The Gift of a Personal Calling
Welcome to lecture eight of Dynamics of Christian Spirituality – A Theology of Prayer and the Christian Life.
We have been working for some time here; we are already at lecture eight. We have been exploring the nature of authentic Christian spirituality which is a matter of living all of life before God in the empowering, transforming presence of his Holy Spirit. And we have been exploring three of the essential dynamics, three essential core dimensions of Christian spirituality, a relational dynamic, a transformational one and in the last lecture, and in this one we are having a little bit of an in-depth look at the third of those, the vocational. The Christian life is a matter, as we have said, of connecting with God and with others, of becoming holy and whole and healthy and a matter of, now, doing. This is a very exciting part of our life with Christ. The first dynamic, the relational, is a matter of Christ “with” us. “With” is the preposition that represents this relationship; he is “with” us. And the transformational dynamic, the becoming, is all because Christ is alive and working “in” us, there is that word “in”, “in” us. And here in the vocational dynamic we are privileged to have Christ work and accomplish his purposes “through” us, the key word there being “through” us. Last lecture, as we began the vocational dynamic of Christ working through us, we considered what a tremendous thing it is to discover purpose and meaning in our lives, for, as we said, we were created for joyful participation in God’s work in the world, but unfortunately tragically sin has made our existence seem futile and meaningless. But, the good news is that by his spirit, and this is the third dynamic of the Christian life of authentic Christian spirituality, by his spirit Christ is rebuilding purpose and meaning into our lives. And in this lecture eight we are going to consider together the gift of a personal calling and our key verse here is Psalm 32:8 where we read, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with my loving eye on you”. Tremendous promise there. Assurance that he will indeed instruct us and teach us and counsel us in the way we should go. As we begin, let us once again pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight and nourishing to our needy souls. Guide us in the path of your purposes and our fulfillment. Oh Lord, prosper the work of our hands, we pray in Jesus name, Amen.
Well, there is a huge hotel, a great old landmark, the Chateau Frontenac, it stands high atop the old town of Quebec City in French speaking Canada. This stately landmark offers a panoramic view of the fertile Saint Lawrence River Valley where the first French settlers arrived in the early 1600’s and sheltered up stream behind this fortress grew New France, a tiny colony strung out along the shores of that great waterway with its back hard up against dark virgin forests. I stood beneath the Chateau Frontenac one day with my French speaking daughter Claire. Gazing down at the fortifications and the bulky cannons that once guarded the colony, which is now a vista of quaint little shops painted all different kinds of ways and colors and there were jazz players, cobblestone lanes and huge great lakes freighter ships sliding along in the distant haze. I recalled how this French colony had been founded partly as a basis for the evangelization of the native population and hopefully, they hoped, the beginning of a Godly society, a Christian civilization that would eventually extend throughout the interior regions of the North American Continent. Well, this inspiring project way back there in the early 1600’s attracted some of the best and most zealous Christians in France, men and women alike, and prominent among them the remarkable Marie of the Incarnation, that was her nickname and she lived from 1599 to 1672. Marie was born in the French city of Tours and got her nickname from her many visions of Christ. She lived during a revival of Christian mysticism, a renewal movement characterized by dreams, experiences of spiritual ectasy and radicle one-hundred percent sold out devotion. From childhood Marie fully embraced this exciting new religious atmosphere. She was just nineteen years old, still a teenager, when her much older husband died leaving her with an infant son and a nearly bankrupt family business. Well, everyone expected that such a young widow would remarry, but she resisted the social pressure to get married again quickly. And during a spiritual retreat in 1620 she had the first of a series of mystical experiences that shaped her devotion to God and determined her vocation in life. Her strong sense of a special calling upon her life persisted for years afterward despite the need she had to postpone her calling or defer that dream in order to stabilize the family business she had inherited when her husband died. But finally about ten years later she made an arrangement for the care of her twelve-year-old son, Claude, and she entered a cloister, a place for nuns. It tore her mother’s heart to leave her child, but her resolve to follow this new calling was very intense. And so, stimulated by the latest reports from pioneer Jesuit missionaries in New France, which of course we now know as the Canadian province of Quebec, and stimulated by powerful visions of herself in future missionary service in a wilderness setting, visions that came to include explicit reference to Canada. Well, with all of this going on in her head and her heart she concluded that she had been called to evangelistic ministry in the new world. Before long she received approval from her superiors and with that a one-way ticket to North America. She survived a very difficult and dangerous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean that took three months and finally she arrived in Quebec in 1639. This