Parker J. Palmer refers to the human soul as a wild animal — an entity that’s “tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.” He goes on to write that if we want to catch a glimpse of the soul like we would a wild beast in the natural world that “the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”
Palmer wrote this in his beloved and illuminating book Let Your Life Speak, which is a type of manual on discerning and pursuing one’s calling and living a meaningful life. For most of the book, Palmer relies on the example of vocational pursuit that he knows best: his own life. The book is filled with insight gleaned from his personal journey of unearthing his inner voice, heeding it, and allowing it to sing forth in a well-lived life.
We don’t have to search widely to reveal our innate hunger to live lives of purpose and meaning. There are a slew of blog articles, best-sellers, television shows, and podcasts centered around helping people find the “perfect” career, spouse, and niche in the world. Many claim to offer the keys to revealing one’s authentic self — that self-actualized entity sitting dormant in wait within our own selves. This desire to know ourselves and to live rightly speaks of a deeper human yearning to live the life we were created to live: to love God and others in the unique and unrepeatable way that we are created to do.
While this pursuit is noble in and of itself, it can entail many pitfalls: the primary one being that the pursuit of our true selves, untethered to our identity as children of God, leads to a counterfeit — a crude manifestation of the ego and its blind demands, desires, and impulses. How, then, do we live a well-lived life? How do we become the very person God calls us to be? In Frederick Buechner’s book Wishful Thinking, he poses an interesting solution to discerning where God calls each of us: “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s both an internal, prayerful unearthing of our interior lives and an external participation within our community that helps us to not only inhabit the place to which God calls us, but also to enter the process of fully becoming the person God created us to be.
Listening for the Call
The process of understanding who God calls us to be begins with prayer and a committed relationship with Him. This becomes clear when we admit of the host of distractions and temptations in our midst. Palmer hits on this when he writes, “before I can tell my life what to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Kerry Fulcher, Ph.D., PLNU’s provost and chief academic officer, when asked about his own discernment of his calling, began with the importance — and necessity — of being rooted in prayerful listening.
“Calling is, for me, more of a day-to-day life of obedience,” Fulcher shared. “If I’m in a posture of being willing to listen to what God is asking of me, then I’m more apt to walk in obedience.”
In this manner, the discernment of our calling takes on a natural and practical hue. We may not experience some mystical voice or dictate — though perhaps that may happen in rare instances — but rather we continue with the slow work of paying attention to what our life is saying to us. What gifts and passions do we wield and feel the need to develop further? What limitations and weaknesses do we have that may indicate ways we’re not called to proceed? This latter question reveals another key aspect of the discernment process, according to Palmer, who writes that our weaknesses and failures may even be more indicative than our gifts and talents in directing our lives.
“Calling is, for me, more of a day-to-day life of obedience.”
“An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.”
Therefore, our background and experiences — whether positive or negative — have shaped us into who we are and can provide clues to where we’re going. Still, there is another component — the role of the community. In what ways have we received affirmation or invitation to love in specific ways through our interactions with our community? What obligations has our community placed on us that we must honor for the good of others? And what blatant needs do we see — what is the “hunger” that persists within our communities that we feel called to respond to?
Fulcher talked about the critical role community has played in directing his own calling. Once Fulcher became a biology professor at PLNU, he felt a tremendous sense of joy and purpose from the work he was doing. However, he eventually began to feel promptings within his heart to be open to taking on an administrative role — a role that Fulcher admits he wasn’t thrilled about. Yet it was his community — and in particular three trusted friends — who affirmed that he might be called to serve Christian higher education in a different capacity.
“I had no desire to leave teaching, but there was a job opening for the dean, and I was asked if I would consider taking it,” Fulcher said. “In fact, earlier on, the previous provost had asked me if I had ever thought about it. I said ‘no,’ but it just kept coming back to my mind, and I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about it. About six months later, when PLNU was well into the search, I finally admitted to myself that I probably at least needed to be open to it. So I picked three people that I felt knew me well and, to be honest, who I thought would answer the way I wanted them to. Of course, when I brought it up to them, they said, ‘oh, absolutely, I think dean is the right thing for you,’ even though I was hoping for the opposite response.”
