Leading Lives That Matter compiles a wide range of texts—from ancient and contemporary literature, social commentary, and philosophy—for those who are trying to decide what to do with their lives and what kind of human beings they hope to become.
Below are a series of modules developed by book editors Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass for use in congregations. The modules work particularly well as a small group curriculum. Participants can purchase the book from the publisher’s website or another bookseller.
Click the links to jump to each module or scroll below.
Will Campbell: “Vocation as Grace”
Will Campbell, “Vocation as Grace,” in Callings!, ed. James Y. Holloway and Will D. Campbell (New York: Paulist, 1974), 279-80. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Eerdmans, 2020), 182-183.
About the Author
Will D. Campbell (1924-2013) was born in Mississippi, the son of a farmers. He was ordained as a minister at age 17 by his local Baptist congregation. After serving in the Army during World War II as a medic, he attended Wake Forest College (BA, English, 1948), Tulane University, and Yale Divinity School (B.D., 1952).
Though he held a pastorate in Louisiana from 1952 to 1954, Campbell spent most of his career in other settings. He took a position as a field officer for the National Council of Churches in 1957, which began a life-long time of courageous, public engagement with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, Campbell left the NCC to become director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, which was his base for continuing activism.
Though he remained an activist for his entire life, he was seldom at home in institutions of any kind. He devoted increasing amounts of time to his writing, and for most of his life he lived with his wife and family in a remote location on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee. He wrote scores of essays, delivered many sermons and lectures across the US, and authored a number of novels. His best known novel, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977), combined autobiography with an elegy for his brother and a history of the Civil Rights movement.
He once said, “anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian.” He was as cantankerous as he was charitable, and he offended as many liberals as conservatives. Thus, for example, he was as strongly opposed to abortion as he was to capital punishment and war.
Campbell tells us that the story he relates was set at a time before he began his own long process of vocational discernment. And for a time it looks as though this is a story about someone who was called to be a trapeze artist. But as the story unfolds, it seems to be more a story of a family group than of an individual, more a story of a kind of collective calling and less a story of an individual one.
The trapeze family troupe can be taken as an image of any community of people made up of those who have a sense of both personal and communal callings. Thus, the story might be understood as a metaphor for congregational life.
Start your discussion by having someone read the story aloud.
The trapeze artist begins by telling Campbell all of the reasons he feels called to be a trapeze artist to earn a living. What are these motives and reasons, and how to they compare to the motives and reasons that led you to do the work you do? Do you regard that work as a calling?
There are many ways to think about the purpose of a congregation. Here are three of them:
- a) A congregation is a place that calls, equips, and strengthens people in their faith in order to send them out individually into the world to serve others.
- b) A congregation is a place that strengthens the faith of its members in order to enable them collectively (through joint congregational projects) to serve their wider communities.
- c) A congregation is a place that provides its members with mutual support and aid in order to heal their wounds and protect them from spiritual adversity.
Which of these three descriptions of a congregation most closely resembles the description of the family trapeze troupe?
You may decide that descriptions a) through c) above all apply to some extent to your congregation. But where is your present emphasis: in caring for one another or caring for the world? Do you think you have found the right balance?
The family described in Campbell’s story would seem to be in many ways dysfunctional. Is your congregation more a dysfunctional Christian family in search of healing or a functional Christian family in search of mission?
Vincent Harding: “I Hear Them . . . Calling”
Vincent Harding, “I Hear Them . . . Calling,” in Callings!, ed. James Y. Holloway and Will D. Campbell (New York: Paulist, 1974), 279-80. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Eerdmans, 2020), 31-39.
About the Author
Vincent Harding (1931–2014) grew up in Harlem, the son of a single mother who was a domestic worker. The two belonged to a vibrant Adventist congregation that affirmed Harding’s gifts and called him into ministry. Teachers in New York City public schools, the City University of New York, and Columbia University introduced him to other vocational possibilities. After being drafted into the Army, he developed a lifelong commitment to nonviolence; he eventually became a Mennonite. He also decided to go to graduate school in history. All along the way, he wrestled with what it meant to move beyond the borders of the loving family-tribe of believers at Victory Tabernacle, his home congregation, which he left but would always appreciate.
