What’s in a calling?

Can you be “called” to environmental work?  It took me almost 10 years working in the creation care movement to discover a person who should have been one of my first heroes, Sigurd Olsen, and who was, he believed, “called” from missions to care for God’s creation.  Maybe he’s new to you, too?  [Originally published Feb 9, 2009]

I recently spent almost two weeks in the Library of Congress, discovering some new heros to add to my collection. One of the names that kept appearing was that of Sigurd Olson. Previously unknown to me (and I suspect to many others today), he was a genuine hero of the wilderness movement in the early 20th Century. Among his writings are Singing Wilderness and Listening Point, both written in the first half of the last century.Olson’s work is fascinating for a number of reasons. He was a contemporary of Aldo Leopold, and lived not long after John Muir(all three, fascinatingly, have roots in my own home state of Wisconsin – along with Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day. Maybe there’s something in the water?). He was a man of the outdoors, and truly believed that we can only really get in touch with ourselves when we spend time in the wild. Writing during and after World War II, he was someone who could read the ‘signs of the times’ and he foresaw much of what we have been dealing with since that time: Rapid and unplanned urban and suburban expansion, explosion of air travel, the loss of wilderness areas. Even in 1950, he was pleading with the public and with the government to save the ‘wild areas’ before it would be too late. Read him – he’s worth your time.

What captured me, though, was a brief vignette about the start of Olson’s career as told by David Backes in The Meaning of Wilderness:

While attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison at the end of World War I, he became chapter president of the Student Volunteers, American Protestantism’s most important missionary organization [comment: This was predecessor of today’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship]. But during the same period doubts about his calling and his faith assailed him. The night before he was to publicly make his commitment to the missionary life he climbed to the roof of the YMCA building where he lived, looked out over Lake Mendota and up at the stars, and struggled with his conscience. He decided that his fascination with the missions had more to do with his interest in visiting the wild places fo the world than with saving souls. When he came down from the roof the nexst morning, he resigned from the organization, and in effect also broke from his Baptist faith.

Olson left “missions” behind, and his formal Baptist faith. I’m not sure he left God behind. Though his writings make few direct references to God, his relationship with the wild places of the world had more than a touch of the religious about it:

The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as I watched it sink I thought that I could feel the earth turning from it, actually feel its rotation. Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ and knew that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means. [Singing Wilderness, quoted in Backes, p xxi]

Could Olson have had a signifcant life’s work “saving souls” in some far corner of the globe? Certainly. Was the path that he ended up taking less significant than it might have been? I don’t think so. Here is a man who did as much as anyone I’ve found to try to preserve God’s creation for future generations. If we see the world as one of the ways in which God reveals himself to us, Olson’s life’s passion was to preserve God’s revelation for generations as yet unborn:

…he commanded our fathers to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God… [Psalm 78:5-8, ESV]

This is not intended to minimize the importance of saving souls, or any of the more directly ‘spiritual’ aspects of service. I am an ordained pastor and the son of missionaries myself, and have felt God’s call on my own life. But, as it happens, my calling right now is a bit closer to that of Olson than what it seemed to be when I started out thirty years ago this year, and I couldn’t be happier and more fulfilled.

If God calls you to serve him as Olson did, listen up! You’re needed!

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