For those exploring licensed ministry, the first and most important question they usually get asked is what do you feel God is calling you to? The language of vocation/call is unfamiliar to many and completely alien to others. Increasingly, it feels that the Vocations Discernment Team have to induct people into a foreign language as we enable candidates to articulate a sense of call to a particular ministry lay or ordained in a way that the church has historically expressed it. My concern is that vocation has become short hand for those exploring ordained ministry, and thus it loses its meaning and significance for the whole church.
However, the Christmas story has come alive to me this year as a story of vocations exploration. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi all receive and respond to a dramatic and life changing call from God and we get to be witnesses to their inspiring courage and sacrificial obedience as they attempt to live out their vocation.
Now there is a danger in drawing this comparison between our individual sense of call from God and the characters of the Christmas story because with the exception of the Magi, all of the other calls involved an angelic visitation. It is not my normal experience that people would experience a call from God via an angel, and if you are waiting for something that dramatic, be mindful that usually the more dramatic the call, the more difficult the task!
Angels aside, what encourages me about the story is that, dramatic as the calls were, they were actually to very ordinary and everyday roles and activities. Be a father. Be a mother. Be a loving husband. Visit a homeless family. Take a present to a new-born baby. These are activities that we can relate to and perhaps already engage in. And yet, these familiar activities are made sacred by a call from God which gives the recipients divine purpose and eternal significance within their ordinariness.
So what can we take from the Christmas story in terms of exploring our vocations?
Firstly, we are all to be expectant of God's call in our lives. It is not only the ordained that have a vocation or a sense of call. God can and does call everyone, in a variety of ways, to a plethora of activities, in order to fulfil his purposes. My dream would be that the whole people of God were actively exploring their sense of call and could articulate a vocation from God.
Rather than doing what we do because thats what we've always done, could we expect a sense of call from God and find our purpose within that? It might be that God is in fact calling you to do what you already are doing. But knowing that it is God's call (rather than a means to pay the bills) would give purpose and motivation and the fullness of life that Jesus promises. Alternatively, God could be calling you to something radically different. Being expectant and taking the time to listen could help you to become aware of that.
Secondly, we are to celebrate the diversity of callings that God gives. Zechariah could not have had Marys call. Mary could not have had Elizabeths call. The shepherds could not do what the Magi did. We are each made unique with a bespoke call and vocation. Your call may be to the workplace or community work, to church ministry or family life, to entrepreneurial ventures or scientific discovery or creation care or politics or youth work.
Would that we were all regularly using this language of call and vocation to express that we had a mission from God and learn to be confident in that. The church can sometimes be guilty of implying a hierarchy of calls where the more religious ones are the best would God forgive us for this and help us to celebrate and promote the full range of possible vocations.
Thirdly, whilst having a sense of call gives purpose and meaning and fullness of life, the Christmas story reminds us that it is not easy. Mary and Josephs divine call meant poverty, persecution and life as a refugee. God does not promise us an easy journey, in fact, quite the opposite (John 16:33). However, we will never know true peace and joy outside of the purpose for which God made us.
This Christmas, I hope you can take some time reflecting upon your vocation and the call you have received from God. Perhaps you've never thought of your life and work in these terms before. If not, take some time to reflect upon the following questions:
What is God calling me to do?
What skills/experiences/passions/interests has God given me which might be a clue towards my vocation?
Where have I experienced the greatest sense of joy and rightness in something I have done?
Where have other people affirmed my gifts/talents/skills?
Who knows me well and could help me to test what I feel God might be saying?
If youalready haveanswers to these questions, maybe take this Christmas season to reviewthem and see if you are still where God is calling you to be. In addition, how can you help and encourage others to grow in their sense of vocation?
I pray that as a church we might revive the language of vocation among the whole people of God, for the coming of his kingdom and for his glory.
With my very best wishes for a peaceful and joy-filled Christmas and New Year.
Helen Collins, Adviser for Licensed Ministry