn the evil you have done into God’s will, by causing real good to come out of it, then you can preen yourself and say,  ‘you see what I did was God’s will after all, what I did wasn’t evil, it was good.’”


She had a point. I had to I had to develop a counter argument: Any great evil that I happened to do to her would certainly not be God’s will originally. It is only so now, in the later present, thanks to her and to her brave acceptance of it and turning it to good. So my guilt would have been made easier to cope with, by her action, but it would certainly not be done away with. The reality of the evil that I had done would still cry out for my acknowledgement and repentance. God’s will has been made, yes indeed, but at an unnecessary, and usually very painful cost.


My wife is sometimes to blame

Margaret and I, when in the car together, don’t spend all our time talking on matters as profound as this. We talk food, kids, parishioners, politics, the past, we air grievances and are often silent for miles and miles as well. But now and then, our conversation does spark off a sermon, and so occasionally you can blame her and not me!


To return to the matter of vocations, and to the necessity of disentangling our will from God’s will. Such a disentangling of wills, lies at the heart of all real morality.


Too, too many of us, for far, far too much of the time, take it as read that what we want and desire, and aspire to, is right and good, or in theological talk, is God’s will. Whereas in fact, God’s will for us, in many, many, if not most of the important decisions in our lives, is not what we want, but the opposite, as it was with Jesus in Gethsemane, who wanted to run away, but knew it would be wrong to and so didn’t.



God’s will for us nearly always involves giving more than we want to, doing more than we want to, loving those we’d rather hate, going to church when we would rather not, listening to a sermon when we’d rather dream through it, really hearing and empathising with our spouse when we’d rather that she would just shut up and allow us to read our book, walking the second mile, not merely the first, turning the other cheek rather than retaliating, loving our enemy instead of enjoying hating him.


Our own will for the most part is in conflict with God’s. We are not very moral beings. We are not so much heroically good as merely conventionally good, if that. We are far too prone to do the easy and wrong thing in preference tothe difficult and good.


Bad news can be good news

This is bad news. The good news though, is that the bad news can be made good news. What is not God’s will can be made God’s will. Joseph’s unfair treatment can be turned in a gloriously creative act of forgiveness. Crucifixion can give rise to Resurrection.


So long as we remain open to Grace, in God’s pocket, in his hand, in his heart, in his Church.