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.