In Focus: Call Waiting

Debra Rienstra

My husband Ron and I spent about ten years experimenting with unconventional work/family arrangements. For the first few years after graduate school, Ron was the primary breadwinner, working as a campus chaplain (he is an ordained pastor). But from 1998 to 2007, either I have been the breadwinner or, for most of these years, we each worked about three-fourths time and equally shared in the care of our young children.  (After 2007, we both worked full time, our children then 15, 12, and 8.)

Our attempts over the years to be faithful stewards of our gifts and faithful fulfillers of our responsibilities have led Ron and me into many peculiar situations, some frustrating and some blessedly funny. Above all, our experiences have forced us to wrestle with a cherished Christian notion, that of “calling” and its close etymological relative, “vocation.” Frankly, we’ve found these terms far more troubling than helpful or comforting. In fact, we have found that the casual, common use of these terms in Christian circles subtly distorts the core biblical idea until “calling” — or what turns out to be worse, “callings” — begins to feel rather like an elaborate theological torture device. To free ourselves of wrongheaded, half-conscious notions, we have experimented with giving up the words “vocation” and “calling” altogether and are seeking new and clearer ways to understand and speak about God’s desires for our lives.

A Single, Perfect Calling?

Officially and ultimately, Christians of all stripes would agree, our calling is to be disciples of Jesus, to respond willingly when he says, “Follow me.” But how do we do this, specifically — each of us, with our unique characters and particular situations? This is where things start to get confusing.

One can see this easily among the college-age Christian young people with whom I work as they struggle to figure out their futures. They want decent-paying, satisfying work too, but they must contend with that cultural ideal frosted over with a theological coating. These students feel the pressure to find not only work that suits them, but the work that “God wants them to do.” So they search, often agonizingly, for God’s plan for their working lives, waiting for God to reveal to them that lifelong calling that will fulfill their gifts, serve the Kingdom, and provide income for the family. They hear “calling” and “vocation” spoken of in the singular so often that they assume their Vocation is a singular entity glimmering on the horizon somewhere, if they could only find it.

Equating calling with the single, perfect life’s work, however, turns God into the Great Secret Keeper. This God has the answer to the riddle of our lives, an answer upon which so much depends, but this Divine Secret Keeper refuses to reveal it to us plainly and quickly. God may provide promptings and hints, but very few people receive angel visitants who emphatically declare: “Fear not! Go into nursing!” Compound this with the whole mysterious matter of one’s life-mate — another persistent concern for college-age Christians — and you have a formula for worried and frustrated young servants.

Some people, as we all know, have actually lived the unitary work-as-vocation ideal. There’s always a pastor or surgeon or teacher or musician who seems to have been born to his craft, did it all his life, and is honored at his funeral for his lifetime service to God. But to hold this up as the ideal toward which we all must strive is increasingly counterproductive to our flourishing. It causes unnecessary anxiety and distorts our image of God. Moreover, this idea has been much more possible for men than it has been — and continues to be — for women.

Most important, the single-vocation ideal simply does not reflect most people’s experience. A little time in the working world is enough to impress upon the faithful person that even when we think we have a plan, by God’s grace, we keep landing in the most surprising places. Few who set out with a goal end up exactly where they expected. And some who do, once they get there, discover that they hate it. This has happened to more than one of our friends who thought he wanted to work at a big-city law firm, for instance. Most of us muddle along, making choices among a handful of options and then finding out that the option we ended up choosing led us to other choices we never even knew existed. Our lives become patchworks of different fields, different jobs, unexpected passages of life.

A more contemporary example: I have a friend who worked dozens of jobs in her twenties – she managed a fabric store, ran the cash register in a gas station, worked as a nanny. At one point, through a friend, she happened to get a job at a university in the human subjects research office. Suddenly, without intending to, she had skills as a liaison between government regulatory agencies and research institutions. Now she gets calls from headhunters, and she’s on her third upward career move. She ended up with a career by almost total accident.

Is she the exception? No, actually, hers is the more typical story, especially in the current economy. The Director of Career Services at my college tells me that graduating students today can expect five to nine career changes (not just job changes) during their employment life. Still, does the happenstance of our friend’s path suggest that she is a poor example of seeking out her call? Is she a person with CCD – Call Confusion Disorder? Not diligent enough in seeking out her gifts, or just delinquent in finding them? Not really. She’s struggled to be faithful to God through prayer and church all along. But then, does her current career finally secure her in her real calling? Is it her call in life to be a government regulation liaison? That’s a much more complex question. Our friend is just one good illustration of the problem: expecting any simple connection between calling and professional work leads to insoluble tangles, and for most people these days is unhelpful to the point of harmful.

