November 27, 2008

The Intersection of Faith and Calling

The gospel seems to value free will so completely that it defines what is white and what is black, then leaves to the individual a strip of gray. If you feel uncomfortable with this idea, think of the differences between the Mosaic Law and Christ’s gospel. While Leviticus specifies a mind-boggling number of sins and their remedies, Jesus tells us: “On…two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

His reference, of course, is to our requirements to love God and to love our neighbors. Though His direction is elegant in its simplicity, it is also open to interpretation. The manner by which we must show our love is, at best, suggestive. In contrast, Moses explains our duty to the mire-bound ox with far more clarity. The implications of this are numerous, but one is worth mentioning here: For moral people life’s dilemmas can have as much to do with expediency as choices between good and evil.

Consider how complicated our lives can be. We have responsibilities to teach and nurture our families. We owe our employers honest work for honest pay. In addition, we’re asked to help meet the needs of the church and our communities—to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And though we may hold these values inviolate and wish never to compromise them, we must continually decide how much of one to sacrifice for the others.

Adam and Eve understood this tension. Their most notable choice was between two proper, but mutually exclusive options: obedience to a specific commandment versus the advancement of humankind. We speak of our first parents as having experienced problems different than our own, but isn’t it possible that their dilemma was an archetype, one we live too, albeit less obviously? Divine inspiration, therefore, must guide us through the gray.

At times, however, we fail in this regard. Thoreau once wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (From Civil Disobedience) I believe this happens when God extends sacred, specific callings that we lack the courage to accept. To me it’s no coincidence that some men suffer a midlife crisis at precisely the time they could be of most use to God. Perhaps the reason for this is summarized by Allan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind:

Man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection.... As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But...they no longer have any image of a perfect soul and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.

Many of life’s problems could be avoided through the kind of self-introspection and prayer that leads to acceptance of God’s quiet callings. Emerson once said in a way that resonates with Plato’s concept of eudaemonism:
Accept the place the divine providence has found for you…. Great men have always done so…betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being…. That which each can do best, none but his maker can teach him. (From Self Reliance)

I can only hope that my eyes, too, will someday open to life’s possibilities, but the fact is I’ve spent most of my adulthood ignoring the place divine providence found for me. God has told me at various times and by various means, that He’s unhappy with me. I’m certain, for example, that He never liked my previous choice of occupation. How else do you explain my career, which includes employment at several institutions that no longer even exist?

This is true: I was at Drexel when it went belly-up, Salomon when its involvement in a scandal left it a shell of itself, and UBS when it lost a billion dollars in speculative trades and became the target of a hostile takeover. Knowing my track record, a friend recently revealed to me his investment strategy. What he does, apparently, is short the stock of any company that invites me in to interview.

Although I’ve been involved in more corporate restructurings and strategic realignments than you can shake a stick at, the greater evidence of misdirection in my life is the subtle manner in which God has sometimes told me in prayer: “Alan, this isn’t you.”

I admit that I’ve replied with my share of fist shaking. At times I’ve demanded to know: “So what do You want me to do—flip burgers for a living?” Then seeing a chance to turn lemons into lemonade—to mine from the silver lining hidden behind dark clouds—I compose myself and suggest a way He might be of help.

“I’d really be good,” I say, “as the host of my own TV fishing show.”

The result of this communion is a lesson learned. You won’t see Angler Al on the tube any day soon. Pleading with God to bless this and bless that is tantamount to kicking the ball into His court. More importantly, He can’t give me a Saturday morning slot on ESPN without taking it away from one of His other children (a good ‘ole bubba, too, who can tell a good crankbait when he sees one and yells, “yeehaw” with enthusiasm). So my prayers have gained effectiveness only after I learned to ask that greatest of all queries: What manner of man ought I be?

Yet the task of hearing and following the Lord’s instruction isn’t easy. Recently, after years of ignoring my own soul’s code, I decided it was time for a simpler life and a leap of faith. I quit my job and began to write full time, confident that a way would be prepared for me to make a living at it. Unfortunately I’m the only person in the world who recognizes genius in the effort. So today I’m still unsure of heaven’s purpose for me, but what can I do? Our most difficult life choices occur at the intersection where faith and a sense of calling come together.

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