In the case of Fulcher, despite his best efforts, the community aligned with what he felt deeply in his heart God calling him to do.
If we understand calling to mean a prompting that comes from God — an invitation to live and love in a certain way — then our vocation is the manifestation of our response within our careers, relationships, communities, and lives. It’s important to be careful that calling and vocation aren’t reduced to one of two things: an explicit call to ministry or a job. Of course, God does call some of us to serve in explicit ways through ministry, but if someone isn’t called to ministry in the traditional sense it doesn’t mean that they aren’t called to serve and love in some other way. Additionally, vocation doesn’t mean only a job, even though modern terms like “vocational school” imply as much. Fulcher admitted that we sometimes confuse our terms when we use the words “calling” or “vocation.”
He explained that “the modern understanding of vocation is that it is the same as your job, but that’s a really narrow view. The ancient understanding of vocation is, I think, where Christians are moving now. We’re considering the broad understanding of calling and vocation, and that calling is not just defined as an obvious ministry but that everything we do can be ministry and everything that we do can be worship. It’s really about who I am more than what I’m doing.”
While one’s career in life — and how they serve the public good — certainly composes an element of vocation, our vocation extends to include the way we’re called to love in our relationships, families, and communities as well. We may be called to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, business people, or missionaries just as we’re called to be loving husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends, and colleagues.
Jim Daichendt, Ed.D., PLNU’s dean of colleges, pointed to our primary call, from which our vocation stems.
“I see being called to follow Christ as the original call,” Daichendt said. “That provides the groundwork and frame from which we can discuss vocational calling.”
Daichendt explained that from here, we can begin the more nuanced understanding of our particular callings. Daichendt also admitted that there is something creative about the pursuit of our vocation, in that we are, “with the help of God putting something into existence that wasn’t there before.” In other words, we are fashioning and creating a life lived for God through the discipline of responding to God, developing our gifts, and listening to the needs of the community.
“I see being called to follow Christ as the original call. That provides the groundwork and frame from which we can discuss vocational calling.”
Yet, the idea of fully becoming who we are called to be is a process rather than a fixed state. There is a tendency for us to assume that once we find the right job, marry the right person, or achieve the right career milestone or accomplishment, we will have arrived at the place of our calling.
“I think early on we think of calling as a specific thing, that once you find it, you got it, as opposed to calling being a journey,” Fulcher said. “There’s a time component to it. It’s not like what you’re called to today is exactly the same thing all the way along.”
Instead, our vocation takes on different seasons throughout life, and what we’re called to do one day may not be the same thing the next. However, since we do have certain tendencies, talents, circumstances, passions, and even weaknesses that often anchor us, the many seasons of our calling do tend to take on a comprehensive and consistent form. For example, both Fulcher and Daichendt have done different things in their lives — from being graduate students to professors to administrators — but there has been a common thread of serving others and God in higher education.
The Call of PLNU
As an institution of higher learning that seeks to form students equipped in heart and mind to serve others, calling is integral to PLNU’s identity.
It’s this privilege that many see as necessary for a liberal arts institution. In Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be, he writes that “a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.”
Daichendt understands the role of a liberal arts institution in the same way, and while there is an important role for liberal arts to play in serving the common good, a Christian liberal arts institution has an even greater opportunity to provide a holistic education that doesn’t concern itself with only intellectual, emotional, and professional development, but includes a spiritual component as well.
“A college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.”
“The goal of a holistic education that’s provided within the liberal arts is to make people reflective and critical members of our society,” Daichendt said, noting that like all liberal arts universities, PLNU is called to form virtuous and responsible citizens. “As a Christian liberal arts university, however, we have the opportunity to offer more with our education: we can prepare students to think beyond just the material and look toward the transcendent.”
Further, this type of holistic education aimed at helping students pursue their callings doesn’t take place only in the classroom.
“It’s one thing to learn a subject matter in a classroom, it’s another thing to meet your professors in their home, share a meal together, and have them open up about what it’s like living as a Christian,” Daichendt said. It’s this type of modeling that inspired Daichendt in his own pursuit of his calling within higher education. “Going to a Christian school as an undergraduate changed my life. I met these professors who, outside of the classroom, opened up their lives to me. And that was the first time I ever saw that modeled by anyone other than my parents.”