In 1958, Harding traveled to Alabama with an interracial group to learn about the Southern Freedom Movement. He discovered there a calling that was “overwhelming, pressing aside almost every other voice.” He and his wife soon moved to Atlanta, where he became an important colleague of Dr. King and an influential leader in the nonviolent struggle for justice.
From 1981 to 2004, Harding taught Religion and Social Transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. During these years, he wrote three influential books (There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America; Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement; and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero), as well as teaching, speaking, and participating in movements for social justice. He also created the Veterans of Hope Project, which still operates under the direction of his daughter, Dr. Rachel Sojourner Harding. This project gathers and shares wisdom from elder activists about the role of spirituality and creativity in their work for racial, gender, economic and environmental justice, and it makes sure that these and other vocational stories are shared with young people.
In this short essay, Harding traces his own vocational journey into his early forties, telling about the ever-expanding chorus of voices that eventually summoned him into his work as a leader in the civil rights movement, a peace activist, a husband and father, a writer, and an educator.
Harding’s story emerged from his context in the Black church, the civil rights movement, and Black history. Encountering his story, readers of various backgrounds learn more about the depth and resilience of the specific communities from which Harding came.
At the same time, delving into the specific journey of one person also prompts other readers to recall their own journeys and the communities, teachers, and social movements that have called to them.
Notice the various voices Harding heard calling to him at different points in his life. For example: his mother, the Harlem congregation, reading, high school teachers, college, Army, Chicago congregation, Martin Luther King Jr., his wife and kids, working as a historian, and the voices of his people.
- How did the communities from which Harding came and which he encountered along the way help him to imagine what he should be and do?
- Dig into the significance of one or two voices that seem most powerful or interesting to you; for example: the congregation in which he grew up; the Southern Freedom Movement; the sense of connection to the larger story of his people.
Write down a chronological list of the voices or communities you have heard calling over the course of your life. After a couple of minutes, circle the voices that stand out to you.
- Have there been times when you stepped beyond the family-tribe in which you grew up? Have there been voices that have been overwhelming to you, pressing aside almost every other voice?
- Share these lists in pairs.
Ponder the last sentence in this essay: “Callings are strange things. I think I have heard many voices in many times and places, but it may be that I have heard only One.”
- What One do you think Harding means?
- As you see it, were the many different callings Harding heard actually from one source?
- What in your own experience informs how you respond to this question in your own life?
Harding wrote this essay at mid-life. Three years before his death, he offered another summary of his vocational journey in an interview with Krista Tippett. Do you find the following statement true? Does it resonate with your own story?
The older I get, the more I am convinced that that magnificent madman, Jesus, was really talking about something very truthful and powerful when he said if you allow yourself to really hunger and thirst after the right way, then if you will not back off from that hunger and that thirst, if you will just keep after it, then you will find the way. You will be filled. The way will find you.
Samuel Wells: “Rethinking Service”
Samuel Wells, “Rethinking Service,” from Cresset 76, no.4 (Easter 2013): 6-14. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 374-87.
About the Author
Samuel Wells (1965–), a priest in the Church of England and an influential ethicist and theologian, is currently vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a parish in central London.
After attending Oxford University and the University of Edinburgh, Wells was ordained in 1991. For fourteen years he worked in parish ministry, where he wrestled in a practical way with questions much like those he addresses in this essay. He also acquired a doctorate in theology and ethics from the University of Durham. In 2005 he became dean of Duke University Chapel, as well as a Research Professor in the Duke Divinity School, becoming well known as a thinker in Christian ethics on both sides of the Atlantic. Wells is the author of many books, including works on Christian ethics, mission, ministry, scripture, liturgy, and preaching.
