Our calling is to more than our work. In the fourth part of our series on vocation, Jamie Noyd directs our attention to the multiple callings upon our lives reflecting our different roles. But how might we live a seamless rather than fragmented and frazzled life pursuing these multiple callings? It comes in understanding the greater story within which we live.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10
In the midst of an academic career, whether as a student or a professor, work can seem all-consuming. Our departments and disciplinary fields want us to spend most, if not all, of our time devoted to research, practice, teaching, and service. Furthermore, if we see this work as a calling from God, there can be additional pressure to focus primarily on that part of our lives. We want to do excellent work for God— soli Deo gloria —following Paul’s dictum, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17, ESV).
However, God has called us to a whole, human life. Jesus even calls it an abundant life. In a similar vein Paul in his letter to the church at Galatia emphasizes that “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, ESV). Yes, this refers to our eternal salvation, but salvation begins when we start following Jesus in this world. At times our careers, no matter how much we see them as a calling from God, do enslave and entangle us, overshadowing other parts of our lives. But as we focus on the freedom Christ offers instead of the pull of the expectations of our jobs and society, a broader reality appears.
We are created in God’s image. Throughout scripture He calls us to more than economic work. We are called as parents (Hannah), citizens (Daniel), church workers (Lydia), and even as children (Jesus himself for a season). Furthermore, we are called to love God and love our neighbor as the highest good, whatever other roles we take on in our lives (Matthew 12:28-31). As Martin Luther deepened the understanding of vocation, he expanded it to include all roles to which any person may be called, not only full-time church work. Luther emphasized this in particular in his commentary on Galatians.
In order that Christians may not abuse their liberty the Apostle encumbers them with the rule of mutual love that they should serve each other in love. Let everybody perform the duties of his station and vocation diligently and help his neighbor to the limit of his capacity.
Ministers of the Gospel, public officials, parents, children, masters, servants, etc., are true saints when they take Christ for their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and when they fulfill the duties of their several vocations according to the standard of God’s Word and repress the lust and desires of the flesh by the Spirit. 
If the purpose of vocation is to love and serve our neighbors, any role that does this can be seen as a calling from God. This takes place through our economic work, but also includes being a citizen, church member, neighbor, and friend. It might include being a spouse or parent.
Though he does not use the word vocation, C. S. Lewis affirms this holistic view of how we are to live our lives as believers. In a sermon given to students and faculty at Oxford University during World War II, Lewis asserts that the vocation of learning, i.e., an academic calling, was as valid as ever, even though many people were questioning the worth of any work that wasn’t directly related to the war effort. While affirming the call to learning, he also affirms that all human activities can be lived out under God’s call, or as he words it, God’s claim on our lives.
There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it: or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine.
God’s call on our lives is ultimate and can be lived out in a multitude of ways. Thus, in addition to our work on campus we have other calls from God: dinner parties and walks with friends; time playing with our children; small group gatherings and serving on a neighborhood committee. These are activities that fulfill the command to love our neighbor.
When we consider all these different roles, our first response may be one of exhaustion. How is it possible to do this? It would be natural to fall into the modern drive to try to develop a work/life balance. In this mode the focus is on creating schedules and priorities that include tasks related to all these roles so we can be actualized as whole humans. However, God’s call on our lives is not about merely having an efficient calendaring app so we don’t go crazy. It’s about seeking a right focus, not necessarily a right schedule. Jesus, Paul, Luther, and Lewis are not negating the importance of our careers, but neither are they raising this part of our lives above other roles. Instead they are guiding us to see a greater story.
A Greater Story
Within Western society our careers are often seen as the fulcrum of our lives–though at times the role of parent or citizen can take up that position. However, in God’s economy we are called to follow a way that leads to an abundant, freeing life that isn’t tied to any one role. Anxiety can arise from such divided focus. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his followers to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) instead of being anxious. We learn throughout Jesus’s teachings that this Kingdom includes serving our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37) and living out God’s commandments from the heart (Matthew 5-7). It also includes complete devotion such that one would sell everything for it (Matthew 13). With such a focus animating our lives and priorities, the overwhelming pull of any of our vocations over any other diminishes.
Whether we recognize it or not, we are all following some story that creates meaning for our lives. In his teachings, Jesus gives us a story to follow that rises above economic worth or social standing. However, people don’t often follow this way. James K. A. Smith has explored how institutions, such as retailers, draw us into a consumer story, influencing a large part of our lives. For many people, the role of consumer is a serious vocation. If we look at the academy, a different vision develops, but one just as real: attaining the apex of knowledge in our field and the accolades that go with it. On a more sobering note, callings in academia can often go unfulfilled as tenure-track positions decrease. In this situation, it can seem that you are in a world without a narrative to follow. Whatever story drives us, Smith argues that “… an orientation toward a particular vision of the good life becomes embedded in our dispositions or ‘adaptive unconscious’ by being pictured in concrete, alluring ways that attract us at a noncognitive level.” Thus, far from being an academic exercise, a variety of internal and external narratives animate our lives in ways in which we are not always aware. This in turn affects how we understand our vocations.
