The first semester of Freshman Year in College was a few days away. My friend J- and I were driving somewhere. I can’t remember the destination. He asked me what I would major in. Too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t the faintest clue, I said, “Psychology.”
Eventually I did end up double majoring in psych and philosophy. We’ll get to where that has led me over the years in a moment. But first let’s take a look at the source of my embarrassment.
My tacit belief at the time was that only select people have a calling. Think Jane Goodall and Marie Curie. Martin Luther King and Mary Oliver. People like that have this one thing, this one pursuit, that gives their entire life focus, direction, and motivation. All the rest of us just get by as best we can.
Their lives had real meaning. They were somebody. I didn’t want to be a nobody. So, I was embarrassed to admit that I had no clear career goals.
Mind you, I had not really thought any of this through. These ideas had come to me from our culture in a mostly unconscious way. I’m not alone in this. We get tons of our beliefs by a sort of spiritual and intellectual osmosis.
What helped me set these assumptions aside was the people I found myself admiring. Of course, a few of my professors made an enduring impact on my life. But I learned a great life lesson from a deli worker named E- and a janitor named H-.
They had something I wanted: a meaningful life. Each of them knew who they were and why they were doing what they were doing. They were answering a calling.
The Bible is riddled with call narratives. God calls the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus calls the twelve in the Gospels. Acts relates the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. In this context, we’re going to look at what it means to answer a call. The text we’ll draw on is the Parable of the Two Sons. (Matthew 21:28-32)
It goes like this. There were two sons. Their father tells them to go work in the vineyard. The first son refuses and then changes his mind, puts on his work clothes, and heads into the fields. The other son says, “Sure dad!” But he never gets off the sofa.
The father calls both sons. The difference is that the first answers with his life, not just his lips. The father’s call changes him.
Let’s use Hartmut Rosa’s concept of resonance to unpack what it’s like to receive and to answer God’s call. In physics the term “resonance” describes the transfer of energy between objects. A common example is the interaction between tuning forks.
If you put two tuning forks of the same frequency next to each other and then strike one of them, the second tuning fork begins to vibrate. Rosa adapts this concept from physics to describe how relationships shape and guide our lives. My point here is that God’s call to us is, above all, a call to relationship. Adapting Rosa’s idea for our purposes, I suggest that God’s call involves four characteristics.
First, we have the sense of being affected. We are “reached, touched or moved” inwardly by something beyond ourselves. Something “calls to us.” We feel addressed. Most of us have been transported by a piece of music or stopped in our tracks by a sunset. That’s when we say things like, “Wow!” Our heart, our soul, our mind, even our body resonates with an Other.
However, God’s call is not coercive. The spiritual vibrations within us are not merely involuntary reactions. We are not billiard balls set in motion by a collision with the cue ball. Resonance involves self-efficacy. We respond to God’s calling intentionally.
Saying yes to God’s call brings about an adaptive transformation. Who we are—our sense of self—evolves as a function of this relationship. Our very lives are braided together with God’s.
Finally, there’s an uncontrollability about God’s call. We can’t attract God’s call by being especially talented or attractive or accomplished. God calls because, well, God. God called Peter and Mary and Paul and Jeremiah for the same reason that God calls you or me. God loves. Period. And God wants us to be a part of the movement and the power that is that love.
To riff on St. Francis, God calls each of us to be channels of the divine love. Whatever our job or career might be, it just happens to be the way in which we answer our deepest calling: to love what God loves how God loves it.
My own academic pursuits eventually led me to teaching philosophy at university and then on to ordination in the Episcopal Church. Serving as a bishop is immensely rewarding. But that is not my calling. My service in the church is how God’s call to me to love is unfolding in this specific life that God has given me.
If I preach a sizzling sermon, write a spiritual best-seller, or plan the most amazing program, but I don’t have love, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Whether at work we use a scalpel or a broom, a pulpit or pizza oven, we all have the same calling. What’s up to us is to say yes.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 21:23-32 from Proper 21, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up October 1, 2023). As usual, I’m posting in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.