Wells wrote this essay on service during his term as dean of the chapel at Duke University and first delivered it as a lecture at a conference for college teachers. Many students are highly aware of the needs of others and quite eager to serve, Wells observed, and colleges and universities strive to provide opportunities for them to do so. And eagerness to serve is also widespread in the larger society, where volunteers welcome the homeless, deliver meals to those who are housebound, and more, and where some professions are understood as forms of service to others. Many congregations also place high value on the service members perform for those in need.
Many of us desire to serve others, and we spend many hours doing so. Wells suggests, however that those who go out to serve are often asking the wrong question. We tend to ask: “What can I do for those in need?” By contrast, Wells argues, the most important word we can use as we think about service is “with.”
“With” and “for.” In this essay, Wells invites us to think deeply about the assumptions that are embedded in those two short words—assumptions about who people are and what people most need. To be with someone carries a sense of communion and solidarity between persons, while to be for someone imagines one person as an agent who provides help to less fortunate others.
Think of something that members of your congregation do together that they define as “service.” Working with Wells’s notions of “with” and “for,” explore how you have thought about the purpose of service as you engaged in this activity. Then ask, does Well’s argument challenge your way of thinking? What changes might it encourage in the service you do?
Wells grounds his critique of dominant notions of service in big theological and philosophical questions. How we think about service, he argues, is deeply related to underlying assumptions about who human beings are and what they most strongly need. He lays out two major positions on this matter.
- (1) Modern culture claims that humankind’s essential problem is mortality; our need, then, is to overcome limitations, to fix things.
- (2) The Christian alternative claims that isolation is our essential problem; our need, then, is to be in communion with others.
Where do you see examples of each of these approaches to others and their needs in the life of your family, community, and society? Is it more life-giving and true to human capacities and needs to think of our service to others as something we do for them or as something defined by our willingness to be with them?
Ponder together which problem—mortality or isolation—seems to you closest to the heart of human existence. Do you agree that each understanding of what the basic human need is suggests a distinct approach to service? Do you appreciate his effort to nudge you toward “with,” or do you see greater value in “for” than he does? What would be lost if “for” got less emphasis?
Wells offers three examples from everyday life about the difference between “with” and “for” (pp. 378-79). Choose one of these to read aloud in the group, and ask whether you have encountered similar tensions in your effort to do things “for” others. How would Wells advise us to rethink these scenes? As he notes (p. 381), “with” is often more difficult than “for.” Have you found this to be so?
Near the end of the piece, Wells cites the Apostle Paul and advocates the following definition of mission and service: “recognizing those from whom one is alienated and antagonized and seeking and finding ways to be present to them.” What would change if your congregation tried to live out this understanding of mission and service?
Gary Badcock: “Choosing”
Gary Badcock, “Choosing,” in The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 134-42. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 164-70.
About the Author
Gary Badcock is a prolific scholar who has made important contributions to systematic theology, ethics, and philosophy. He was born in 1961 in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, Canada. He graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland (B.A., 1981; M.A., 1984). He then received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1987 and his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Edinburgh in 1991.
As he tells us in the selection from his book on the ethics of vocation, he might have chosen to become a businessman or a commercial fisherman or a parish pastor or any number of other ways of life. He chose instead to become a teacher, a scholar, and a university administrator. Badcock started his career at the University of Aberdeen, taking the position of a teaching fellow from 1991-1993. He then moved to the University of Edinburgh as the Meldrum Lecturer in Dogmatic Theology in 1993, becoming an associate dean of the divinity faculty in 1997, holding that position till 1999. He has since then held the Peache Chair of Divinity at Huron University College, affiliated with the University of Western Ontario in Ontario, Canada.
Badcock published his book Light of Truth and Fire of Love in 1997, followed by The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation a year later. His book The House Where God Lives: The Doctrine of the Church was issued in 2009.
Like any living tradition, Christianity contains a number of unresolved controversies that help both to enliven and to sustain it. One such ongoing argument involves the question as to whether Christians have two calls or just one. All agree that Christians are called out of a pagan way of life and into a Christian one, a call ritually realized in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. But only some Christians believe that there is also a calling to particular stations as parents, children, citizens and employees. This is the so-called “secondary calling.”