struggling French outpost contained barely three hundred persons at the time. It was isolated to the extreme and the winters they experienced were unbelievably harsh but Marie never looked back. For the next thirty-three years she played a prominent role in the emerging society of French Canada. She devoted herself to educating French and Indian girls and established the first school for girls in all of North America and she wrote extensively on topics of theology and spirituality. She carried on a lively correspondence of letters with many people and she engaged in translation projects for the indigenous Iroquois and Algonquin tribes. Her mysticism never prevented her from making shrewd business and political decisions. She just did not live in the heavenlies, she was a practical woman too and she remained prominent in civil affairs throughout the years she was there. She belonged, actually, to an elite group of powerful women who made pioneering contributions to French society and culture in North America. She was a kind of female lion, a lioness. Well, she and her son Claude, you remember the little boy, he became a monk and the two of them, the mother and the son, stayed in contact through letters across the years. Her mixed feelings about having left him when he was just a little boy seemed apparent in comments like this one which she once made to him. “You have been abandoned by your mother,” Marie wrote, “yet, hasn’t this abandonment been to your advantage? I had to obey God’s divine will.” Well, equally telling was Claude’s response. What did he say in response? He wished his mother every success in her desire to become a martyr. That is interesting isn’t it? It tells us something about the bitterness in his own heart. Marie of the Incarnation’s life stands out in contrast to the relatively hidden and seemingly unimportant lives of most of her female contemporaries. Throughout her very colorful career she never questioned her vocation, but the question is should we. Is there reason to be skeptical about her claim to a missionary calling that came to her through an unusual series of visions? It makes us ask does God speak in such ways, and Marie, was she simply a well-intentioned but nevertheless misguided person. And if she was confused and misguided about all this, how should we account for the remarkable spiritual authority and lasting impact of her life? Her story is just one of many that highlight the question of how we should discern our vocation. That is the question we consider here in this lesson.
Stepping back and looking at it from a theological perspective, we know that God invites us to reconnect with him and with others, to be renewed then in Christ and find fulfillment by contributing to his purposes. Did you catch the three dynamics in that summary? Yes, what we do and how we invest the fleeting years of our lives is enormously important. Yet, what we are talking about here in the matter of doing and vocation is not merely a result of our spirituality, it is not merely a consequence or a product of our spirituality, no, it is an intrinsic, essential element of it. Authentic Christian spirituality is about more than prayer and contemplation. It is about living all of life before God and this means that what we do is also significant. We have each been called to live purposefully. There are unique places and unique roles for each of us within the large, generous boundaries of God’s overarching mandates, the ones we looked at last time, the mandates to, first of all, steward creation, second of all, to proclaim the Gospel and third, to advance his kingdom on earth. But still, a basic question remains. How do we discern our personal calling in life? How do we know where we fit in, in the grand scheme of things? In response to our anxiety, our worries about whether we can figure this out, God offers this promise that we mentioned at the outset. It comes from Psalm 32:8, “I will instruct you,” he assures us, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.” So we need not worry whether he will direct us, or whether his intentions for us are rooted in love. At the same time we should not be passive. Good religion does not arrest human development. We are to grow up into adults who think about Scripture and reflect on our life experience. We are to grow up in Christ into adults who investigate the options we have rigorously and carefully and practice wisdom in our vocational decision making. Now, naturally we would like the finalized script up front. We would like to see the whole thing laid out in black and white; oh, that would reduce our anxiety. That would give us a greater feeling of control, wouldn’t it? That would be so wonderful. But the light God provides for our path usually illuminates only a few steps ahead. The story line of our lives cannot be predicted with complete accuracy, nor can the precise details of our callings be fully anticipated. From time to time we may catch a glimpse, a sneak peak before the curtain goes up of God’s design for our lives, but living out a vocation requires an ongoing relationship with God. We do not so much discover God’s will in a total package sense as we align ourselves at this moment with God. You know, in times past most people locked into careers very early in life with very little opportunity to change things around later on, but life in more affluent and developing societies is more flexible. Careers have trajectories, they run along lines. These often take twists and turns. People tend to have more than one job in a lifetime. Nevertheless, the segments of the working lives of happy people will not be totally random and chaotic, totally unrelated. Most likely there will be a consistent orientation to our lives, a certain kind of work and ministry toward which we naturally gravitate and in which we find special satisfaction.
