How do I know my calling?

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “How Do I Know … My Calling?”]

“How do I know?” is one of the most common questions that comes up in counseling, in prayer, in conversations.

  • How do I know what God’s calling me to?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be with this person?
  • How do I know if I should marry this person?
  • How do I know if I should try and have kids, or adopt, or foster?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be in this city?
  • How do I know if I’m in the right job or if I should look for a new one?
  • How do I know how I should spend my time and with whom and doing what?

It’s probable that you’ve asked one of those questions at some point in your life.  It’s possible that you’re still wondering.

Here are three quotes that have shaped my understanding of calling. First, from C.S. Lewis, who describes the process of discovering your calling like this:

All of the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it, tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”

And then author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote,

the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

And finally, civil rights leader and philosopher Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Though they could be interpreted as being in opposition, I don’t think they are; I think they’re all true, just maybe not the way we may automatically think.

I grew up in the church, where people talk about “discovering God’s will” and “discerning God’s plan” and “asking God what he desires,” and I developed the image in my head of God’s will or calling on your life being like a map or a blueprint. You had to “discover God’s will,” as if that meant figuring out where on the map you were and then navigating along God’s route to point X; or “follow God’s will,” as if there were certain instructions on how to construct a godly life and if you skipped a step, you’d end up with a wonky product.

And so, for much of my life, I was kind of anxious:

  • What if I miss what God’s will is?
  • What if I end up doing a job that God doesn’t want me to do?
  • What if I don’t answer God’s calling on my life?
  • What if I don’t marry the person God wants me to marry?
  • If I fall off the path, what happens to the rest of the journey?
  • If I skip one instruction—even accidentally—can I go back and fix it or am I screwed for the rest of my life?

I wonder how many others have that image of God and of his will; I wonder how many others feel or have felt paralyzed because of that.

Understanding God's WillAbout ten years ago, I came across the late Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas. One illustration really helped me see things in a different light. He references an article by Brian McLaren, who gave this analogy:

Imagine one of my sons calls me on the phone and asks, “Dad, what’s your will for my college major?”

I would say, “Son, I have raised you to this point in your life so that you can make that decision.”

“Yes, Dad,” he replies, “but I want to do your will, not my own will. So, please tell me what major to choose.”

“Son,” I’ll say, “I’d be glad to help you think this through. For example, we can talk about how much you hate history and calculus, and how much you love writing and business. I think I can help you eliminate some options, but I really want you to decide this.”

“Dad, don’t you love me? What if I make a mistake? I just want to do your will!” he says.

“But, Son,” I’ll reply, “it is my will for you to make this decision. Again, I’m glad to talk with you and help you think it through. But my will is for you to grow up, be a man, and make a life for yourself by making decisions, hard decisions, like this one. And believe me, whatever happens, whether you major in business or art or physics, whether it goes well or not, I will be with you. You can count on that, no matter what.” The point is that he lives with my guidance, but not my domination, because he’s my son, not my lawn mower.

And all of a sudden, the anxiety-inducing image in my head of God as a blueprint maker was done away with, and I learned about an important distinction, a distinction that may make all the difference: it’s between your general calling and your specific calling. As Kyle Lake explains:

A general will [or calling] applies to everyone equally; a specific will [or calling] applies to everyone individually.

When we ask, “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?” or “How do I know my calling?”, what we’re normally referring to is the second one, the specific calling. That’s the one we get most obsessed with, most concerned with, and most worried about.

The thing is, though, while it may be tempting to think that we’re starting from scratch—you feel like you have no clue what to do or where to begin—what God has left for us in Scripture, what God shows us most commonly in the Bible, what we have in abundance in what we call the word of God, is God’s general calling.

This is what God has said already, what he has said to generations past, and what he continues to say through these pages to our generation and to future generations. And when we follow these words, when we do what God asks of us in Scripture, then I believe we discover what Buechner calls “our deepest gladness,” what Howard Thurman describes as the thing that “makes you come alive.” Because this is our Creator God, speaking words of life to us, speaking words that will bring life to us if we listen and obey.

  • Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”—general calling.
  • Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself”—general calling.
  • Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—general calling.
  • Genesis 1:28: “He made human beings in the image of God,” we should treat each other as such—general calling.
  • Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—general calling.
  • In the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “Follow me” (4:19) and “Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:19) —general calling.

I could go on and on, and oftentimes when people ask me what they should do with their lives, I want to say: “Read the Bible first. You never know what God may say in there. You never know how what God has already said may impact your life. You never know who you’ll encounter there … Jesus, for instance.”

Now, I’m not saying the Bible is where you to go to solve all your problems, nor am I calling it a manual to follow literally and step-by-step in order to build the perfect life. Many of the contemporary issues we face the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. But if you want to know what God has already said, read the Bible.

Here’s one thing you’ll find in the Bible:

God offers far more instruction on whom we are called to be than on what we are supposed to do.

This is not to say that what we do doesn’t reflect or have an impact on or any relation to who we are, but the thing is, as author Os Guinness reminds us in The Call:

We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless you’re operating within God’s general calling, you’re unlikely to discover God’s specific calling. Unless you’re seeking to follow Jesus, to take up your cross, to be filled with the Spirit, to be living a holy life, to doing justice and being kind and walking humbly with your God; unless you’re treating the least of these as if they were Christ himself, putting the needs of others before yourself and putting God above all, it’s going to be really hard to discern what specific thing God may be calling you to.

Dallas Willard goes one step further; he writes in Hearing God:

people also often seem to lack desire to receive God’s word merely for what it is, just because we believe it is the best way to live. This is shown by a disregard of the plain directives in the Scriptures. Sanctification from sexual uncleanness (1 Thess 4:3) and a continuously thankful heart (1 Thess 5:18) are among the many specific things clearly set forth in God’s general instructions to all people. It is not wise to disregard those plain directives and then expect to hear a special message from God when we want it. … Anyone who rejects the general counsels of Scripture is in fact planning not to be guided by God and cannot then rely on being able to be delivered from their difficulties by obtaining God’s input on particular occasions.

The hope of God isn’t that we’d just always be asking him, “What do I do now?” and then doing it and then asking him again and then doing it and then asking him again (ad infinitum). The hope of God is that we’d grow into mature believers, we’d answer his call to follow, we’d be becoming the kind of people who are always learning from their Master and Lord, and to be children who reflect the family likeness. So please don’t let the fact that you may not yet know God’s specific calling on your life stop you from doing what he’s already asked you to do.

Nike+ RunningAnd how will you know what he’s already asked you to do? By spending time reading the Bible. Maybe you’re in a season where your Bible spends more time on the shelf than open in front of you—or maybe you have the app on your phone and it’s actually on your home screen, but it’s more to make yourself feel better because you know it’s there. Kind of like me with my Nike+ running app—just because it’s on my home screen doesn’t mean I’m getting any fitter! After a while, you get tired of feeling guilty and you’re either going to use it or you’re going to move it to a folder.

Let me encourage you to use it—the Bible (app), that is.

  • Take time in God’s word every morning: reading, reflecting, praying, studying.
  • Learn the vocabulary of God; learn the character of God.

You may not have a Damascus Road experience every morning, but one of my friends calls this “winning the first battle of the day” for a reason. I would guess that if we surveyed (1) folks in our church who read the Bible first thing in the morning and then moved to email and Facebook and Twitter and the news and (2) folks who did things the other way around, that first group would say their days are a little more centered. I want us to go to the word of God before we go to the words of others—because here’s what I think:

news + email + Facebook + Twitter – the word of God

= empty, jealous, hopeless, angry.

And I don’t think God wants an empty, jealous, hopeless, angry life for us. I think he wants much more for us than that.

I was almost thirty when I figured out that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. It was here at The District Church where I finally felt like all the strands of my life came together, all the threads were woven together—my passions for theology, music and justice. It was here that I finally came to know in truth and not just in theory that God doesn’t waste an experience. It was here that I was finally able to see that, while the journey had seemed for me a wild careening from one to another, it all flowed within the broad brushstroke of what God intended for me—and that God’s general calling and his specific calling, at least in my case, weren’t all that far apart.