Multiple Callings?

Where the discourse of the single Life Calling prevails, occasionally one hears secondary concessions to family, civic duties, and church work as vocations: “Oh, yes, well, of course, work is only one of our callings. We have to attend to our many callings.” And then the lists rattle off — children, parents, church commitments, charity, etc. This kind of talk is meant as a corrective, partly in response to spasms of guilt about idolizing work too much, or to frustrations with not finding that One Perfect Profession. But this “corrective” brings us to our senses about one distortion of calling only to throw us back into a confusion of other distortions. The idea of “multiple callings” is an answer that is not really an answer at all, particularly in families where more than one person’s passel of “callings” gets tossed into the mix.

In the end, any notion of multiple callings gets us snagged. It dooms us to failure or at least discontent — and these troubles are especially sharp-edged for women. Since we cannot pursue all our “callings” at the same time with full energy, we live with the nagging suspicion that we cannot possibly please God. We are always shortchanging this or fudging on that. All our earnestness is choked with compromise. Like Martha in the story of Jesus’ visit, we are running around “worried and upset about many things.” But when Jesus advises Martha by saying “only one thing is needed,” we want to respond, “Oh yeah? Which one?!

And as Ron and I have discovered, when we jettison the old assumptions in an effort to honor all of God’s gifts, then trying to honor our “multiple callings” requires constant negotiation. It comes down to the tiniest detail. Does Debra prepare a little less for class tonight so that Ron can have more time to work on that sermon? Does arranging a hymn for guitar count as Ron’s calling, and thus take precedence over Debra’s work, or is that the pursuit of mere fun? How much time does each of us get for things that simply nourish our souls and give us pleasure?

When we both honor each other’s work as well as our children, the result is good in that it reminds us that none of our time is our own – it’s all a gift from God. But it also makes decisions complicated, as everything we do requires permission from the other. “Will you give me some time tomorrow for . . .” is among the most frequently heard phrases in our marriage.

Besides leaving no reliable solution to the balancing problem, speaking of “multiple callings” leads to a dilution of the term “calling” until it refers to everything — and loses its meaning altogether. We can start to use the term simply to put a halo over whatever we desire. The family is a calling, the job, church work, volunteering, the book club, voting responsibly, getting in physical shape. Putting a holy patina on everything can justify our demand to do everything, to be everything to everyone, to fall into the too-much trap our culture makes so tantalizing.

As Ron and I reflected in those early years on the work-family negotiation especially, we had to admit that our anxieties were partly a matter of inordinate desire. All right, yes; we wanted it all, and we wanted it all right then. Each of us wanted both the hard work and the sweet pleasures of spending whole days with the kids, the cries of “Watch me!” at the park, and the cuddles on the sofa with a storybook after lunch. Each of us also wanted the satisfactions of professional work, adult colleagues, an office where stuff gets done. Part of gaining peace, we found, was simply facing the basic truth of maturity: you can’t have it all, not now, not ever in this life. Naming everything a “call” can keep us blind to the fact that our hardest work in this culture is trying to be satisfied with less than what is promised: less money, less professional prestige, fewer of the pleasures we love, maybe even less ambition for the Kingdom.

But so what? Let’s practice saying, “There’s got to be less to life than this!” It’s a biblical idea, after all. The Preacher writes: “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” If everything is not a “call,” then we don’t have to do it all. Finding peace with this realization takes a weighty and secure maturity indeed.

Calling Ahead

If we can manage to jettison the distorted notions of the single vocation or multiple callings, then what is left? Nothing but the very core — to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Do we need the terms calling and vocation at all beyond that? I have come to believe that we do not. Everything good about those notions can be better described in other terms.

Yes, work in this world is one way in which we reflect the image of God and act as God’s agents in renewing creation. We don’t need to give up that important idea. But we need not raise up work as “call” above other image-bearing human endeavors. Resting and feasting, for example, are two other important ways we image God and witness to the new creation to come. God’s own pattern, after all, included rest from the work of creation. Those who populate the visions of the new creation in passages such as Isaiah 25 or 60 or Revelation 7 or 21 seem to spend their time in praise and celebration, not work. So why do we so rarely hear sermons on being “called to feast”? Working, resting, and feasting are all part of the rhythm of life.