Lewis also speaks to this need for a right story. He reminds us that if the hope we have is an earthly one alone, it will fail. In this instance, he is referring specifically to how hope in humanity was dashed in light of the atrocities of WWII. However, on a smaller scale, we could say the same as we encounter failures in our careers, our role as children of our parents, and our care for our community. But if work in all areas of our lives is done in humble service to God–and to neighbor–then we can have hope.
If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.
Developing that greater story for our lives, i.e., seeking first the kingdom, won’t be something we can do perfectly, but it will involve more wholeness than any of our life roles taken individually. As society, the academy, and even our families pull our focus in a multitude of directions, God pulls it to himself. Since Jesus doesn’t limit seeking the kingdom to a certain vocation, it will look different depending on a person’s life circumstances. You may have parents or children to care for, responsibilities as a citizen, or service with a church body in addition to your teaching load and research projects. Yet whatever the circumstances they can all reside within God’s kingdom story.
Living the Greater Story
Even if we have the right story that provides room for all our vocations, living Jesus’ promise of abundant life does not follow a simple script. Not everything will fall into place. Work deadlines remain. Children get sick. Church service projects need volunteers on a day that we are expected at a conference. These vocations will compete for our time and resources. How do we choose? Where do we spend our energy?
Moreover, as the requirements of an academic career become clear, it can seem that we are always living in an in-between space, a liminal space. We are on the threshold (i.e., limen) of the next thing, having finished one project only to begin the next. The academic year has this rhythm built into it. Finish with one class of students to begin another. Complete one grant request to start gathering the team for the next project. This constant transitional movement can make it seem as if the work will never be finished. And in some respects that is true as there will always be more articles to read and ways to mark student essays. If we look at our other roles, we often find ourselves in this liminal space as well. Children don’t remain in one stage of life; our communities are always looking for someone to serve on a new committee. As we look to the needs and desired outcomes of our vocations, each could receive our undivided attention.
However, focusing exclusively on the eventual goals of any of our vocations will not bring them to fruition more quickly. Furthermore, the outcomes of our work, though advanced by our efforts, are not assured by it. For each vocation, daily activities remain necessary. In fact, the daily activities shape us and will shape these vocations and any end results. Moreover, daily activities allow us to live into each vocation. As she explores daily activities and how they form a type of liturgy, Tish Harrison Warren affirms that “The new life into which we are baptized is lived out in days, hours, and minutes. God is forming us into a new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of today.” This echoes an earlier writing by Martin Luther in which he encouraged believers through faith “to look upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and [to be] aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest of jewels.”
As we recognize each vocation to which God calls us and see them each within the larger realm of the kingdom of God, instead of in their own kingdoms, we realize that we are not in control and must trust God for each of them. Our efforts then become directed by him each day and we can open our hands to that abundant life through daily work. This takes awareness and spiritual formation practices that help us to see God’s hand in the large, as well as the day-to-day picture. Various types of prayer practices, Bible reading, and gathering together with other believers can help us to see our vocations, even our academic calling, in light of the kingdom.
As one example of such a practice, Gordon T. Smith in his book, Teach Us to Pray, invites readers to take another look at the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, often referred to as the Lord’s Prayer. First, Smith focuses on the phrase “thy kingdom come,” seeing that as the overarching movement of any prayer.
We are actors in God’s work in the world as we witness in word and deed in all we do. But what we must stress is that we are truly actors only if we do that which we are actually called to do. No more; no less. And this changes. As circumstances change in our personal lives and in our workplaces, or as changes come in our communities and societies, we need to ask afresh, How, oh God, are you calling us, in this time and place and set of circumstances, to be participants in your kingdom?
As we consistently come before God in such a posture–offering thanksgiving, confessing, and seeking discernment–we can better keep focused on that greater story. At the same time, it can help us stay aware of the daily work in each vocation to which God invites us, trusting God for the final outcome.
It is also important, as we seek to live a whole-life calling from God, to have a community of companions who encourage and support us. These companions along the way hold us accountable and help us to see beyond a singular focus that can easily overtake us. Moreover, sometimes God’s call comes through the work of others as Madeleine L’Engle reminds us: “A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe.” Whether the work that inspires us comes from our neighbor next door or an artist from across space and time, we need to see and hear about others’ lives and work to continue breaking up the ground of our own vocations, allowing for new growth.
