Flourishments and Faith

Author: Philip Amerson

Called, Yet Born Raw

Here is the assumption: each human being is born with a vocation, a “calling.”  I take it as a universal -- that at our best, a fulfilled human life involves a journey toward discovering and fulfilling our “calling.”  The language of vocation is derived from the Latin vocare, meaning a voice or a call.  Human vocation is the idea of an inner voice, an alignment of our capabilities and interests with a larger purpose, a purpose that stands beyond the humdrum of everyday routine.  

Even as I write these words, I am aware that millions of human beings face the tragedy of war, poverty or sickness.  These divert and deny them an open path to a fuller discovery of vocation.  Such debilitating options for many only increases the challenge for those of us with greater opportunity and personal agency. How will we act responsibly out of the freedom and resources available for us?

Vocation, fulfillment, flourishing, is not a one-time experience – rather it is an ongoing unfolding, an evolvement.  One might have multiple callings, multiple vocations and there can be times of flourishment in divergent situations and contexts.   Here again is the assumption of alignment of natural gifts, human desire and social opportunity.   Over and again in the biblical material comes the refrain, “I have called you by name” and “you are called to follow in a way.”  Vocation is both a process of discerning and a journey of formation.

I remember a conversation with Dr. K. Morgan Edwards several years ago.  Edwards was a remarkable pastor, preacher, teacher, community leader and advocate for social justice.  After his tenure as pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, California he served as professor of homiletics at the Claremont School of Theology.  Over decades Dr. Edwards’ students assumed leadership roles throughout the nation and world.  His classes were an incubator for great preachers and community leaders.   One afternoon, late in his life, we talked about his teaching.  I asked, “Based on your experience, are preachers and community leaders born or are they made?”  Even though he was frail and his voice often trailed off to the inaudible, Dr. Edwards clearly rallied to the question.  He straightened himself in his wheelchair, took a long dramatic pause and then responded in a loud resonate baritone, “Preachers are born!” He said. “But they are born raw!”

Each of us is born with certain attributes and potential – these are the seedbed places for our calling.  Vocation is the rightful use of natural talents.  However, I agree that we are “born raw.”  There is a journey of clarification ahead for each of us.  Finding the occasion of flourishment requires a focus on the discernment and formation. This idea is embedded in eastern and western cultures and religions.  Flourishment comes through the following a lifelong arc toward times of fulfillment.  

It is not that any one of us is special.  In fact, most find living into vocation to be elusive.  It eludes perhaps because it cannot be purchased.  In a consumeristic, market driven society this is confusing.  A sense of vocation is slowly discovered through study, meditation and community interaction.  

Joseph Campbell spoke of “following your bliss.”  Joan Chittister writes of “discovering what one is meant to do.”  A great claim of the Protestant Reformation was that in such human awareness of vocation we are to be “priests to each other.”  As Luther put it, the work of every believer, whether in the home, kitchen, workshop or field is to be seen as vocation and is just as consecrated to the Lord as that of any priest of bishop.  

The notion that deep within each human being there is a natural urge to discover one’s truest destiny and then to build a life around this vision of one’s purpose is critical to wellbeing.  In his Address to the German Nobility, Luther made careful distinction between vocation and office.  Our offices are what we do for a living but our vocation is held in common and requires our best.  Our vocation is that to which we are called to be and do by virtue of our faith. 

Take any one of the many vocation stories from Christian scripture -- Moses, Jonah, Ruth, Abraham and Sarah, Paul, Samuel, Lydia, Mary or Martha and you will find this dual process of discerning one’s call (or “hearing one’s true name”) and then the journey to live into this calling.  The search for vocation is not just a narrow Christian or even religious reality.  It is also a primal topic of great literature, poetry and social philosophy through the ages.  When Annie Dillard, Mohandas Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Emily Dickenson, George Eliot, Feodor Dostoevsky, or William Shakespeare are at their best they are dealing with this nagging “to be or not to be” question.

There are multiple definitions of vocation. 

  • Paulo Freire suggested, "We have a vocation to be fully human."
  • Barbara Brown Taylor in thinking of her work as a pastor and priest said “no one ever introduced me to the idea that my ministry might involve being just who I already am and doing just what I already do, with one difference: namely, that I understand myself to be God's person in and for the world.”
  • Parker Palmer writes: "Vocation means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.  I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live -- but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life."
  • Brian Mahan suggests that vocation as "a kind of interior consonance between our deepest desires and hopes and our unique gifts as they are summoned forth by the needs of others and realized in response to that summons."

Vocation is both personal and social.  It is personally and socially discerned and it is an identity that is personally and socially formed.  We must “listen for our call” even as we journey ahead to a destination that is not always apparent.  The human response to this call is to be a part of the establishment of transforming communities of well being in our world – communities of conviviality.  Vocation is both personal and social.

In a world filled with terror and injustice one critical response is to seek first to know oneself and one’s destiny.  In such self-knowledge is the seed for the care of others and our world.  In making peace with our own broken identity and our yet-to-be-discovered purposes in life, one can begin to find the way toward being a mediator, community builder and peacemaker in the world around.