I want to share something now about the freedom of being a team member. My friend, Ray, has a winsome spirit and a remarkable gift of evangelism. I wanted so much to be a successful evangelist like him. I fell asleep some nights working up answers to every conceivable objection to faith that a skeptic might raise. I even paid money to attend a nationally recognized evangelism training program. I took the courses and then, after taking a deep breath, I tackled the door-to-door evangelism strategy, you know where you go and knock on doors and talk to total strangers about the faith. When Ray went to a door on what we call a cold call, meaning someone you had never met before, people would welcome him into their homes as the messenger that had been praying would come, but when I knocked they were more likely to tell me to go away and they would threaten to call the police if I did not get off their property right away and they would slam the door. It did not seem fair at first, that Ray was so affective and I seemed too ineffective but after some struggle I realized that God’s work in the world has been assigned to the whole church. We are each to contribute to it, but always in a way that is consistent with the gifts we have. The entire burden of building the kingdom was never meant to rest on any single pair of shoulders. None of us is expected to carry the whole burden all by ourselves. Realizing this, I could finally celebrate Ray’s gift, his gift of evangelism, which was so exceptional. And also I was able to then get on with my own assigned task and calling.
Another experience marked the turning point in my life. I was in my mid twenties and painfully certain that the marketing and sales position I had with IBM, the computer company, was not my true calling in life. So, eventually, after the frustration had been building for a long, long time I just quit my job. Maybe that was not the smartest move from a cash flow perspective, here I was without income from anywhere, but deciding to do that was in a way a huge relief. For about six months after that I kept myself alive on odd jobs and, this was humbling, on my parents hospitality. I needed to figure out what to do with my life. I had always done well academically. As a kid I actually looked forward to going back to school every fall. I loved the way the janitors put a new, glossy shine on the squeaky hardwood gym floor in our school. I liked the smell of Elmer’s Glue that we used in the classroom; I suppose I should be careful about that. I enjoyed the grind of the pencil sharpener at the back of the room. A new notebook at the beginning of every year was a fresh invitation to attempt perfection. Well, my perspective on vocation was seriously skewed or biased, distorted if you will, by the fact that I grew up in a religious environment that was very suspicious of academics and the life of the mind, the intellectual life. We took the great missionary William Kerry over the theologian John Calvin hands down, no contest and we preferred a soul winner over a theologian every time as well. The preachers in the churches we attended never failed to get a laugh when they deliberately confused the words seminary and cemetery, confusing a place of higher learning with a graveyard, a place of deadness. In a seriously shortened version of 1 Corinthians 8:1 we were led to believe that knowledge “puffeth up”. That is the King James version and we always imagine some sort of large bullfrog becoming puffed up in an ugly pompous way by knowledge. Whatever “puffeth up” meant, it did not sound good. No one ever bothered to finish that verse which reads—knowledge puffeth up, or makes proud, but love builds up. It never occurred to us that there could be a kind of knowledge that could be so combined with love that it would not produce an unhealthy and disagreeable pride.
Well, as I have said before I am a Canadian. One of the provinces of Canada, near the middle, is Ontario, and the Ontario Museum of Art in Toronto is devoted to outstanding homegrown Canadian artistry, talent from Canada itself. And I sat on a bench there in the Museum of Art one day, about this time, surrounded by the best of the best art that Ontario could offer, or all of Canada in fact it seemed. In front, as I recall it now, where works by Tom Thompson and the group of seven, a group of artists who are known for their amazing paintings of the northern woods of Canada, bleak pine trees and gnarly swamps on the rock-faced Canadian Shield that encircles Hudson’s bay. And to my left was a huge canvas painted by Emily Carr depicting the dark greens and the faces of totem poles inspired by the Pacific Rainforests of the west coast of Canada and the haunting beautiful remote Queen Charlotte Islands and once you get practiced in the Canadian art even the novice can recognize the distinctive differences between the talents, of say, Thompson and Carr or A. Y. Jackson. You may not know these artists or have a great interest in them, but you get the idea. These artists had work hanging in this famous and prestigious art gallery for one reason only; they were exceptionally very good at what they did. But then it hit me, none of them painted the same way. They used different materials. They selected different subjects. They created different moods. Their brushstrokes, their choices of color, the way each one went about their craft was uniquely their own. If they had conformed to one size fits all, if they had conformed to a single pattern or template, the results would have been mediocre. They would have been like paint by number. Instead, each filtered truth and beauty through their distinct personality and talent. That was their genius and that was my permission to be myself. I walked back to the Toronto subway with a spring in my step for the first time in months. None of us are called to do everything. The work of God has been assigned to the whole people of God. We as individual believers are simply called to do our part. God’s purposes are best achieved when the different contributors stay focused on their assigned tasks. We should not pursue a particular role in life because according to our calculations it is one that will bring strategic influence with it. When you calculate your work according to how much influence and power it will give you, those calculations tend to be driven mainly by our egos and our ambition. But among the options that are available to us, and not all options will be available to us for financial or educational or whatever reasons, among the options that are available to us we have God’s permission to aspire to roles that seem to reflect who we really are and this truth can be a tremendous source of freedom.
