Archives for posts with tag: calling

We just celebrated our college graduation on Saturday. I teach a course on spiritual formation and vocational discernment. I believe that vocational discernment [finding your calling] is at the heart of young adult spiritual formation, perhaps all spiritual formation. The Reformation was a time when there was not only reformation of church and doctrine but a reformation of the concept of vocation. Here’s a brief history of vocation:

It began with Eusebius [263-339 CE], Bishop of Caesarea, who said that Christ gave two ways of life: Via Contemplativa, or the contemplative life, primarily lived by priests, nuns, and monks. In Protestant terms this would be ministers and missionaries who have a “call” from God. This was a sacred calling, those who have a calling, a vocation. Those who did not have a call from God engaged in the Via Activa, the life of work: soldiering, governing, farming, trading, and raising families. It was praised as noble and necessary, but secondary.

This created an obvious double standard. It is somewhat ironic in that the monastic movement had a reforming mission to call a secularized church back to radical discipleship, but instead it had a relaxing effect in that it called a few to radical discipleship and let everyone else off the hook.

Martin Luther corrected the Catholic distortion by saying, “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.” When he talked about vocation he liked to use the most mundane examples: “the father washing smelly diapers, the maid sweeping the floor, the brewer making good beer.” All work is God’s work.

Unfortunately, Protestantism brought its own distortion. Whereas the Catholic distortion is a spiritual dualism, the Protestant distortion is a kind of secular dualism. It reduces vocation to an alternative word for work. John Calvin sarcastically said in response to Libertines, “Let a brothel keeper ply his trade… let a thief steal boldly, for each is pursuing his vocation.” Protestant reformers agreed that judges had to sentence, soldiers had to kill, and slaves have to serve in order to fulfill their God-given, predestined calling in life. I think you can see the problems with this.

The Anabaptists questioned this because the uncritical acceptance of some occupations did not allow for any challenge of the existing social order. They believed that the existing social order was not according to God’s reign; and, that they were called to set up an alternative social order as a prophetic witness. This created tension for them in certain roles because those roles were part of an evil system, e.g. the magistrate [kill people], a merchant [horde goods from poor].

But this initially prophetic question helped to produce the “Anabaptist distortion” of withdrawal from society in later generations. They did good things, and did them ethically [some of the time], but only for their own benefit and not for the common good.

So with all these distortions in history, how can we develop a good theology of vocation today that is consistent with God’s purposes?






What is your vocation? My vocation is to help others discern their vocation and embrace what they do as vocation.

The idea of vocation as calling and not career is not new, but it has often been distorted by those who refer to being a pastor or missionary as a calling but being a builder or computer programmer as a career or job. None of these four are our calling, but they are all ways of living out our calling. I learned about this as a youth pastor from one of my friends who owned and operated a window and door business* and then it was first articulated for me when postmodern writings sought to erase the secular/sacred divide, but there really is a thread that runs all the way back through the Reformation, monasticism, and right back to the incarnation. I won’t trace the thread here,** but I want to share a few comments and quotes from a recent read, Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood by David P. Setran and Chris A. Kiesling.

They [and I] lament that

Rather than attaching adult status to a sense of “responsibility for” dependent others, adulthood is now linked more to a “freedom from” constraining others. In some ways, this shift has acted to sever the tight correlation between adulthood and other-directed vocation.

Adulthood is not primarily about freedom from parents and authorities but about becoming a responsible person who contributes to the “common good.”

To be a responsible person is to find one’s role in the building of shalom, the rewebbing of God, humanity, and all creation in justice, harmony, fulfillment, and delight. To be a responsible person is to find one’s own role and then, funded by the grace of God, to fill this role and to delight in it.

This “role” is what vocation is.

Equating vocation with a paid occupation can overvalue this sphere, producing tendencies toward workaholism. In addition, such a perspective has the tendency to divest other activities of their meaning and importance in the life of the kingdom.

Studying nutrition, writing poems, thinking critically, serving coffee, making meals, taking a bus, looking after children, painting a picture, writing theology papers, playing soccer, participating in class discussions, recording  a song, making a video, walking to work, packing fruit… these are all important vocational activities*** that contribute to the flourishing of humanity [or the building of shalom, the common good or the life of God’s kingdom].

*This story is told in chapter 10 of my book, Under Construction: Reframing Men’s Spirituality.

**See Living Faith: Embracing God’s Calling by Keith Graber Miller, Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman, The Call by Os Guinness.

***This list is dedicated to my daughter, daughter-in-law, and three sons.

At the end of the year I always spend a lot of time reflecting on the past year. This year it seems, more than any other year in memory, I have questioned and reflected on my calling in life. It is more than 20 years ago that I went through the process of ordination to church ministry. Ordination is a life-long calling. I took it very seriously [and still do] and did a lot of questioning, but it probably helped to be somewhat naïve and idealistic at the time. My main questions revolved around the fact that biblically, especially from an Anabaptist perspective, all members of the church are ordained to ministry. Why should I have a special intensive process culminating in a public ceremony and celebration when others did not? My reasoning at the time was that since my ordination was to public leadership ministry, my ordination process also needed to be public.

I have sometimes cursed this calling and wished I had a more invisible calling with less public pressure and expectation. This year had a few such times. Writing a book, and now blogging, has only increased that publicity and accompanying feelings of vulnerability. I thought blogging might be a way to test out things I was reading, experiencing, and learning but I found out that cyberspace is not necessarily a safe place. Friends who do not have the calling I do can say whatever they want to say without fear of misunderstanding or reprisal, but I feel like I have to be more careful than in the classroom. I have 10,000 bosses I am responsible to and a faceless public beyond that [As a church leader we sometimes said we had 200 bosses; now at the college we have more than 70 churches multiplied by 200 gives me at least 10,000 bosses!]

This year’s experiment was an attempt to blog more regularly on a greater variety of topics [see previous post]. I reached my goal of 52 posts [an average of one a week]. Now, I’m not so sure I want to continue. My energy might be better used with the people who I interact with in real time and place. Blogging does keep me in touch with a few people and I appreciate the sharing of ideas, and on occasion it has connected me with people I have never met in person. Like Jeremiah, my faith is like fire in my bones and I can’t keep it inside. Blogging gives me the opportunity to get it out, to write creatively and to speak on issues that are not part of a curriculum, but sometimes I feel pressure to conform to my nebulous crowd of bosses. If I can’t be free and genuine, why bother? Like Elijah, I often feel like crawling into a cave after an intensive public ministry experience like preaching, or in this case blogging.

My end of the year retreat day is coming up. I’ll see what the cloister does for my perspective.