Reflections on Called

Tod Bolsinger - VP for Vocation and Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary

President Mark Labberton’s recent book Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today provides a framework for Fuller Seminary’s new vision for a broadly formational kind of theological education. On this page Vice President for Vocation and Formation Tod Bolsinger will offer periodic reflections on the book for the Fuller community to ponder together.

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So What Is My Calling?

Reflections on Calling and Vocation - 7

“Each and all of God’s people are called to live as followers of Jesus and to let it show in who we are and in what we do.” – Mark Labberton

“Each and all.” Do you believe that? Really? As we come the end of this book and this study, I want to encourage you to consider your own calling. Do you believe that you, each of you, that we, all of us, are called by God? And if we are, how do we discern that calling in both its grand shared universal sense and its scary and stunning particularity?

Christian vocation or “calling” is indeed woven through the great biblical narrative. From the moment that God kissed the figures formed of the dust and charged them to “cultivate and keep” creation, to the final summons to the nations of the world to enter the new Jerusalem, the invitation of God became the call that becomes the charge that transforms us all. From the nomad Abram who left his country and kindred to follow a voice, to the boy Samuel who was awakened by a whisper in the night, to some fishermen who left their family business behind to follow an itinerant rabbi, to an angry Pharisee who was knocked blind from his horse, to the countless women and men through the ages who heard something, felt something—just knew that someone—was calling them by name and inviting them into a life that they couldn’t imagine, the mystery has been not only that God calls us, but how.

For centuries this has been the question of the young entering adulthood. In a rapidly changing world, it is now the question being asked repeatedly throughout life. It can be as ordinary as a morning spent searching help-wanted ads or as aching as a prayer: “Lord, what am I to do?” The wish that seems promised in the biblical stories is that it will be a one-time, hopefully once-for-all announcement like a proposal for marriage. But more like marriage itself, one’s calling in life is not so much found as formed. Or to say it even more clearly, our vocation is not truly found until we are fit for it.

Discerning calling is the long, complicated combination of convictions and context, of passion and prayer, of knowledge and need that seems to tap us on the shoulder and call forth from us an invitation into a process of self-discovery and humility, of taking up and laying down, of embracing and letting go that over time forms a deep, confident conviction that of all the things there are to do in the world, “This is mine to do.”1 At Fuller Seminary, we have embarked on an ambitious endeavor to recast the entire work of the seminary around this concept of formation for vocation. Our shared conviction is that the God who calls our names and offers us life and partnership in his own redemptive purposes fits us for the call. That calling is an expression of identity, and our ultimate calling is to express that identity in losing ourselves in something greater than us.2 And that requires us to grow, to be transformed—to become the people God intended us to be.

Through this series, we have considered together what it means to be called by God and what it means for us to continue to hear the voice of God that continually calls us. As we come to the end of this series, we are rounding the corner from one academic year into the next. Even as our graduates go into the world, and our new students look forward to a season of formation for their vocations, all of us—each of us—are offered the opportunity to consider our own callings again.

As you live in response to God’s love and grace, what do you—yes, you—sense the call of God to be? What do you sense is yours to do?

Praying and discerning with you,

Tod Bolsinger

1 Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2008).
2 Philippians 2, Romans 12:1

Why Do We Suffer?

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“The love of God in Jesus Christ is the supreme first thing; no one and nothing rivals or surpasses this.” – Mark Labberton

In the study guide to Called, we are asked to consider this most troubling question: “If someone asked you, ‘If we’re made to flourish, why do we suffer?’ how would you answer?” Mark Labberton takes us to the very crux of the Christian faith. How come the beloved by God suffer? For some this is the question (usually on the heels of a terrible experience) that makes us turn away from God. For others, the cognitive dissonance makes us do huge mental gymnastics to make sense of it. Some of us blame the victims of suffering; others of us blame God. But rarely are we given an answer that satisfies. Instead we are summoned to enter into the suffering of the world from a place that will ultimately bring healing.