Gary Badcock clearly believes that Christians have but one calling, namely, to share in Christ’s mission of love, service, and obedience wherever they find themselves stationed. For Badcock, there simply is no “secondary calling.” He finds this view liberating, since it frees people from the sometimes excruciating process of discerning exactly what God is calling them to do in their specific life choices.
Badcock takes great pains to acknowledge the often difficult stage of maturation that involves the choice of career or geographical location or other priorities. Nevertheless, according to Badcock, God is not concerned with particular choices of where to live or what to do or who to marry, so long as the life these choices bring is one that is lived out in love, service, and obedience to Christ’s summons to discipleship.
Do you agree with Badcock that he could have been just as faithful to his divine summons to a Christian way of life as a fisherman or a businessman as he is as a professor of theology?
Do you think that, as a congregation, you have only one call, the same as every other congregation? Or do you think that your social, historical, economical, and geographical location suggests as well a “secondary calling,” a summons to certain particular collective tasks?
At the end of his essay, Badcock makes a claim that will doubtless startle many Christian people. “. . . The will of God does not extend down to the details of career choice.” Do you agree? Do you find this claim liberating?
Badcock’s view would seem to free the Christian from certain often painful spiritual crises by suggesting that the choice of what to do is not spiritually significant at all. But doesn’t his view lead to other sources of spiritual struggle and anguish? What exactly does it mean to conduct your business operation or your household in a way that shares in Christ’s mission of love and service to others? And can you be a cigarette manufacturer in a Christ-like way at all? Are some careers inherently unchristian?
If Badcock is right, how do you understand the so-called “call narratives” in the Bible? The summons to Moses to go to Egypt as God’s prophet? The summons to Mary to bear the Christ child? The summons to Jonah to save Nineveh?
Badcock does an excellent job of showing how each of his three possible futures would have enabled him to be a better or worse son and citizen than the other two. Had he chosen to be a fisherman, for example, he would doubtless have been a better son, and he would surely have been at his father’s bedside when he died instead of teaching somewhere far across the sea. What are we Christians to make of the fact that no matter what we choose to do, no matter what vocations are laid upon us, our choices will lead to tragic consequences of one kind or another relative to other choices we might have made?
Alice Walker: “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life”
Alice Walker, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 3-13. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Eerdmans, 2020), 543-8.
About the Author
Alice Walker was born in rural Georgia in 1944, the youngest of eight children of sharecroppers. Walker was awarded an academic scholarship to Spelman, a historically Black college for women, in Atlanta; there she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and embraced a lifelong commitment to activism for justice and peace. Walker finished her college education at Sarah Lawrence, from which she graduated in 1965, but she soon decided to return to the South. She published her first book of poetry in 1969 and her first novel in 1970, and she was a pioneer in the teaching of Black literature and history. Her best known novel, The Color Purple, was published in 1982; it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She has continued to write in multiple genres and is the author of numerous books, including novels, stories, nonfiction, essays, and poetry.
As much of her literary work demonstrates, Walker has been especially committed to lifting up the experience and advocating the well-being of Black women. In the same essay collection where our text appears, Walker coined the term “womanist,” meaning a Black feminist or feminist of color.
As Walker describes in the short essay we’ll discuss, encountering the work of Zora Neale Hurston marked a crucial breakthrough in her own work and identity, since Hurston was a Black woman who was a literary forebear who would become for her a model. Hurston, who was trained as an anthropologist, wrote several books, including the well-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which was not widely read before Walker discovered and promoted it during the 1970s. In 2018, Walker wrote the foreword to a previously unpublished book written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1931, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
In this short essay, Walker places the story of a key moment in her own professional and personal development in the context of a wider concern: the need of artists to have models, forerunners whose own creativity and commitment convey companionship and courage in the midst of the arduous, solitary work of making art. Speaking for herself while also drawing on the experience of Vincent Van Gogh, Walker explores the pain and limits that can emerge when models are not available. She also communicates the joy and sustenance that can come from finding a model—and indeed, not just one model but a great cloud of exemplary forebears, who together provide crucial sources and supports for one’s work.
