Maybe it’s not so much what you’re called to, but whom you’re called to.
I’ve spent the majority of my life worrying about my calling. At a young age, I drew up a map and navigated my path with precision and accuracy. And as you’d expect from anyone following a map drawn by a four-year-old, I soon got lost and confused, angry and frustrated.
Last year, I spent a weekend at a monastery as part of a class on vocation, work, and ministry. There I was, a confused and uncomfortable Protestant, standing in the back of a giant stone cathedral as a processional of black-robed Benedictines began chanting Scripture and liturgy. My life, in that brief moment, had become a Catholic musical of strange holiness. My wife was with me, which was fortunate because I might otherwise be wearing a black robe myself right now.
Though I sat through hours of lectures and presentations throughout the weekend, one of the most profound things I learned about calling was from an encounter with an old monk. He told me his position in life was to be a signpost, simply pointing the way and saying, “This way home. This way home, forever.” There’s something beautiful about simplicity, isn’t there?
A lot of people confuse the words vocation and occupation, but they’re really different words. Occupation literally means the place you occupy. Most dictionaries use the words “job” and “profession” to define it. Vocation, on the other hand, shares the same Latin root as voice and vocal, literally meaning “to call.” Occupation has to do with where you’re standing. Vocation has to do with who’s talking to you.
At the beginning of the class, my professor Paul Stevens pointed out the obvious — but completely overlooked — fact that a calling, before it does anything else, implies a caller.
By the time I was old enough to hear the faint whispers of the divine Caller, a crowd of other voices had come alongside and told me what I was good at and where I needed to go. I became obsessed with the speech bubbles, and forgot to look where they were coming from. Amid all the noise, I went to God wanting nothing but quick, cheap answers: where should I go? What should I do next? He was my Magic 8 Ball I kept shaking and shaking with no luck.
Theologian Klaus Bockmuehl describes Christian calling as a wedding cake, meaning it has layers with different flavours. At the bottom is our calling to be human, to embrace the image of God by participating in creation and relationships. The next layer is the calling to be Christian, to imitate Christ in the power of the Spirit and become part of his body, the Church. At the top is the personal calling, the specific voice resounding through the cosmos to your insignificant ears.
In my quest to understand the distinction between “job” and “vocation,” I decided to conduct my own informal survey. I asked 10 people what their job was, and then asked them about their calling. Here’s what I found interesting: younger and single people almost always used professional words to talk about their calling, basically repeating their job description but using fancier words. The people beyond 30, especially those with kids, were more likely to describe their calling as “father” or “mother” or “spouse” before anything else. This reminded me of something Stevens writes about in The Marketplace Ministry Handbook: “A calling is to someone, not to something or somewhere.” He’s talking about being called to God, but I think he’s on to something more.
Moses wasn’t called to be a leader. He was called to lead a people loved by God. Paul wasn’t called to be an apostle. He was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Jesus wasn’t pursuing an occupation in healing and forgiving. He was following his vocation of redeeming humankind.
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe God calls people to be shepherds. I think he calls people to a flock of sheep. God doesn’t create accountants or pastors or CEOs. He creates humans, humans who have the power to create and to care, to love and to sacrifice, to listen and to follow. A calling is always to people, specific individuals you can see and touch and converse with — not to positions of power or platforms of influence or stations of economic stability.
I’ve had this epiphany — that God calls me to community rather than to a profession — about three different times in the last three years. It’s a simple thing to pick up on, but for some reason, for impatient dreamers and planners like me, it’s nearly impossible to grasp. When transition hits, when given the opportunity to worry about what’s going to happen next, the kid in me lashes out, and I start furiously shaking the Magic 8 Ball again.
Constant obsession over what we should do with our life reveals a lack of trust and the presence of fear. The relentless need for guidance and reassurance is not the mark of a healthy spirituality. Scripture, says Stevens, has little to say about guidance. Rather, it is a lot more about revealing the Guide.
So what is my calling? Depending on when you ask, I might smile and tell you about my journey, or I might get choked up with grief. But I’ve come to realize it’s actually not so complicated. My calling is to be a good husband, a loving son, a reliable friend. It’s to tell the truth of God’s love through the way I relate to my community, the way I foster intimacy and encourage life, the way I use my words and spend my time.
For the most part, I’ve stopped trying to construct my own identity by tossing around dry sand. Instead, these days I’m trying to listen. Not for the voice that dictates a solid five-year plan (although that’s not unwelcome), but for the Voice that simply says “You are loved. You are worth more than you know.”
In a way, I think we can all learn from the old black-robed monks. Whether your paycheck comes from a church, a cranky boss, a bunch of customers, or a Fortune 500 company, we’re nothing more than a bunch of signposts. Our words and our actions, whether clocked in or clocked out, point to a Person and say, “This way home. This way home, forever.”