If we are to answer the call to follow the Son into the fallen world, then we must be able, like Jesus, to claim our belovedness (Matthew 3:17) and embrace his suffering for the world as our call too (John 15:20). This way of Beloved Suffering is the way of Jesus, and it becomes our way also when we say “yes” in faith to his invitation. We experience and express this way of Beloved Suffering in two embodied practices: communion and empathy.

Labberton reminds us, “We come to the table out of need, because our belovedness is slippery. It can fall through our fingers or leave our minds. . . . We come to the table together and leave together, remembering that our vocation starts and ends as the beloved community.” In the communion that shares communion, we remember Christ, renew our connection to the grace that calls us “beloved,” and recommit ourselves to each other as a community that shares each other’s and the world’s sorrows. We feel deeply and broadly; we experience life that is beyond our individual experiences; we lose ourselves in something bigger than ourselves.

Paul reminds us of the empathy that is both inspired and required, and that the very heart of the Christian community is an action: “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” he charges, “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

In a community that is filled with both “like and unlike folks” we experience the depth of this communion and the reality that is being formed by the Spirit of God and not ourselves. It is, as Labberton reminds us, “a communion that we didn’t make and can’t sustain.” It is a grace, offered in love and expressed in suffering. It is a call that includes us and is beyond us.

To be called to Jesus is to be called to the way of Jesus and the communion of Jesus. It is to enter into the belovedness of our existence and the brokenness of the world. It is not to give an answer to the problem of suffering, but to embody one.

The "Powerful Play": Calling as Enactment

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“The Christian life is to be an incarnational life. The essence of the Christian gospel is the demonstration, the enactment of God’s redeeming love.” – Mark Labberton

In the movie The Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams plays an English teacher at a wealthy and privileged boys boarding school in mid-20th-century New England. Determined to elevate his students to think beyond the making of money or the pursuit of ambitions, he gathers them together and quotes from Walt Whitman, “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” And then he fixes his gaze on the boys and asks, “What will your verse be?”

While a “verse” conjures up images of spoken words, a “play” reminds us that the spoken word always comes within the enactment of a drama. Not only are there lines to read, but marks to hit, and props to use, and nonverbal actions that convey the meaning and move the story forward.

In a similar manner, Mark Labberton asks us to consider Christian calling as enactment. In the same way that God so loved the world that he didn't just send a book, those who believe the message of the good news are to “incarnate” that good news in action.

Citing Jeremiah 29, Labberton reminds all of us that the circumstances of the “powerful play” may become quite dire; but our responsibility as “actors” continues on. We may be in exile, but we are summoned to live as a demonstration of God’s redeeming love even there.

In the same way that Jeremiah instructed the Israelites heading into captivity that they should bless their captors and seek the welfare of their entire city, Labberton reminds us that whatever the circumstances of our social location, whatever the challenges that we face each day, whatever the unique pieces of our life circumstances or condition, we are called to embody, incarnate, enact, live out, demonstrate, the good news of God’s present, loving, and redeeming reign.

In the study guide to Called, we are reminded,

The supreme example of this is, of course, Jesus. He was clearly an exilic leader. As one without stature or role, whose life was lived with those at the margins, Jesus led. His hope-filled vision of the kingdom invited his disciples to join in the commitment and energy of faith needed to seek God’s provision of a new creation.

As those who are called to follow Jesus into the world, we look to his example and find a model for our own living. Let the words of both prophets and poets fill your mind this day as you consider, “In exile, called to enact the redeeming love of God, the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be today—here, now?”

Two Well-Meaning Mistakes in Our Understanding of Calling

Tod Bolsinger's Reflections on the book Called by Mark Labberton - 4“The full vocation of the church is to follow Jesus in the declaration and enactment of the Kingdom” —Mark Labberton

The discussion of calling has long been hindered by two well-meaning mistakes:

One is the religious mistake. It mistakes calling for “full-time Christian ministry.” It is the tendency to talk about the “call” of God as only the vocation to be a pastor or missionary. The second is the secular mistake. It reduces vocation to one’s career or occupation, devoid of any significance besides the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday workplace and the paycheck it produces.

The mistakes are well meaning because they seek to give meaning to our days and our efforts. They intend to point to something beyond the daily calendar or the weekly paycheck.