Even those of us who are not artists need models of this kind. Some people grow up with models or find them close at hand; others, like Walker, discover them “almost by accident.” Only after finding models did Walker understand how much she needed them. Her story of discovery may make us wonder about our own individual need for models—and also about how congregations and other communities might help people who need vocational models to find them.
Have you ever had a strong experience of lacking the models you need, similar to what Van Gogh suffered from or what Walker describes? What did, or what does, that feel like?
Walker says she discovered, early in her career, “a desperate need to know and assimilate the experiences of earlier black women writers, most of them unheard of by you and by me until quite recently.” Why do you think this need was such a desperate one for her? What was she missing without models of her own race and gender, and what did she gain in finding them?
If you were lacking a model, did you ever seek models deliberately? Or did they just accidentally enter your life? If you discovered a model at some point, did you know right away or only in retrospect that this was a good model for you?
Do you think you have the models you need? Who are they? If models are lacking, where might you seek them?
We are teachers, parents, elders, friends, family members, neighbors, citizens. Have we ever done things that supported others in finding good models? How might we do so today? How might our congregation support this process?
Marge Piercy: “To Be of Use”
Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use,” in The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (New York: Knopf, 1999) 73-74. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Eerdmans, 2020), 212-13.
About the Author
Marge Piercy was born in 1936 in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. She was raised a Jew by her mother and her maternal grandmother, who had been born in a Lithuanian stetl, the daughter of a rabbi. At age seventeen, Marge won a scholarship to the University of Michigan and thus became the first person in her family to go to college. After completing her B.A., she went on to earn an M.A. from Northwestern.
She was determined to pursue her vocation as a writer, but she had to endure some very difficult, impoverished times in order to do so. During a long period in Chicago, for example, she supported herself at a variety of part-time jobs—secretary, switchboard operator, department store clerk, and artists’ model. She understood the nature of various kinds of work and their effects upon the worker.
Her experiences in the labor market led her to a life of political activism in addition to her writing. Her grandfather had been murdered while organizing bakery workers, so her identification with laboring men and women was both deep and enduring. In Chicago, she became heavily involved with the civil rights movement. She would later become very active in student protests against the Vietnam War, as a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the 1960’s. During the 1970’s and afterwards, she was very active in the feminist movement.
Always a writer, she was only able to devote herself full time to her writing for extended periods when she finally settled on Cape Cod after moving back and forth across the country and living in several places on both the east and west coasts. She has been enormously productive, having written seventeen novels and nineteen collections of poetry. She is perhaps best known for her novels Gone to Soldiers (1987), Braided Lives (1982), and The Longings of Women (1994). Her most recent and widely acclaimed poetry collection is Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010 (2011). She also wrote a very well-reviewed memoir, Sleeping with Cats (1986).
There are many ways to understand the relationship between our work and our identity. For example, most people simply “work in order to live,” finding the primary sources of their sense of self in family, friendship, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion. Others “live in order to work.” Their identity is inseparable from their work. They are primarily what they do, whether through paid employment or through parenting or in some other consuming endeavor.
Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” invites us to consider a richer variety of ways to think about the relationship between who we are and what we do than the stark alternatives just posed. The “people [the speaker of the poem] likes best” seem to become wholly immersed in their work to the point that they merge with it. The people in the second stanza exert great and sustained effort to do something, but they do not altogether disappear into their task. The last two stanzas present steadily more complex images of people at their work and in their work.
The very last stanza includes a line from which the title of the poem was taken. Speaking of Greek amphoras and Hopi vases, the speaker of the poem observes that “they were made to be used.” This should lead us to wonder whether we were made to be used. And if so, how and for what purpose?
Start your discussion by having someone read the poem aloud. As everyone listens, each person should notice if a certain phrase or line stands out for them. Share these phrases or lines with one another, briefly explaining why they speak to you. Then read the poem aloud again before discussing it further.
