Part of my calling as a Bishop in the Episcopal Church is to help other people discern their own calling. Some people are called to ordained ministry. But it’s important to understand that everybody—and I do mean everybody—is called.
When people talk to me about their calling, my assumption is that the Spirit is stirring in their life in some way that they just can’t ignore. God wants to be up to something with them.
So what we seek to hear together is not whether the person is called. Instead, we listen with an open heart and an open mind about the the shape that God’s calling will take in their life.
In my own story, getting clear about and responding to God’s calling was not instantaneous. It unfolded in what may seem to be a meandering, stop-and-go, detour-littered way.
For instance, the summer before starting college my friend and eventual roommate Jeff asked me what I would be majoring in. My honest answer would have been, “Beats me. I just want to do something that makes me feel alive and that will make some sort of difference.”
What I actually said was, “Psychology.”
And sure enough, I earned a psych degree. But along the way I discovered that I loved philosophy. So I not only double-majored. I earned a doctorate in philosophy, taught at a university, and got tenure. And after all that achievement I realized that God was still stirring around in my heart (or gut or head or soul or all the above) about what I might be doing on this planet.
The turning point in my discernment story was not job dissatisfaction. On the contrary, there was much that I loved about teaching and writing and pondering life’s big questions. Instead, I came to see that my approach to life needed to change.
I was leading my life according to the competency-achievement narrative. That narrative says: I am what I can do and what I have achieved.
Up to that point, I was building a career. Increasing my professional competence, acquiring valuable skills, and accumulating achievements. There is nothing in the world wrong with this. As Carl Jung and Richard Rohr have explained, this is the primary work of one season of our lives.
However, the competency-achievement narrative will distort and diminish life if it becomes the only narrative we know how to tell about ourselves and about other people. In that case, we will perceive our worth and our dignity as a function of our accomplishments. The universe, our society, and even our own inner voice will persistently ask: What have you done for me lately?
To put it differently, the competency-achievement narrative puts each of us on an endless conditional-love hamster wheel. As soon as you stop running, you’re nobody. A loser.
Jesus teaches us that hearing our calling depends upon knowing our true identity. And the competency-achievement narrative gives us a false identity. We are more than what we accomplish. We are the Beloved. And sometimes we need to fail to find this out.
The story of Jesus calling Peter makes this point. (Luke 5:1-11)
Jesus was teaching a crowd on the shore of Lake Gennesaret. The people thronged to him. They didn’t want to miss a single word that he said. Some were even reaching out to touch him. Bit by bit they had nudged him to the water’s edge.
Earlier, a local fisherman had beached his boat on that very spot. He was still sitting in the stern. So, Jesus hopped in, asked him to shove off a few feet, and started teaching again. That fisherman was Peter.
When Jesus had finished the day’s lesson, he asked Peter to put out to deeper water and to drop his nets. Peter had been at it all night long and hadn’t caught a thing. Weary and more than a little skeptical, he did just as Jesus had asked. And he immediately hauled in an enormous catch.
In response to the amazing catch, Peter fell to his knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Now there are tons of fruitful ways to interpret Peter’s response. But in the context of vocation I want you to consider this. Jesus came to Peter in a moment that the competence-achievement narrative would rank as a failure.
According to that narrative, a fisherman is measured by one thing: catching fish. If competence and achievement make you who you are and determine your value, then a fisherman who can’t catch fish is a serious nobody.
I like to think that Jesus did not make the fish appear out of nowhere. They had been there all along. Peter had simply failed to bring them in. And Peter realized it.
So that leads me to render what Peter said like this: “I’m a loser. Nothing I do is going to get you to take me seriously. To convince you that I’m worth respecting, worth loving.”
And Jesus said, “Friend, it doesn’t work like that. I love you because I love you, not because of what you can do or what you have accomplished. It’s not your resume I love. It’s you. And now that maybe you can see this for yourself, we can get down to the real work.”
Well, actually Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Once we know, I mean really feel right down in our marrow, that we are the Beloved, we can get down to the real work, the work we’re called to do: healing the world with the divine love no matter what kind of job or career we may have.
Each of us is the Beloved. And as the Beloved, we participate in God’s redeeming work. As Henry Nouwen put it:
“The great message that we have to carry, as … followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” (In the Name of Jesus, 30)
Hearing your calling begins with hearing God’s first and last word to you: I love you.
Ash Wednesday falls on March 2 this year. That’s getting pretty close. If you’re looking for a book to use for individual or group study, click here for some suggestions. I provided an additional list at the end of this post. My latest book Looking for God in Messy Places has a study guide at the end (click here) and A Resurrection Shaped Life provides reflection questions at the end of each chapter (click here).