After what has been a long journey through general human and Christian vocations and the callings to maturity and individuation, we come at last to a discussion of the specific ways we are able to live out our callings in practical, day-to-day life. In each of the previous posts, we’ve seen that all of the aspects of human vocation are focused not on ourselves but on the community. Our common human vocation is to be God’s representatives in the world: the ‘image and likeness of God’ is expressed in honouring it in others, caring for the rest of creation, and living our lives, flourishing and fruitful, for the sake of others. Our Christian vocation is to follow the way of Jesus, which is incarnational (leaving safety to address the needs of the world), prophetic (identifying and seeking address injustice in the world), healing (working for healthy and whole bodies, souls, and relationships), and cruciform (costly and running into conflict with the ‘ways of the world’). Our calling to maturity similarly involves becoming less self-centered and better able to show up wholeheartedly in our relationships; there is inner growth but it is for the sake of the outer world. And even our calling to be ourselves frees us from our old wounds, baggage, and hangups and releases us to make our unique contributions to the world. Vocation in all its forms is about serving others. And so today I’d like to take some time to explore how vocation is practically lived out in the world, that place where our identity, aptitudes, and interests meet the world’s need.
There are at least two ways our particular vocation can play out in out lives. The first, which I’ll call circumstantial vocation, is where we are called to rise to a particular moment; the second, which I’ll call pervasive vocation, is more stable and is about the persistent ways we respond to the world’s needs.
First, let’s look at circumstantial vocation. This is the way God calls someone to a specific task in a specific moment in time. Biblical examples of this would include God calling Abraham to leave his country and family to become the patriarch of a new people in a new land (Genesis 12), God calling Moses to free the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 3), God calling Mary to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1.26-38), and God calling Paul to become the apostle tasked with bringing Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) into the Christian fold (Acts 9ff). These are situations where the grace of God links up with personal aptitudes or life situation, and a particular need in the world. All three of these elements are important.
- First, like all vocation, it’s about grace. One does not ‘earn’ or ‘merit’ these callings; these are gifts from God.
- But, second, this doesn’t mean that such callings are disconnected from who the person is. For example, Moses’s unique circumstances — he was a Hebrew by birth, but had been raised in Pharaoh’s household — made him an ideal person for God to use to enact change in Egypt; likewise, Paul’s keen intellect, training, stubbornness, and intimate knowledge of opposition to Christianity made him an ideal person to spread the Gospel. In more contemporary times, we might think of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had firsthand experience of the negative impacts of racial segregation on the Black community in the South, but also had tremendous gifts of oratory, language, and persuasion, and the privilege to have accessed higher education. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to his vocation.
- And third, there is the moment itself, what the Scriptures call kairos. We don’t get to choose the times we live in. But in the ups and downs (increasingly downs it seems) of society and politics, God calls up individuals to rise to the occasion. The idea of kairos works both ways in vocation: it makes us ask two critical questions: What does this moment need? (Or if we think of the bibilical notion of “the fullness of time,” What is this time ‘full’ for?) And, just as importantly, what is this moment not the time for?
Even if the above examples are extreme and one-of-a-kind — there will only ever be one Mary — I think this same principle plays out in smaller ways that are closer to home: The right person for the right job in the right moment. Nicholas Pearce, in his book The Purpose Path, tells the story of Carmita Semaan, a Black woman who realized she had the resources, skill set, experiences, and passion to address the dearth of People of Colour in decision-making positions in public education at a time when education reform is a major issue. She left a successful career in the corporate world to start a nonprofit to address this important cause — The right person for the right job in the right moment.
In addition to this kind of vocation that responds to particular moments and needs, there is also the kind that are more persistent throughout one’s life. This is the sense of vocation Parker Palmer is thinking of when he defines vocation as “something I can’t not do” (Let Your Life Speak). It is deeply connected to the sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life and helps to answer questions like, ‘What gets me up in the morning?’, ‘If money were no issue, how would I spend my time?’, and ‘When do I feel the most alive?’ For this reason, Doug Koskela, who has written on vocation through the lens of Mart Luther’s thought, calls this side of vocation, our ‘missional’ calling. He lists five features of this type of calling:
- It aligns with our gifts (strengths, aptitudes).
