About a month ago, fellow Orthodox blogger and erstwhile podcaster, S-P wrote a post entitled Does God Have a Wonderful Plan for Your Life? wherein he takes on a rather common theme in the Christian milieu here in the U.S. My path is not dissimilar to his in some ways (though I think he’s slightly further along this mortal coil than am I, but not by much). I don’t think I have so much a response as a reaction. We’ll see if I can attain coherency.
Left without much vocational guidance during my high school years, I was in the spring semester of my senior year and had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. No college applications. No skills testing. I was adrift. I do believe it was by God’s grace that I was very captured by the story of Jim Elliot and his fellow missionary martyrs, which, after much agonizing, resulted in my decision to go to Bible college. I was going to be a missionary. Over the following years, that became youth minister, then pastor, then campus minister, back to pastor, then out into the “secular world” when, surprise, my youthful naivete and idealism (mid-20s) could not negotiate the local politics of a small-town rural parish. I have not returned to vocational ministry (though I flirted again with pursuing ordained ministry among the Episcopalians a few years later). Did I misunderstand God’s calling? No. I think I was right where I needed to be. But wasn’t that a waste of five years and several thousand dollars to pursue something you won’t ever earn a living at? No. All–all–of that education and experience has followed me to this exact day of my life and it is a very great benefit to me.
If humanity degrees are essentially worthless, theology degrees are even less so, what’s an unemployed minister to do? In my last two years at Ozark I had discovered my interests in and affinities for philosophical work. God must after all be calling me to academia. A retake of the GRE significantly increased my scores, I had more recent academic transcripts and graduate level papers from my briefest of forays into the Episcopal Church world, and voila, hello academia. I was not a star student, but I lifted myself up by my own bootstraps fairly well, did a significant amount of teaching while pursuing doctoral level work in philosophy and was, I thought, finally in the niche God had carved for me. Having racked up more debt and and spent a lot more money, I dreamed of the teaching life. But again, the need to support a family of four smacked those dreams hard on the cheek and I re-entered the workforce. Yes, I do regret the debt, to be sure. But was it a waste of time? Did I misunderstand God’s call? No and no, again.
So here I am today: ordained in a non-denominational ecclesial tradition with limited ministerial experience and a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in theology, several semesters of grunt-work undergrad level teaching, and an all-but-dissertation PhD. Bupkis. The only consistent thing I have on my resume is work in customer service and call centers. I’m crystal clear about one thing: God did not light up any desert shrubbery and tell me to go into call center work.
Ah, but what about that writer thing? Right? Didn’t you have the “fire in the belly” for that since you were seven years old? Sure did. And I’ve spent significant portions of my life doing it. Anything published? Nope. But haven’t you felt that God called you to write? Yep.
So let’s get this straight: God called you into (and out of apparently) various manifestations of ministry, into (and back out of) academia, and who knows, but what the heck, he’s all along called you to be a writer?
I’d say that pretty much is the extent of it.
And you’re not doing any of it?
Not to make a living, no.
But here’s the thing: I minister to my co-workers, I teach my daughters, I share my learning here and there on various occasions. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words (and shared portions of that on this blog). You couldn’t put my life out as a flyer for Bible college, university, or a writer’s workshop. But in each of these phases of my life, I have done what I believed I was supposed to do. Was I mistaken? Who’s to say? While Moses wasn’t mistaken to think he’d lead his people out of Egypt, he sort of blew it by starting out with murder. He might have thought during his forty years tending sheep that he’d messed up, he’d misunderstood. Nope. God had him right where He wanted him. Was it God’s plan to toughen him up with a forty year life plan, before he ever had him begin his job? I don’t know.
Maybe God would have liked to have used Moses when he was a young man. Maybe Moses sort of screwed things up by killing that guy. Maybe it took forty years for circumstances in Egypt to come to a point of providential arrangement such that Moses could get back onboard God’s vocation train. God might have said, “Wow. You totally missed it. That mistake is going to set things back a bit.” But here’s the thing: if it was a mistake, God worked that all out and still accomplished his plan. He knew Moses’ heart, and that’s what mattered.
‘Course, God could have had it all planned this way–since he knows the future and all–and everything, human frailty and all, was woven together in a beautiful outcome. Moses may have spent forty years realizing that, yes, he had erred on this or that point. But in the end it didn’t matter. Moses might have thought God had called him to be a prince of Egypt. Then he might have thought he’d totally misread God and he’d been called to be a shepherd (or, alternatively, he might have beat himself up for murdering a human being and figured this was his penance: sheep herding). Either way, it didn’t matter. In all things, Moses sought to follow God.
That was his calling.
Perhaps if I had ultimately become a missionary on some Polynesian island and translated the New Testament into a formerly unwritten language–as I thought I’d be doing when I was a freshman at college many years ago–and was now back in the states teaching students in academia on the finer arts of translation and mission work, and was writing books about it . . . perhaps then I might write a bit differently about vocation. Yes, my haphazard journey through my adult “career” no doubt has influenced my thinking here.
But I would hope I would be even then saying the same thing.
Yes, we have to work, to provide for our families. Yes, we want to do honorable work. Yes, it is completely Christian to want to do work that we are temperamentally, avocationally, and behaviorally well-suited to. And yes it is hardly immoral to pursue that and to think of it in terms of a calling from God.
But the bottom line is this: God calls us with a single vocation–to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The rest are details. Not unimportant, but subsumed under the primary calling.
So, if you believe you should, listen for the call. Discern it as best you can. Go for it with all that you have. And hold it loosely. You might change your mind. Circumstances might lead you elsewhere. But you have the polestar. And in the end, that is truly the only calling that matters.