I hadn’t really thought about the words vocation or identity until my twins were born. Until I felt completely lost.
My daughter was two and my boys were eating and pooping around the clock. People no longer called me “Michelle.” They called me “Mama.”
I had gained three beautiful children whom I loved dearly, whom I would die for, but I had also lost my name, lost sleep, and felt I had lost my personality and my body—I still had a body, but couldn’t remember what it used to look like.
I had also lost my ability to make art. I still retained the skill, perhaps, but I didn’t have the time, energy, or space to make art. This seemed the greatest loss of all.
Who was I?
As a child, it seemed everyone called me “the little artist.” I had spent 8 years pursuing a bachelors degree and two masters degrees in art. I had put in my 10,000 hours refining my craft. And now, silence. How could I stand in front of a classroom of art students and call myself an artist when my evenings and weekends were filled not with studio time, but with diapers, laundry, and feedings?
I felt like a child, a charlatan, and a disappointment to everyone who had invested in me as an artist. I had placed my identity in my art career and now that seemed to be gone.
At the same time I felt guilty for even missing art, for eyes that wandered back to my old life when I should be fixed fully in the “present” and be “enjoying every single minute.” Shouldn’t I be devoting myself fully to this unrivaled blessing of motherhood and be so grateful I had been called to it?
Was I allowed to have more than one calling? Could I be a mother and an artist? Would I always feel this split-in-half, this treasonous, this ambivalent towards caregiving?
Many of the people I know who care deeply about the theology of vocation have entered their study of it through the door of adversity. They doubted the eternal significance of their work. They felt pulled in too many directions. They faced opposition in their work. They felt like an imposter. They had a crisis of some sort with regards to their work, and they had to find answers.
Maybe you, too, are in a time of crisis in your work or in one of your roles in life. Maybe you’ve had to quit a job and now question your identity. Maybe you feel like your work doesn’t matter, or at least doesn’t matter for eternity. Maybe you believe in your work, but the opposition is growing and you’re not sure how you can keep going.
In this blog series I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about vocation, about calling, that has settled my soul and helped me to find purpose in the everyday work I do. I hope it will encourage you too.
The Question of Calling
I teach a class called Foundations I to art and design majors at a Christian university. My job is to introduce the freshmen to visual art and design, to get them thinking about big questions like, “What is art?” “What do artists do?” “Is everyone creative?” and to teach them the building blocks of composition and a whole lot of art and design vocab.
But I start with vocation. On the first day of class I assign homework on the topic: go ask four people to define vocation without looking it up on their phones; read the dictionary definitions of vocation; read short assigned passages of scripture; list personal goals for the future. This is all done before I lecture for the first time and before class discussions.
I also ask them what questions they have about vocation. This is my favorite part of the homework to inspect. “Can you have more than one vocation?” is a recurring question, and for good reason. I have students who hold down two jobs in addition to taking classes. Some of them have parents who work an extra job to help put them through college. Others have interests and abilities in multiple directions, and wonder if they will be somehow forced to choose just one thing to do with their lives.
Our word vocation derives from the Latin vocare, “to call.” Therefore the words calling and vocation are often used interchangeably. Vocational training in modern times has come to refer to technical training required for and leading directly to a trade such as nursing, technology, or culinary fields. Used this way, a vocation is a job or trade requiring a specific set of skills and technical knowledge. In contrast, many believe that a vocation or calling is, as Frederick Buechner is often quoted, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (1) In other words, a vocation is found at the intersection of your passion and abilities and the world’s needs.
Guinness puts it, “Everyone else just had ‘work.’” (2)
In her book, Motherhood and God, Margaret Hebblethwaite recalls her conversation with a young Jesuit who was visiting her Catholic school.
My days burned with the desire to give my life wholly to God. How to do this seemed a bit problematic, since I had understood that giving your life wholly to God meant—in the case of a woman—becoming a nun….’I think it is just possible that you might have a vocation,’ said one of the Jesuits, meaning it nicely. In those days the term ‘vocation’ needed no explanatory qualification. (3)
Hebblethwaite saw very clearly that in the thinking of her subculture, a life given completely to God meant a life of full-time devotion to the church. And this was the only kind of life the word vocation signified.
Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk-turned-reformer taught otherwise. Luther put work in its proper place. He taught that men and women could never earn their acceptance with God through their own works—only the finished work of Christ could do that. When Luther also taught that all believers are priests, he declared the work of every believer to be priestly work. As Veith says, “Every kind of work, including what had heretofore been looked down upon—the work of peasants and craftsmen—is an occasion for priesthood, for exercising a holy service to God and to one’s neighbor.” (4)
In Luther’s own words,
It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason—namely, that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12: We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, whereby it serves every other.” (5)
Luther declared everyday work on the farm or in the home or marketplace to be as holy and pleasing to God as full-time work in service of the Church.
While our modern tendency is to think of vocations as paid jobs, Luther included offices and stations of both public and private spheres, paid and unpaid: mother, father, child, wife, husband, citizen, milkmaid, farmer, prince, artisan, soldier—all were vocations.
In line with the Reformation teaching of the priesthood of all believers, Luther’s teachings about vocation also helped people see the accessibility of a personal God who is present in all of life, attendant to the needs of people. Luther taught that the various vocations are “masks of God.” What this means is that God is always present and active, giving gifts to men and caring for them, yet in a hidden way so that he is not readily seen, except through the vocations of men. God heals through the vocations of doctors, the mask of medical professions; God feeds mankind today not by dropping manna from the sky, but through the mask of the vocation of farmer, the mask of baker, and the mask of grocer.
All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government—to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things…. You must work and lend yourself as a means and a mask of God.” (6)
God is a personal God, hearing the prayers of individuals for healing and for food, seeing our need for justice, for companionship, for protection. He is present, performing His care for us, but doing it in a way that is most often hidden behind the masks of vocations, many of which seem less than extraordinary. Man is always to place his faith in God, not in the masks themselves.
Read the next post in this series.
1. Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 112.
2. Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of your Life (Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group, 2003), 33.
3. Margaret Hebblethwaite, Motherhood and God (G. Chapman, 1993), 10.
4. Gene Edward Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011), 19.
5. William C. Placher, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 211.
6. Gustaf Wingren and Carl C. Rasmussen, Luther on Vocation (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Pub., 2004), 137-138.
Michelle Berg Radford is an artist and educator living in Greenville, SC. She holds an M.F.A. in Painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She began her studio practice as a landscape painter, but has recently been exploring the meaning behind motherhood and domestic spaces through her mixed media assemblages and collages. Michelle teaches college painting, fiber arts, and theory courses. Michelle lives with her husband, Paul, and three young children and is passionate about weaving together art and daily life.
Visit her website at www.michellebergradford.com.