Conversations about vocation and calling are one of many gifts I receive from my students at Mars Hill University.
As they get closer to graduating, they inevitably ask questions like: “What’s next? Grad school? What discipline and where? A job? Can I find one that at least roughly matches who I am, what I care about, what I enjoy doing and, at the same time, pays me enough to be independent?”
Answering such questions invites and requires them to think about the values they hold and about the hopes they have for their lives.
Some of these conversations are ad-hoc – they take place in the cafeteria, in a hallway or on the sidewalk, or after a class period has ended, in a still emptying classroom.
Some of the conversations are a part of the curriculum, as is the case with my course on “Christian Ethics in Engagement with U. S. Culture.”
Ethical living demands our having a clear sense of the dignity and value of every human life, including our own.
It requires also an understanding (however provisional and still developing) of the purposes and goals of a human life; an awareness of who we are and how we’re wired up; and a realistic sense of our strengths and limits, our abilities and interests, and our dreams and fears for us and for the world.
Vocation and calling rise from the intersection of these dimensions of our identity.
For followers of Jesus, there’s also an overarching call to learn from him how to respond to our time and place as he responded to his, to become his partner in the realization of God’s will and way on earth, and to realize, with and because of him, fullness of life, expressed in love, freedom, justice, peace and joy.
Vocation and calling include an intentional and creative weaving of our life stories into the Jesus-story and our finding in that master narrative the deeper meaning and higher destiny of our own.
As I have these conversations with my students (who are also my teachers), I realize that I’ve never stopped asking, “What am I going to do when I grow up?”
Now, though, the more honest version of the question is, “Who am I becoming and what will I do as I grow toward my death?”
In our Christian ethics class, we listen to Genesis’ intuitions about what God intended for creation and for humanity’s place in it as well as to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his practical, though difficult, instructions about taking “transforming initiatives” (a phrase borrowed my teacher Glenn Stassen) for peace and justice.
We also look to exemplars like Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.
We’re listening for the sounds of calling – for resonances of purpose. And, we let poets tune our hearts as we listen.
Here are the opening lines of Mary Oliver’s “Messenger”:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird–
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
And the closing lines of her “The Summer Day”:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
This proverb from Rumi: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”
And, a phrase from William Stafford’s “Vocation”: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.”
Our job is also to find out who we’re yearning to be, which, I believe, is who God dreams we will become. The conversations help us to find out, to catch a glimpse of dreams.
It is vital that we create space in local churches for similar conversations to take place.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.