Of course, I can point to all these things with hindsight. When I was going through these things, over the course of twelve years, I felt frustrated and uncertain, going from passion to passion—finding something I was interested in and then realizing I didn’t want to do it with all of my time—law, and then music, and then theology, and then politics and advocacy. I was trying to be faithful at every step and not sure how it would all fit together—not sure if it would all fit together; I didn’t know what I’d end up doing with my life. Anne Lamott describes her journey as a “series of staggers” and a “lurch” rather than leap of faith—and I can say that, in the moment, much of my journey of discernment has felt like that, too.

John Ortberg, author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says that it wasn’t until almost thirty years into church ministry that he got a sense of God’s confirmation that he was doing the ‘right thing.’ He says, in “God’s Call Waiting”:

I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions.

That’s how God’s worked in my life, too—not as a divine blueprint-maker but as my heavenly Father. Within the general calling of following Jesus and being a disciple who makes disciples, who studies the word of God and learns the character of God as revealed in Scripture—the character God seeks to cultivate in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit—God has more often than not allowed me to choose …

because I’m his son, not his lawn mower;

because he wants me to grow up and become a mature and responsible citizen of his kingdom;

because he wants me to learn what it means to love fully and to follow whole-heartedly.

I want to leave you with a couple of practical things you can start doing this week:

  1. Read the Bible—get in the word of God, not just at decision times, but at all times. Learn what God’s already said, read how’s he interacted with his people before, see what he’s already asked you to do, cultivate a sense of who God is and what he might be saying. Read the story of Jesus: know his character, his actions, his words—it’s awfully hard to follow someone if you don’t really know them!
  2. If you want something more specific, read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is one of the parts of Scripture where, every time I read it, I’m grounded again in God’s reality, in God’s vision for life, in God’s kingdom. So, every day this week, try reflecting on a verse or passage a day from the sheet. What might God be saying to you through it? Take time to write down your thoughts in a journal or talk through it with friends. Start with the word of God before you go to the words of others.

Every single one of us has a calling on our lives, and it’s more important than what we do and who we marry and where we live and what job we take and how many kids we have.

The calling is to follow Jesus, to find a life more true and more real than we could ever imagine.

I can tell you that much for sure.

The Comfort of Being Called

[Part 2 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.” You can read Part 1 here.]

The more I live, the more I experience, the more I reflect on life and Scripture, the more I spend time with God and participate in his mission, the more I realize that at the very core of our being, at the very depths of our soul, we were made to find our satisfaction and our end—our home and our comfort—in God, the One who made us, the One who loves us, the One who saved us, and the One who calls us to something greater—something, in fact, that we were made for: to be in right relationship with God and working with God to help make the world right again. There is so much more to life than what the world tells us.

Every day, I have to remind myself that God calls me his child, that through Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins and for the sin of the world, and through his resurrection and vindication by God, the Father was able to adopt me into his family and call me his own, that I am loved by God—by God. This is such a different kind of comfort than the world offers; this is the comfort of being called. This comfort is true: it doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of life, it doesn’t pretend that you’re something you’re not or that life is something other than it is; but it also doesn’t pretend that God is not who God is—mighty and majestic, high and holy, intimate and immanent, constant and close.

Here. Now. In this place. With us.

I have to remind myself of that every day, because every day I am faced with voices that would say otherwise, that would call me in other directions, that would pull me from my mission, that say you have to be successful in order to be loved; you have to make yourself attractive in order to be loved; you have to get this job or this education or live in this place or drive this kind of car or own this kind of phone in order to be loved, in order to be accepted. And every day, God says, “No. I love you as you are. I have always loved you and I will always love you. There is nothing you can do to make me love you any less or any more—that is how much I love you, how much I accept you, and how much I am pleased with you, my child.”

Some of you need to hear this: to hear that the grace and love of God are greater than anything you’re facing, anything you’ve done, anything that’s been done to you, any addiction you’re struggling with, any doubts you’re wrestling with. You need to hear that God promises power to his people—the power of his Holy Spirit, a power that enables us to know God’s love—and, as Paul writes to the church in Rome, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). You need to know this love that will empower you—and not just empower you but so overwhelm you with its truth that you will be unable to do anything else but be a witness—and testify. And in this, you will know both a calling out of the comfort of the world—that is a false comfort, a veneer of comfort, indeed no comfort at all in reality—and you will know the true comfort of being called by God.

