Poison Oak and Vocation

By Bob Hiller

Hey, you know what’s terrible? Getting poison oak all over your skin. This last weekend, my dear wife and I found a great deal of this devil’s weed in a group of trees behind our house. We have dogs who like to run through the yard and jump through the plants and kids who play in the yard hunting those dogs, so we don’t want poison oak to take over. We decided to pull it out. We wore extra layers and gloves, and we took every precaution we could have. We took showers with the right kind of soaps and washed multiple times. We did everything the right way. Now we are covered in pink skin, scabs, and calamine lotion. Although, my dear bride has it far worse than I do. Please, say a prayer for her healing!

Now, we aren’t stupid, despite what this story may lead you to believe. We know that poison oak is terrible for the skin. But we also know that if we had left it there, it would have been bad for our family, our dogs, and our yard. As homeowners and parents, our vocation demanded that we remove that weed before it got out of hand. Granted, we probably should have worn different outfits (next time we are wearing hazmat suits). Regardless, it was our responsibility to get that plant out before it became more dangerous to those in our household. Now we are covered in the scars of our responsibility.

Perhaps there is something of a picture of vocation in all of this. The responsibility of loving our neighbor in each of our callings is going to leave us scarred in some way. After all, the work of vocation is the work God has granted to us for the good of the creation. This stands against the work of the devil, which seeks to destroy the creation. And no matter how many precautions we take, no matter how much we prepare, the devil is not going to allow us to carry out our God-given responsibility unharmed. Loving our neighbor, weeding the garden for their good, though good for the creation and for the neighbor, is too great a task for sinners like us, and it will inevitably leave us covered in wounds.

To be sure, we have to take precautions as we set out to love our neighbors in this world of sin. Paul warns us in our weak flesh, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2) This is hard, painful work. Bearing the burdens of others in this sin infested world wears us down and scars us. The old flesh is always tempted to sin when it is weakened, weary, and under attack.

So, why do this? Why set out to love if the risk is so high? Well, for starters, this is precisely what Jesus did for you! He dives into the thorns and thistles, wears them as a crown on His bleeding head, and suffers the consequences of sin that our rebellion has imposed on the creation. Cursed was the ground in which this second, greater Adam found himself buried. But after three days, He walked out leaving the curse in the tomb along with your sin. As NT Wright points out, it was a mistake in the right direction when Mary confused Jesus with a gardener on Easter morning. Perhaps she caught Him weeding the garden with those nail-pierced hands.

He has won a new creation for you. In Baptism, He removed your sins and raised you to a new life. This is the vocation of our Savior, and it leaves Him scarred eternally for you. But now, He invites you to love as He has loved you. It won’t be easy to bear the marks of Christ on your body as you bear the burdens of your brothers and sister, as you proclaim the Law and the Gospel into their ears no matter how painful the pushback might be, as you faithfully carry out your vocation in the face of the devil. It is hard, painful, and beautiful work. But as the Lumineers sing, “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all. The opposite of love’s indifference.”  So, these scars are painful right now. But my house is free of poison oak, and my kids are free to play.

So it is that we live in the light of Jesus, who was wounded for our transgressions in order to forgive our sins and free us to play in our vocations.

Now, where is that calamine lotion?