What kind of work does the speaker mostly have in mind in the poem? Craftsmanship? Manual labor? Domestic work? Skilled, professional work? Do you think all of these kinds of work are equal in dignity and usefulness?
Think of the work that you do. Do you find meaning in the work itself, or do you view it primarily as a way to sustain your life and/or you family’s life?
Consider the people in the poem: those who merge with their work, those who are harnessed to it, those who are submerged in it, and those who are shaped by it. Might they all consider their work as a calling? Some more than others? Why?
How important is it to you that your work is “of use”? Of use to whom?
Does the speaker of this poem admire and love one kind of worker more than the others? Which one? Why?
Someone once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” The speaker of the poem says almost the same thing in the last stanza. So which is more important, what we do or how well we do it?
The poem seems to be about individual work, individual vocations. But congregations have a common work called “liturgy,” the work of the people. Do you lose yourself in that work? Or are you separate from it and somehow harnessed to it, if only as a spectator? How else might you describe the relationship between you and liturgical practice?
Denise Levertov: “Annunciation”
Denise Levertov, “Annunciation,” in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2002), 162-4. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 150-2.
About the Author
Denise Levertov was born in 1923 and raised in England, where she was educated at home by her exceptionally literary Welsh mother and immigrant father, a Russian Jew who had converted to Christianity and become an Anglican minister. She always loved poetry and began writing young; at age twelve she sent some poems to T.S. Eliot, who sent an encouraging two-page response. She started publishing poems in top journals at the age of 17, with a first book at 23. After serving as a nurse during World War II, she married an American and moved to the United States. She published many books of poetry, becoming an important voice in American poetry.
Stirred by participation in the political struggles of the 1960s, Levertov cofounded Writers and Artists Protest against the War in Vietnam and intensified her commitment to activism for peace and justice, which would also shape much of her poetry. She was jailed many times for civil disobedience in antiwar and antinuclear demonstrations. She also wrote and worked to address environmental concerns.
During the 1980s, Levertov’s lifelong engagement with questions of mystery and faith led her to embrace Christianity, first in a general way and then as a member of the Catholic church, which she joined in 1990 in Seattle, where she would live until her death in 1997. In an introduction to her religious poetry published in the year she died, Levertov remembered her “slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much of doubt and questioning as well as of affirmation.”
Another poem by Levertov, “Beginners,” also appears in Leading Lives That Matter, 2d. ed., pp 518-9, in the chapter “What Are My Obligations to Future Human and Other Life.”
“Vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” So a synonym for a “vocation” is a “calling,” something we have been summoned to do. Perhaps the most memorable and instructive story of a calling in all of Christian literature and art is the angel Gabriel’s announcement (annunciation) to Mary that she will bear the Messiah. The summons comes not to a powerful man but to a poor young woman. It comes within the confines of a home and family, not out in the wilderness or in the public square. Denise Levertov’s poem both dramatizes that summons and shows its larger implication for all of us as we respond—or not—to the summonses that come to us.
Start your discussion by having someone read the poem aloud. As everyone listens, each person should notice if a certain phrase or line stands out for them. Share these phrases or lines with one another, briefly explaining (if you can) why they speak to you. Then read the poem aloud again before discussing it further.
The poem begins by asking us to call to mind a scene the poet assumes the reader knows. Reflect on how you—and how biblical story and Western art—have imagined this scene of annunciation. Take some time with the words and images the poet says “we know.”
Read aloud the account of this scene in Luke 1:26-38.
Look at a painting of the Annunciation; many are available on line. Good examples are by the Renaissance artists Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, and by the American Henry Tanner.
Levertov emphasizes this young woman’s “courage” and “choice.” Do you see and hear these qualities in the biblical or artistic sources? (Levertov implies that they are missing; do you agree?)
In the second section, the poet asks “Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?” Have you experienced anything like an annunciation, a powerfully focused moment of calling? What was it, and what did that moment feel like? Did you say yes or no?
