My daughter loves reading right now. Mostly she’s obsessed with Curious George; but when I get the chance I read her a little book called Over in the Meadow. If you’re familiar with the dulcet sounds of Raffi in your family, the title of this book may sound familiar. It’s actually an old counting rhyme, listing out a series of meadow creatures from one to ten. I sing it rather than read it, which keeps V pretty entertained.
I’d heard Raffi singing “Over in the Meadow” many times, but honestly never listened to the lyrics other than briefly noting it generally had something to do with crickets and muskrats. So when hunting through the library shelves one day, I was intrigued to find an illustrated version. We brought it home, I cleared my throat (trying to remember exactly how the Raffi goes), and jumped in. Unfortunately we were only a few short pages in when the beauty of what I was reading/singing hit me. I started weeping, couldn’t keep singing, and needed a few minutes to collect myself while a surprised daughter looked on.
Simply put, if you’re not familiar with Over in the Meadow (or maybe even if you are), it’s one of the best pictures of the creational norm, of the way life should be, that I’ve found.
Each verse is quite simple. It starts by mentioning that over in the meadow some animal, or bird, or bug lives. Then it goes on to describe a mother of [insert animal, bird, or bug] instructing her offspring to do whatever it is said animal, bird, or bug does. The offspring respond enthusiastically, agreeing to do whatever it is they ought to do, and in conclusion they do it happily.
Take for example the third verse about bluebirds:
“Over in the meadow, in a hole in a tree,
Lived a mother bluebird and her little birdies three.
‘Sing!’ said the mother.
‘We sing,’ said the three.
So they sang and were glad,
In the hole in the tree.”
This simple ditty portrays the full glory of creation. In the creation, God said to each living thing, “Do this.” The world responded and God looked upon it declaring it good. The turtles dug, the fish swam, the muskrats dove, the bees buzzed, the ravens cawed, and so on and so on. And then each living creature turned to its offspring and repeated God’s command, teaching their young to joyfully do exactly as the Lord had given them to do.
All that is, except for humankind, leading a simple little book like Over in the Meadow to remind me of the full tragedy of the fall. When I sing this book to my daughter, I feel a deep and longing ache. If the frogs know to croak and they know to tell their young to croak, and this is what they were made to do from beginning of the dawn and what they will find joy in doing until the end of all, what is the equivalent for me and my daughter? What is the one word summary I could give her to sum up the very meaning of our existence? That thing which she might do in response to my command which would give her the joy and satisfaction this song describes of life in the meadow finding the natural rhythms of their short lives? In the fall, humanity lost not only its memory of the life-defining command given to us by God, we also lost the joy inherent to that command. “Be fruitful. Have dominion.” This is a command we barely remember and when we do, it often feels bitter in our mouths. Unlike the bees who buzz in response to the millennia old command engrained in their genetic code, we are a lost and disjointed version of life, leading every human generation to ask again what our purpose here is.
I want my daughter to grow up, knowing and feeling the pain of this loss. I want her to look at the animal world around her and to long for a simple obedience to God’s creational command. I want her to hear this song and one day ask me, “Mama, what should I do?”
My favorite verse is the last one. The tenth verse is about fireflies:
“Over the meadow, in a soft shady glen,
Lived a mother firefly and her little flies ten.
‘Shine!’ said the mother.
‘We shine,” said the ten.
So they shone like stars,
In the soft shady glen.”
When I sing this verse, it takes my mind to words far more ancient that Over in the Meadow.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of this crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Obviously, this mouthful is a lot more wordy than can fit into an eleventh verse of Over in the Meadow. Nonetheless, it’s a solid reminder of the directive that still remains for us fallen and lost children. Obey. For it is God who works in you. Do not complain. Rather shine in this world. Hold on to the word of life. Rejoice and be glad. These are things I can tell my daughter if she ever asks what she, like the animals, birds, and bugs, ought to do.
*I’m guessing there are more than one illustrated version of Over in the Meadow, but I personally recommend the version by Ezra Jack Keats. You may know him as the author and illustrator of The Snowy Day (another personal favorite). His illustrations of this old folk song will not disappoint.
Abraham heeded the Lord’s calling and his willingness to do so is credited to him as righteousness; this despite his tragic rebellions along the way. Sometimes, Abraham obeys quickly and willingly and at other times he fails hard. Throughout it all, though, God continues to call and Abraham continues to respond. He lives his life following the Lord, even when it is not clear why or for what purpose.
