On Calling: Part 3…Image Bearers and Cross Carriers

If you were to see a picture of my sister and I, you would know we are siblings. In most ways, we are wildly different: she’s a night owl, I’m an early bird. She’s a procrastinator, I’m a planner. She’s Mensa and I’m…not Mensa. We only share one genetic parent, but somehow the essentials came through: auburn hair, relentless freckling in the slightest sun, green eyes, full lips. It’s like, against the odds, when God made us, He gave us the same stamp.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means that we are Imago Dei, made in the Image of God, and how that applies to our calling. Romans 8:29 says the main call on our lives is to be conformed to Christ’s image, so we might be Jesus’ brothers and sisters. We are already crafted in God’s image but, somehow, the more we move toward our calling and purpose, the more we look like a sibling of Jesus.

I read something this week that has stuck with me. Robert Mulholland says, “Our cross is the point of our unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised with God into the wholeness of life in the image of Christ”. I like that imagery. It reminds me of the Celtic cross with its circle around the intersection of the two beams. Like its saying, “look over here! This is the important part, focus on this!” This intersection is who you’re meant to be, Imago Dei, but you’ve been trying so hard to be someone else that it’s gotten mucked up. Maybe you’ve self-obsessed and self-destructed for so long that the image is hardly recognizable to you. Or maybe you’ve been hurt and abused and your image of yourself and your image of God is deeply distorted. Whatever it is that has tarnished the original, beautiful stamp, the cross restores it.

My husband offers the best example I know of this. This year, after many years of trying, he launched a non-profit that unifies all the churches in our city. He believes with his whole heart that if all the little ‘c’s can come together, the big ‘C’ Church can change the world. It’s been a decade-long effort and it has been uphill every step of the way. Wonderful things have come from it- the homeless Symposium and, subsequent, Coalition- which is making a real impact on our city’s most vulnerable citizens. Without it, we wouldn’t have launched Imagine Whitter (remember the time I asked Facebook and Google how to write a grant and because God delights in using fools, we got all $100,000 funded?!) On the other hand: it pays zero dollars, it costs him almost all of the time he has off his real job, and a lot of our time as a family. No one asked him to do it, no one applauds him for it, and few people actively support it. But he still does it. He can’t not do it.

In part one of this series, I asserted that our calling is not about us. Last week, in part two, I talked about the flexibility required to follow what God might have for us. This last installment is a combination of both thoughts: God is in the process of transforming, shaping and molding us, for a specific purpose and in a specific way: to look more like His Son. I think we can get confused in today’s culture where we equate ‘living out our calling’ with a polished, finished product on a shelf. We begin to think our calling is meant to make us happy, pay our bills, give us validation or maybe even make us successful. Jesus followed His calling and it did none of those things for him. Jesus followed His calling all the way until it killed Him.

I’m grateful I live with someone who sees God’s calling as an intersection, since we both hit that intersection almost every day. God gently presses at the point at which we are least like Him. Without this example, I might have neglected God’s call on my life because it looked like dull, hard work. Transformation is often messy and laborious and repetitive and boring. And the real bummer is that it is never finished. Sometimes I feel like I’m working myself to the bone and then look up and realize no one is asking me to do it and no one will know if I don’t. That’s the intersection. I think it can serve as a type of litmus test for the rest of us: the first and best way to know if you’re following God’s call on your life, is at the end of the day, you look more like Jesus.

Thanks for those who followed along on this series- What should we tackle next?

On Calling: Part 2…Can God’s Call Change?

When I was 31 years old, I stood outside of a Target, trying to corral my 2 and 4-year-old boys into a shopping basket. I was approximately 92 months pregnant and like the perfectly round circle that I was, resembled the sun while they -my tiny planets- orbited around me at high speeds. An older woman passed me on her way out, and pausing, looked me straight in the eye and then at my stomach. “For your sake,” she deadpanned, “I hope that one’s a girl.”

This woman was merely one in a string of what I’ve come to call ‘helpful strangers’, people who, instead of offering actual physical help and support, settle for offering their helpful, helpful opinions about things that are none of their business. “Are you trying for your girl?” was another popular one, several helpful strangers had chirped at me that week. As if by sheer willpower, I could command the growing fetus inside me to magically form the preferred genitalia, with the powers of my mind. As if my offspring were like a box of Dot’s candies, and if I just kept shaking long enough, I would eventually get the yellow ones that I liked best. As if my two precious boys, always at my hips, did not have ears to hear them.