Bob Dylan, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, said:

Everybody has a calling, don’t they? Some have a high calling, some have a low calling. Everybody is called but few are chosen. There’s a lot of distraction for people, so you might not never find the real thing. A lot of people don’t.

It’s really easy to get distracted from the call of God.

  • The call of the Father that says, “You are my beloved child,” gets drowned out by the voices that tell you that you’re not good enough or good-looking enough, you’re not successful enough, you’re just not enough—and so you keep trying to change yourself to please the wrong audience.
  • The call of Jesus that cries out, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest,” gets drowned out by the distractions of a world that rewards busyness and activity and earning your way in the world—and so you work harder and try harder and wear yourself out trying to change the world in your own strength.
  • The call of Jesus—the mission of God—that says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” gets lost in the advertisements that sell comfort and convenience as the highest goal, and the voices that trumpet safety and security as the measure for success.

And so you stay on your couch, you watch another episode of TV, you don’t get to know your neighbors, you don’t take the time to learn that language so you can go to that country—or even a next-door neighborhood, you distance yourself from risk, you make your life about pleasure, about yourself, about what you feel like.

I confess, I do these things too.

And let me tell you, when we do this, when we let ourselves get distracted from God’s call, from God’s mission, we miss out on a life that could be so much fuller than it is, a life so much more stable (and not stable in a boring way, but stable in its foundations), a life in which we are truly alive.

Bob Dylan’s right: there is a lot of distraction for people—and we inhabit a world full of people that are so distracted that they haven’t found their calling: not even their calling in the sense of “God is calling your name; God desires a relationship with you; God is seeking you; Jesus loves you,” let alone their calling in the sense of “This is what I was made for; this is what I was made to do, who I was made to be.”

And maybe that’s you, too. Maybe you’ve been trying to figure out what your calling is, what God wants you to do with your life, who God wants you to be; and it isn’t becoming any clearer. God’s taking a long time to answer and you’re getting worried that you may have missed his reply!

In one sense, I can’t help you: I can’t tell you for certain what that thing is that God would have you do. God has made each of us unique and uniquely gifted to bring our contribution to the body of Christ and to be that part, to play that role, in the work of the kingdom of God. It took me until I was almost twenty-eight years old and only after I’d actually started in full-time pastoral ministry here at The District Church that I knew for sure that this was it—and it came after a lot of twists and turns and trying to make the best decision I could, trying to listen as best I could, trying to discern—with others as well as on my own—where and how God might be leading me. But when I did realize my more specific calling, when I did figure out what God had crafted me for, I also realized that God had been molding me all along—on the journey, in the process.

And I realized that everyone has a calling in another sense: everyone has the calling to play a role in accomplishing this mission, to be—as Jesus said—“my witnesses”: the calling of following Jesus, of being like Jesus, of telling others about Jesus, of inviting others along on the ride and to the relationship, of living in such a way that the world is put to rights. And that—you can do that wherever you are; you don’t have to wait around for that. And you know, I think it’s in following that broad calling to be Christ’s witnesses that we may well discover the more specific calling that God has prepared for us.

I want to point out a couple additional things from Acts 1 to bear in mind as we consider this mission. First, verses 10-11:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

It’s as if they’re saying, “Jesus just told you what to do: ‘Go back to Jerusalem, wait for my Spirit, go be my witnesses.’ Why are you still standing around?” John Stott commented,

There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth. … Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers.

Sometimes we can do that too; sometimes we look up to heaven as if God hasn’t said anything at all and we’re just waiting for him to say something before we do anything. Tell me what to do, God!

And God says, “I have. I have given you a mission: be my witnesses. Testify, in your words and in your deeds and by your life, the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of redemption, the good news of restoration, the good news of grace and mercy and love and justice.”