I sometimes find myself identifying with Abraham because I think he must have been exhausted at times. Like Abraham, I often feel like I don't understand what God is doing in my life. I want to see the big picture so badly, but God rarely seems to share that particular concern. I wonder how Abraham could have responded so quickly to God’s call to leave all that he knew behind. God required him to leave everything familiar and become a sojourner, thereby losing his very identity. As I read his story, I feel the frustration and confusion of following the Lord when the promises seem so real, but the immediate reality so unclear.
Hebrews 11:8-16 tells us:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land… For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking about that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand why Abraham could quickly give up what he already had to follow the Lord’s call. For Abraham, the promises of God were more real than everything he had already attained. How could he not follow?
There is a lot of uncertainty in my life. I've worked in ministry and lived off of support raising for most of my adult life. I have moved ten times across multiple cities, regions, countries, and continents. I want to return to school uncertain of how to fund it. I am a woman in what is still very much a man’s world. I want to have children and I want them to love the Lord. Each and every one of these things brings great uncertainty into my life.
I often find myself trying to grasp ahold of these things to make certain of them; but the more I try to do so, the more dissatisfied and anxious my heart becomes. The more I try to force God’s promises, the more I find the results to be my personal Ishmaels. What brings me peace, joy, and rest is believing that the promises of God are more real to me now, even in all of their hazy unclarity, than what I can produce myself. The city with sure foundations already belongs to me through the blood of Christ and when I keep my eyes focused on it, all of the sojourning through this world quickly passes by.
In an act of historical imagining, I think the words of Augustine could have brought great comfort to Abraham. At least, they have brought much comfort to me in my own attempts to obey God’s calling, focusing my eyes on the sure foundation and heavenly city throughout my wanderings. Augustine writes in his Confessions 1.5.5,
“Who shall give me the gift of resting in you? Who will grant me this, that you come into my heart and make it drunk, so that I forget my evil deeds (Jer. 44.9) and embrace you, my only Good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, and let me speak. What, for that matter, am I to you? Why do you command me to love you? And if I do not, why are you moved to anger and threaten me with utter misery? But is my misery any less, if I fail to love you? Have pity, O Lord! For your own mercies’ sake, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me! Tell my soul: I am your salvation (Ps. 35.3[Ps. 34.3]). Speak, and let me hear your voice. Bend down to my soul’s ear, O Lord; open it, and tell my soul: I am your salvation. I shall run after your voice, and catch you (Phil 3.12). Do not hide your face from me. Let me die to see it; for if I do not see it, I shall die.”
It is still amazing to me that Abraham so quickly heeded the Lord’s call and remained faithful to it throughout his life despite so many doubts and disasters along the way. But I think he would have understood well the heart of Augustine’s words above. Following God often feels like a crazy leap into uncertainty, yet we know it is the most certain thing we do. Abraham’s life demonstrates to me that in the pursuit of God’s face, I must “die to see it; for if I do not see it, I shall die.”
I chuckled a couple weeks ago upon opening Facebook and finding Ruthie's post about calling. I've been thinking about writing a post on the same topic for the past month or so and was excited to see that my sister has also been pondering the issue. We must be going through times of transition.
A couple years ago, I was trying to think through how we discern calling in our lives. Life at that point was extremely confusing, feeling flat and directionless. I am convinced moments of enlightenment come at the most inconvenient times and clarity of mind always seemed to come while driving with the radio blaring or while in the shower - times when grabbing a pen to jot down thoughts was nearly impossible. So to remember the thoughts on calling coming to me, I had to tuck them away and quickly internalize beyond the moment.
We all struggle with calling, but I think at this time, women especially struggle with it. The paths of our lives are no longer limited, predicted. But with limitless options, comes limitless confusion and angst over what to do. For the first time in the history of the Western world, women can actively choose the things they will pursue in life. But often something so great as the ceiling being lifted feels like the floor being pulled out from under our feet.
Most Americans have grown up being told they have the power to accomplish their dreams whatever they might be. Granted, not all Americans actually come from a socio-economic background where this is realistic, but still, we have all grown up hearing it in our media and education. We all want purpose in our lives. We all feel a need to be fulfilled. It surprises me how often the word "calling" is used in a secular context, but this shouldn't be because calling is more than just a Christian catch-word; calling is the idea that something can encompass us, lift us higher, and give us a direction in which to go. Who doesn't want that?
And yet, at the end of the day, we feel lost. The problem, I realized, is that I cannot understand calling unless I understand from whence it comes. Calling cannot be created within myself; its very nature implies an origin from outside of me. To be "called" is to heed an authoritative voice not my own. If I have a calling, I must find the caller and I must listen to what the caller instructs. As a Christian, it naturally follows that my caller is my Creator, the God who made me and understands what gives my life definition.