In addition to accountability and inspiration, community offers us stories of living lives that seek that greater story. Stories are essential to engage our imaginations and help us to see different ways of being. As we share and listen to stories we can “see” how to live the dance of multiple vocations. Not because someone tells us how, but because we can now imagine a different way.
Let’s look at several examples from scripture and the lives of Christian academics.
In the book of Ruth, we find individuals following various calls–perhaps aware that those calls are from God. Ruth decides to follow the God of Naomi in an often-quoted passages of scripture “For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Out of this initial call she accepts the vocation to care for her mother-in-law, a call to work in the fields to support this small family, and a call to marry Boaz. In each of these roles, she makes daily decisions of faithful obedience such as going to the fields to glean. Boaz also follows that larger call from God–as evidenced when he greets the workers in his fields, his workplace, with a blessing: “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you!’ And they answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’” (Ruth 2:4, ESV). Like Ruth, within that call he follows vocations of economic work, caring for his family, and serving the larger community. Ultimately, through following the greater story of God’s calling in the daily tasks, we see an outcome that neither Ruth nor Boaz could have expected–-being part of the lineage of King David, and, eventually, Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ life is another example of following multiple vocations over various seasons of life. In the Gospels, we see his vocation as a son from infant to a twelve-year-old boy with his family at Passover. As he grows up, he continues to care for his family, even making sure his mother has someone to protect her when his death is imminent. Then there is the long season of work as a carpenter before his public ministry. When he steps into ministry, he continues to fulfill his family roles (being present at the wedding at Cana) and as a citizen (paying the temple tax). Through the snapshots of his life, we see him focused on God’s kingdom as in that packed chapter at the beginning of Mark-–he preaches, heals, calls disciples, and takes time away to be with the Father. This is not a frantic response to needs thrust at him, but a focused attitude to life in all its complexity.
In addition to stories in scripture, we also have the lives of Christians who have come before and around us on this journey. We see someone like C. S. Lewis working out this full-life calling. A significant part of his life was dedicated to research, writing, and teaching–the life of an academic. However, he was also dedicated to friends and family–his brother, Warnie, his friend’s mother, Mrs. Moore, and then Joy Davidman, friend and wife, and her two sons. As a citizen he served his country through war efforts. And beyond these more formal callings, he loved and lived life fully evidenced by the walks he took in the English countryside and the times he enjoyed with friends and colleagues.
However, we do not have to only look at the life stories from scripture or well-known Christians to find examples of living an abundant life. A professor of composition with whom I meet several times a year inspires me in her desire to live such a life. Since her days as a graduate student, she has kept Sabbath and has wrestled with questions of how faith and scholarship intersect. She is raising two adorable girls with her husband and enjoys baking and other household endeavors. She seeks to do this while living out the responsibilities of a tenure-track faculty member. At our most recent tea she mentioned that she longed to have a schedule such that the default mode is what she wants to be doing. She does not claim to have it figured out, but she continues to pursue this call to a full life within the realities in which God places her.
As we watch and engage with the lives of other students and faculty around us–whether in fellowship groups, in department gatherings, or in the classroom–-these stories, and so many others, help us to realize a fullness of life that comes when we seek first His Kingdom.
Abundant life is a different way of living. It sees the beauty of vocations dancing together. It includes time of activity, and time of rest. Our whole self, that image of God, informs each vocation, making it richer. Beyond and within the roles, there is the joy of living that Gerard Manley Hopkins images in the poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells.
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
- In your life at this moment, what are the callings of family, work, church, and citizenship that God has invited you to live out?
- What story is driving you in your academic vocation? What about the other roles? What would it look like to seek the kingdom first?
- What are the practices that help you seek God’s kingdom and see the next step of each vocation you are called into each day?
- What stories of abundant living have inspired you? What stories from your life do you have to share?
Previous posts in this series:
 From A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians by Martin Luther, Theodore Graebner (trans), Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.html, p. 136, accessed 10/13/20.
 From A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians by Martin Luther, Theodore Graebner (trans), Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.html, p. 144, accessed 10/13/20.
 Lewis, C. S. “Learning in Wartime,” A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939, published in The Weight of Glory, HarperOne: New York, 2001, pp. 47ff.
 From Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2009, p. 58.
 “Learning in Wartime” by C. S. Lewis, 1939.
 From Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2016, p. 21.
 From “The Estate of Marriage, 1522” by Martin Luther, Luther’s’ Works 45:39 St. Louis: Concordia, 1958-1986 as quoted in The Genius of Luther’s Theology by Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI, 2008. p. 112.
 From Teach Us to Pray by Gordon T. Smith, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2018, p. 17.
 From A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle, Harper Collins: San Francisco, 1972, p. 147