But both are mistakes for two reasons:

First, they both miss the main emphasis of calling in the Gospels: the call to become a follower of Jesus dedicating one’s life to the mission of God in the world.

Labberton reminds us that the first “call” of Jesus, to his first disciples, is our first invitation too: “Follow me” (Mark 1:17; Matthew 4:19). This call is to become Jesus’ disciple and personally commit our life’s purposes to Jesus’ life purpose: the declaration and enactment of the presence and availability of the “Kingdom of God,” that is, the rule and life of God, today, right now, in the very context in which we live, love, have families, work, play, and are neighbors. For Labberton, this is the main point of the whole discussion. It is essential; it is primary.

Second, both well-intended mistakes miss that only once the “primary call” is clear, can each person then seek to discern how that leads to a “secondary call.” Only once we are clear that our primary purpose for being is the “declaration and enactment of the Kingdom,” can we seek to discern how each of us are to personally embody that calling in our very particular and specific contexts, conditions, and culture.

For those prone to the well-meaning religious mistake, there is a temptation to forgo the day-to-day and down-to-earth and seek to do something “spiritual.” Because some are called to be pastors, seminary professors, Bible teachers, or missionaries, we can think that all who are really called must be also. That calling really refers to leaving our everyday existence and becoming a “full-time Christian minister.” In fact, the opposite is true. Even at Fuller Seminary, 50 percent of our graduates do not serve in churches, but in a variety of other contexts. They are writers, artists, lawyers, social workers, therapists, business owners, teachers, stay-at-home dads (and moms!), entrepreneurs, corporate executives, administrators, government officials, chefs, and much more. All of them, having heard the primary call of Jesus, now seek to “enact” the “declaration” of the kingdom in those myriad contexts.

This reality also serves as a corrective to those who have made the well-meaning secular mistake. Vocation is not just a fancy word for “job.” Calling is not just a vaunted way to talk about “occupation.” It is much more than that. Much, much more.

The everyday life and work of everyday people in every location is only a “calling” when it is connected by followers of Jesus to the kingdom mission of Jesus. What we do with our hands, with our minds, with our words, and with our energy is—for the follower of Jesus—an expression of our first and primary response to the first, primary, and most important call of Jesus: “Follow me.”

Reflecting Jesus

Tod Bolsinger's Reflections on the book Called by Mark Labberton - 3“Here’s what I want to know: if I hang out at your church, will I meet people who are actually like Jesus?” —Mark Labberton

We live in a time of history where it is common—almost cliché—to “love Jesus and reject the church.” And for understandable reasons in many cases.

While Jesus was known for his radical, healing love and bold proclamation of God’s all-transforming reign to a lost world, the church has developed the reputation for being a self-absorbed, “lost” community that has little to offer because we hardly differ from those around us.

In Matthew 5:16–20 Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light to describe the way his followers are to be in and interact with the world. Jesus tells his followers that they are to be both distinct (“if salt has lost its saltiness, what good is it”) and noticeable (“no one lights a lamp and then hides it”).

But the question remains, what should be the noticeable distinctiveness of the followers of Jesus? What is the distinctive difference that our lives should be noted for?

Mark Labberton gives us some sobering lists about the wrong-headed ways that the church often shows up in the world and makes itself known—“self-absorbed, invisible, oppressive, siloed, bad-news, no-news”—and we are convicted and stirred to reconsider, “But what should we be?”

Jesus answers the question by giving instructions that go to the heart of what it means to respond to his call to participate in God’s own work to restore his good-but-fallen creation: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

We are to do the kinds of works that make people see God in the world. Reflect Jesus. Let the light that shone in the darkness in creation, the light that came into the darkness of the fallen creation with the incarnation, be reflected in and through your good works. Let what you do be different enough from the world, visible enough in the world, and consistent enough with the very life of Jesus, that those around you, looking at you, will get a glimpse of God.

For Labberton, this is the “primary calling” of all Christians. No matter the very particular and specific distinctives of roles we each play in our family, community, church, relationships, workplace, civic duties (what Labberton calls our “secondary calling”), our primary calling is to be salt and light—to be like the Jesus we follow—the one who is the Light and Savior of the world.

