Knowing Your Calling

One of the most frequent questions I get in a city like San Francisco is this:  How do I understand my calling? San Francisco is filled with 20 and 30-something’s wrestling with call.  I like this question, because it gets beyond the typical question:  What kind of work should I do? Calling is about something larger.  But how do unique people discern their call?

There are three main components to discerning a call:  1) Understanding what God wants regarding the shape of our lives, 2) Understanding where you are, and 3) Understanding who you are.

Most people skip to the third component, ignoring the first two.  And it is an important one.  So, let’s begin with it.  Understanding who you are happens in a number of ways.  An important one is relational:  you need to ask the people who know you best.  Ask them about your gifts, your strengths and weaknesses, your relational style, your particular ways of contributing in contexts where they’ve seen you.  It’s also important to take it a step further and to understand your story.  Pick up Dan Allender’s To Be Told or Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. See a therapist.  Attempt to discern the ‘narrative shape’ of your life.  Finally, do some personality testing – an MBTI, a Campbell Skills Inventory, or another assessment that might help in the process of discernment.  Knowing yourself is an invaluable part of the process.

While understanding yourself is critical, two other components are equally as important.  You need to understand where you are.  Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  More often than not, we seek our own gladness without considering the world’s deep hunger.  This component has everything to do with context.  Where has God placed you?  Look around.  What compels you?  What stirs your passion?  What burdens your heart?

However, in the end, the text of your life coupled with your context must meet God and his text.  In other words, God’s narrative must be allowed to shape your own.  And this shape will always be cruciform. There is much written about ‘discovering your deepest desires.’  But desire discovered in a non-cruciform shape is disordered desire.

Consumer culture feeds on disordered desire, and (sadly) vocation takes a hit.  Consider the job fair.  It is a modern day job buffet.  We’re compelled by pay, by prestige, by position.  An anxiety grows:  “What can I do to attain the most?!”  But vocation opens up something deeper within us.  It satisfies, precisely because God joins your gladness with the world’s hunger.

I’d love to end with a story that paints a rosy picture of this.  But it’s complex.  We’re all so utterly unique.  And, we live in a broken world.  But consider a few scenarios.  I heard the story recently of a woman who stayed in a difficult job in an utterly corrupt industry, in part, because of an influence she had which gave her great satisfaction and looked a whole lot like following Jesus (cruciformity) in a difficult place. It was an improbable call, but nevertheless extraordinary.

I know a man who read a book on desire and the ‘wild’, and decided God must live in the mountains.  He moved he and his family to Colorado only to discover that God wasn’t there.  Upon returning, he told me that this ‘desire’ was more about him than about allowing God to shape him. He learned the lesson of vocation the hard way.

I know a pastor who left ministry to pursue his real calling – becoming a physician.  Later, I saw a man who was far happier – deep gladness, meeting the world’s hunger in a concrete way, and living a cross-shaped life.

All of this, I hope, points both to the complexity and beauty of calling.  In many respects, this process is harder than many of us would like it to be.  We’d love a quick vocational test, or neat-and-tidy program.  But I’d invite you to enter a process of discernment, where you ask hard questions about your life, your story, your context, and your place in God’s larger Story, all in the context of your community.  Let me know how it ‘takes shape.’

Liturgical Snobbery

We’ve been talking about the habits and practices that form us in our Newbigin Fellowship cohorts thanks, in part, to a stimulating first retreat of the year led by theologian and author James K.A. Smith.  The Fellows loved Jamie’s cultural exegesis, but the discussion became a bit more animated when the subject turned to worship and liturgy.  The Fellows wrestled with the ‘ritualism’ of liturgy, questioned the potential arrogance that comes with prescribing a formal practice, noted how it might restrict times for reflection or possibilities of uniquely experiencing God on our own terms.  In other words, they put words to what we all struggle with when engaging God – more often than not, we’re stumbling along the way in our attempt to find him.

But consider this.  Our habits, as American Christians, have been formed in the crucible of individualism, consumerism, and the therapeutic.  We’d like worship served on a buffet – “Pastor, I’ll order a clearly applicable sermon with a pinch of confession, a quick Communion, a tasty selection of songs, sprinkling in a little Jesus.”  If we commit an hour to something, we want it to have a kick.  If not, we’ll take our worship appetites elsewhere.

Yes, liturgical worship ought to irritate us precisely because it doesn’t promise instant delivery of all our needs.  Rather, it does really boring stuff – it re-uses prayers, features predictable rhythms, highlights our low moments (like Confession of Sin), invites prayer for everyone and their mothers (couldn’t we just focus on personal prayer?), and kills spontaneity.  For the over-achievers, daily prayer (aka The Daily Office) is even more irritating, particularly for someone like me…inclined to self-focus, with all the prayer buffet trimmings (the give me’s, I really need’s, I’ve been waiting too long for’s, etc.).

Yes, the liturgy is a downer.  It irritates me.  It seems way too un-concerned with my immediate gratification.

Why the liturgy?  For one, it’s chock-full of 4000 years of wisdom about how people grow and mature.  It’s also accessible.  During our Newbigin retreat, Jamie Smith argued that worship ought to be accessible to everyone, including the mentally disabled.  In other words, it’s not elitist…in fact, it’s welcoming to all.  Even more, it’s been used throughout history and is used by more Christians across the world than anything else.  You’ll find the liturgical rhythms contextualized in the unique practices of Africans, Asians, Latin American’s, or Eastern Europeans.  It is in America, perhaps more than in any other part of the world, that we insist on custom-tailored, personally gratifying worship.  We like the Buffet.

More compelling to me, though, is that thought that this might actually be a diet that would be good for me.  You see, I think I know what’s good for me.  I’d like to think that I need to manufacture my own instant fulfillment, my own way.  After all, the world I live in tells me I ought to have it my way.  But what if 4000 years of wisdom tells me otherwise?  The liturgy does strange things…it focuses on God, it requires me to look at my own crap, it tells me that I’m not going to find my hunger and thirst fulfilled elsewhere, it slows me down.  Could this be the diet that I need?

I’m convinced that I’ve been trying to find myself for 40 years.  The world I live in has tried to narrate me.  “Chuck, you need to be loved a bit more.  Chuck, you need to be respected.  Chuck, you need to be recognized.  Chuck, it’s not your fault.  Chuck, have it your way.”  The pattern of the liturgy, however, is counter-narrative.  In fact, it tells me that I’ve been narrated by the dominant worldviews of my day – individualism, consumerism, the therapeutic.  And it promises to re-narrate me.  It promises, in other words, that I’ll find myself…only as I find myself participating in the Grand Narrative of a God who calls me into a mission of redeeming and restoring a broken world for a better happy ending than any Disney movie could conceive.

Am I a liturgical snob?  I suppose so.  But it’s not because I think I’ve figured it out.  Yes, I think the liturgy has the benefit of history, wisdom, theological substance, and more.  But, I’m a liturgical snob because I need the liturgy.  My life needs to be re-narrated.

I think I’ll skip the buffet.