And now, a word about joy and usefulness. Some Christians think that God’s will for us is always going to be contrary to our own. It is always going to be opposed to what we would like to do. Indeed, some Christians think that God’s will can actually be identified by this signature, if something is of God, they reason, you are not going to like it. Such thinking is based on a serious misrepresentation of God’s true heart. The fact is that our happiness is important to God and his calling on our lives will always be in accord with our deepest identity and our true self. One of the most insightful and it is certainly one of the most frequently quoted comments on Christian vocation is by Frederick Beakner; he wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What he meant is that God generally calls us to what we need to do and what the world needs to have done. In order to discover our personal calling then, we must be acquainted with God’s heart for the world and we must also be in touch with who we are. Vocational emerges where these two deep realities make contact. Think of two intersecting lines, if you will; one who you really are and the other a need in the world that touches the heart of God. You see, both parts of the equation are musts. Suppose someone really enjoys shooting beer commercials for television. This may seem to be working well for them, but they are still wide of the mark on what the world needs to have done. We do not need more beer commercials. On the other hand a medical doctor in a leper colony in some needy part of the world is definitely doing something that the world needs done, no doubt about that, but suppose they hate the work, they dread getting up each day and they are becoming more depressed all the time. They feel like a square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole. The work is good but they are not a good fit for it. Clearly, they have still not discovered what they need to be doing. A Christian’s personal vocation, therefore, will consist of passionate, enthusiastic, motivated involvement in something of useful service to the world. The great early church leader Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a person fully alive. Now, if we agree with Irenaeus, that the glory of God is a person fully alive, then this formula, this Beakner formula, is also key to glorifying God. Invariably God’s call involves service, yet, because the specific form of our service will be a match or tailored to our personal inclinations, our personal aptitudes and abilities, it will tend to be energizing rather than draining, even if it also happens to be difficult at times. Beakner’s insight into the elements of a personal calling might profit, I think, from just a little bit of slight tweaking or editing. For the sake of greater precision, let’s substitute the word passion for gladness and substitute the word need for hunger. Well, when you change those two word pairings our revised statement now proposes that our calling in life lies where our personal passion, the thing that deeply moves and energizes us, intersects with the world’s compelling need. This term “passion” may better express what unique individuals bring to the equation. Using gladness, that risks leaving the wrong impression that discipleship is always upbeat and cheerful, when in fact it can also be costly, difficult and even tearful. It tends, after all, to imitate the pattern of the suffering death and resurrection experienced first by Jesus but meant to be followed in his disciples’ experience as well. As a Christian the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who grew up in the European country of Denmark, Kierkegaard was shocked by God’s demand, the one recorded in Genesis that Abraham should have to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. It is quite a disturbing story, isn’t it? Abraham ended up not having to follow through on the execution of his son, but Kierkegaard never got over his sense that God’s call, then and now, can seem unreasonable and even outrageous to our way of thinking. Responding well to God’s call though, though it is the key to our fulfillment, can still be difficult. It requires us to swim upstream, in some cases to be fools for Christ. God’s calling will be a good fit for our gifts and abilities and especially for our passion, but it will just as surely move us beyond our comfort zone.