Without the idea of the Glimmering Vocation or even of multiple callings, then how do we make decisions, weigh priorities? We do as we always do: look to God’s gifts, our specific opportunities and limitations, and the Spirit’s leading in finding our path through life. But let’s be honest about this path: it’s a puzzling, meandering, surprising, sometimes delightful, and sometimes darksome way. We must discard once and for all the blatant or even submerged suggestion of vocation as a single, straight path. Our paths are not straight (except, we hope, in the sense of righteous), and trying to make them so is a distraction from what God might be teaching us in the moment.

What about people who feel “called” to the mission field or to a life of poverty, for example, people who seem indeed to have heard the voice of God in the night, specific and emphatic? There are times – as many of the saints attest – when God does point firmly in a specific direction. Sometimes these urgent leadings draw a person on for a whole life; sometimes only for a season. We do need to acknowledge God’s sometimes urgent instructions for us, but we cannot demand or depend on such specificity. These moments are gifts, and they often come when least expected or desired.

Even in the absence of angel visitants or opening skies though, we do not need the language of call to give us the conviction that we’re “doing what God wants us to do” in a particular season of life. When we’ve done our best to make good decisions, we can still derive the comfort of that conviction when difficulties come (as they always do). But we can remain open to new promptings and new turns, too, not stubbornly insistent on sticking out destructive situations because it’s “our calling.” And Ron and I personally discovered to our astonishment when trying to make a difficult decision at one point, it does not seem that God has a single preferred turn in mind at every fork in the road. Sometimes, God really does say, “I can work with either choice — I’ll bless you. Make a decision.”

Perhaps this is the hardest thing to give up about the idea of call. Some part of us wants God to give us a simple life assignment or tell us exactly what to do at every turn. It’s reassuring to think that there’s one way for us to get around the game board. If we are free to decide, then we must admit that much of what we do arises out of our own desires. And we can’t blame God for our mistakes or for God’s secrecy. Augustine’s injunction to “Love God, and do what you will” is both immensely comforting and rather scary.

But with the guidance of Scripture, prayer, and the community, that’s what we’ve got to work with. Ultimately, we must trust that God’s sovereignty is an infinitely elastic power that can somehow, incomprehensibly, weave the interrelationships of all our virtues, shortcomings, desires, and actions into the beauty of God’s story for us and for all people. Surely the Bible is overflowing with testimony that this is true.

If we do indeed each have a single, unique call, it must be something other than what we usually think of, something more like a particular way of being in the world that corresponds to our purest, God-created, unique nature. But it seems this is not the sort of call we can know ahead of time and then develop intentionally. Our deepest selves, our ultimate nature and purpose, is a mystery, revealed slowly in the course of our lives as God puts together the pieces of all our scattered desires, mistakes, and faithful efforts. Perhaps our true and deep call will be revealed in the name given us on the white stone promised in Revelation. We do not anxiously seek our call then, so much as wait in wonder for its unveiling.

Calling is not, after all, about this end of the decision-making, priority-balancing process. By deliberately striking from our vocabulary the casual uses of call and vocation, we are learning to stop envisioning God from behind, the Predestinarian Sovereign, prompting us to find the perfect path or the ultimate balance. Instead, we are striving to see God ahead of us, at the end of our lives, at the end of time, calling us lovingly with open arms like those of the patient father in Luke’s parable, prodigal in his love: “Come toward me. Walk or run or crawl; find your way, follow my lead along some path or other. Just come toward me. The feast is already prepared.” When Jesus calls out, “Follow me,” this is the destination he has in mind.

Dr. Debra Rienstra is professor of English at Calvin College. She did her undergraduate work at University of Michigan and her graduate work at Rutgers. She is the author of Great with Child: On Becoming a Mother , So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, and Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Her scholarly research interests are in English religious poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and especially Psalm translations and paraphrases. She blogs at The Twelve. Debra and her husband, Ron, have three children.

2 comments

Thank you for this. I have struggled with these very issues. In my work life, my dating life, my service in the church and in missions. You said it very well.

Oct 25, 2013 12:29PM by Anonymous

Thanks for a thoughtful discussion of our purpose. I have actually taken to using "Christian" terms like "calling" more, not less, in my secular university setting, where they are a subtle way of encouraging the (somewhat rare) concept that there is indeed any purpose to our lives at all. It is another hint that in addition to "doing what you will", we should also be thankful for our Creator. However, within the context of the Christian community, many terms can become old or may not be as helpful as they perhaps once were, and this is a helpful start to discovering better ways to live our lives. God bless you.

Mar 31, 2008 9:22AM by Steve Hall

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