What does it mean to be “called”?  Often the notions of calling and vocation are spoken of in relation to the ordination of priests, pastors and religious leaders.  But to boil down what vocation is from a theological stance comes down to thisto ‘be called’ is the act of paying attention and following God or, writes Annie Dillard, “waking up.”

We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up.  We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust.  As adults we are almost all adept at waking up.  We have so mastered the transition; we have forgotten we ever learned it.  Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge.  We live half our lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall.  Useless, I say.  Valueless, I might add – until someone hauls the wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use. (Annie Dillard, ‘Total Eclipse’ in The Annie Dillard Reader, 13)

I have been thinking and praying quite a bit lately on the question of vocation and specifically what it means to be ‘called’. This is journey I have been in rather intensely for the last few months and I know it is a ‘clear and present reality’ for many of my university students who are wrapping up their studies and face the big “Now what?!” as they turn their tassels and receive their diplomas.  Often the notions of calling and vocation are spoken of in specific relation to the ordination of priests, pastors and religious leaders within communities.  But to boil down what vocation is from a theological stance comes down to this: to ‘be called’ is the act of paying attention and following God or to use Annie Dillard’s notion cited above it is about the journey of ‘waking up’. Writer Flannery O’Conner famously defended the neo-gothic and at times grotesque nature of her fiction by saying that she wrote large characters so the blind would be able to read and she shouted so that the deaf could hear.  Sometimes vocation is a major wake-up call, a bucket of cold water thrown in your face, the blast of an airhorn in your ear, or the simple brush of wind across your cheek in a still meadow.  Whether writ large, blasted loudly, or in the stillness of the moment, it is about waking up and taking action.  Part of this waking up into calling is to be alert to the fact that we were never put on this earth to merely serve our own hungers and passions.  No, vocation is the wake-up call to someone else’s hunger and passion and to be embraced, challenged and changed by this ‘other’. True calling means at times a level of release of our dreams and looking from a view higher than ourselves. This waking up means that the so-called freedom to do whatever I wish, to proceed however I want to, to only use a ‘strength and talents’ inventory is to be set aside in listening to what God has in-store regardless of so-called ‘gifts’ as well as considering the needs of my neighbor fully and completely.  In this the ‘other’ is the limit of our freedom, the other is no longer an “it” but akin to “Thou” as Martin Buber famously noted, and the other is my vocation in the name of the living Lord who then becomes the frame of any sense of calling.  This is why I have a hard time with the current way vocation is spoken of by some pastors and in the panic of some soon-to-be college graduates.  It is not about us – what our geographical preferences are, our salary and quality of life, the size of the congregation or ministry itself.  No, calling is about who God is and (to cite Mich 6:8) “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly” with this God with our neighbors.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his posthumously published Ethics posed a very basic yet challenging question in relation to vocation that speaks to ‘waking up’ and facing our neighbor.  For Bonhoeffer, the key question for vocation is this: “What is the place and what are the limits of my responsibility?” (Ethics, 254)  According to Bonhoeffer, it is the call of Christ which gives us our place, and therefore our responsibility, in the world.  Therefore the “what” of vocational longing becomes “who” – who is calling me and to whom am I being called? Vocation is the answer to the question of responsibility and purpose by moving us from “what” to “who” and since Christ calls us first and foremost, then the claim of Christ on a person’s life is the call to discipleship – to follow Christ’s leading wherever it may take us. Discipleship is impossible to understand without vocation since it is the call of God which makes discipleship possible.  One does not decide to follow Christ nor to become Christ’s disciple.  Instead, “divine grace comes upon man [human beings] and lays claim to him.  It is not man who seeks out grace in its own place. . . but it is grace which seeks and finds man in his place. . . and which precisely in this place lays claim to him”. (Ethics, 254-255)

The nature of our discipleship nor vocation is ever set in stone.  We would be wrong to strive after that one and only job or even seek after some endpoint in our Christian life. We are disciples of Christ always and forever as a generative reality, being constantly formed and deepened into what we have been made to be and in this the call of Christ in the world is never a static thing.  Discipleship bound up in vocation is a living, breathing reality that deepens, grows and challenges us.  Vocation is the call for the whole person with a whole life.  “From the standpoint of Christ this life is now my calling; from my own standpoint it is my responsibility.” (Ethics, 255)

Our response to this call is limited only by Christ’s claim upon us as the ‘beloved child of God’ – we are not bound by any law, institution, or custom to set the limits of our vocation framed in and through the life of discipleship.  Using the example of a physician, Bonhoeffer observes that our responsibility does not end with our own patients.  Instead, our responsibility embraces the whole realm of things and persons in which we find ourselves.  I, as a physician, therefore, am committed to another doctor’s patients, to laws regulating health, to the medical establishment, to medical science, and to other doctors themselves.  Subsequently, “vocation is responsibility and responsibility is a total response of the whole [person] to the whole of reality; for this very reason there can be no petty and pedantic restricting of one’s interests to one’s professional duties in the narrowest sense.  Any such restriction would be irresponsibility.” (Ethics, 258) Indeed, all limits on our understanding of our vocation are restrictions that we ultimately place on the claim that Christ makes on us and this is the danger of seeking after “what” rather than “who” in regard to vocation.

So I sit in this reflection as one hungering and thirsting after “who” is God and struggling not to be trapped by the question of “what” God wants me to do with my life.  To ask “what” is showing itself to be an increasingly small question that, in the words of Bono in his intro to the song “Please” in a 2001 concert in Miami, leaves us in the place of “shrinking God all the time.”  To ask “who is God?” is a big question that can only be embraced through a lifetime of discipleship, of discovering who God desires us to be with and advocate for, of understanding along with St. Augustine that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord” and action for the sake of God is a great way of dealing with this restlessness and not merely stewing in our own ego-driven malaise about “our” job, “our career, “our” life.

Take a listen to Bono’s great intro to the song here and enjoy a wonderful acoustic version of “Please” – a song written in response calling people to put aside issue-based activism and pursue God with compassion and humility:


Jeff Keuss writes and teaches on the intersection of theology and culture at Seattle Pacific University.  His blog is jeffkeuss.com/blog.