People who have come alive
February 6, 2022
Luke 5:1-11, Psalm 138
by Alison Casella Brookins I’m sitting in a dim conference room. It’s a brand new room. Tiers of curved tables wrap around the speaker. Outside the room in the main hall the ceiling stretches four stories high, above the full-grown live trees whose roots stretch down through the floor. The occasional indoor waterfall beats a steady rhythm. I’m in the Institute for Discovery in Madison, a building that stands as a monument to the scientific spirit.
At the University of Wisconsin, where I am finishing my last semester, you are constantly asked “what value are you going to bring to the world? “What are you going to contribute?”
The plastic chair I’m sitting in has wheels and rocks a little (the pinnacle of scientific achievement), perfect for my anxious body. In the flickering light of the presentation, I feel sleepy and numb and mad at myself.
It’s 2014. I’m 25. At this Earth Day conference, the UW sustainability initiative is presenting. Small tweaks in light bulbs, timers, and waste management, multiplied across miles of campus buildings, add up to large, measurable gains in sustainability. Tons of carbon. Cubic yards of coal. Numbers and graphs flash across the screen. Quantifiable value contributed to the world. And all I can think is, “I should have been a scientist.” That’s where the “real” work is. That’s how you objectively quantify the value you bring to the world. I’m useless. I don’t know how to do anything real. I’m almost graduated, finally, and all I do is write stuff. I’m wasting my life. I walk out the door, skipping the final hours of the day-long conference. I sit under one of the indoor trees, waterfall plopping merrily behind me, and check my flip phone. I have a missed call and a voicemail. A strange number.
The call is from an admissions officer at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, telling me that my application to seminary has been accepted—with a hefty scholarship. There I was, all caught up in what those around me were doing, what I was told was valuable. Caught up in my own head telling me I wasn’t doing the right things. I was pulled out of that “you’re not worth anything” funk by a literal call saying “Nope. There’s a lot you can do. Your skills are over in this direction. Head this way.” It’s not that researched-based sustainability initiatives are bad. They are great, and I’m so glad there are people working on that sort of thing. But it’s entirely the wrong thing for me. I got that scholarship because other people saw that seminary was indeed where I should be, and called me there. This is my literal call story.
The disciples in the gospel today are also called very clearly: Jesus appears, in the flesh, showers them in fish, and calls them to follow him. And they do. They know what to do to follow, and they do it.
When I say “calling” what do you think? I want to hear you—so write your thoughts in the chat and I’ll read them out, or you if you can’t access the chat you can unmute and speak a few words. What do you think of when you hear “calling”? A “calling” is something we are pushed or pulled to do. For some people, a calling is lodged in the body, an insistent yearning. It is like a magnet in their chest, physically drawing them to something they don’t necessarily “want” to do, but feel like they “need” to do. Parker Palmer talks about a calling as “something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”
A calling implies a call-er—something bigger than ourselves calling us toward something. The call-er makes contact with our heart, and calls us to a vocation.
I have to add a rather substantial digression in here; there’s a big problem when we mix up attending to a calling with “following our passion” or “do what you love/love what you do” Many of us folks on the younger end of the spectrum likely grew up with the message that we should follow our passion. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” (a quote the internet attributes alternately to Confucious, Mark Twain and, most credibly, Steve Jobs). This idea opens workers to exploitation—if you’re passionate about your job, then you won’t mind working more for less pay. After all, you love it, right? You won’t mind checking email from your bed first thing in the morning. You won’t mind checking slack from the bathroom. You’ll put up with unpaid internships and adjunct teaching positions and buying school supplies for your classroom out of your own paycheck. After all, this is what you were born to do, right? I read some articles by Miya Tokumitsu, the author of “Do what you love: and other lies about success and happiness.” She writes, “Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.” She says “do what you love” erases work by calling it passion, and “may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?” And then we tend to judge people who are doing jobs we deem unlovable—the necessary but profoundly unsexy waste management technicians and night shift janitors. They must not have had the stamina or brains to pursue their passion. They must be miserable, passionless zombie sellouts, because how could they possibly take satisfaction in their job that is not their calling? This judgment also exploits workers.
Employment is not always, maybe even rarely, connected to calling. Work is work—work that you’re passionate about is still WORK—and sometimes we do work regardless of passion, and THAT IS OK. **
Ok so coming back to our discussion of calling. Something the call-er pushes or pulls us toward. Once I got to seminary, we talked a lot about the difference between “inner” and “outer” call. It’s kind of like a belly button—everyone has one, but are you an inny or an outy? An inner call is internal, a felt sense, something personal. An outer call is external, coming from someone or something around you in the world. The literal call story I shared is a solid outer call—my inner monologue in fact directly contradicted what other people were telling me they saw in me. I was frustrated because I wasn’t sure I had ever felt the personal, emotional depth of call some of my peers at seminary seemed to. Sometimes I felt I was at seminary by accident, or because other people told me I should go. I resented those who seemed so in touch with the cosmos that they had an internal call-compass. I thought they were making it up. I found them annoying. And of course, because I’m me, I started agonizing that my outer call was not a legitimate, “real” call. ***
Some readers of the gospel make a big deal over the fact that the fishermen know nothing about Jesus, that they drop everything and follow him in sudden, miraculous obedience. But in today’s story, Jesus sits in the boat, next to the fishermen, and teaches the crowds, painting a picture of how the world will be turned upside down. He paints a picture of life where all have enough, where all are fed in body and spirit. And then he calls forth a huge abundance of fish—so much food, a wealth that swamps the boats. The fishermen are people who every day throw nets into the sea on blind faith that they will catch something they cannot see. They are practiced in trusting what they don’t fully understand, and committing to their choices. They are practiced in calling out to God, in asking for God’s presence. The fishermen see something in the story Jesus tells, in the abundance he provides. And it brings them alive. It shows them something they want, desperately, and they go for it. They drop their nets, casting their luck upon Jesus, and go. *** There’s no one way to be called. And you won’t be called one time in your whole life, in one big way, to one thing.
It might be dramatic, but it probably won’t be. It might be super clear, but usually it will be murky. You might be called to a vocation that pays you, but it’s not that likely. Calling can come at any moment and every moment. Unlike a belly button, you’re not limited to being an inny or an outy—the inner and outer call will weave together, with the voices of others suggesting, affirming, and reaffirming what you’re hearing from the divine, and from your own heart. You will receive challenges—from inner voices and outer voices—that make you question and tweak and sharpen your call. There’s no right way to receive a call. The important thing is being available to what is going on in the world, in our relationship with the divine, in our own lives and hearts, so that we notice and can respond when we do hear a call. There’s a quote, attributed to Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The world needs PEOPLE; people who have come alive. What makes you come alive? I like thinking about calling in these terms. It’s a way of orienting our lives, staying attentive to the sparks of energy and joy, noticing the moments of deepest alive-ness live in our bodies and minds and communities. Following brightness and depth of life as a way of hearing and tending our calling from the divine.
What makes you want to be alive? How can you shape your life to find more of those moments? How can you share these moments with others? Let’s take a moment to answer that question in the chat. What makes you come alive? ** My prayer for all of us is not that we find our passion, not that we “figure out” our calling. I pray that we can learn to attend to the energy of our bodies, learning to notice and trust those moments so saturated with life; in the words of the psalmist, I pray that God will increase our strength of soul to seek out, create, and share that life with those around us. Amen and amen.
In the Name of Love by Miya Tokumitsu