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Some Thoughts on Vocation

[Adapted from a session at Hutchmoot 2013, “The Art of Caring”]

If I’m not mistaken, it was Martin Luther who recovered the sense of “vocation” for general Christian use. Broadening the idea beyond merely a religious calling to the church, he anchored the essence of a believer’s assignment squarely in the ordinary details of exquisitely unique lives.

“What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles?” he demanded, with characteristic no-nonsense. “How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy—not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.”

Like the stuff of fairytale, a vocation makes use of the workaday components of our lives, transforming them with a touch of heavenly “deep magic” into practical intersections with eternity. Every single one of us is carrying around a priceless dowry of affinities, talents, and inclinations: we can’t make the magic, any more than a pumpkin can turn itself into a gilded coach, but we do have to show up with our notebooks or guitars or mixing bowls or running shoes. A vocation is simply the point at which garden-variety faithfulness bears the grace of God to the world.

In preparing my sessions for Hutchmoot, I was assailed with the fear of being “found out” for the fraud I all-too-often feel myself to be. Terrified that I would have nothing to say to these rooms-full of people wiser and more articulate than me by far; panic-stricken that what I did say would be useless to them: the trite, redundant wanderings of someone who had no right to speak with authority on any subject, much less the subject at hand. In my fear, I cried out to God: “Oh, Lord, I’m just so afraid of giving myself away.”

The moment the words were out of my mouth, I grinned at the assurance that reverberated through my entire being: My child—you’re going to do just that and nothing else. Give yourself away. It’s the only place from which to truly connect with another soul.

And so, I’m sharing out of my weakness here, not my imagined success. I wanted merely to comfort with the comfort I’ve received. I am speaking from a place of recent and recurring exhaustion and failure. It’s a place I come to often, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t even pretend to ask all the right questions. All I know is that in these places of body and soul weariness I often find my prayers reduced to three simple phrases, desperate as a parched land weary for water:

Show me who I am.

Show me who You are.

Show me the way.

And the Lord, so patiently, so kindly, keeps bringing me back to these fundamental things: my Calling and my Source. It’s like the recalibration of a compass, this life examined and re-centered. For it’s when I get outside of my calling that life gets out of hand—overwhelming, too much. And it’s when I forget my source that the springs of creative love dry up and I have nothing to give.

A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from a friend of a friend, a woman wanting to know if I would host a few Russian orphans for the summer. She knew I had spent time in Russia, and felt I would be a perfect candidate for the opportunity. It’s no secret that my husband and I have shared a vision for hospitality from the very beginning of our marriage—we have always wanted what we have to be at God’s disposal for the good of others, and we cherish an ideal that encompasses beauty and material comfort as valid bearers of grace to the human heart.

However, I had been learning about my limitations and the need for boundaries, and due to some health issues and a host of other commitments that summer, I knew that this particular assignment probably wasn’t for me. I told her I’d pray about it, and talk to my husband. But this did not satisfy her, for, doubtless from an overflow of her own commendable passion for adoption in general and Russian orphans in particular, she proceeded to critique—volubly—not only the childless status of our home, but the basic values upon which it was built. She cited the time I’d spent learning to cook and sew, to garden and can and keep house and basically care for other souls in a practical, domestic way as evidence to support her case. And then, with a swiftness nonetheless stinging for its good intentions, she pronounced her verdict: “You’ve spent all this time learning these homemaking skills, and here you have no children to use them on. I tell you—it’s all wasted.”

Her words fell like a physical blow. I literally felt like I had been hit in the stomach, and it hurt so badly I wanted to cry. How could she speak to me of such things when she didn’t even know me—knew little to nothing of my journey? I reeled under the shock of it.

And then, in the next moment, I wanted to laugh. Not at her, of course, but at the tunnel vision we can all be guilty of in this supposedly broad-minded age of ours. I was reminded, there in my pain and amusement, of a fact that clings to any calling, namely, that howsoever sure we may be of it ourselves, we can count on being misunderstood.

The emotion aroused by that conversation brought me back to the some of the conflict I experienced in sorting out my calling during my teenage years. There were so many voices, audible and otherwise, speaking into that place of possibility:

My piano teacher wanted me to be a music minister. (Huh?)

My beloved grandmother dreamed of my becoming a speech therapist. (I’ve never quite figured that one out.)

My wonderfully supportive father quietly hoped, I think, that I’d take up law, though he never said it in so many words. (He’s a judge, and you won’t find a man more passionate in his vocation.)

But there were two things I wanted to be: two things towards which every impulse of my soul turned as naturally as a flower to the sun. I wanted to be a homemaker. And I wanted to be a writer. (I love the fact that in her book [Real Love for Real Life] Andi [Ashworth] acknowledged this latter as a facet of caring.) My education is nowhere near complete in either one of these callings, but in the years after high school I invested a good portion of my time in learning skills I hoped would compliment my ambitions. My heart was completely taken with the romance of domesticity, and I longed to create a home someday that would be a true haven from the fret and hurry and confusion of the world. I cornered older women in my life which had expertise in certain areas of cooking and gardening and sewing and begged them for specific lessons in their craft (which they gave, I might add, with all the largess in the world). And the patience of my mother over my cooking disasters and expensive grocery lists was nothing short of heavenly. (I remember one evening in particular in which I went through no less than three dozen eggs, perfecting the art of flan for the noble sake of impressing Philip, who was coming to dinner that night. I found out later than he doesn’t even like flan—which cooled my enthusiasm for the mastery of that particular dish.)