- It involves something we’re passionate about and that gives us joy.
- It requires discernment — more on this in a subsequent post.
- It is lived out in many different ways throughout our lives.
- It is generally persistent and we generally only have one such calling.
In the New Testament, the things we generally think of in terms of personal vocation are talked about most commonly in terms of spiritual gifts, gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the individual to better serve the community. It’s a topic that has come up here recently, but is worth revisiting here.
The most famous discussion of spiritual gifts comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. He writes:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12.7-11)
The New Testament provides several different lists of gifts, none of which matches completely, so we know that these are not exhaustive lists, but only representative of the ways God empowers us to contribute to the life of the community:
- Service (or Helping)
- Exhortation (or Encouragement)
- Interpretation of Tongues
If we include the rest of the biblical witness to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we can include:
- Dream Interpretation
- Sacred Music and Poetry
These gifts are given not for the sake of puffing us up, but to help us contribute to the life of the community and thereby to help it work properly. I like what Diana L. Hayes says about this:
The diversity of our lives is important and necessary, but only if within that diversity we recognize our connectedness, that we are ‘co-created’ by Almighty God. It is that co-creation that calls us to live our lives in ways that make a positive difference in our world, regardless of whether we are bankers or paupers, lawyers or preachers, teachers or athletes. (No Crystal Stair, 34)
Just as a body couldn’t survive if it was only made up of hearts, but rather needs bone, blood, brain, kidney, and a host of other organs, fluids, and parts in order to be a living body, so does the church need a variety of skill-sets in order to function properly. This means that the church should welcome us and our gifts — they are there for its health — but also that we do the church (and ourselves by extension) a great disservice if we withhold our gifts.
When thought of in this way, it’s important to distinguish between vocation and role. Our persistent or missional vocations may involve roles, such as being a husband or mother or priest, but may not; likewise, we may inhabit a role that does not fulfill our missional vocation. A good example of this might be motherhood. For some mothers I know, their motherhood is the fullest expression of their self, life, strengths, gifts, and passions. But for others, their missional vocation lies elsewhere. This does not make them bad mothers, it simply indicates that while our roles may indeed call us to certain behaviours in certain seasons of our lives, they do not always correspond to vocation as we’re describing it here. The flip side of this is also true: We can have live out our vocation without occupying the role with which it is most obviously associated. For example, while someone with a teaching vocation may hold down a teaching job — teacher, professor, trainer, etc. — this vocation could also be lived out in other ways, such as showing neighborhood kids how to bake, or being the go-to person to provide orientation to new staff in an organization. Likewise, someone with a vocation to leadership can live that out at any level of an organizational hierarchy: the scope of one’s leadership may be different if you’re an administrative assistant compared to the CEO, but the nature of leadership is the same.
These considerations are important because there are many reasons why vocation and role may not fully correspond. Some of these may be by choice, but others may not — We’ll look at this issue more closely in the next post in the series — but whatever the reason, we need to distinguish between what we are called to do in order to express our deepest purpose and the specific ways that gets lived out. And in fact, for most of us, we will live out our missional vocation in many different ways and occupying different roles throughout our life. As Doug Koskela writes:
As you come to discern your missional calling, you often can see that you have already been working in that direction for some time. Furthermore, you begin to recognize fresh opportunities for that particular service in new and changing circumstances. (Calling and Clarity)
This is particularly true in our time of long lifespans of extended vitality, coupled with rapid social and technological changes. It’s increasingly unlikely that a single role will be able to satisfy one’s sense of calling throughout the entire course of one’s life.
There is so much more that can be said about all of this, but it’s time to leave this be. To summarize this post, God empowers each of us to fulfill our individual callings for the good of the community. This aspect of vocation manifests itself in an incredible diversity of ways, and will work itself out in an even greater diversity of roles.
The next post will shift gears, away from exploring different aspects of vocation, to the difficult discussion of the ways ‘real life’ hinders us from living them out as fully as we’d like, whether through life circumstances, structural and systemic barriers, or social and historical context.