Jeff Bolster, Ph.D., vice president for university services, has also witnessed this modeled out, first from his own experience as a student at PLNU. When he arrived at PLNU, he came to see faith expressed in a way that combined the heart and the mind.
“I think for me, PLNU was really important in that I realized that intersection of the life of the mind and the life of the heart,” Bolster shared.
David Brooks, New York Times columnist and best-selling author, has spoken highly of the inimitable role that Christian institutions of higher learning have in the culture at large and specifically in helping others pursue their callings. He explained in a speech he gave to a Christian higher education audience, “at Christian colleges, you have the ultimate exemplar: the life and example of Jesus.”
This education, though, only takes root within an institution that doesn’t just teach about living out one’s vocation, but demonstrates it as well.
“I think that PLNU has always been filled with people who model this well,” Bolster said. “I think you’ve got men and women at all different life stages, who for the most part are pursuing a real strong sense of living out a very intentional, vocational existence. I think so much of what we do for our students is just being good company.”
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Strength for the Journey
Of course, even once we have discerned where God is calling us, we are subject to the challenges and uncertainties that come with the faith journey.
April Maskiewicz Cordero, Ph.D., PLNU professor of biology, shared about how the process of pursuing her calling, though filled with great joy and a sense of purpose, has also entailed uncertainty and challenges. Sometimes it is through our challenges — that relationship that didn’t work out, the closing of doors on certain opportunities, the unexpected arrival of a tragedy — that God leads us to where we are called.
Although Maskiewicz Cordero was raised a Christian, she fell away from her faith when she went to college, finding no room for God in her science-based understanding of the world. At the time, she wanted to become a doctor. However, while she was submitting applications over Christmas break of her senior year, her mother asked her if she was excited. She started to cry, admitting that the only reason she was doing it was to satisfy her family’s expectation that she would become a doctor. Realizing she didn’t want to become a medical doctor, she ended up eventually taking a teaching job in Japan. It was across the Pacific Ocean, while teaching in a foreign land that she came to rediscover her faith.
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“I was only in Japan for six months because I was miserable and very lonely. But while there, I started reading the Bible and came back to my faith,” Maskiewicz Cordero shared. This re-ignition of her faith also aligned with her discovery that she loved teaching. “I came back to the United States wanting to reconcile my science and my faith, and so I ended up becoming a high school teacher in the 90s.”
She didn’t stop there, and after feeling called to pursue education, she earned a doctorate in mathematics and science education at UCSD in order to teach at the college level. Maskiewicz Cordero looks to certain moments as signposts from God leading her. And while the pursuit of her calling has been difficult, there is a sense of abiding peace and rightness to it.
“Whenever I’ve been in a role or position, even doing something in a church, I have either felt like I’m swimming downstream or upstream,” Maskiewicz Cordero said. “And I’m very sensitive to that feeling inside, and I can tell you right now, for the last decade while I’ve been at Point Loma, I have felt like I have been swimming downstream. I’m right where God wants me to be.”
Fulcher echoed this idea, saying that sometimes we’re called to do things that aren’t necessarily fun or enjoyable, but are necessary for God’s mysterious purposes. In order for him to do this at PLNU, it has required the relinquishing of the identity he had placed on being a professor — something he loved and was good at — in order to simply be open to where God was calling him in obedience.
“I had to cease seeking my identity in being a faculty member, center my identity on Christ, and just commit to walking in obedience,” Fulcher said. “While administrative work is not as fun, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about walking in obedience. I feel like I’m in the place I need to be.”
“I can tell you right now, for the last decade while I’ve been at Point Loma, I have felt like I have been swimming downstream. I’m right where God wants me to be.”
Ultimately, where God call us entails a mixture of joy and suffering, peace and difficulty. This is partly because by following God’s will we will, as Maskiewicz Cordero suggested, feel this “tension that our lives are conflicting with certain aspects of what our mainstream culture tells us we should be doing with our lives.”
That’s why there is something paradoxical about the pursuit of our calling: it provides us the greatest sense of peace and purpose but also demands the most of us. Yet, if given by God, though it will be difficult at times and likely entail many trials, ultimately, its burden will be light, and its yoke easy.
Illustrations by Marcus Emerson