In those years, I taught piano lessons and I taught ballet classes. And at night, under cover of darkness (and, usually by candlelight), I scribbled stories like mad, stuffing my desk drawers with closely lined sheets of notebook paper that never saw the light of day. That was a precious time of preparation, and, for better or for worse, I would not be who I am today without it. And it was this period, this seeding and cultivating of vocation, which my acquaintance of the Russian orphans had just defined as “wasted.”

I got off the phone and went and stood at my kitchen sink. There is a plaque hanging between the windows there that a friend made me for Christmas one year, inscribed with my favorite passage from Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge:

It was homemaking that mattered. Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected again and again against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and it was no good weakening oneself for the brick-making by worrying too much about the flood.

Every home. Every really, truly home is an outpost, a Last Homely House West of the Mountains, whether there are children swinging from the rafters or a single woman contemplating a quiet meal with a friend. Andi has already cast a vision for the kind of fruit which a life grounded in obedience to a calling can bear, and how so very much of a lifestyle of caring springs from the home. It’s so much more than clean sheets and three meals a day, though there is deep value in these things, and high privilege to nourish the bodies of those we love and wrap them in comfort. But there is also refreshment, fellowship and healing, the nurture of conversation, the nourishment of beauty and good books and noble thoughts.

I love how it’s described in Proverbs:

By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.

Andi wrote Real Love for Real Life to help people name their calling—she’s really a voice in the wilderness when it comes to this particular vocation of caring—and I am so grateful that she did. I’ve often wondered just why it seems so difficult for Christians to own their calling in this day and age: to claim and be claimed by it, if you will. I’ve wondered why it is so difficult for me to celebrate the fact that my calling doesn’t really look like anyone else’s—nor theirs like mine.

Is it fear? Pride? Simple insecurity that merely wants to be understood? Why is it so easy for me to feel guilty that I’m not doing everything that Christians are “supposed” to do, not meeting every single need that comes to my ears? Why, in my unlit moments, do I feel like I have to earn or defend the desires of my heart, or that they can’t possibly be fit for His use? Elsewhere, I’ve called it the “evangelical bugbear,” this denigration or distrust of our own desires simply because they are ours. And while the Bible is pretty clear on the point that God gives desires to a heart delighting in Him, it was the words of C. S. Lewis in his Letters to an American Lady that really shed light on my fundamental confusion:

Don’t be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn’t do. Each must do his duty ‘in that state of life to which God has called him.’ Remember that a belief in the virtues of doing for doing’s sake is characteristically feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically modern: so that three veils may divide you from the correct view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one’s self-importance. As MacDonald says, ‘In holy things may be unholy greed!’ And by doing what ‘one’s station and its duties’ does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand and so commit some injustice. Just you give Mary a chance as well as Martha!

Ray Bradbury, when writing of the unique and individual creative call, said that we should look back to the earliest memories of our childhood, to the things that first made us intoxicated with life, for solid clues into our artistic destiny as adults. This is first-order fantastic advice. But sometimes—at least for me—it also helps to look at what a calling is not in order to recognize the genuine article. What it doesn’t look like, so that we may see more clearly what it does.

A calling is not . . .

Burdensome. It may be difficult—it most certainly will—but it won’t cumber the life out of you. His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

Uncomfortable. It will certainly require uncomfortable things, moments in which we squirm beneath our own inadequacies. But discomfort does not define a calling, like cramming our feet into shoes that are too small or struggling to walk in pants that are too big.

Overwhelming. We will absolutely feel overwhelmed (I do on a daily basis!), but we will never be overwhelmed. The waters of a calling will not go over our heads—God will not lay upon us the full weight of the world’s need, but rather portions His tender concern into bundles, laying a part upon each of us.

I’ve searched the Scriptures time and again seeking validation for my desires, like some kind of heavenly check mark over my calling. I’ve camped out on verses like “neglect not the gift that is in you,” and “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” These passages bear great wisdom, and they make me feel good about seeking to live in harmony with the unique way God has wired me.

But the real quickening word within the Word, the verses that sting me awake like the flash of a brandished sword, are those Jesus spoke in Matthew 25: The Parable of the Talents. There is absolutely nothing “feel good” to me about this story. Truthfully, I find it one of the scariest in the Bible. There are three examples of servants given, but only two types: good and faithful, and wicked and slothful. And here’s the rub: the only difference stated between them was fear. In The Message, the master calls this latter servant a “play-it-safe.”

And, of course, we all know there’s nothing safe about the Kingdom.

So that is the last thing a calling is not: it’s not safe.

In opening our hands to vocation, we are signing up for misunderstanding, exhaustion, criticism, occasional failure, even despair. There’s no way around it. But we’re all slated to a bit of this magnificent canvas God has unfurled over His history with humanity, and if any one of us leaves our part blank, the world will go on parched and hungering for that glimpse of grace only we can provide. It’s inconceivable, really–that things like preparing a meal or penning a sonnet could carry such weight. Ludicrous like pumpkin coaches and mice-made-footmen. Crazy in the way that only God could dare to be.

And deeply, soul-gladdeningly good, in only the way that He is good.


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