Instead of, “You are what you do,” calling says: “Do what you are.” – Os Guinness
“The clue to who we really are and why we are here comes to us through our heart’s desire. But it comes in surprising ways, and often goes unnoticed or misunderstood. Once in a while life comes together for us in a way that feels good and right and what we’ve been waiting for…. Something in your heart says, Finally–it has come. This is what I was made for.” – John Eldredge
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” – The Apostle Paul
The idea of vocation is a puzzle. It has the best of us stumped (or is it lulled into a false sense of security). For many it is enough to declare that vocation and occupation are synonymous; vocation is simply what you do at work for 40 hours a week, no more no less. If that is truly the case, then this past semester has been wasted in my weekly philosophy seminar. My fellow students and I have spent hour upon hour reading and writing responses to Biblical stories, biographies, autobiographies, confessions, philosophical essays on such topics as morality, economic justice, and the nature of festivity; and we even spent our spring break doing mission work! And through this reading, writing, and experiencing I have discovered that vocation is much more than occupation. It is not enough to say that what I do is my vocation. The primary concern of vocation is not how I spend my time or what career I choose (though both are important parts of vocation); vocation is primarily concerned with discovering who I am and who I serve.
Before going any further though, it is important to confess the naiveté of believing that every idea I have formed concerning vocation has been a result of a seminar. The truth is that I have been thinking about who I am, where I am going, and what I should be doing for a very long time (although never quite as intensely and purposefully as during this semester). The results and ideas yielded herein are the results and ideas that have come from years of thought, experience, and reflection.
So where did my vocational journey begin? According to John Eldredge, the journey begins in our hearts with our desires, and I tend to agree. Chronologically, my vocational journey began in my childhood when my heart was most visible. As a child I constantly dreamed of what I would do when I “grew up.” Granted, many of the answers back then included superhuman power and dreams that have since faded, but even impossible dreams can teach us something about ourselves.
In the third movie of the Jurassic Park series, Dr. Alan Grant puts forth a theory concerning the meanings of children’s vocational dreaming. He claims that there are two types of little boys: those who want to be astronomers and those who want to be astronauts. The astronomers are the children that are content to observe. They ask their father for a telescope and spend hours looking at stars, memorizing their names and positions, and sharing what they have learned. On the other hand, there are the boys who want to be astronauts. They ask their father for an astronaut suit and dream of the day when they will get to walk on the moon or fly a space shuttle (they practice in cardboard boxes). It is clear to me that I fall into the latter category.
All of my childhood dreams involved saving people. I dreamt of being a Power Ranger, a police officer, or a doctor that found the cure for a rare disease and was adored by people all over the world (not the doctor that researched a disease, but the doctor that beat a disease). My childhood was about action, not observation. The specific dreams have since changed, but the desire I have in my heart to actively save people has remained. Put bluntly, I have a bit of a savior complex. No, I do not think that I am Jesus Christ; nor do I believe that I have the power to truly save anybody. I do believe, however, that it is within my power to lead people to the one who does save.
But I am getting ahead of myself. How did I make the jump from Power Ranger to messenger of Jesus? The answer involves several years of introspection, pivotal experiences, role models, and the voice of God. There was a point at which I realized that I could never be a Power Ranger. My heart screamed “Yes!” but my head realized that Power Rangers are not real (and even if they were I would make a lousy one). Desire without discernment is dangerous and unhelpful; in discovering who we are, we must discern whether a desire is true or false, real or superficial. My desire to be a superhero was a superficial desire, unrealistic and untrue to myself; on the other hand, my desire to help people in need of salvation is deep and true – deeply true.
A pivotal period in my search for meaning came right before I turned sixteen. By this time, I had long since outgrown the dreams of my childhood. It might be more accurate to say that I suppressed them. Much of the period from childhood to this point had been spent concealing my true self and adopting the traits of the person that everyone expected me to be. School taught me that I was smart, so I became a nerd. I went from the little boy who dreamed of being an astronaut to a slightly bigger boy preparing to become an astronomer. Peers ignored me, so I became quiet; I stifled much of my confidence idealism, and humor. Church taught me that my ultimate goal was to be a good Christian, so I devoted myself to being a good Christian according to the picture that the Church painted of a good Christian. I do not doubt the authenticity with which I accepted Christ, but I do question the path my discipleship took during this period.
Right before my sixteenth birthday this way of life came under attack. The first prong of this attack came in the form of a Christian music festival called Ichthus. I do not remember which bands were playing, all who were with me, or what I did to pass most of the time that weekend, but I remember as clearly as yesterday the communion service on Saturday. The speaker was Louie Giglio, and he talked about starting a revolution for Jesus; he said that it was the responsibility of my generation to do it. It was as he was speaking that the enormous cross of clouds appeared in the sky. To some this was nothing; many have since forgotten it. It made such an impact on me because I was not supposed to be there. The day before my youth group left to go to Ichthus my youth minister approached me and told me that an anonymous member of the church had purchased a ticket in my name. The reason: this person felt that God wanted me to be there that weekend.
