calling vs. category

When I was in high school, I was pretty sure music was my future. It was the only thing I had ever been good at, or at least it felt that way. I had been affirmed by my peers and my teachers, and I loved they way music made me feel: the stage was throbbing with electricity and beauty and connection.

With a lethal mix of presumed clarity and adolescent pride, I burned the bridges that could lead me anywhere else. I had signed up for Physics 2 my senior year because I liked the teacher and my friends would be in the class, but having discovered that it required some advanced math work (I like some math, but I’m allergic to the fancy stuff like calculus), I decided it wasn’t worth my effort. On the first day of class I explained to my teacher that I was going to play music the rest of my life and since that didn’t require physics, I would be failing his class.. When we had an exam, I would write my name on the top, leave the answers blank, and turn it back in right away, thus preserving my precious energy for my artistic pursuits. It’s a good thing, too, because otherwise the world may have never been blessed with the prodigious accomplishments of my early musical career. (If you’re wondering why you’ve not heard of said accomplishments, you may have missed my sarcasm.)

I remember at the time feeling so certain about this future. It was a mostly untested plan; I had never successfully written songs, had never explored the music industry at a professional level. But it felt good to have a plan. It felt like I had found a calling. 

In college, however, that clarity started breaking down on me. There were things inside me that music couldn’t express. I would try to write songs but my lyrics were too wordy; choruses would turn into paragraphs and soon I had written more of an essay than a song. I had the chance to preach every once in awhile at my church, and when I did, it felt like there was something happening that I needed to pay attention to. But I didn’t want to be a preacher, because preachers were weird and small-town and utterly irrelevant. (All of that cynical judgment was probably just a way of protecting myself from the haunting self-awareness that I could never be a good enough Christian to be a preacher.) 

Soon I was drowning in the ambiguity of my future. I watched some people show up freshman year knowing exactly what they were aiming for, and four years later they had everything lined up to live out that calling. I kept searching and praying for clarity, asking God what I should do. It was frustrating because I was willing (or at least I thought I was) to run hard after whatever calling God had made me for. If He had ripped the roof off my dorm one of those nights when I was praying and told me what to do, I honestly think I would have given it everything I had. But instead this ambiguity persisted. 9 years later when I finally graduated from college, I still didn’t have it all sorted out. 

Since that time I’ve learned some things, and I think I know what the problem was: I wasn’t looking for a calling. I was looking for a category. 

When I say “calling” I’m not talking about some specific kind of religious experience that most of us will never have. I’m talking about the universal truth that we all are made to refract the light of God, reflect the image of God, in some unique way, and our work is to courageously pursue the expression of that image. It gets expressed when someone with a head for numbers keeps the books clean for a business that makes life better for its customers and gives its employees the dignity of work; it gets expressed when a mom or dad learns everything they can about how to parent their difficult kid; it gets expressed when a poet distills something deep and indescribable about our human experience in a few costly, well-chosen words. I take calling to be the thing we experience when we find the intersection between the work that makes us come alive and things our world requires in order to flourish. 

But calling is as unique as each of us and therefore requires a deep learning about ourselves. Categories are a lot easier than that. 

A category is a box that exists apart from any of us. It’s a package of expectations and promises that offer a shortcut past all the hard work of finding our identities. It’s a pre-made menu item that we can order up without having to listen very closely to what’s going on inside. It shows up when we think being an athlete or a straight-A student or having the corner office or the letters behind our name will put to rest all the deep energy in us that’s fighting to get out. And often categories get created when someone so brilliantly lives out their calling that the rest of us envy them, imitate them, and ignore what is unique about us. 

The pressure to live up to a category comes from a lot of places. Sometimes our families and friends expect us to find a category. Usually this is because they love us, and categories offer security and predictability. They’re easy for others to understand. Categories can offer us security if we’re able to live up to their expectations. And since categories are fewer and more predictable than callings, there are a lot of systems in our world to help us pursue them. There are tracks to run on, ruts for us to stay in, which is easier than finding our own way through the woods. 

But I don’t think a category can satisfy our innate desire for a calling. 

A category is predictable, but a calling makes us alive. 
A category may provide occasional opportunities to serve a greater good, but a calling is infused with that purpose. 

So rather than chasing a category, I’m trying to find my calling. It’s a slowly growing clarity that gets added to bit by bit. I know I’m called to serve my church, so I want to give my very best to the people of Granger. I know I need to use words, so I’m trying to use them regularly, consistently, aiming to always use them with love. I haven’t given up on music, but most of the time I play it with my friend Seth. That's not what I pictured all those years ago, but it comes from a deep place in my heart and I feel like I’m part of something God is doing when I do it. (I think that’s what image-bearing is supposed to feel like.) I’m trying to learn about peacemaking because I took a trip to a place that’s aching for peace and discovered my own aching in the process. I’m not sure how all of this fits together in a category, but I have a growing conviction that it’s all woven together in my calling. 

I’m trying to pay attention to the people I see living out their callings. I’m looking for people who are uniquely alive, uniquely courageous, uniquely life-giving to others. Doing so allows me to borrow some of their courage as I try to find my own. 

And by the way, as I find those people, I’m discovering that sometimes the hardest and most dignified expression of calling is the courageous way that people inhabit their category.  I’ve seen people who do have the corner office or straight-line career trajectory, or who may appear to be pigeon-holed in their box, and it’s not an indication that they’ve settled for something less than what they’re made for; some of these people have done a lot of soul-searching, and the result is that they’ve come to live in a category in a unique, courageous, costly way. 

But whether you end up in an easily identifiable category or not, I hope you’ll settle for nothing less than calling. Whatever fragment of light, whatever bit of God’s image you’ve been given to share, we need it. And I suspect you need it, too.