For more than ten years I’ve worked with young adults – as a Sunday School teacher, as a pastor and as a retreat leader invited to help them make connections between faith and service.
Although the technology that houses their screens has changed plenty, one thing that hasn’t is the way these conversations always turn to vocation. Whether we are talking beneath a steeple, in a circle around a campfire or over a cup of coffee, these emerging adults want to know about how the faith they talk about on Sunday mornings connects with what they do the other six days of the week.
They often don’t locate the question within the deep tradition of vocation. But even if they don’t know the word, many of them, especially the ones who have been turning it over in the hearts and living with it for a while, know well the call of Frederick Buechner. They know it so well they can give it to you from their hearts:
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The quote, which comes from his book, Wishful Thinking, has become a popular touchstone for people trying to discover just what they are supposed to do with their lives. You will find it’s text set next to pictures of open roads on the internet, taped onto mirrors, tacked onto walls and flowing out of the mouths of mentors like me when people ask how they should invest the most precious resource they have – their time.
The answer, at least according to Buechner, comes at the intersection of personal joy and human need.
In wrestling with my own call – a statement that doesn’t involve the past tense – I have discovered that it isn’t difficult to take seriously either of the sentence’s two phrases. However, binding the two together is a harrowing and holy endeavor.
It is, Buechner wants us to know, about more than finding your joy, because responding to God’s call has something to do with the world which God loves so much. But it is also about more than simply doing something that needs to be done, because that work, while admirable, might not be work assigned to you.
Discernment, then, is found when the place the two come together is revealed in a connection between what sparks joy within you and what helps heal the creation.
Aly Raisman’s Heavy Burden
But what if there is more to calling than the intersection between joy and healing? What if pain, and the wounds that have pierced us, aren’t separate to the calling of God but are instead integral to it? What if calling is discovered not where two paths come together but three? Not to argue with Buechner, but it might be that who we are to be and what we are to do are linked to the scars that tell our pain and bear witness to our healing.
That’s one of the implications of Mina Kimes’ stunning profile of Olympian Aly Raisman in ESPN The Magazine’s July edition. Raisman is familiar to many as a member of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team and as a gold medal winner in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
But she has recently returned to our consciousness as one of the hundreds of victims of sexual assault by a former team doctor, Larry Nassar, and demands our attention as a fierce advocate for change in the hopes of ensuring future generations of athletes won’t ensure the trauma and suffering that she has.
As she reflects in the article on the path her life has taken – a road that diverged from her plan with a powerful and staggering victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing – Raisman does so in the language of calling.
This wasn’t the work she set out to do or the way she had planned to invest her life. It is work that flows out of tragedy and trauma that no one should ever have to endure. That work comes in response to a call she is committed to answering – for herself and for others.
“There are so many people out there that are survivors, but there are few that have a voice,” Raisman told Kimes. “I know that I’m one of the few being heard, so I just want to do right by people. I felt when I was younger that I was going to go to the Olympics. And now I feel that I’m going to help fix this.”
For some, calling is discovered at the intersection of personal fulfillment and making a difference. But Raisman’s story reminds us that for others, that intersection is a luxury they will never know. Their life’s work is forged out of their own tragic pain, and their survival, healing and witness summon them to a call they did not choose but somehow find the strength to embrace.
Pain Shows The Way
The tradition is filled with stories of people of all ages who listened and responded to God’s call. I’ve often been drawn to the way John’s Gospel describes the calling of the first disciples.
It’s a simple pitch: “Come and see.” You don’t have to know everything today, Jesus promises. Just stay close and see if you are compelled to keep coming back. What he knows, of course is that, in the language of fishermen, they are already hooked.
But there’s another story that is instructive. It comes not at the Gospel’s beginning but at it’s end. It is the story of Jesus and Thomas and how Thomas only finds his way after Jesus lets him see and touch his wounds.
By his stripes, we are healed. By his wounds, we are freed. By his pain, we discover our way.
When someone wants to talk with me about vocation – or what they should be when they grow up – what I want to tell them is to breathe and find a way to release the pressure. Once you think you know, I reflect when considering my own experiences, it will probably change anyway.
I want to tell them that their life’s work will emerge from their experiences; that this isn’t a riddle they have to solve but instead is a gift to be observed. I want to tell them that I hope they will find the place of meeting between personal gladness and healing the world.
I hope, of course, that they all experience the world as liberating and freeing. But I know that likely won’t be the case. There will be pain and loss and grief and wounds.
And so, I’ll pray that they can discover what they need to find healing and peace – and then strength and courage. To keep going and to answer the call – to live with purpose for themselves, to show others the way out of darkness and to bring healing to a broken world.