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Discerning Calling and Purpose

Reposted from the Institute for Leadership and Service blog, December 5, 2023



Why are we here?  What is my purpose in life?  Who am I and how do I show up in the world?  These are a few of the very big questions that we ask around here, in the Division of Calling and Spiritual Life, at Valparaiso University, at the Institute for Leadership and Service, in the church.


I admit, there are days when these questions are a little too big for me, to the point of being incomprehensible or illogical.  In fact, the older I get, the less I profess to know, as Anne Lamott points out in her recent essay on knowing less and less every year.


What to do when we look around at society?  What are we supposed to do with a refugee crisis that is sending thousands of people into our cities and towns every day?  What are we supposed to do with wars that find their way to our streets and campuses?  What purpose can we find in climatic events that destroy homes, livelihoods, and political stability?

Does the concept of Christian vocation stand up to these deep challenges?


Jennifer Grant Haworth provides helpful direction in her chapter entitled “Discerning God’s Call,” in the volume On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life, edited by Dorothy C. Bass and Susan R. Briehl.   Haworth does not suppose that living into our callings, or vocations, will somehow solve all of the world’s problems, or tell us which path to choose after graduation.  Rather, she describes vocation as a “call from God to love and grow in love – with self, others, and God” (p. 37).


We can do this through a centuries-old Christian practice known as discernment.  Here is how Haworth describes the practice:


“Through individual reflection and conversation with others, the Christian practice of discernment invites us (1) to pay attention to our daily experience and what it stirs in us; (2) to reflect on what we notice there, sorting and sifting in order to understand what is leading to greater life and love and what is not; and (3) to take loving action on what we have learned” (p. 41).


Susan L. Maros, for her part in her book Calling and Context,  reminds us that this process of discernment has to do with work that God is already doing in the world.  We are listening for this transforming work, and looking for how our own experience and formation equips us to be a part of God’s work.


It turns out that this process of vocational discernment is not so much future-oriented as it is a practice of being in the present moment, of paying attention, reflecting, and then acting when the Spirit urges.  We also consider our past formation, understanding that God is preparing and equipping us all along to meet the present moment.


Recently, a group of Lutheran Christians in Valparaiso that I know discerned that they will support a Venezuelan refugee family who is trying to make their way to the United States.  For now, this support meant lending two names to a document of “US Contact Persons.” While sitting in the meeting where this was decided, I was struck by how the group relied on their past experiences, knowledge, and formation, and how they carefully listened to God’s voice in the wider situation and in each other, telling them that they are ready to take on this challenge.  


A different group, with a different past, would not come to the same conclusion.  Yet this group has had past formation through helping other refugee families, through visiting Central America and hearing refugee stories firsthand, through their connections with agencies and individuals in Valparaiso who know how to help make things happen for folks in need.  


This group had prayed for a chance to serve in their own community, and had prayed for a chance to help refugees, and God provided the opportunity.  They still don’t know when or even if the family will be able to make it to the United States, but they are living out their calling in the moment, responding to promptings of the Spirit, making the next small step in faith toward an unknown future.


Sometimes (most times!) those big and lofty questions of calling and vocation point us to exactly where we are, to some unexpected and yet usually obvious (in hindsight) answer of where God is already acting.  Much like the song by Will Todd sung by the Valparaiso University Chorale at Christmas at Valpo this past weekend: 

 

“Shepherds, called by angels,

Called by love and angels;

No place but a stable.

My Lord has come.

 

Sages, searching for stars

Searching for love in heaven;

No place for them but a stable.

My Lord has come.

 

His love will hold me,

His love will cherish me,

Love will cradle me.

 

Lead me, lead me to see him,

Sages and shepherds and angels;

No place for me but a stable.

My Lord has come.”

 

In our Division of Calling and Spiritual Life, we are currently accepting applications to our summer fellowship program called the Calling and Purpose in Society (CAPS) Fellows Program.  This is an opportunity to live out a calling in the moment, but also to practice the steps of discernment and deep listening, to learn about situations in the world that require attention and response.  The experience will prepare students to approach future issues of calling and purpose with tools of reflection, community, and a responsive attitude.  

If you or someone you know are interested in the CAPS Program, you can find more information on our website, or write to us at lead.serve@valpo.edu


-by Deaconess Kat Peters, M.Ed., M.A., Assistant Director of the Institute for Leadership and Service

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