Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What's the "Calling" in life?

One of the issues that contributes a great deal to "teen angst" is the concern over "What do you want to be/do when you grow up?" The process of selecting a profession that will be both personally fulfilling and financially sustaining is a daunting task that few high-schoolers are up to. It is, therefore, of little help that so many influential voices surround them regarding what they ought to do with their life. The malaise of messages they imbibe while braving the gauntlet often labeled "finding yourself" are by no means harmonious. Familial opinions may clash with the youth's own internal proddings, or they may echo them. In any case, the young person can by no means ignore the thoughts of their surrounding peers or parents when considering the career path.

Hopefully, all of the hard work of personal discovery pays off as choices are made regarding vocation paths and education strategies. Nevertheless, when engaged in that path, the individual must perceive that it is a course they have chosen. However, the truly autonomous choice is somewhat of a misnomer. Myriad factors come to bear in the process of decision making, and ambient conditions of peer pressure and familial approval cannot be fully discounted. On the contrary, so varied are the influential components on one's choosing of a life course that it remains highly problematic to identify them all. As a result, many do not even attempt to do so. Instead, the kaleidoscope of shades that color their decision are clumped together and summarized with a nebulous label: "calling."

This term ("calling") has come into such popular use that the fact that no one truly knows what they mean when they use it is, by no means, a deterrent from using it with dizzying frequency. It's uses range from the relatively benign compliment "You missed your calling" (given when one supposedly observes exceptional skill demonstrated in another), to the more sinister source of teen-angst "You must discover your calling" (saddling the youngster with the heavy misconception that there might be one thing they can do in life). In any event, "calling" is meant to convey the supposed marrying of aptitude and appetite as regarding one's vocation. It can be used in a comparatively harmless manner, suggesting that one's "calling" should reflect both high aptitude AND high appetite activity, but in religious circles it can take on a very different connotation.

The propensity of the religious sub-culture to "punt" to the work of God as a sort of universal "fudge factor" cannot be overstated. Anything for which I'm unwilling to take the time to explain, I can simply invoke how "God works in mysterious ways" to end the conversation. This instinct is not entire misplaced, for the life of faith acknowledges how frequently God works through seemingly natural processes (also labeled "Providence" in some literature). Nevertheless, this same instinct can be abused to infuse certain inexplicable choices with Divine authority. In few cases is this more evident than with the manner that minsters describe themselves as "called of God." Instead of simply acknowledging the choices they made, and that their aptitude and appetite converged in a ministerial career, the choice to pursue a career in ministry is suggested to have been a response to a "Divine call."

This language can have the positive effect of helping the minister weather tough moments in the career, where setbacks and disappointments can test resolve. However, at the other end of the spectrum, it can have the destructive effect of keeping someone locked into that arena that should not be there. It is one thing for a man to endure hardships in a vocation because he feels "called" to it. It is another matter altogether for a man to remain in a vocation he not well suited for because of the guilt over potentially ignoring his "calling." Thus the whole language of "calling" seems hardly worth it's destructive potential. Surely God is not offended if a man who he "calls" admits that he really wanted to become a minister. But what untold pain ensues when a man that should not be in ministry stays at it because he perceives himself "called by God?"

This misplaced and pious language borrows its terms from Biblical terminology used less than a dozen times in Pauline literature (Greek-kaleo meaning "to urgently invite someone to accept responsibilities for a particular task, implying a new relationship to the one who does the calling — ‘to call, to call to a task.’"). Most often the phrasing of "calling" or "called" referenced God's drawing of someone to salvation through faith in Christ - having little to do with vocation choices or service in the Church. Nevertheless, because the term is found in the Bible, this gives license to use it, in popular religion, to blame my career choices on God more than on my own desires or the influence felt from friends and family.

For years I had labored under the assumption of having been "called" to the ministry. Many education and ecclesiastical choices were made in light of this assumption. However, now, after a considerable time of reflection, it is more plainly evident that the various ambient influences that came to bear should have been better identified. Ministerial choices were made with considerable attention to how family and friends found it laudable and praiseworthy. In an evangelical sub-culture, it is considered that if someone is truly spiritual, they will seek to "devote their life to the service of Christ" (this is code language for pursuing a religious career). As much as I revered my father, there was no one he revered so much as the local pastor. If a young man wanted to pursue a career that pleased that father, the choice was obvious. In addition, having various friends in the evangelical sub-culture who also thought a ministry career to be more respectable than any other pursuit, peer approval also played a role.

Can it be forcefully asserted that God played no role in this? By no means. To the extent that Providence can be credited for life lessons, God is appropriately thanked for life events that have proven beneficial. Was ministerial training and service totally contrary to my desires? Not at all. Indeed for one who enjoys teaching and training others, such aptitudes can find fulfilling expression in many careers (ministry included). But was I "called of God" to ministry? This language seems so meaningless now. I was once quite convinced I was "called," but had also failed to account for the various factors that had influenced my choices. So now, it seems far more responsible to merely assert that one is "called" to be conformed to the image of Christ - and some may choose careers of training other people in that process (which I did for a time).

But that's not good enough for some. It was recently posed to me that if I once was "called," to rebel against that "calling" now is sin. THAT'S SICK! The man that suggested that to me is one who I have some respect for, so I didn't exclaim to him what was blaring in my head at the time ("You pulled that out of thin air!" - censored, of course). What great pressures are heaped upon some for suggesting that their career choice is no less vital to the Church than when Jesus "called" his disciples to follow him. No, it is far more helpful to simply acknowledge one's choices, along with the various influences impacting that decision (Yes, religious zeal is a legitimate influential factor; so long as it is acknowledged as part of one's own choice), rather than to "punt" to the ambiguous language of "calling" that, while shielding one from others questioning the choice, serves to misplace responsibility for the choice. God didn't make you do this. You wanted to. Now admit the various reasons why doing it brought you fulfillment.

For me, Christian ministry brought me fulfillment because I enjoy watching people develop. It gives me pleasure to see people learn, and through that learning be better equipped to advance in their pursuits. In the Christian life, "advancement" means to be more conformed to the image of Christ. But for the same reasons I found fulfillment in ministry, I can easily find it elsewhere in academia as well. It's better to simply admit this than to maintain the unhelpful language of "calling." If a minister I respect speaks of being "called" to the ministry though, I won't try to refute him. I'll simply think to myself, "actually, you pretty much chose to do this. You're good at it. There was an opportunity to do it...and we're all the beneficiaries of your choice." May we all take more responsibility for our choices, identifying the various motives we bring to the table in making our choices, so that, while Providence can be credited for some good choices, God won't be blamed for bad ones.


Johnny! said...

My idea of a "call" to the ministry: Someone calls and asks you to think about becoming a minister.

Tony Java said...

After being 'called' to be a: paperboy, short order cook, bartender, used car salesman, shoe store manager, furniture,lawn chemical applicator, hardware store manager, BBQ restaurant manager, mutual fund representative, retirement plan department manager, IT and telephony analyst, distribution manager, and owning my own business. I should get an unlisted number.