Now a word about optimal conditions for discerning our call. A person with talent who wants to honor God still needs something else, and that something else is discernment. Discernment is the ability to sort out with an eagle eye what is really going on and then choose wisely and well from among the alternatives on the table. This is a necessary competency, this is a necessary skill, for unfortunately there are other voices that compete with the voice of God in our lives and these competing voices include a powerful media that promotes false values. These other voices, including our own creative subconscious that tries to invent things, that serve our sinful natures and then there is also the whispers of the deceiver, the adversary of our souls. So as these compete with the voice of God in our lives, how are we to know the truth? The ideal or optimal conditions for discerning God’s call upon our lives begin with the willingness to listen, that is the first, a willingness to listen. According to a familiar Bible story, the boy Samuel was awakened one night by a persistent voice. You can read about it in 1 Samuel chapter 3. The experience was so troubling and confusing that he ran to sleeping Eli, his old mentor, for advice. Eli groggily woke up and instructed the boy to respond the next time it happened with these words, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” This was classic advice. It was applicable to Samuel and all those who have sought guidance ever since. Attentiveness, paying attention, listening carefully does not come naturally to us, but listening prayer is integral, essential to discerning our vocation. Now, Jesus mentioned another condition when he said on his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 5 he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” If the first condition is a willingness to listen, the second is purity of heart. In Scripture the heart is the feeling or emotional center of our being, the core of who we are. But why did Jesus insist on purity there? Because, as he explains later on in Matthew chapter 6 verse 22, our heart functions like our eye really, it is a chief means of insight. It must be pure in order to function reliably. If we have unresolved conflicts in our heart, if we are denying certain things in our heart, if we have what Ignatius of Loyola called disordered affections, those will cloud our spiritual lenses so that we will be unable to see and discern truthfully. God cannot reveal things to us if we are tangled up in self-deceptions and rationalizations. We will become, in the words of Scripture, darkened in our understanding. Now the saints of the Christian life, the godly ones, have always known this. One of the great words of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs is found in 11 verse 3. It says that the integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity. We have to want the truth and love the truth before we will ever be able to know the truth. Purity of heart gets us in touch with our true selves. This is a huge advantage for God seldom writes in the clouds or thunders in the deep base voice that echoes for miles. He speaks most commonly through our own unvoiced thoughts. As the Christian author of many wonderful books on spirituality, Dallas Willard has insightfully observed, “All of the guidance which we are going to receive from God no matter what the external or internal accompaniments may be will ultimately take the form of our own thoughts and perceptions”. It is not God’s characteristic style to reveal too much of our true vocation until we have settled whether we will obey his call and this is the third condition for discernment. The first was a willingness to listen, the second was a purity of heart and this third one is an eagerness to obey. You see, God does not submit a detailed proposal of his plan for us to review, for us to peruse in the hope that we might possibly accept the terms of the offer. It is not like he is laying out a contract and asking for our signature and we can look over all the details, the call of God requires consecration up front. Abraham, the father of our faith, is an example on this. Hebrews 11:8 says by faith Abraham when called to go to a place he would later receive as an inheritance obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. He did not know in advance everything he was committing himself to. Francis de Sales, whom we have already met in that story about Geneva, was a champion of what he called the devout life. His definition of Christian devotion is insightful and instructive. Devotion, he suggested, is a life of ready obedience rooted in love for God. Genuine Christian devotion, he insisted, is never reluctant, it is never grudging or conditional upon certain things, but it is always characterized by an enthusiastic, eager and cheerful eagerness to obey. Now, these are the optimal conditions and once these optimal conditions exist we can move on to the question of how to recognize God’s call to us to a particular vocation.
