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What is Your Calling?

a sermon by Loren Swartentruber, EMU president

Location:  EMU chapel
Date:   October 12, 2005
Scripture:   I Timothy 4: 11-16

Every year, when I was in high school, the youth retreat I most looked forward to was the one where a guest speaker would address the topic, “Knowing God’s Will for Your Life.” I’m probably just a slow learner—by the third year in a row I figured out that the magical answer I was looking for was probably not going to jump out at me.

Somehow I hoped a speaker might lay it all out for me. Would I be a physician, a lawyer, a business leader, a pharmacist, an accountant? (At various points I considered all of these roles.) Would I be married? Would I be a father? By the end of my senior year I was already in love (or at least infatuated) with Pat and then I just hoped some speaker wouldn’t tell me God’s will is that I should be single. (A Biblical calling that is rarely taken seriously.)

What is most ironic about all those musings is that, in terms of vocational calling, the things I’ve done in the past 40 years weren’t even among the things that came to mind. And I certainly never thought about being called to be a father of four kids whom I’d have to put through college. Either God was having a very difficult time getting through to me, or I was asking the wrong questions. I suspect both.

You’ll notice that I put this morning’s title as a question—not a statement. It’s a question because it’s one that each of us must answer for ourselves. We answer it for ourselves but we are supported in that search by the community of faith. You’ll also notice, in my comments, that I’m using the term “calling” to refer to several facets of our lives, but most often to vocation. I’m well aware that even the term vocation should not be synonymous with “job” -- in the interest of time I won’t try to parse all those distinctions.

The text for this morning begins with the phrase, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” The Apostle Paul was writing this to his protégé, the young and upcoming leader Timothy, mentor to mentee,

Up until a few years ago I found myself, in most situations, too young to do what I was called to do. In fact, one of the most startling thoughts I’ve had in the past months, after another birthday, is that for the first time in my life I may not be too young for anything any more—except to die.

Paul was reminding Timothy that a) youth should not be a deterrent to following a calling, and b) the emphasis should be on character as well as on gifts.

I offer these thoughts as each of us contemplates our calling in life.

For the Christian, one’s relationship with Christ is the first and most important calling. All other realities should be subsumed under that primary commitment.

There are some vocations that I could not entertain as possibilities because they would violate my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Every calling, for the person of faith, is a spiritual reality. We have a tendency to elevate some callings over others. I believe a farmer, a business person, a social worker, should see his/her calling as equal to that of a pastor, a church leader, a missionary. The gifts required are very different, again not more or less important, but different.

The most important qualities, for any calling, are those of character.

  1. Integrity
    1. Philosopher George Santayana, “Our character...is an omen of our destiny, and the more integrity we have and keep, the simpler and nobler that destiny is likely to be.”
    2. Integrity is a virtue highlighted often, but it’s a complex idea. Integrity certainly includes truth-telling but it is more than that. It is about congruence and consistency. It is about acting morally.
    3. Probably shouldn’t use Sydney Biddle Barrows as a model for understanding integrity, “I ran the wrong kind of business, but I did it with integrity.” (Mayflower Madam, ran a brothel)
    4. Without integrity, it is extremely difficult to be successful in any calling, and it is almost impossible to be a leader.
  2. Humility
    1. Biblical notion of humility – seeing yourself honestly, as God sees you, no higher than ought, no lower than reality. False humility is not a good virtue.
  3. Vulnerability – the ability to acknowledge failure and to receive help.
  4. Servant leadership
    1. Almost all of us assume leadership roles in various dimensions of our lives.
    2. Robert Greenleaf popularized the term servant leadership, but it was based on model of Jesus. One leads, not as lording it over others, but as a servant of others. It does not mean one is a push-over, but it does mean that one’s goals are not primarily for personal achievement.
  5. Care for the common good
  6. Personal/social ethics

It is clear from the Biblical text we read that positive personal behavior and high moral ethics are very important aspects of one’s calling.

Let me offer a word of caution—how you conduct yourselves now as young adults can have a major impact on your future. I often ask prospective faculty/staff, “Is there anything in your past that, if it came to light, could serve to embarrass EMU?” (What you put on your blogs or on facebook may come back into your future!) Some things can be written off as youthful experimentation; others won’t be so easy to dismiss.

One’s calling should ignite a passion within. Paul suggests to Timothy, “Be diligent in these matters. Give yourself wholly to them.” The challenge for most of us is that we frequently consider “callings” that others expect of us or that society deems most important.

Allon Lefever, director of our MBA program, has suggested one can have any one of several attitudes toward our vocations:

In reality, any vocation/job will include all three aspects at various points. One person has suggested, however, that if one’s vocation doesn’t feel positive or isn’t energizing at least ¾ of the time you may be in the wrong position. Unfortunately, in our society, too many people live only for the weekends.

A meaningful calling will be in line with one’s gifts, a reality that is connected with the idea of passion. If you are drawn to a calling that does not utilize your primary gifts or makes demands on you that are a real stretch, you’re not likely to have much passion.

Finding a calling that ignites a passion may take some time. On most Sunday mornings, when I’m with a group of people in a Sunday School class, I ask, “How many of you are doing now what you thought you’d be doing when you graduated high school?”

It is rare that more than 1/3 raise their hands. The most important steps one can take as a student is to develop what Robert Bellah and others have called, “Habits of the Heart,” patterns of character-building and disciplines that will strengthen the quest for any calling that becomes your passion.

The expectations of the world are not a good guidepost for choosing a calling. My dream is that every graduate of EMU will be successful, but that success will be defined by a different standard. And that, even if one is successful by the world’s standards (wealth), our graduates will always have a certain level of discomfort with the status quo.

This is also another argument in favor of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Graduates are better prepared to be flexible in terms of vocational choices over the years.

I have suggested that no calling is inherently more important than another. At the risk of being misunderstood, I do want to invite you to consider a calling to pastoral ministry. I do that because I want some of our best and brightest young adults to give serious consideration to serving the church in a particular role, a role that is too rarely celebrated.

It used to be that parents prayed their children might be called to serve as ministers. My sense is that now many parents too often pray just the opposite. It is a demanding role and it runs counter to society’s expectations for success. There are very few roles that provide comparable opportunities to be involved in the lives of people in such a wide range of ways.

My own calling to ministry came when a pastor and others invited me to consider a calling that had never occurred to me. They gave me opportunities to study, to test my gifts, to learn from others by shadowing them. I had grown up in an environment in which pastors were called from within the congregation in a rather mysterious way.

The church surely does not need pastoral leaders whose sense of calling is purely from within themselves. And there are ways to test one’s calling to such a vocation. The Ministry Inquiry Program has offered that possibility.

This past Sunday I was the guest preacher in an Ohio congregation. It was a great experience to meet a former student who is now their youth pastor. I remember well how her sense of call changed during her early college years, from dreaming of being a politician to being a pastor. For others it may go the other way, and that’s fine. What is fulfilling is to see her passion and to hear the congregation’s enthusiasm for her ministry.

My prayer for each of us, students/faculty/staff, is that we find a calling that ignites our passion for the good of the church and the world. Amen

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