I need to do some thinking about Christian vocation sooner rather than later because it’s going to come up in my teaching responsibilities this year. Teaching, I find, is a great way of forcing one’s own learning! So is writing. In writing or teaching, I am forced to clarify my thinking, to read widely with specific questions in mind, to face how much there is that I didn’t even know I didn’t know. I am at a point in life now as academic and practitioner where there is so much that fascinates me, so many subjects in which I want to be at least competent (expertise is a far-off dream right now, I’m afraid!), and yet I have just not had enough years doing this yet. Six years of theological study, most of those half-time, and six years of church leadership experience, also half-time (theoretically!). These six years are not enough yet for me to pretend to be anything more than apprentice. And yet I read like the starving, desperate to absorb the content which is the bread and butter of my various academic-practitioner interests, in the hope that I can always be just enough ahead in my thinking that I can stand up and preach or lecture, write an article or something vaguely useful in my PhD research. Most of the time that’s a close-run thing!
So whilst there is lots I might want to say already on the topic of Christian vocation, I’m also conscious that these are as-yet disconnected wisps of thought which need now to be consolidated into something resembling a coherent set of reflections on the subject. Preferably in time for delivering the relevant lectures! To that end, I’ve started to look at a few resources and today have been reflecting on Michael Jinkins’ ‘A Christian Understanding of Vocation’ in ed. Speidell, On Being Christian…and Human. Listen to this excerpt which caught me this morning:
The subject matter and content of Christian vocation is the word of Jesus himself. This is, of course, a scandal to reasonable and respectable ears. No strategies are laid out, no plans that might convince the faint-hearted of the rationality for following this person in this direction at this time. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Everything else is footnote, news below the fold of the front page, fine print on a contract left unread. The “experience” of the person addressed by the word of Jesus is swallowed up in the one making the address, swallowed up with no promise, except the promise of death in the following… Only the one who loses his life for the sake of Jesus – lost in the word of Jesus, lost in the word of the address, in the invitation to follow – only that one is given life.
“Follow me,” Jesus says. Everything else is footnote. That’s it in a nutshell, I think. Vocation is about God’s call, the call to follow Jesus. And though denominations and mission agencies, bible colleges and pastors may offer us detailed plans for fulfilling the specificity of that call, though we ourselves may have a ministry trajectory mapped out, a five-year plan perhaps, we have no guarantee that those strategies are his. He doesn’t tell the Twelve how it will be when they follow him. He doesn’t lay out a detailed training plan although, on reading contemporary discipleship writers, you might think otherwise! He doesn’t tell them where they will live or where they will go, who they will meet and who is their target people group. He doesn’t call one as pastor, another as evangelist, one as prophet and one as scholar. Not at first, though these things may later come.
He doesn’t do any of these because they are not the centrality of what it is to be called by Jesus. Instead he says follow me and he says come, die. That he seems to have called me as academic and practitioner in (and, dare I hope, for) his church, that this call is – above all else – to listen for his voice in order that my leading and writing and teaching might flow only from that…these things are yet but footnote. And this makes them no less true, no less an expression of the specificity of his call upon me. But they are not primary. My identity comes not from these things but from the fact that God has called me by name and commanded me to follow his Son into a new place that I have not known, a path which will be costly and will mean death, a death which is yet gloriously shot-through with life as I have never before known.
This is vocation: to be lost in him, that our experience and our desires, our gifts and hopes, be swallowed up in him, lost in his word, lost in the word of address, in the invitation to follow. This is vocation, because in surrendering my life to follow the One who Calls I find my own identity as the Called. It’s then – and only then! – as I learn to live into this identity that I begin to see the uniqueness of its expression as he intends it in my life.
Vocation like this is better than you can envisage. No five-year plan can capture it. (And believe me, you should see some of the ones I wrote ten years ago!) No strategising outside of his Spirit’s leading will come close. It’ll be bigger than you hope and it may include the things you said you’d never be good enough to do. (My 2:1 at my first university marked me out as not good enough to do postgrad studies and I lived out of this mindset for a good few years before I could hear that follow me might be leading me towards academia!) No matter how hard you think or listen in that final year of school or university or workplace training, no matter how much teaching on vocation (even from those who are far more informed on the topic than I!), you will not grasp the breadth of the uniqueness of his call upon you. You will not know the end from the beginning for that is his alone to know.
But you can follow him.
That you can do. You can follow him wherever he leads you.
You can obey the smallest whisper, even when it seems to take you into the ignominy of humility, when it points to the road which looks like a dead-end, when it insists on what looks like death to your dreams. You can do that because you know that his promise is that those who would have life must go willingly to the cross. You can do that because you know that your identity is not in any calling other than to follow the One who Calls.
Friends, that I think we can do. And the rest will be revealed in his time. And, in each of us, it will be beautiful and more than we ever dared dream.
It will be enough.