This coming baby was a girl, although I almost never told anyone that. To the helpful stranger in Target, I merely rubbed my belly and said, “Twins. Boys. We couldn’t be happier.” But to the people I liked, or who were buying me presents, I let out she was in fact, a girl. This garnered its own helpful follow up. “Oh, you got your girl. So now, are you done?” There is nothing like pregnancy to highlight one stranger’s investment in another stranger’s ladybits.

Of course, for me, these questions became deeply theological in nature. I began to ask questions of my friends, “How does one decide to stop having kids?”, “How did you know you were done?” “Is there a magic switch?” “Is mine broken?” I began to ask questions of myself: How does God view children and childrearing? Who actually creates a baby? Who creates life? If God creates life, then am I sinning by standing in God’s way? If the church teaches that each person is an eternal being, who am I exactly, to determine how many people I bring into eternal bliss or damnation? Why isn’t anyone talking about this, or better yet, telling me what to do? Am I secretly Catholic?

You would think that by my 3rdpregnancy and having lived 3 whole decades on this earth I would have grappled with at least some of these questions, but you would be wrong.

My friends’ answers were as varied as the people answering them. Many of them were with me in the trenches of sleep deprivation and tantrums. They based their decision to stop having children on the fact that they did not desire to have any more children. Others reasoned that finances should play the biggest part, that one should not bring children into the world without a planned college fund. Some told me stories of horrific miscarriages and near-death deliveries resulting in debilitating anxiety. This topic often brought up touchiness, heartache, shame and fear. Part of my difficulty in navigating these waters was that I was poking the tenderest of nerves within myself and mothers around me.

My Catholic friends were generous in answering my questions and recommending books. I scoured websites. I stumbled upon a ‘Quiverfull movement,’ something I’d never heard of before. A lot of their resources validated what I had been wrestling with. If your body is doing what God created it to do, they argued, why would you stop it, why would you surgically alter something within you that is healthy?They put words to my inklings about our culture’s viewpoint of children as burdensome and the general disdain for childrearing. But the Quiverfull’s and I differed at one key intersection: They believed leaving one’s fertility open was a call on the life of all believers, I only suspected that it was God’s call on mine. Quiverfull’s may get even more wrong than that, but they were the first, and sometimes only, people allowing me the space to work out what I was feeling.

I wouldn’t have been able to admit it at the time, but I secretly knew God was calling me to trust Him with the number of kids we would have. I didn’t know why or how, I only knew, in the quietest moments of my heart, an assurance that He had never let me down.  I didn’t suspect He was going to start now. I had no way to articulate it or defend it, but it sat like a seed in my heart, and it began to grow.

I brought up my feelings with my husband whose first response was, “What? Like the Duggars? I don’t get it; we just keep having them?” To which I promptly rolled my eyes at his clear cultural saturation of family planning. Why is our fixed starting point one of refusal of children until it suits us to welcome them? I argued from my soapbox,Why not the other way around? Where does Scripture give us this kind of authority over life?I pointed out that George Washington was the 5thchild out of 10 in his family, and Mozart was the 7thand last in his. During this phase I was a joy and delight to live with, and I can only assume that is why my husband eventually acquiesced.

Fast forward through the birth of children 3 and 4, where I remain deeply committed to God’s call on my life to leave my fertility open. It is my calling. It is who I am. I have long hair, and maybe will buy some ankle length denim skirts. No one can be sure where this train is heading.

When my 4thchild was 5 months old (another girl), I had a panic attack. This panic attack, as they often do, sparked other panic attacks, and I found myself traumatized, depressed and afraid to leave the house. I went to see my doctor and after the exam he casually mentioned that the antidepressant he was thinking of for me was not tested in pregnancy.  “But you don’t want to get pregnant again though, right?” he said buried in his laptop, which I knew stated 4 live births. He looked up at me and I froze. Want? Did I wantto get pregnant? Well, um, no, since I hadn’t brushed my teeth in God knows how long, I was leaking breastmilk through my shirt and at that exact moment wearing two different (but both black!) flip flops. No. Getting pregnant again was not at the top of my to do list. But what did ‘want’ have to do with God’s call on my life? Since when was a calling promised to be easy? I left with a diagnosis of “Post-partum anxiety and depression” and a laundry list of pills.

