If you’ve sat in a church service sometime in the last five years, chances are good you’ve heard someone talk about being “called” or “led” to do, say, or share something. Figuring out what my calling is and what to do about it, however, has never been as easy as it sounds in a sermon or book.
For some reason, I often find it more encouraging to read about another person’s struggles than about their successes. That’s why I decided to share some of my questions and musings regarding the callings I’ve felt during the last three years.
It’s spring break, but I’m not in Florida, or at home, or in any of the typical spring break destinations. Instead I’m sitting in a rec room on a mission trip to inner city Indianapolis with 15 other college students watching a documentary about Pruitt-Igoe, a failed urban housing project in St. Louis.
As we watch—learning how its inhabitants’ high hopes slowly disappeared as the buildings became a cesspool of poverty, crime, and segregation—and as I think about the beautiful children and dedicated staff members I’ve met during the past few days, I feel an almost physical pain inside, a burning sensation in my chest.
I have to do something—with things like this in the world, I can’t do nothing. I can’t live in middle-class, corporate, suburban America for the rest of my life. I can’t.
There’s just one problem. I’m not studying education or nursing or ministry. I’m studying writing, and to me, writing has become a world of competition and self-marketing. Melding it with my desire to do ministry seems like a slippery, far-off dream that I have no idea how to reach.
As soon as I learned to read, my family’s trips to the library doubled. My library card shows visible proof of this. When I first got it at age four, I wrote my name on the back with shaky, newly-learned handwriting. That signature wore off, and I replaced it with a firm, cursive rendition of my name. Now, even that signature is gone.
At 8, I made my first foray into the writing world with my debut “novel” titled Love for a Puppy, based completely on my 8th birthday party with names changed for anonymity. In the sequel, Lost Puppy, I branched out into the mystery genre, figuring I was perfectly qualified based on the amount of Nancy Drew mysteries I had read.
When I read those stories now, I can only laugh at the poor character development (parents who do what the children say), mortifying lack of villain motivation (“I only did it because for some reason I just wanted to do it suddenly”), and complete lack of knowledge about how the world works (looking up strangers’ license plate numbers in the “license plate book”). Still, with the encouragement of my parents (bless them for their patience and optimism), I continued to write, slowly branching out from “puppy” fiction to historical, contemporary, and fantasy stories.
I’m lying on my bed reading about ways even young people can help “rock their world.” I’m interested but not stirred—not until the author begins talking about street children in Brazil.
“There are 12 million homeless children roaming the streets of Brazil, and it’s estimated that 500,000 of them are teenage prostitutes…. No one cares if they’re hit or run over because they’re nobody’s kids. You might think the police would help. But the merchants hate these kids so much (because they steal food) that they bribe the policemen to kill the children. In fact, just last year, ‘moonlighting’ policemen killed almost 5,000 children in Brazil.”
Those sentences make me sit up straight, my heart wrenching, clenching. God, why? I want to help. Let me help. How can I help? goes my confused jumble of thoughts.
Somehow. Somehow I have to help.
But I don’t know how to do that, or how to explain those feelings to anyone else, so I stay quiet and wait—for what, I’m not sure.
Christmas is coming, and I work feverishly to write a present for my dad. For years he has been telling me about an idea for a story he had – essentially an allegory for Jesus’ life on earth that involves a father, his daughter, and their beloved pet dog. It’s an odd story, but something about it works, so after I give him the first chapter for Christmas, I keep writing.
Up till now, I have enjoyed writing, but I haven’t felt passionately about it. Now, however, I lose myself in brainstorming plotlines and character arcs and researching the Gospels for unique teachings and parables to retell. For the first time, I feel like I’m writing something that matters.
At one point during the writing process, I pray, “God, if just one person is changed by what I write, that would be enough.” A year and a half later, when I finally write those oh-so-fulfilling words The End, I realize that one person has been changed: me.
With my high school graduation only a year and a half away, a nervous fluttering has taken up permanent residence in my stomach, mainly because I still don’t know what I should study once I actually get to college.
My parents and teachers all say I’m pretty good at writing and should consider a career in it. But I’m still not sure, partly because I can’t get rid of that strong desire to help other people. I’ve prayed…and prayed…and prayed some more about it, but God isn’t answering, or if He is, there’s a bad connection between us, because I’m not hearing him.
One night I ask Him again: What do you want me to do?
This time I feel an urge to picture myself living as a writer. What do you feel?
The answer, I realize, is peace.
Even though I’m planning a career in writing, not missions, the urge to help doesn’t go away. So, my freshman year of college, I go on a week-long mission trip to Poland. The country is beautiful, the people hospitable, and the week educational, but I come back utterly exhausted.
That, plus two other overseas experiences, helps me realize I’m not cut out for consistent international travel. So there go my hunches about a calling to international missions.
Partway through my freshman year, I take a “spiritual gifts” test. (Warning: some of these tests are less helpful than others. Answering the question, “Do you speak in tongues?” doesn’t help me figure out that I’m not gifted with speaking in tongues.) My results show that my top two gifts are teaching and serving.
The “teaching” one confuses me at first, but then I read the description: “You live and learn to teach (or perhaps write if you teach through the written medium). You love the Word, enjoy reading, may be a little shy of strangers, are creative and imaginative. . . . You probably love charts, graphs, and lists. . . . People who use the gift of teaching in vocational service usually become teachers of teachers, professors, authors, or in-depth researchers.” That was me, even down to the charts, graphs, and lists.
Then I read about serving. “As a server, you have the Spirit-given capacity and desire to serve God by rendering practical help in both physical and spiritual matters. . . . You are quick to respond to needs and impressed with the need to respond when exhorted to serve.” Right again.
Ohhhh, I get it. This is why I have such a hard time choosing between writing and serving. It’s like my two gifts are warring against each other.
Kind of a violent description, but certainly an accurate one. It’s a struggle that continues during for the next two years. Every few months, my journal shows evidence of another crisis of second-guessing whether I am doing the right thing, asking what I should change.
Worrying. Weighing. Wondering.
Part 2 will be posted next Friday.
What has your experience with callings been? Do you have any advice about discerning what your calling is?