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.