The Vocation Trap

3484648455_52b06ab7c3_oMy wife is finishing up the first of a multi-year graduate program in nursing. When she graduates, it will be with a doctor of nurse practice. (This will also, coincidentally, mark my retirement. Or so I keep telling her. She has yet to comment.)

Anyway, her pursuing this degree has been a conversation we’ve had for close to fifteen years. But finances and children and accessibility to a program and then finances again have always pushed it. Maybe in a few years, we would say. So when we moved to the Twin Cities—an area with multiple local nursing programs—it finally happened.

The school she chose is a Catholic women’s college not far from our house. There is an intentional focus on turning out well-rounded graduates. This, thankfully, includes a required theology class.

When it comes to theology, I’m a bit of a snob. Part of it is graduating from a seminary that values, well, snobbery. Or, to be fair, perhaps the better word is thinkers.

 Yet, snob feels correct in my case. I roll my eyes at Facebook posts daily. I sometimes challenge the thinking of Bible study attendees, who are doing nothing but having their small group next to me in a coffee shop. Obnoxious? Certainly. But good theology matters. How you think about God matters.

Anyway, my wife.

She’s a naturally intuitive nurse and had been giving this required theology class a side-eye for the past year. Unlike her nursing classes, which were centered around real life, practical information that could literally help her save a person’s life, she saw theology as obtuse, at best.

This hadn’t always been the case.

When I first met her, she worked at a Christian bookstore. While I can’t say that this was the thing that attracted me to her in the first place, some of the best conversations we had in those first days of dating were centered around religion. She grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. I was a Methodist. And we were both stuck in the buckle of the Bible belt, or so it felt.

For the next twenty years, I struggled with a calling to ministry. First, whether to attend seminary. And then we knuckled our way through close to fifteen years of ministry in churches. So when I went into curriculum publishing, finally having weekends and Wednesday nights free, religion fell off the map for her.

The semester began and—as it usually goes—she quickly felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that had suddenly materialized in her life. Not long after this, she was reading a small red book I’d seen before.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Some stupid book about predestination.”

Snobbery, engaged.

As I mentioned, I grew up Methodist. I identify with Wesleyan theology to the point that, even when I wanted to pursue ordination in a different denomination, the baked-in ideas about sanctification and Christian perfection and (you guessed it) free will were legitimate stumbling blocks.

Once, at a youth ministry convention, a singer from a Christian band said something to effect of, “If you don’t believe in predestination, you need to read your Bible.” In the (stunned?) silence, I yelled back, “That’s our choice!”

That still pleases me ten years later.

Even with all of that knee jerk baggage, I was shocked and a bit skeptical when Michelle told me the book was Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer—something I’d read in seminary. In fact, it had been a bit of a touchstone for me. A book that helped me clarify my calling to ministry.

While I admit to not remembering much else about Let Your Life Speak, I was pretty sure Palmer, a Quaker, didn’t believe in predestination. I told my wife as much.

“He literally says that God has a plan for our lives.”

I checked to make sure she wasn’t actually reading A Purpose Driven Life and then said, “There’s no way he says that.”

Inside, however, a small voice whispered, Right? I often have come back to books—especially theological ones—and been deeply disappointed (and sometimes outright horrified) that they had spoken to me in a deep way at previous points in my life.

After our conversation, she wrote a paper on the book and promptly moved on to the next assignment. But the questions were still scratching at the front door of my brain. A few days later, I couldn’t help myself. I picked up the book and started reading.

Palmer does not believe in predestination. (And just to be fair, my wife came to this conclusion a week before I did.) But he does believe strongly in the idea that God gives us each unique gifts of selfhood that, when properly cultivated, can help us discover and engage our vocation. Our calling.

For me, calling used to be supreme. I bowed down to it. I took jobs that paid way too little because of it. I allowed myself to suffer through some truly painful experiences—both vocationally and emotionally—because I believed in the idea that we all have certain types of life work that are both necessary and nourishing.

Now? Well…

Reading Palmer’s book this time brought less excitement about the future and more clarification about a prodding I’d been feeling for years. Mostly, that I no longer conflate what I do with who I am.

I suspect Palmer would say that we can never truly escape our calling. The still, small voice is present inside us no matter how far we run. (For what it’s worth, this is also a remarkably Wesleyan statement. I digress.) I can’t bring myself to disagree with that, but I’m also not sure I like it either.

For so long, calling felt like a trap. Something that was pushing me farther and farther away from shore until I was convinced that the only reasonable thing to do is keep swimming toward the crashing waves.

So at the moment, I’m desperate for balance. A life, instead of a vocation. A job, without existential strings.

Because if our calling is truly God-given, then it has to be weatherproof. Capable of outlasting any season we find ourselves in. Even if that season is being seduced by dreams of six figure salaries and corporate gigs that allow you to be nothing more than an unthinking cog in the machine.

I’m frightened by how good that sounds right now. But maybe that’s just Parker Palmer getting in my ear one last time.

 

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Bryan Bliss is the author of the novels Meet Me Here, No Parking at the End Times and the forthcoming We’ll Fly Away, all with HarperCollins. He holds graduate degrees from Seattle Pacific University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He lives in Saint Paul, MN with his wife and kids.

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