On Being a Vocational Mess

Alternate Title: Embarking on a Vocational Adventure with No Known Ending and Pretending You’re Not Completely and Entirely Stressed Out About It

Jerusalem PathI like to be right.

I’ve been on a mission to find the “right” answers since I was really young. My first-grade-self took great pride in acing spelling tests week after week. I thrived in the routine of taking a fresh list of words home each Monday afternoon, figuring out the patterns and rhythms of the words on the list, memorizing the tricky sight words with extra care, and knowing that by the time Friday morning rolled around, I could confidently produce a list of correctly spelled words at my teacher’s dictation. My third-grade-self rejoiced in her ability to memorize math facts like nobody’s business and found incredible joy in the certainty of forever knowing that 3×7=21 and 56÷7=8.  As friends who have been subject to my text message critiques know all too well, my 24-year-old self has a deep affinity for grammar: for the consistency, for the structure, and for the mere fact that most of the time there is a right and a wrong answer. I like rules. I like answers. I really, really like clarity.

This is maybe one of the reasons why I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the concept of vocation. First of all, no one has ever been able to truly give me a satisfying definition of vocation, which is enough to drive anyone with a love of words and definitions and clearly defined categories absolutely crazy. If we don’t really know what “vocation” is, how exactly am I supposed to know if I’m living out my vocation correctly? Isn’t there a Vocational Checklist for Overachievers for easy reference, or at the very least a Buzzfeed quiz to tell me if I’m on the right track?

But maybe therein lies the problem. Maybe vocation isn’t about finding the right answer. Maybe a right vocational answer doesn’t even exist. Maybe vocation is just broad enough, just messy enough, just beautiful enough that it cannot be reduced to a single job description or a list of specific academic degrees. And maybe for each of us, a number of expressions of vocation are not only equally valid but equally holy.

I knew I had to reevaluate the way I’d been engaging with the concept of vocation when I found myself in tears while reading about Martin Luther’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers” for a summer class a few weeks ago. (In tears while reading Luther. Welcome to my life.) I came to seminary hoping to ask a lot of questions and wrestle with my own theology and do a whole lot of discerning, and while I have done all of these things, I also realized that somewhere along the line, the beauty and mystery of vocation got swept away. My freedom in Christ to serve my neighbors that is so foundational to Lutheran theology was replaced with a sense of total dread, a pit in my stomach, and the belief that I had to fit a certain seminary mold, allow myself to be shaped in the traditional seminary way (whatever that means), and eventually be sent out to serve as a parish pastor. This started to feel like the only “right” way to live into my vocation, the only way the church would recognize as valid, and the only way to show that I really was dedicated to my Lutheran faith. And don’t get me wrong: the call to parish ministry is a beautiful call. I have all the respect in the world for parish pastors, and I am so excited for my seminary classmates that sense this call themselves. But, to be honest, I don’t know that that particular call has ever really fit me. And it turns out I needed the words of Martin Luther himself to shake me to my core and to remind me that there are other, equally valid, equally holy paths so desperately needed in the Body of Christ.

So, maybe I will be a pastor. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll find my way into social work or education or writing and will live out the call to love my neighbors in those spaces. Maybe I will help lead the Church by inviting people to taste the Holy Spirit’s goodness in ministries being lived out in unexpected places and ways outside of our church buildings, or maybe I will invite people into these buildings to create a space of radical hospitality, refuge, and community. And maybe I’m not failing or giving up or “running from the call” but instead maybe I’m courageously living into a call that is broad and layered and cross-disciplinary and, like the untamable Spirit who calls us into community and equips us with her gifts, maybe this vocational call refuses to be pinned down into a single “right” answer.

And, maybe that’s okay.

Intoxicating Grace

Iphone 7-28 110Since these promise of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely untied with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.  – Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian”

It’s been quite the summer. The increasing clamor of political rhetoric based on hate and fear and name calling in the midst of an election season that seems only to divide and accuse is enough to completely overwhelm even the most politically inclined among us. Our hearts have been shattered again and again with news of more and more violence until we find ourselves desensitized and emotionally empty. We argue about how best to respond and who should respond, how to love and comfort all victims and care for each other while refusing to condone the systems of
oppression that have laid the blueprints for the emotional walls we have constructed around ourselves, brick by brick, until we are no longer able to recognize the humanity of our neighbors.