I collected my prescriptions at the pharmacy and took them home and dumped them on my dining room table.  One was a general antidepressant.  One was Xanax in case I felt a panic attack coming.  The third one was birth control. I laid them all out as if seeing them all at once would cause a solution to surface. I started to cry.

My tears were mostly that of disorientation. I had felt so sure of God’s call on my life. It felt almost euphoric to be so safe inside that sureness. Now, I didn’t know what direction I was supposed to go. I’m convinced most Christians, like myself, exist here much of the time, and we are not really sure how to move forward. Theologian Walter Brueggemann offers a framework for understanding the Psalms, the best book I know on disorientation. He says the movements of the psalms highlight the movement inherent in the life of the believer: first we are oriented to God, where everything has a black and white answer. Everything is sure.  Then we become disoriented by actual life, the greys of scripture, the pain of suffering. God seems far away. Then the real process of growth for any believer is the last stage of reorientation to the person of God.

I have found, in this situation, and since then, that when the specific instructions on my calling become murky, I must remember what is true about God. His unchanging character is the best re-orienting device I have found. When I’ve gotten stuck at this disorientation/re-orientation crossroad I want to solve the tangible problem- so my prayers reflect this: What job, God? What city, what spouse, what school? I look to temporal things to reveal what is hidden. I’ve noticed now- that God will allow periods of disorientation to reveal more of His character to me.

Sitting at my dining room table, I called my best friend and choked out my dilemma.  She waited a beat before answering. “What would you do if it were me?” she said, “What would you tell me?” “I would tell you to hang up the phone and start popping pills,” I said, “It’s not that I’m against anti-depressants, you know I’m all for them” I went on, “It’s the birthcontrol.” “But you can’t do one without the other.” She said, “And if I were feeling like you’re feeling, what would you say to me?” I paused, “I’d tell you to take it-” “Why?” She countered. “Because you need it” I said, choking up again, “because it would help you, and because I love you and want good things for you.” She paused. “You do.” She said gently, “And are you more merciful than God?”

I’d like to tell you that was the end of it. Instead I struggled for weeks to make a decision.  Her question kept coming back to me, Do I think I’m more merciful than God?God loves me. God wants me to be well. God would want me to take medication that could help correct the chemicals in my brain, even if that meant ‘controlling’ my fertility, something I had purposed in my heart not to do. I felt like I was at a crossroad, at the intersection of God’s call and God’s character.  They seemed in conflict. Which one wins?

I thought about Peter. Peter who was just trying to be a good Jew and follow Christ at the same time. When Peter got the vision of the clean and unclean animals, he argued with God like I did. To which God warned, Don’t call something unclean that I have called clean. Was Peter like, “Uhhh, but you didcall it unclean”? Maybe by the third time the sheet was lowered, Peter heard God’s whispering that I was hearing now, “I know what I said. But will you let me do something new?”

Our first natural tendency, when conceptualizing calling, is making it about us: This is who I am, which I talked about last week in Part One. And the second comes out of that. We think, If this is who I am, this is how that will play out and this is where I will be in 10 years. I don’t know that our calling is ever meant to serve as our crystal ball, or even our compass. I’ve seen in my own life, that the more I am oriented to Christ alone, the freer and more flexible I have become and the less I know about what the future holds.

It’s helpful for me to remember God’s trademark is new life. He is in the business of bringing dead things to life and making everything new.  That involves change, transformation and sometimes, first, death. Scripture repeatedly likens us to clay and to sheep. Clay is malleable and sheep are dependent which tells me that God cares a lot more about our pliability and our flexibility than He does about any specific thing He can accomplish through us. He is in the process of making us moldable, flexible, and transformable: glory to glory.

“We don’t have to hold so tightly to this,” my husband reminded me. “If God wants to grow our family, He will.” (The discerning reader will note we have 5 kids, not 4. Life is weird.) And as difficult as it has been to live life open-handed toward God, I’ve seen it is the only way to engage with a living God who molds and changes His children in real space and time. If I hold white-knuckled onto to my old ideas of how God has worked in the past, if I cling to my old ways of relating to God, over time it wears thin, like a wineskin full of holes, wasting any new life the Spirit pours in.

On Calling- Part One…It Is Not About You

Four days after my twenty-third birthday, fresh out of college, and the day before 9/11, I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, embarking on what I assumed would be a lifetime career in missions. In my vision of my future self, I would work tirelessly for the causes of the oppressed. All pictures of me would, of course, be exclusively in black and white, surrounded by village children as I drew water from a well. No doubt my future imaginings were heavily influenced by Amy Carmichael, whose biography I had read no less than half a dozen times in college. You can imagine my disorientation, when less than a year later, I was back in America, living with strangers in an apartment in Compton.

