Part of the reason I am interested in blogging on the idea of “calling” is to offer a dirtier, grimier theology of vocation than the cheerier (and perhaps more marketable) versions that are readily available in pulpits and bookshops.
The rhetoric of calling is often hand-in-glove with populist notions of personal fulfillment. Disney has informed much of what we think about vocation. For the record, I love Disney films. But the fulfillment of dreamy wish-making is an underlying motif that intertwines nicely with Western individualism and the promise of personal achievement. This is not the paradigm of vocation for Christian faith.
The premise of vocation-theology is that we have been addressed by a voice entirely outside of ourselves, a voice that is not obligated to grant wishes and dreams.
In fact, the One who speaks may well dash and destroy our dreams and wishes. In “calling” us, God is beckoning us into a paradigm of thinking that can be quite alien to what we know from our cultural upbringing. And his divine summons very often results in the violent shredding of our dreams and wishes.
But as that process of shredding ensues, so also ensues the process of re-acclimating to a different paradigm, to a different way of thinking. I have written in an earlier post that salvation is a process of acculturation—we have to have our minds and hearts reordered and refashioned in order to understand and appreciate the ways of the God who saves… and calls.
Within such an alien paradigm, our calling may at times feel more like a death sentence. Rather than the wish-granting experience of personal fulfillment, divine vocation may seem like an embrace of personal abnegation. Bonhoeffer’s dictum sums it up nicely: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
So our vocation may look more like failure than success.
I was walking home the other day swallowing the strange and unnerving reality that choosing to pursue my current vocational path may well be the most colossal mistake of my life.
But I also recognize that a calling sourced in Christ will often look just like a grievous, ugly mistake. When Paul recounts his former way of life in Judaism, a career path which would have been deemed as highly successful, he then calls it all “rubbish” (see Philippians 3:3–11). His catalogues of suffering, his summation of the costs—these fly hard in the face of both Western and Greco-Roman ideas of success and fulfillment.
Knowing me, I will probably not figure out whether my own vocational decisions (much milder than Paul’s, of course!) amount to following a divine summons. At least not until I have had years to reflect on it retrospectively. For now, though, I have to live in what I have chosen.
But when we follow Someone who embraced a vocation that ended on a cross, we should not always expect rosy endings.
It also means that no matter the vocational despair, no matter the vocational costs, the calling ultimately and climatically includes resurrection.