This poem takes place in the moment when Mary is choosing. “This was the moment no one speaks of, when she could still refuse.” God waits. Mary is free. Reread the last section of the poem, beginning “She did not cry ‘I cannot, I am not worthy.’” What do you learn about Mary in this moment of Yes? Have you ever said, or can you imagine saying, so clear and powerful a Yes?
What can we learn from the poem about what a call is and how we should respond?
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Roseto Mystery,” in Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown, 2008), 3-11. Included, with permission, in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, second edition (Eerdmans, 2020), 338-43.
About the Author
Malcolm Timothy Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, author, and public speaker. He was born in the UK in 1963 and moved to Canada shortly thereafter, where he has remained ever since. After years of freelance writing for a number of smaller newspapers and magazines, he accepted a position at the Washington Post where he worked for several years before becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1996. He also hosts a popular podcast, “Revisionist History.”
He is best known for his five New York Times best-sellers: The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), Outliers (2008), What the Dog Saw (2009) , and David and Goliath (2013). His most recent book is Talking to Strangers (2019). Gladwell’s essays and books often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences. Drawing extensively on new academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and economics, he shows how such understandings affect matters of everyday life. And he does so by telling a good story.
Gladwell is admired for his imaginative versatility as a thinker, a writer, and a social observer. Starting with relatively unknown places like Roseto, or subjects that most others would deem unworthy of serious treatment, he then proceeds to write about them in a way that reveals vitally important truths about the human condition and contemporary culture more generally. For example, in 2001 he won the National Magazine Award for his New Yorker profile of Ron Popeil, “The Pitchman.” Remember the “Ron Popeil pocket fisherman” (a telescoped rod with attached reel that you could carry in your pocket in case you suddenly happened upon a promising trout stream) and many other strange but seemingly necessary devices that Ron promoted for years on TV?
However much the United States has changed over the years, we have remained stubbornly individualistic in our thinking and acting. Thus, though we know very well that congregations are communities of people who are called both collectively and individually, we invariably focus upon individual people when we think about callings or vocations.
By contrast to this common intellectual tendency, our theologians, philosophers, novelists, and social scientists insist that we human beings are fundamentally and intrinsically social creatures, “dependent rational animals,” as one philosopher has put it. We depend for our identities and our flourishing on others in our midst. The language we use to think and speak is itself socially constructed.
“The Roseto Mystery” uncovers yet another important dimension of our need for community. Most of us would readily acknowledge that we are mutually dependent upon one another for our spiritual or our psychological or our economic wellbeing. But for our physical wellbeing? Is hyper-individualism unhealthy? That is one of the mysteries that the little town of Roseto might help us solve.
When you first read the description of Roseto and a bit about its history, you might well have thought you were reading a short story. But soon it turned into a medical mystery and a social-scientific investigation. What did you initially think might have accounted for the exceptional health of the citizens of Roseto? Are you convinced by the solution to the Roseto mystery? Why or why not?
How important was Father Pasquale de Nisco in creating the community that became Roseto? Were his initiatives “religious” in a narrow sense of the word? Does your congregation sponsor projects or programs or other initiatives that build up the health of the community that surrounds the church? What are some examples?
At the present time, life expectancy in Roseto does not differ appreciably from life expectancy in other small towns of the same sort. As soon as Roseto became incorporated into the larger region economically and socially, as soon as it became more “modern” in its life style, and as soon as it began to experience the cultural pressures that often separate people from one another, the health of its population deteriorated. Is there anything that local congregations can do to retard such deterioration among their members? If so, what?
Gladwell describes many of the everyday interactions among the citizens of Roseto. Do these interactions share a common character or tone or level on intensity? What exactly do they have in common? Think of the many gatherings your congregation hosts and encourages. What do they have in common? Do they add to the hectic pace and anxiety-inducing character of contemporary life or do they minister to and even heal those stresses?
Increasing numbers of congregations have a “parish nurse.” To what extent should congregations assume, as part of their calling, responsibility for the physical health of their members? What Biblical or theological warrants are there for undertaking such responsibility?
Do you think that individualism is consistent with a Christian way of life? Why or why not?