Many helpful resources and a wealth of advice are available today, so I will mention just one factor, the element of familiarity and illustrate it with a personal anecdote. Russ and I were close friends in high school. We played on the basketball and football teams and hung out together after school and on weekends. After graduation, however, things changed. We both moved away. Russ went off to find himself in Australia and I ended up in another part of Canada. As we drifted apart geographically, eventually we lost contact. Years past, about twenty-five in all, and during that long spell my friend became a successful lawyer and I became a Bible college professor. Along the way we each got married and started families and then coincidentally our family moved to the very city in which my old friend was practicing law. He had a thriving practice and was highly regarded in the community. I felt inferior by comparison and hesitated to try to reconnect with him. But one day, I am not sure what made me do it, I finally phoned his office. Without identifying myself by name, I asked the receptionist to put my call through directly to him at his desk. When he answered I said, “Well Russ, how are you?” “Wait,” he said, “don’t tell me, wait.” My voice must have sounded vaguely familiar to him. I could sense that he was trying to stand back through long neglected parts of his memory for a match. “Wait,” he said once more buying a couple of extra seconds and then in triumph he shouted out my sir name, “It’s you,” he said. I was relieved and totally delighted that he still remembered the sound of my voice. It was a lasting result of our boyhood friendship. But that is the way it is with family and close friends, we hear the voice and we can just tell. Jesus made a similar point in response to the Pharisees hostility toward him. When it is time for sheep to head out to pasture to eat, he explained, the shepherd leads them out and “his sheep follow him because they know his voice,” that is what he says in John 10 verse 4. The Pharisees failed to pick up on what he was saying. He sounded like an impostor, like a phony to them because it was all about voice recognition, something that comes with familiarity. Here is something else. In chapter 12 of the epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul urges believers to offer themselves to God as living sacrifices and then to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, then they will experience the will of God for themselves and discover that it is really good and pleasing and perfect. Now, usually we stop right there at the end of verse 2, but the passage continues and this is what it continues on to say in verse 3. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” If we are to discover God’s will we will also need, you see, in addition to consecration and to the transformation of our minds the cognitive restructuring that comes with that. We will also need some sober self-realization, some sober self-assessment. Now, Paul understood the problem of pride and vanity. He understood our tendency to judge ourselves more talented than we really are. Now what does this have to do with aligning ourselves with the will of God? Quite a bit actually. You see, the roots of our self-deception lie in our deep-seated and anxious fearful sense of inadequacy. We know how high the expectations are and how challenging life is and so we pretend, we deliberately deceive ourselves into thinking that we are sufficient to meet all these challenges. So we drive ourselves, yet despite our workaholic effort we remain perpetually dissatisfied. In reality we are running scared. It is terrifying to look honestly in the mirror, to think of ourselves with sober judgment.
A friend of mine is a gifted theologian who writes faster and is more sought after than I am. He was invited to speak at a session of the prestigious American Academy of Religion and I decided to attend his session in support. As his presentation began I whispered to a colleague next to me, the speaker up there is a personal friend of mine, but from the very beginning I found my friend’s remarks and attitude strangely irritating. As usual he was brilliant, but I began making sarcastic asides under my breath offering a series of unasked for and petty criticisms. Some things I said were downright mean-spirited and unkind. And so, finally my colleague sitting next to me turned and looked me straight in the eye, “Did you say that the speaker was your friend?” His words hit me like a metal bar across the forehead. My envy, you see, was exposed and the conviction I felt in my conscience was overwhelming. The moment the speech was over I stood up and headed straight back to my hotel room. I knelt down beside my bed and cried out my confession to God, for underlying my jealousy was fear, that my relative ordinariness left me without value and might easily prevent me from having a truly useful role in God’s service. The way out of this darkness was first to recall in a deep way that God’s unconditional love embraces me even if I am not ever going to be spectacular. The other thing, as the Apostle Paul indicated, is that God’s perfect will, and that is what we are talking about according to Romans 12:1 and 2, God’s perfect will is always discovered within the boundaries of our actual abilities and limitations. It is never to be discovered and experienced by frantically over-reaching ourselves and trying to be more than we really are. The poet W. H. Auden put it so well when he said, “Even the most commonplace things, even the most ordinary things are tinged with glory.” What he meant is we can use the gifts we have and accept their relative size, which is what in accordance with the faith has distributed to each seems to mean. It is liberating when we realize that we can put our energy into the fulfilling use of our gifts, such as they are, large or small, and enjoy the experience of being creative and making genuine contributions to the cause of Christ. Inner peace, serenity, comes by accepting our identity and then engaging in diligent service. Instead of trying to be something or someone we are not, we can give our attention with joy to the task of being all we were meant to be.
