A colleague, Kim, and I fell into conversation over a cup of coffee. Kim had just retired after decades of hard work and profound growth. It had become clear in the past year that the time had come to retire. At 65, Kim’s pension was adequate, and colleagues had agreed that this was the time to step aside. The previous week, a farewell banquet had been held. “So what do I do now?” was the urgent question. “I no longer have a call from God, a meaningful vocation, an identity.”
From my viewpoint, our call makes life meaningful, and I believe that our calling extends into our retirement years. We are all called—clergy, laity, the faithful, and the people on the fringe of a religious life. But people make many assumptions about what a call is, and many of those assumptions do not help us respond faithfully to our callings. Here are four assumptions that need to be challenged at the outset.
To be called is to be employed. Many are called to be pastors, firefighters, business executives, or plumbers. That is why Kim was so concerned: if there was no job, there would be no calling. Discerning our call in retirement is not a job-placement process. Although we are called to an occupation, our calling is larger than a job. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, which in Latin means “to call.” In the New Testament, Jesus called his disciples to follow. He promised no employment, no occupation, no clear task; they were invited simply to be disciples, learners. Over the centuries the meaning of the word “vocation” changed. The church linked the calling of the disciples to the role of clergy, to the extent that eventually the only people who were understood to be called were ordained people. The original meaning of the word “vocation” was changed by common usage over the years so that most people came to equate “calling” with “employment.” “Don’t worry, Kim,” is my advice. “Look for the original meaning of the phrase ‘called by God.’” To be called is to follow in the way, not to have a specific profession.
To be called is to have had a spiritual experience. While it is often true that a calling involves a spiritual experience, two underlying assumptions need to be addressed. First, if we are called, does that mean we have heard the voice of God Almighty? Perhaps, but it might also be that God called us as he called the Twelve: through the voice of Jesus the carpenter. Many are called by God’s speaking through an aunt, a teacher, a pastor, a friend, or a parent. Second, if we are called, does that mean God is now in charge of our lives? God is God. But that doesn’t mean we are puppets at the end of a string. God created the world and calls us to follow by empowering us to make choices, to envision goals, and to take responsibility for our actions.
To be called is to have one single direction in life. Many people feel locked for life into one task. But the disciples were called first to be followers and learners. Then, with the death and resurrection of Christ, they were to be leaders, healers, the embodiment of Christ himself. Although some encountered the risen Christ again before their change from disciple to apostle, even then it is clear that the original call to follow was part of the subsequent call to lead. Within our calling is the requirement to be open to change.
To be called is to have a God-given map of life’s journey. Not only do we who are called need to be flexible; we need also to be able to grope our way through chaos with no guide. Look at the book of Acts. The apostles had no advance notice of what was to happen next. Like us, they stumbled along, praying to God that they were going the right way. “Praying to God” is the point here. Being called meant that they had to stay tuned to the Spirit’s leading; they had to be tuned to prayer as Jesus had been, day by day.
A New Definition of Calling
Three components are included in our calling: our identity; our gifts; and our occupation.
Our identity is a set of characteristics that make us recognizable, by which we are known, that make us unique. Each of us is recognized by our uniqueness and by our link to family, region, ethnicity, and nationality. Our identity—the way we answer the question “Who am I?”—is part of our calling. Our identity is a significant part of what we have to offer. Our identity is shaped by our life experiences. Characteristics of our identity change as we mature. Amid our growing, developing, and shifting, however, we maintain a stable personality. God called Jeremiah, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Our calling includes the whole of life, all that we have been, all that we are, all that we will become.
By gift, I mean a talent, an endowment, an aptitude, or a natural ability. These capabilities are bestowed upon us by God, and no compensation is expected from us. Even if we ignore the gift, it is still there and often comes alive much later in our lives. The link between identity and gift is clear. Both are bestowed upon us by God’s grace; both grow and develop; both are ingredients of our calling. But they are also distinct from each other. Identity is that which makes one recognizable as a unique person and as one who shares a common heritage with a larger community. Our gift is the talent, aptitude, or ability that was bestowed upon us from the beginning and in the course of life. Thanks be to God for both identity and gifts!
Occupation has several definitions. We occupy a dwelling, a residence, a workplace. “To occupy” is also to seize control, to maintain the land. Still again, one can occupy an office or position. All these definitions focus on place. Our calling is also about a place in the world—not in the geographical but in the theological sense of the word. God makes room for us on the ground, a place for us in history, a role for us in the community. Our occupation might include several places, churches, positions, or careers, from childhood through retirement. Our occupation might evolve from student, to employee, to parent, to volunteer. Our call might include two or more occupations at the same time. The call is not to a specific occupation but to a pilgrimage in which one venture may lead to another.
An Authentic Calling
Identity, giftedness, and occupation are ingredients of a calling. But how do we know when a call is really of God and not something we created on our own? The call of God is always consistent with God’s saving purpose. Is this an authentic call? If this pilgrimage means that we are to share in the saving work of God that began with Noah, that we are to share in the saving work of Christ described in the New Testament, then the call is authentic indeed. The distinctive mark of a calling is not the nature of the work but the purpose of the worker.
The most remarkable sentence in the Bible is found in the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram to go from Haran “to a land that I will show you.” I’ve been to Haran. It was a terrifying move God was asking of Abram and Sarai. The ruins indicate that Haran was a large and sophisticated city on the edge of a desert. God’s call to Abram and Sarai went against their identity as a wealthy urban couple. That call to a new occupation in an unknown place was outrageous. That call to live a gypsy life in the desert was unthinkable.
Abraham and Sarah were the first people to understand that there was one God; they were the fir
st to be called by this God, called to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Abraham and Sarah represent a new beginning for all of us in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We are indeed blessed by those first pioneers. In a sense our call is part of their call, to go “to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). The most remarkable sentence in the Bible begins this way, “So Abram
went . . .” (Gen. 12:4). As a result, we are all blessed and called to be a blessing.
Adapted from Called for Life: Finding Meaning in Retirement, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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