Understanding who I am at the hands of the the Creator is the beginning of all explorations in calling. In the lingo of my old alma matter, we all have a "Big C" calling - the calling that trumps all others and defines us to the core. This calling is non-negotiable, essential to our very existence. It's a calling from our origins. For in the beginning, God called us to know him. He is intensely, purely relational and this aspect of his nature spilled over into us as he created the world. He made his creation utterly dependent on him, so much so that should our relationship with him be broken, the central aspect of our existence is lost.
Furthermore, God's creative nature was infused in us, his creation. From the beginning, God burst forth with robust and breathtaking activity. He is not a God at repose, but rather a God delighting in exerting his abilities. And he directly tells us to follow in his footsteps. The one who is capable of calling us delights in working to create something good and he fundamentally exists in relationship. Ultimately, our "Big C" calling at all stages in life is to reflect these two essential aspects of the Caller back to him.
But understanding these big picture ideas of calling does not necessarily help me understand what job to take or who to marry or how to juggle the complex dynamics of life. It explains the purpose and significance inherent in my life, but it doesn't help explain the paths before me. It doesn't give me a nice list of dos and don'ts concerning normal decisions. We recognize here that after our "big C" calling, we all have "little c" callings, usually multiples of them. These callings are good, important, often necessary, and usually flexible. They may last a lifetime or they may stay for a day, but all are real and worthy of our careful thought and consideration.
What are they? Our little callings are particular ways in which we live out the big calling at various times in our lives. They are our work, our family, our friendships, our planet, our communities. They are big all-encompassing missions to further good in this world. And they are minute tasks that we do simply to remain faithful. Our perception, management, and ultimately, appreciation of them are vital to understanding the satisfaction God gives us. And in trying to comprehend them, there are 3 things I've noticed about them.
One - God gives us themes.
We often start our thinking about calling by asking the question, "If I could do anything, what would it be?" We try to view our lives as a blank page to be filled with steps towards an inflated view of some thing "to do." But nowhere in Scripture is calling described this way. Instead, we are presented with collections of stories that tell us about God’s calling on particular people’s lives.
The key to telling a good story is having a grasp on the themes it involves. What kind of story is it? If the universe is God's story, than no matter your place in it God has a role for you. So what are the themes God is weaving into your life, or probably more accurately, what are some of God's themes that he is weaving your life into?
Bringing this down to a really practical level - it is important to reflect on what has already been present in your life to help determine what you might be being called to in the future. Have you had success in certain endeavors in the past? Have you often found yourself involved in something? Are there people in your life that have required your focus? Is there a past sin or failure God has redeemed and is using for good in your or others' lives?
Do not think about calling in a vacuum. Give yourself time to reflect and consider where these themes might take you.
Two - We don’t come to know our calling in isolation from community and relationships.
As Americans, we live extremely individualistic lives. We might ask for and receive input from family or mentors concerning large and small decisions, but very rarely is the decision not ours. This is especially true among the younger generations where we are told from a young age that what we want to do in life depends on us and us alone.
As mentioned above, though, our Creator is intensely relational and he made us to exist in community. He is not going to ignore the people in our lives in the callings he gives us. Though not without its challenges, this point is often more obvious to married women and mothers. But it is very strange for a single woman to really consider relationships when thinking about calling. But is anyone truly "single"? You might be unmarried, but no one is free from relationships and responsibilities to them.
Three - Calling does not equal planning.
The bottom line is we have no right to demand clarity from God. There are aspects of calling that will always remain fuzzy. This is not to say we should not plan or organize (a gift to truly be valued!), but rather to constantly ask ourselves: where am I substituting planning for calling? In what ways do I need to listen before I act?
In my own life, I do not profess to have all of the answers concerning calling. I cannot predict, force, or plan my way into certain paths for the next five decades of life. But with all of that said, I do feel confident in saying I have some idea of God's calling in my life. I can look back and see the themes of internationality, thought-life, and hospitality that I feel confident will carry on into my future. I am clear on the relationships I need to be committed to. And while I like to plan and strive towards certain goals, I am constantly reminding myself that my planning is not what counts, but my faithfulness to listen.
Ultimately though, at the end of the day, I don't have peace for a single one of these reasons. I find peace because I know the God who made me capable of all the above. My true calling, my true sense of self comes from him and the knowledge that it is his image I bear.