Now as we come close to the end here, a word on hope and courage. I still do not know quite what to make of Marie of the Incarnation’s decision to leave her son for a stellar missionary career in New France, but I do know that most of us can look back on our lives and recall decisions we would like to have made differently. Decisions we would like to have back if we could. We came to a certain fork in the road and now in hindsight it seems that maybe we went the wrong way and if so the question that haunts us is this—if we fell out and off God’s best plan back then, is there any hope of climbing back in? If we fell off the wagon of God’s best in the past, is there any hope of climbing back on? Indeed there is. Perhaps we can illustrate it this way; if you were on a well-designed website, no matter how complex it may be, you will never be more than a click away from the home page and an opportunity to start over. That is because return loops were coded into the software of the website to allow you this option. It seems to me that this is how God guides our lives after we have strayed from his vocational design for us. Our Heavenly Father is the great salvage operator who is always able to craft from the chaos of our messed up lives a remarkably meaningful future. As Romans 8:28 assures us—In all things God works for the good of those who love him. And God’s grace is about second and third and fourth chances for God is the greatest creator, the creator par excellence of new beginnings. Our focus here has been on discerning our personal vocation in life, but knowing what we have been called to do is no guarantee that we will follow through and actually do it. Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with a story about two house builders; a foolish one who built on sand and a wise one who built on a rock foundation. Likewise, Jesus explained, wise people are those who hear his words and put them into practice, Matthew 7:24. This follow-up step, put them into practice, is crucial. We may hold back or bock at obedience because the future seems disagreeable to us or the prospect may appear too daunting or intimidating. So, at a certain point we switch from needing information to requiring courage. Even before Christ came to earth the ancient Greeks recognized that courage belongs among the most important and desired human virtues, for courage is the strength to face down our fears for the sake of a higher, more compelling obligation. Joshua, the leader of Israel after Moses, needed courage; we know that from Joshua 1:9, and Paul the Apostle prayed for courage in Ephesians 6, and Jesus modeled courage in the events leading to his execution. Throughout Asia the lion has long been revered as a symbol of courage and valor, indeed, all around the world the lion is regarded that way, but throughout much of Asia the lion is called “the sing”. There is, for example, a statue of a lion in the harbor of Singapore, which as it name suggests is “the lion city”. Regardless of where on earth we live, we will experience joy and meaning by embracing God’s unique call and claim on our lives and when we do we also become eligible for an infusion into our hearts of the lion of Judah’s own spirit, that more than anything else ensures that our calling will not be a burden but an incredible gift.
We have now concluded our study of the three dynamics of Christian spirituality. In the next lecture we will examine how we should live in light of all of this. We will review the importance of an integrated spirituality and then in the final tenth lecture we will consider how to move forward with disciplined intent. But here, on the matter of the gift of a personal calling, here are some helpful guides. The first is Ignatius of Loyola who lived from 1491 to 1556. Loyola was a soldier from the modern day area of Spain and in particular the Basque region of Spain who converted into a soldier of Jesus Christ. A passion for Christian service including missionary work pervades is thought. He founded the Jesuits, an order known for its high standards, complete consecration to Christ and rigorous attention to personal spiritual discipline. The Spiritual Exercises, a spiritual formation manual Loyola himself wrote, continues to be a valuable guide to the spiritual life for many who live their vocations beyond the boundaries of the order he founded. A second helpful guide is Parker Palmer. Palmer has been nourished in the Quaker tradition of Christianity. A tradition noted for its contemplation and at times its active commitment to causes of social justice. Quakers, for example, helped to establish the colony of Pennsylvania in the United States centuries ago as a haven, a refuge of religious tolerance. In his book The Active Life, Palmer emphasizes the importance of a spirituality that engages the world in life-giving action. In Let Your Life Speak he shows how the inner voice of our truth selves holds the key to discovering our God-given vocation. And finally, Gordon Smith, a contemporary evangelical with years of missionary service and an ecumenical vision of Christian spirituality, he is well-acquainted with the spiritualities of Ignatius Loyola, whom we just mentioned, and that of John Wesley. And Gordon Smith has a special interest in spiritual discernment and vocational calling and appreciates the communal as well as the personal aspects of each. Among his writings on these topics are Listening to God in Times of Choice, another book, Courage and Calling and still another entitled The Voice of Jesus.
In this eighth lecture we have been considering the gift of a personal calling and here, in conclusion, is a summary of what we have covered. What we do with our lives is an essential element of true spirituality. Within the boundaries of God’s overarching purposes is a unique personal calling, a vocation for each of us. The work and place to which God calls us will always be located at the intersection of our deep passion and the world’s great need, and the reason for this is personal fulfillment and useful service are always bound together. And we must not be terrified by our ordinariness either, for God has creative ways of infusing our ordinariness with significance. Likewise, our past failures never disqualify us from the hope of a significant life. But, we do require two things; knowledge of our calling and the spirit-empowered courage to follow it. God bless you.