What’s In a Calling? Depends on Whose Voice You Hear

For years I have struggled with understanding my calling as well as generally what a calling is–passion, job, career or hobby, and how to live your calling or even change a calling.

In some ways, I learned it depends on whose voice your hear in the “calling.”

Recently I was at a wedding, talking to a college student who desired to be a writer. He loved words. He loved to weave them together to write stories. But he enrolled in a nursing program because he had good grades in science and his family wanted him to be able to support himself.

My heart was pained. Why should the calling of a writer be buried under the demands of getting a financially practical life? Equally, why should the calling of nursing be more attractive just because it happened to pay well? Where’s the adventure of a calling if it always gets domesticated by practical needs and finances?

My family knew I was upset by the conversation. They reminded me there was nothing bad about being financially responsible. Nobody was preventing him from writing. In fact, he possibly could write longer and harder if you had a good paying job. His experiences made give him more to write about.

Yes, they had a point.

But I felt pained probably because I had wanted to be a full time writer, crafting meaning from 26 letters spliced together in wonderful prose and flung out into the world in the form of articles and books. I had written and even published in college and wished more than anything I had done a lot more of that.

(Writers: reading McEntyre’s great book Caring for Words in a World of Lies will keep you inspired to keep on writing regardless of where you make your money).

I got practical and taught instead.

And in fact, teaching has become even more meaningful to me than writing. So was that “practical” decision to teach more of a calling or was writing the calling I missed? What about the time I wanted to be a pastor and got afraid of church politics?

What’s in a calling?

Maybe you have some answers to those questions. Please share your ideas in the comments.

How do callings get settled?

Are they divine invitations or just career choices?

Are they things you have to do, or things you enjoy doing?

Are callings only for pastors, teachers and health care professionals? or can you feel called to biomedical engineering, mothering, manufacturing or doing taxes?

I know Paul made tents to help him support his calling of preaching the gospel, of being an apostle. Was tent-making a calling for him or just practical stuff. He must have really been good at it, actually had enough cash flow from tents to help him support the living needs of others (see Acts 20:33-35). But I think we look to Paul for main thing: it was to preach the gospel and write on the side (while in prison, in the bow of a ship, or on horse back). Oddly, those of us 2000 years later are most benefitted by his calling of writing.

I am sure some benefited more from His writing, others from his speaking and a not a few from his tent making.

Sometimes we have callings that need to be tempered by life’s tough demands to actually become realized. Joseph learned to dream WHILE he worked hard as a slave, servant and prisoner and that made his calling a reality as part of God’s plan for his development included the practice.

Another question you can help me with: How do we come to understand and follow callings?

A few weeks later I was talking to a married young woman who was taking an MDiv with her husband at our SDA seminary at Andrews University. ( I notice we have a lot more women taking seminary degrees, which means something is happening to our community as it relates to calling?). She felt called by God. Her husband recognized her calling as well and encouraged her, but she was having second thoughts because of her “job” market.

Her father had told her for years that he wanted to follow Christ wherever He led, but that as a father, he was not convinced she would have a job. Isn’t it good that a parent foster concern about a child supporting themselves?

Was being a pastor’s wife the safer option—tip toeing into a calling without having to be full time committed and find another job to make ends meet? Is that a cop out, or just being practical like Paul? Or was she lacking faith? Or was her community lacking faith and not able to grow to the point of embracing her calling?

These are issues many of us wrestle when we think about callings especially when we think about  ones we never followed but should have, or one’s we followed but wish we hadn’t and  better yet, when we resisted callings everyone else wanted for us, but we didn’t want them.

It’s a messy world of callings.

In his wonderful chapter on the “Calling of Voices” in his book Hungering Dark, Frederick Buechner tells us to put more emphasis on the calling of gladness than the call of duty and obligation. The call of gladness is like a wind in the sail…it keeps you going despite set backs. The call of duty pull us with the need of others. That too is great, but not as life-sustaining as getting the gladness involved in hearing our calling.

“The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else. This does not mean, of course, people who are doing work that from the outside looks unglamorous and humdrum, because obviously such work as that may be a crucial form of service and deeply creative. But it means people who are doing work that seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time, but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.” (29, 30).

“To Isaiah, the voice said, ‘Go,’ and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one that we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: We should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed.

Where we most need to.

Maybe that means that the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to the least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint or canvas? Or is it making something we hope like trust out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.” 31, 32

[pullquote_right] Maybe…the voice we should listen to most…is the voice of our own gladness–Buechner [/pullquote_right].

For years I have struggled with understanding my calling, what a calling is, how one follows a calling and how it relates to “needing a job.”

But this passage has encouraged me, that when I feel glad about my teaching and writing, I feel closer to the calling.

There is a God seriousness to our calling. Like Noah, I believe God calls us before the need is felt, but if we faithfully do our work, an Ark will be ready for others to climb into and be saved.

But to only focus on the coming flood and not on the glad companionship we may have with God as we do our calling—however mundane—robs us of part of the gladness He wants for us.

Some of us at Andrews University recognize the challenge of helping individuals find the voices of the calling, and how to include human need and the need of their own gladness in their calculations. (In fact, plans are being drawn up for having a course on Life Calling to help people work through these issues.)

For one thing, I do like this idea about the voice of gladness mixed with the voice of human need. Somewhere in the triangle of conversation between God, your own heart, and human need, I believe we experience being called.

I still filled confused by all that is meant in this mystery of calling, but I think I have learned enough to make it through.

At the public university we I applied and received tenure (a different experience than being called as much as it is being confirmed in a calling), I read the following quotes in my closing defense on why I should get tenure (which I did receive). I still tear up when I read this passage and remember what it meant to me after years of struggling to be a better graduate school teacher and scholar: I do so because it was from the person I most wanted to be like in my own calling: Lewis Smedes”  in his book Standing on the Promises (1998)

“I was a teacher for a whisker short of forty years, and I was never, not ever, not for a single day, in any of those forty years, the teacher I wished to be. Nor the teacher I believed I could be. At the end of every school year, I felt the sort of discontent with myself that a baseball player who is used to winning must feel after a middling season. But every fall when school began again, I felt a new surge of hope that this might be the year when I actually did my job the way I felt it should be done. This …hope kept me content to live with my discontent, and it was hope that made my discontented life of teaching a life for which to be very grateful” p. 13.

“My early discontent with the way things were is melting down to gratitude for the way things are. I am sometimes stunned by how much better my life is than I once dared hoped it would be. And I find myself (bit by bit) adjusting my earlier hopes that were born of discontent with the way things were to a more serene hope that I will be content at last with whatever God wills to give” p. 84.

I now see how writing and teaching have been a calling of gladness and contentment for me even as I process my discontent, never feeling I have enough time for either.

Maybe calling is a wonderful dance between duty, willingness and gladness that leads us to make choices along life’s path. Sometimes circumstances work against it more and other times work for it.

I like Greg’s addition below: sometimes westay late at a job, and sometimes we to that and find it is more of a calling than we thought. At other times, we leave at 5, in the realization our lives and our callings are more than a job and the totality of who we are and what we do–even the mundane chores–is part of the package deal of our response to the calls of life.

Keep listening to God, to your gladness, and to the needs of those around you.


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