I realize now that my disorientation centered on my misunderstanding of what it meant to be called by God.  I thought it was something I had to search for and find, like a sand dollar on the beach. Similarly elusive and fragile, it was something I could lose, or break, or ruin. I’ve realized since then, that many other people feel the same way. So, I’ve decided to do a little series on the topic of calling. (Did she say a blog series?! Let’s have a moment of silence for progress.) (And while we are on the topic, did you notice that after 7 years of blogging I figured out how to upload a profile picture? Things are moving full steam ahead over here).

So. Week one, first things first. Let’s start with what calling is not.

Your calling is not your vocation (what you do), or our passion (what you desire). Your calling is not the same as your gifting. Your calling does not need to be seen by the world to be validated, appreciated or approved. No one else is responsible for your calling, no one else is on the hook to provide the needed tools, support, or (take the wheel, Jesus) finances. No one else is responsible to make room in their lives or yours for what God is calling you to. You are responsible to carve out time where time does not exist, meaning something else in your life will have to go, and it is on you to cut it.  No one is going to give you permission to pursue what God has called you to, which is lucky, since you don’t need it anyway.

I’ll do my best to tease out these ideas in the coming weeks, but I’ll camp out today on the first thing that calling is not: your calling is not about you. Overwhelmingly, the verses we use to discern God’s notion of calling are from the Epistles. The predominant writer, Paul, is using the term in many different scenarios, but they almost always have this in common: they are a corporate exhortation.  “For God has not called us to impurity, but holiness” (I Thess  4:7), “God has called us to peace” (1 Cor 7:15) The base of our understanding for what it means to be called by God exists in letters written to a whole group of people, as Paul addressed the Romans (1:7) “for all those in Rome, who are loved by God and called to be saints.” They are usually a corporate call to a corporate purpose to pursue the things of God: peace, holiness, work, perseverance, and love.

You may argue that the Old Testament prophets serve as an example of God calling people out singularly. God did have a purpose for them, separate and distinct from those around them, but the prophet always served to speak God’s word to the people. Even if their calling was distinct, their purpose was always for community. Once, when the prophet Jeremiah was bellyaching to God about something or other, God gave this reminder, “Have I not set you free for theirgood?” (15:11) Even for those who hear, see and experience a specific call from God Himself, they only exercise that call in relation to other people. Jeremiah highlights for us another thing calling is not: it often does not feel good or look good and if you’re doing it right, it just might get you killed.

We face a strong temptation in today’s culture to make everything about us. The Church, I fear, is not doing enough to divert us in a better direction.  We place notions of God’s calling like vellum over our cultural norms of valuing the individual and our desire to be unique, and those proclivities show right through the paper. As a trained therapist and a therapy devotee myself, my spirituality has benefitted from the self-examination I have done in therapy. But when understanding ourselves, scrutinizing the other, self-introspection and validation become the end goal, we have gotten off track. Thomas Merton writes about this in his book about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. On discussing the balance between contemplation and engagement he writes, “Isolation in the self, inability to go out of oneself to others, would mean incapacity for any form of self-transcendence. To be thus the prisoner of one’s own selfhood, is in fact, to be in hell” He conveys an important truth the earliest followers of Jesus understood and a truth we desperately need to re-learn: God’s calling is not designed to make you more special and distinct, but to focus you more on Him and unify you with other believers.

What confuses us, I think, is that calling is, in part, about identity. But as Christians, our identity is not about what we do, but about who we are. More specifically it is about who God says we are, who He is, and who He is making us out to be. Instead we say, this is who I am, this is God’s call on my life, when really, we are talking about a (possibly temporary) manifestation of that calling. When we take these manifestations of calling: parenting, mission work, starting nonprofits, scrubbing toilets, writing a sophisticated SERIES OF BLOGS, when we pluck them out, and tuck them into our pockets, we make them about us. When they become stagnant, they go stale.

I think that’s where I’ll start next week, on how calling involves change.  A message we desperately need when what God has called us to, seems to go off the rails. When the spouse leaves, or the business collapses, or the pregnancy test reads negative, month after painful month. I think I’ll write the message I wish that twenty-three -year-old failed missionary in me could have heard.