The second prong of the attack came in an invitation to preach one Sunday. James, the previously mentioned youth minister, approached me soon after Ichthus and asked me if I would be willing to preach on “Youth Sunday,” the day the youth group would be responsible for the service. Reluctantly I agreed, and James guided me in outlining and preparing a sermon, revising it, and delivering it. Much to my surprise, I survived the day when it finally came. A blue haired lady in the church even told me that I was going to be the “next Billy Graham.” Yes, I have even preached since (though I do not see myself as a Billy Graham).
The third and final stage of the attack came in the form of changing relationships. Two stand out in particular. First, my mom met and fell in love with a man. For as long as I could remember, my parents had been divorced. I had watched my mom date before, but never before had she dated someone as seriously as she dated Charlie. A few months after meeting each other, they were engaged and married. Suddenly my family had increased from me, my brother, and my mom to include a stepfather and a stepsister. Second, I experienced my first broken heart. My relationship with my girlfriend of over a year ended the day before my sixteenth birthday.
Why do I recall these moments as being so pivotal? The first two represent the methods God used to reveal the calling He has placed on my life. Every Christian is called to be a minister (the common calling of Christianity), but some Christians are called to invest their lives in full-time Christian service (a specific calling). It was at this time right before my sixteenth birthday that God revealed this specific calling for me. The opening of my eyes at Ichthus and the words that God spoke through me when I preached were two milestones that allowed me to understand and see my calling. The instability found in my most intimate human relationships placed my calling in a context of change; in the aftermath, I began to question what I was doing with my life and why I was doing it. For the first time I saw my life as having true purpose, and instability motivated and allowed me to respond to such a revelation.
The years since (almost four) can be best classified as a period of introspection, questioning, and listening to and waiting for God. I have realized that I was betraying myself by conforming to an image created by other people. As smart as I may be, I do not enjoy research without practical value; as quiet as I may be, I do have things to say and deserve to be heard; and as much as I have suppressed and buried different parts of my personality, deep inside I still have that confidence, idealism, and humor that all long for expression. My social self is not the truest form of myself; but then neither is my inner self.
Along with this retreat into myself, I have engaged in questioning what the Church has taught me from an early age about Christianity. Never have I been able to forsake the authority of Jesus in my life (and I have tried), but in the last several years I have almost completely overturned every belief I have ever held in the quest to find what it truly means to be a Christian. Some I came back to and still believe; others I have had to abandon. For a while this quest made me feel faithless, but now I see that it is truly an expression of faith to question one’s beliefs about God. God is big enough to handle our doubts and our misgivings, and if we earnestly seek the truth we shall find it.
In this search for the truth and a better understanding of myself and God, I have spent much time with God (intentionally, not in the sense that God is always with me). Isn’t it best to learn about God from God himself? I have spent much of my time looking for ways to truly live in the presence of God and learning what it takes to have a good relationship with God through Christ; I have practiced the art of listening to and for God; and I have done my best to figure out what form my proper response to God should take. It is in this last thing that vocation becomes important.
Finding my vocation has always been bound to my search for my identity. God created me to be me, and He had a specific person in mind with that act of creation. My task has never been to find something I am good at or something to do; my task, the task of all of us, is to find who we are and then do that. Vocation is not deriving our identity from what we do, but from finding what we do from who we are. Primarily, we are God’s creation, created with the purpose to serve God and in doing so to give Him glory. That is why the search for vocation can never be accomplished without the search for identity, but neither of these can be accomplished without the search for God.
So what has my searching revealed? My spiritual gifts are prophecy and exhortation. I interpret these as having a unique access to the words of God (not exclusive access) and being concerned with the encouragement and building up of others. The times that I have felt the most complete have been the times when I have spoken to a group of my Christian brothers and sisters or when I have helped individuals in trouble (perhaps related to my savior complex). God has given me a good mind that is capable of understanding and analyzing, but I do not have the desire to be a scholar. I am deeply concerned with the problems of the Church and desire for everyone to be able to articulate what they believe and why they believe it, but I hate church politics. God has also given me a desire to work with those who live in inner-cities, those who I feel that society has mostly forgotten.
These desires and characteristics are not just revealing of me, but also of the broad features of my vocation. If I am to truly do what I am, then what I do must reflect who I am. I do not know where I will end up in ten years or what my job title will be. I am somewhat confident that I will pursue further training at a seminary, but I do not know where, when, or in what area of study. God has not given me very many specifics, but He rarely does that anyway until we need them. God is a God of mystery, so service of God should also contain a bit of mystery. He will tell me what I need to know when I need to know it. In the meantime, the specifics are puzzles to work out and a reason to continue to think.