What does it mean to you today to be called as salt and light? What do you need to do differently today to be different enough, visible enough, and consistent enough to let others see the reflection of God in you?

The Burning Bush

Tod Bolsinger's Reflections on the book Called by Mark Labberton - 2God’s call seldom comes through a burning bush.” —Mark Labberton

Maybe you had a clear moment. Maybe you felt your hands tingle and your heart soar. Maybe you knew—you just knew—that God was speaking to you at that moment in a way that was so utterly unmistakable that you have never doubted it.

But, more likely—like most of us—the call of God on our life wasn’t like that. It was a slow, gradual, fits-and-starts coming to recognize your own name being called and God being the caller. Indeed, even in the Scriptures the call of God coming to a person is more of a process than an event, more something that is formed than something that is found.

At Fuller, we have introduced “the Central Integration Question” as a discernment tool for everyone in our community. Students first encounter it in the admissions process, but they return to it in every one of their integration courses and then again in their apprenticeships. But this question is not just an assignment; it’s a spiritual exercise. And it’s not just for students, but also for all of us.

At this point of your Christian journey, how do you envision your call to God’s mission in the world?”

While certainly not a burning bush, this question can serve as a kind of divine encounter helping us to consider vocation as “identity in Christ responding to the human condition serving God’s mission in the world.”

It’s a question that takes seriously three aspects of “call”:

  1. At this point in your Christian journey . . .” Call is a process of response; an ongoing unfolding of a life lived out in reply to God’s address and Jesus’ invitation. One’s sense of call—shaped in community, through life experiences and intentional choices, through practice and reflection—is developed over time and in and through real-life experiences. It is both located in a place, a season, and a people, and for the sake of something more than oneself.

  2. “. . . how do you envision . . .” Call is not about titles or job descriptions, roles or status. Call is about a vision of personal identity in Christ that is lived out in different seasons in different ways. It is a picture, an image, an invitation that beckons us forward and helps us embark on the necessary preparation, face the obstacles, or stand resolved in the challenges. It is both something we “hear” and something we “see,” a mental picture that calls our name and focuses our attention on the path ahead.

  3. “. . . your call to God’s mission in the world.” Call is about each of us and all of us, but mostly it’s about God. Vocation is about the way each of us and all of us are invited to participate whole-heartedly and entirely in God’s mission in the world. Calling is the way we understand our own identity being formed though something that is much bigger than ourselves.

So, how would you, at this point in your Christian journey, answer the question for yourself? Knowing what you know about God, the world, and yourself, how do you envision your call to God’s mission in the world? And, second, what difference does it make in the way you live each day?

An Invitation

Reflections on Calling and Vocation - 1Our president, Mark Labberton, has given us a great gift. His newest book, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today, gets to the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the midst of the realities of life. “People ask many questions about how their lives relate to the world,” Mark writes. “What are our lives in this world about? Why are we here? These are human questions asked throughout history by those inside and outside the church.” Having posed these questions, he then leads us through the Scriptures and through stories of faithfulness and struggle to ponder them for ourselves.

As part of the Fuller community—that worldwide fellowship of alumni, supporters, students, faculty, and staff that is over 60,000 strong—we invite you to read along with us as we contemplate these questions together. From Pasadena to Pakistan, at all of our campuses and online communities, we are considering our calling as participants in a global church that has been given God’s good news for a rapidly changing world.

In the months to come we will be posting reflections here on different aspects of the book. From now until the end of the 2014-15 academic year we want to engage together in a thoughtful, unhurried reading, and even rereading, of this gift from our friend and president.

“Calling,” Mark reminds us, “isn’t just a category for those who pursue some form of recognized ministry; it’s about God’s desire for all of our lives as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. This is our primary call. This primary call for all of us leads naturally and secondarily to God’s call for each of us.”

So I invite you to consider this for yourself: What is primary? What is the first thing, the main thing in my life? And how does that which is primary reorganize, reorient, and reconfigure the way I spend my day, reflect on my past, and prepare for my future?

Thanks for reading, praying, and thinking along with us.

Tod Bolsinger

Vice President for Vocation and Formation

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