The last thing I want to point out is from the end of the chapter, when the apostles are choosing a replacement for Judas. Out of the hundred and twenty who are there, they narrow it down to a shortlist of two: Joseph and Matthias. Matthias gets chosen. There’s no suggestion that he had a better heart or that Joseph was less worthy, or that God favored or disfavored one or the other. One was simply chosen to be an apostle and the other was not. And you know, we don’t hear anything more about either of these two in Scripture—we don’t know what happens to them. And the point is, as N.T. Wright puts it:

Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.

So it comes down to this: if we are Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—we have been given a mission to be Jesus’ witnesses, to testify to what we know, to what we believe, to the evidence we’ve found, and to be credible in telling and living out those truths. It is a mission that may seem impossible at times, and it will call us out of our comfort zones, out of what we know or what we think we know, out of the false comfort of the world and its distractions. But it is also a mission that we are not expected to accomplish on our own. Indeed, on our own, it is an impossible mission; but Jesus promises us power, the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, the life-saving, world-changing, soul-awakening power. And as we enter into that mission, as we walk in the power of that Spirit, we will discover the true comfort of being called: called by name, called sons and daughters of God, called friends of God, called to join God in the adventure, in the story, that he is involved in.

And so your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:

Receive the power of the Spirit of God; be Jesus’ witnesses wherever he calls you and whatever he calls you to, shaking off the chains of what this world calls comfort; get out of your comfort zone and discover the true comfort of being called by God.

Facebook reminds me of God

 

Facebook has this new thing where it posts flashbacks: “On this day in …” Today it popped up on my sidebar while I was browsing a friend’s pictures, and it read: “On this day in 2010: ‘Heading up to MA for final interviews. If you’re the praying kind …’”

Wow. It’s only been a year. It’s already been a year. The last twelve months have simultaneously felt like they’ve flown by, and yet an eternity has happened in that same time. Twelve months ago, I was still on the verge—and completely mentally prepared—to move to Cape Cod. I was excited for the opportunity to get paid to play music and hang out with young people, and excited for the opportunity to get to work with John-Paul.

 

It was also the first step in the redirection play that God ran on my life. A couple days after this post, I was back in DC … lost, uncertain, searching, wondering. I had no idea that God had better things for me—all I knew was that what I thought was going to happen, hadn’t.

So today, I give thanks to God for his redirection play, for his bigger plan, for proving himself trustworthy. I give thanks for the times when my plans didn’t come about because God had his own, for the disappointment that was the fertile ground for a new hope, for the uncertainty that gave space for me to trust and have faith in God.

And thanks to Facebook for reminding me of all of this. 🙂

Tonight is inexplicable

Tonight, for some reason, I am filled with a most-unspeakable and inexplicable joy. For the first time since my move to DC, there is a settledness of spirit, a calmness of character. There is a renewed hope in my calling, a reinvigorated sense of freedom in God, a restored feeling of confidence in my own creative abilities and in what I hear God speaking to me.

The fire in my belly to create music and to perform and to put my faith into song is back. The passion to write the words (and perhaps books) that I believe God has put on my heart is back. The yearning to live with and laugh with and lead and love the people of God is back.

Perhaps it was the gig I played at on Friday night, where I was reminded of the great joy and satisfaction–a certain assuredness or perhaps even a sense of divine approval–that comes with using the gifts that God has graciously given me.

Perhaps it was the conference I attended this weekend–RootsCampDC–a gathering of progressive organizers. At RootsCamp, I encountered kindred spirits of all ages and colors, and my hope for change and the power of people working together was renewed.

Perhaps it was getting to talk with my dear friend Kate, whom I love and miss dearly, and whom I could best describe–and not exaggerating all that much–as the person in whom I see the peace and love of God embodied. Every time I talk to Kate, I’m reminded not only of God’s perspective on life, but I’m also humbled by how he is at work in her life in ways great and small–and simply because she has given him the space in her life to work.

Perhaps it was the decisions that I made at the start of the Lenten season already beginning to bear fruit.

All I know is … God is good. He’s showing me the path and urging me to go, like a father encouraging his toddler to venture out.

So I go.

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

–Matthew 19:26