Calling. Vocation. Destiny.
Sounds grand and important and all encompassing. Sometimes sounds overwhelming.
Most of us strain to make the correct choices, the ones, which will fulfill our destiny, the ones God has called us to. This time of year high school students and their parents struggle to decipher which college, program, or training is ideal for their futures. College students spend endless hours stressing about finding the perfect job in the perfect city with the perfect roommates upon graduation. Teachers see summer on the horizon and contemplate how they should spend it. Other questions that pull on us, as well. Should we have a baby, or another baby, or should we adopt? Should we go into the mission field or the military or is it time to pack our belongings in boxes and move?
My friend, Ryan Pemberton, left a successful career in marketing and public relations to write about life and faith and God. Why did he leave the lucrative corporate world to get a degree in theology from Duke Divinity School and then Oxford University? Ryan tells his story of being called and what he learned about callings in his exquisitely beautiful and thought provoking new book aptly titled, Called.
I chatted with him recently about his new book and about his time living in C.S. Lewis’ former home in Oxford, and how they all tie together. To win an autographed copy of Called, read on.
How do you define being “called”?
I know I should have a quick response for this question in my back pocket at this point, but it took me an entire book to even begin to nudge toward how I think we ought to understand what it means to be called. Here’s my best shot at a quick response.
The word “calling” assumes a caller. For the Christian, that Caller is the living God. As Christians, we are called by the resurrected Lord who calls out still, “Follow me.”
This means that how we think about calling ought to be dynamic, not static. So, for example, saying “I feel called to be a writer” is something I wrestled with for quite some time. Still do, in many ways. But I think about that differently now than I once did. My life will likely include seasons of writing, but there may also very well be times when that takes a backseat to other areas to which Christ is calling me.
The point, I think is that we surrender all we are, even that which we believed to be called to, and follow the living Christ, wherever He leads.
Many people, my self included, can look back at our childhood and see God’s early stirring of our callings. Have you found this to be universally true?
“Universally true?” I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer that. But I think it’s certainly been true of my own life, yeah. I mean, I know I can look back and see ways in which God was leading me—a deep appreciation for the texture of words, a passion for the kind of storytelling you can feel in your bones, wrestling with the deep questions of life. But often it’s only in hindsight that those proddings begin to become clear. At the time, it’s all so ambiguous. Which is why I put little trust in those who offer plans or diagrams to find “your calling,” and try, instead, to encourage folks to follow Christ, wherever He might lead.
When do you feel God gave you the first stirring of being called?
I was something like twenty-three—just a couple years or so out of college—when I realized my passion for storytelling and writing.
I was writing press releases and marketing plans for clients during the day, but in the evenings and early mornings I was reading theology and writing about life and faith (thanks in large part to reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as a sophomore in college). I knew there was a difference between thinking something is beautiful and thinking something is true. C. S. Lewis’s writing made me think maybe Christianity could be both.
And there came a point when I noticed I was the only one in Public Relations I knew who spent his free time reading theology and writing about the Christian faith in everyday life. And it was then that I began to wonder what that might mean.
C.S. Lewis was an atheist professor turned Christian apologetic. How do you feel his personal story reflects calling?
Great question. I think that shows that Christian calling is not something we can ever have guessed, predict, or plan. It’s a gift. It’s something given to us.
As an atheist teenager with dreams of becoming a famous poet, or even later as an atheist professor of medieval literature, C. S. Lewis would have been shocked to learn he would one day become known as one of the greatest Christian writers and apologists of the twentieth-century. He probably couldn’t have believed it. And I think that’s right. I think that’s just how calling works. Often it’s only in hindsight that we think, “Oh that’s what You were doing there…”
What is the biggest thing God has taught you about callings?
Probably that it’s much more dynamic than I once thought. That just as soon as we think “this is my calling,” we have to be willing to give back even that to God, or else it risks becoming a static, lifeless idol for us. We have to keep coming back to the living God, to receive His call anew for our life. The story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 22) is really helpful on this point. But that’s not an easy lesson to learn. And it’s one I have to keep learning.
The German pastor, theologian, and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “I will do something again today not because it seemed the right thing to do yesterday, but because today, too, God's will has pointed me in that direction." I think that’s helpful.
What is the main point you hope readers take away from Called?
Because calling is inextricably bound up with the One who calls, “Follow me,” calling is not something we can ever guess. Instead, it’s something we must learn to live into, to receive, patiently, as a gift.
I think as our story shows, it will cost everything, no doubt. As Christ says it will for any who come after Him. (Which is not the same as me giving up everything of my own accord, by the way. Self-seeking suffering as a kind of reverse-humility is not at all what Christ is talking about). But when we do, when He calls us and we go, even if “going” means staying right where we are, but staying in a new way, boy… Beautiful things happen. People take notice. As my old Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas once put it, “Christ is most visible to the world in the person who responds to his call of 'Come, follow me.'"
As Ryan’s friend, Carol, said to him when he first shared his calling with her, “What would you be doing if nothing stopped you?” When he shared the stirrings in his heart, she replied, “Well, you’re going to have to go for it then.”
What do you want to be when you grow up? What dream has God stirred in your heart? Are you ready to go for it? At any price?
To win a free, autographed copy of Called, leave a comment below.
And if you don't win, you can order your copy of Called here.
Laura L. Smith