And frankly, I’m exhausted. I’ve grown cynical and angry, frustrated with our polarized political reality that seems to prevent any action from ever being carried out, devastated by the long history of racism woven into the very fabric of our nation, furious with “those people” on the other side of the political spectrum who I am sure are the ones to blame, upset with my own friends who don’t’ share my liberal views, who aren’t responding in the way I would like, or who maybe think I should be responding more strongly.

And in the midst of my fear and frustration, I’ve been doing a whole lot of wrestling. Vocational wrestling. Theological wrestling. Personal wrestling. In between youth group get-togethers with sticky bowls of ice cream on the fraying youth group couches, weeks spent turning church fellowship halls into under the sea wonderlands and backyard barnyards, sailing and canoeing adventures with middle and high school students, summer classes, friends’ weddings, and trips to visit the various places I’ve once called home, I’ve been desperately seeking peace, clarity, and wisdom.  I have gone in circles time and again desperately trying to remember what brought me to seminary in the first place, trying to peel back the layers of conversation and prayers and sleepless nights and long walks and Google searches and crazy leaps of faith that have brought me to this particular place in this moment. I’ve done everything I can think of to catch a glimpse of the mysterious call that seems to defy all definition, this call that no matter how desperately I try to clutch onto and control it to seems to prove itself to be too messy to confine in a box marked “pastor” or “youth director” or “teacher” or “psychologist.” I’ve exhausted myself trying to discover what is desired of me, what is needed of me, what specific role I am called to fill in this broken, aching world.

We all have those lies that we believe. The lies that get under our skin, driving us to whatever dark places that always seem to be lurking just around the corner, waiting to devour us the moment we are at our weakest. Those demons we wrestle with over and over and over and yet always seem to take us by surprise. My lie? “You are not enough. You will never be enough. Do more. Be more. Try harder. Then, and only then, you will be worthy of love.” In the midst of a busy schedule and emotional exhaustion, I have found myself once again facing this particular demon. This time the demon critiques every emotion and destroys every attempt at vocational peace as I attempt to find some semblance of clarity in how my gifts might best line up with the needs of the world. The demon tells me the world is my responsibility to fix, my duty to save. The Church with its declining numbers and at times paralyzing politics is resting on my shoulders. Systems of poverty and oppression and homelessness and abuse are mine to eradicate. It’s up to me to be everything to everyone all of the time—and then I can rest assured that I am loved.

I recently started a summer class on Martin Luther and the Reformation. I entered the course with my usual academic gusto which, more often than not, nurtures the perfectionist inside of me and drives me to live up to the most unattainable standards. But as I delved into Luther’s works, I kept running against this one, consistent, pesky problem: grace. All-encompassing, saturating, intoxicating, beautiful, and, at times, straight up offensive grace. An entirely one directional grace that could care less about my most desperate attempts to prove my own worthiness, a grace that declares me loved, forgiven, and freed, but not because of anything I have done or not done or could ever do. Grace that surrounds every fiber of my being simply because of the Grace Giver. Grace that destroys the demon telling me to “try harder” with a single breath. Grace that calls me to trust in the promise of God, a promise that tells me that whatever price I am so dearly trying to pay has been paid in full, that I have already been declared beloved, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, can take that identity away. Grace that frees me from the lines I have drawn to isolate and protect myself, to prove myself superior and somehow more worthy of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness than my brothers and sisters on the other side of the political spectrum or with different theological perspectives or radically different life experiences and world views. A grace that refuses to choose sides. A grace that frees me to love and to serve and to be vulnerable, not because of my own need to prove to myself or to others or to God that I am good, but because I have first been wholly loved. A grace that tells me I don’t have to do it all, but more than ever opens me to hear the call of my neighbors. A grace doesn’t take me out of the messiness and brokenness of the world, but a grace that is somehow forever and always more than enough.

And this, my friends, might just be the good news that we so desperately need.