Can I follow God’s will without knowing how I got there?
I grew up as the daughter and granddaughter of United Methodist pastors. In my house, we talked about calling a lot. Later, in college and graduate school, the language continued, but nearly always in the context of callings to the ordained ministry or at the very least to “full-time Christian service.”
Sometimes people struggled with that call: my own grandmother wrestled with whether marrying my grandfather would mean giving up on what she discerned, as an eager teenager, was a call to missionary service in a far-off country. She did marry him, and as a pastor’s and Christian academic’s wife she labored long and fruitfully as a different kind of missionary much closer to home. But it did not look like the call she had been led to expect.
I also heard much language, particularly when I was attending a theological seminary, about “finding God’s will for your life.” That will, it always seemed, was something quite precisely known by God, though only dimly discerned by humans, and it was something you could be “in” or “out” of, especially concerning the choice of a spouse and of a career. Two years after graduation, at the ripe old age of 29, spouseless, and on my third different career trajectory, I was fairly sure I was “out” of it. At the very least, it did not look like the call I had been led to expect.
Along the way, almost twenty years ago now, a friend said a wise thing to me one afternoon. He pointed to a nearby door with a sign on it. “Jenn,” he mused, “people think finding God’s will is like aiming at one of the little letters on that sign…that it has to be very precise. But actually God’s will is as big as that whole door. You can aim at any of that door and hit it.”
Over the course of those twenty years I trained to be three things, none of which I now am: a United Methodist pastor, a full-time academic, and a theological librarian. I married a man who, the first time he met me, thought I was the most unfriendliest-looking person on the entire Duke University campus bus. I thought I was settling twice in places–first New Jersey and then Indiana–where I would live out my life in thoughtful obscurity on tree-lined campus streets, before finding myself quite unexpectedly on a Kentucky farm with goats. (Goats! And I grew up in the Rust Belt two miles from a Pontiac car plant!) I changed denominations, houses, job titles, and pretty much everything else but my spouse. Along the way I made my share of mistakes and dumb decisions and wrong turns and left turns and U-turns even as I sought to find out where God was calling me and follow it. (I wrote about the whole story once before: you can read it here.)
In an ironic twist, the woman who couldn’t figure out her vocation is now in charge of various endeavors (from this channel to an issue of Christian History to course curriculum) meant to help others sort out theirs. Have a plan, sure, I tell people. But remember that plans don’t always go according to plan. That “full-time Christian service” sometimes happens behind a laptop screen or in a goat barn. That, as Thomas Merton once said, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end….But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”
And that God’s will is as big as a big barn door, and it’s hard to miss. In fact, you can’t. He’ll get there before you do.
Thanks to Christian History Magazine for letting me adapt the first three paragraphs above.