As Isaiah described it (Isa. 6:1-8), his calling, his vocation from God, came in a dramatic moment in the temple: a vision of God on a throne attended by seraphs, those mysterious, angelic beings at the top of the heavenly hierarchy, singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”; the building trembling and filling with smoke, Isaiah trembling and filling with fear and guilt; a burning coal from the altar touching his lips and purifying him, a burning question from a divine voice calling him to respond. It’s a scene that could be captured on film only by the likes of Steven Spielberg.
My own calling, my vocation to parish ministry, came less dramatically, on a September Sunday morning in my home church in Carbondale, Illinois. The building did not tremble, and the only smoke was the invisible kind from two candles on the communion table. The voice was not the voice of God but the voice of my pastor in his sermon. No one else heard what I heard, the calling, the vocation; it came as if directed to me alone. In that moment, I did not decide to go to seminary but recognized the decision had been made, whether by me or for me I don’t know, and it was quietly clear what I must do.
I don’t know what your calling is, your vocation in life, or what it was like when you first heard it, or even if you’ve heard it. Your calling today may not be the same as it was ten years ago, or even last year. I don’t know if it’s a specific or a general vocation. But I believe every person is called to something in life, has a vocation that arises from the source of life itself. And I believe your calling, even if you haven’t recognized it as such, has been rooting, growing, developing in you for a long time. I believe for most of your life you’ve been responding to it, living out your vocation in life, to some degree, even if you haven’t been aware of it.
Your vocation in life may come suddenly, dramatically, clearly, like Isaiah’s seems to have come. You may know it, like Jeremiah did, as a sense of being consecrated before you were born (Jer. 1:5), or it may blind you and knock you to the ground, like it did Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). My own vocation seemed to come suddenly on a Sunday morning, but I know it had been working on me for years in many ways, not all of them pleasant.
That’s the way it is with being called by God. It’s often not pleasant. It can feel like confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, being out of place. It can feel like emotional or spiritual labor pains as you give birth to a new life entirely. Maybe your vocation will be to do something, and it won’t very often involve going to seminary. It may be to change careers in other ways, or to change the focus of your present career, or to volunteer in ways that serve the needs of your neighbors, or to serve the needs of one neighbor in particular, or to add a unique and deeper dimension of love to what you already do in life.
Perhaps your vocation won’t be to do something at all but to be something: to be more authentic and real, more humble, more grateful, more deeply truthful with yourself and others, to be more yourself and less what others expect you to be. Maybe your vocation will involve being more present to what you’re already doing, with a greater openness and vulnerability to others and their needs, not to do different and greater things but to do small, ordinary things with greater attention and love.
It’s proven true for me, and I believe it’s true for everyone, that your calling, your true vocation, is not something you choose but something that chooses you. Vocation does not come from choosing what you want; it comes from listening to what your life is calling you to do. Parker Palmer wrote about vocation, “I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about.”
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it,” Palmer wrote, “listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” “We find our callings,” he said, “by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are.” So the question of vocation is not what you want to do with your life; the question of vocation is, “Who am I? What is my nature?” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation).
There’s a little poem by Shel Silverstein called “The Voice” that speaks about the inner voice of vocation.
“There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
‘I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.’
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you – just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.”
Isaiah heard it in the temple that day as the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us” (Isa. 6:8)? Usually, I believe, the voice of vocation is quieter than that. It comes without the smoke and the trembling buildings and the chorus of heavenly beings. It may come like it did for Elijah, as “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). However it comes, I believe you’ve heard it, even if you didn’t recognize it at the time. You may be hearing it now. The only question that counts now is, “How will you answer?”