Vocation and the Silence of God

Written by admin on October 23rd, 2010

[This is one of a series of entries from my unpublished book, Desperate Devotion, which details my experience with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew during a crisis of faith and calling.]

The silence of God is doubly disturbing when one is straining to hear God’s direction vocationally. My crisis of faith related directly to calling.

I have had a lifelong fascination with the subject of “calling,” the idea that God takes initiative toward us and directs us in the use of our gifts and interests as partners with God in the healing of the world. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[1]

Note that according to the biblical idea of “calling,” or “vocation,” everyone, not just clergy, has a calling. Also note that this calling extends well beyond what one does to earn a living. As James Fowler puts it,

The shaping of vocation … involves the orchestration of our leisure, our relationships, our work, our private life, our public life, and of the resources we steward, so as to put it all at the disposal of God’s purposes in the services of God and the neighbor.[2]

To illustrate this understanding of vocation Fowler turns to a mentor of his, Carlyle Marney, who liked to tell a story from his own childhood when explaining the concept. During his boyhood years, Marney’s family owned a contrarian cow named Daisy whose milk production offset her disagreeable temperament. Unfortunately, the genetic gift that made her such a great source of milk came with a price. Each time she calved she developed life-threatening mastitis.

She would have died more than once had it not been for Mr. Adams and his unique sense of vocation. President of the small town’s bank and elder at the local Presbyterian church, he lived just across the alley from the Marneys. When Carlyle’s father called, even in the middle of the night, Mr. Adams would come running, bicycle pump and ointments and hot water in hand, ready to pump and soothe Daisy into production for another season. This, said Marney, is vocation!

“But who is Mr. Adams? Was he neighbor, elder on a Christian mission, banker serving a very modest customer, or a cattle-loving veterinarian with a sympathy for a hurting beast whose name came from the side of a churn? Answer: He was all of these at once. But in the arrangement of the scenery of his life’s drama, he was living out his identity, using the special gifts, interests, experiences that gave him a role as a means of relation. And his work, his energy in relation, were all serving a proper relational end. The term for the whole—role, work, proper end, is vocation. And from which of these roles and ends is his identity derived? Answer: From none of them. He is all of them at once.”[3]

This is an understanding of life that captivates me: the idea that I can weave the many-colored threads of my life into something of beauty and grace. Life is not something to compartmentalize into separate, unrelated parts, nor is it only a succession of days to check off the calendar. Life is a gift from God, meant to be lived

  1. In responsive relationship with God;
  2. In loving relationship with neighbor;
  3. With a noble sense of purpose;
  4. In a way true to our own individuality;
  5. With a sense of wholeness, every part of our life related to all of the other parts;
  6. In a way that continues to unfold, and even evolve, over time.

Two additional facets of calling remain important to me as well:

  1. The term suggests that God communicates this direction into our lives; and
  2. God gives particular focus to our vocational pursuits, which has implications for what we do for a living.

My own sense of vocation dates back to age 16 when on a hillside outside Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ, I sat in prayer with a group of fellow youth and heard God whisper in my inner ear, “Greg, be a preacher.” That whispered call has sustained me through years of schooling and ministry, through bright days and dark nights personally and professionally.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that the words themselves didn’t confine me to the pastorate. “Be a preacher” is just a way of telling me to be a proclaimer, an open advocate of the good news that is Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, God’s gravitational pull kept me pastoring through long chapters of my life, and even when I stepped away in 2001-2002, it turned out to be what one friend called “an unintentional sabbatical.” Less than a year later I was pastoring again, convinced that God had called me back into congregational service.

So here I was at what felt like another vocational turning point, drawn toward the nonprofit Priscilla and I had created in 2001[4] and toward my passion for writing, but not sure whether it was God or fatigue talking. Discerning which of these lay behind my discontent mattered greatly to me, given my conviction that it mattered greatly to God. I wanted to move at God’s prompting. I wanted to stay centered in God’s unfolding purposes for my life. I believed that the wellbeing of my family, my church, and my own life depended on it.

In other words, this was a big deal to me, one that called for clarity. I needed God to speak his direction into my life. I needed an inward resolution of my uncertainty.

What I got instead was silence.

While I waited for God to reveal his chapter-turning or chapter-continuing purpose for my life, I made the simple commitment to follow his clear guidance about daily life—to live, in other words, the wisdom of his way. I would, I told myself, stick as closely as I could to the way of Jesus so as to position myself best to hear God when clarity came. I would trust God to give vocational meaning to my daily life and relationships, even if I couldn’t see it.

Without fully appreciating the fact, I was actually operating by another dimension of calling. God doesn’t always take us up to the 30,000 ft. level for a big-picture look at the trajectory of our lives. Most of the time we live down in the details, demands, duties, and distractions of our daily existence. God asks us to live obediently, trusting him to weave something meaningful and whole, maybe something even beautiful out of the seemingly incidental and accidental elements of our daily lives. That we don’t always see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

One of the implications of this for me was to redeem me from a danger of the “purpose-driven life”: the danger that I would become so obsessed with the big-picture purpose of my life that I would find myself unable to embrace the little moments of each day, the danger that I would not be fully present to the here and now, which ultimately is the only life any of us will ever get.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 119.

[2] Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, 95.

[3] Ibid., 95-96.

[4] Directions, Inc., the mission of which is to serve organizations, couples, and individuals as they clarify their direction and seek to live out their full potential.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Ron Tedwater says:

    Thanks for the post

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