Can Purpose, Gifts, Call & Vocation be co-created?

The idea of a song came to mind in my first attempts to understand the relationship between purpose, gifts, call, and vocation. As I have read Holy Play by Byron Kirk Jones, I have a hard time following some of his statements. He uses words like purpose and vocation interchangeably and they need to be kept separate. However, I really love his ideas on embracing the gift of creative freedom that allows all followers of Christ to be co-creators with Him. I will try to flesh out my thoughts on purpose, gifts, call and vocation further in an attempt to find a harmony between his thoughts and mine.

I imagined purpose being the key of the tune. It gives the song its elementary shape and it does not change. Purpose is a God-given reality that does not change from person to person. For example, all Christian songs should be in the key of love, or hope, or joy. Every Christian song should give glory to God or announce the kingdom – that is our purpose. There is a core purpose shared by Christian people that can be expressed in a variety of ways, but the purpose remains the same. At first glance, my ideas on purpose seem to conflict with Jones in chapter 3 of Holy Play. His basic premise states, “Purpose is not something we passively receive from God; purpose is something we actively create with God.” I have a hard time with this statement because I think Jones is defining purpose too broadly. By using the verb “create”, his statement implies that purpose answers the “what?” question in addition to the “why?” question. He is saying that God gives us the ability to co-create the what that we are to do. Purpose should only answer the “why?” question. If you include the “what?” question, you are no longer describing purpose. I think it is important that we stay out of the purpose-creating business. Even as co-creators, I fear that our influence on the process would only shrink and minimize our purpose. It would be too small and too easy. God is our creator. He answers the questions of ultimate meaning or “can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?”

However, I agree with Jones’ statement that we are co-creators with God. Instead of co-creating purpose, we co-create vocation. Vocation answers the “how?” question and it is two layers above the level of purpose. Purpose is at the center of who we are. Vocation is on our surface with gifts and call in between. It is the visible manifestation of our gifts in the service of our purpose. Vocation is not something that we passively receive from God. Like the words to a song, we can change a few lines here and there as we like or we can write new lyrics altogether.  To use my own life as an example, my vocation for the past two years was in software development. My purpose throughout those two years was to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. Was this vocation an outward sign of God’s gifts to me in service to my purpose? It is difficult to say because I do not have a good idea of my gifts, but I would not think so. Let’s imagine that I finish my degree and then become a community development pastor (best title I can come up with so far) and serve in a rural town in Alabama. My vocation has changed drastically. My call has also changed because I would be in a new context. My gifts have probably developed, but they have not changed. My purpose remains the same as well. Whether a community development pastor or a software developer, my purpose is to love God and neighbor, to seek first the Kingdom, to be an ambassador for reconciliation. A myriad of ways exists for our gifts to be shared with the world. I do believe God has given us the creative freedom to work with Him in choosing which expression is right for us. However, this choice does not mean we co-create our purpose.

I would also suggest that we co-create our call. The idea of a call answers the questions of context – “when?”, “where?”, and “how long?”  In the song analogy, call is the rhythm. It is about movement. This definition has a more narrow meaning than is implied in the more common usage of the word in a statement like, “I am called to preach the good news.” In this statement, call answers the question of “what?” It is defining the role of person who verbally announces the Gospel message about Jesus Christ. I think two things could be happening when people say something like this. On one hand, they could mean, “I am gifted to preach the good news. Therefore, I must go and do that.” On the other, they could be saying, “I aspire to preach the good news.” In the first instance, call is equated to a sense of giftedness. In the second instance, call is substituted for a desire to change vocation. In both cases, call is the wrong choice of word. The misusage of call becomes even more apparent when it is used in statements that declare very abstract roles, for example, “I am called to be a follower of Christ.” This statement defines a role so abstract and elementary that it becomes a statement of purpose. It could be easily be restated as, “My purpose is to be a follower of Christ.” An example of a correct usage of call is shown in the statement, “God is calling me to move to Philadelphia this fall and attend seminary for the next 4 years.” A context is clearly defined, as well as the vocation of attending seminary as a student, and no attempt is made to answer the “what?” question or the “why?” question. Defined this way, call becomes the wind of the Spirit that moves us along, the wave we ride in to shore. It keeps us from being stuck and motionless. The important point to remember is that being in motion does not mean we are going on a straight path. There are up and downs, lefts and rights, slow-downs and speed-ups all along the way. Sometimes the rhythm is a little syncopated, unpredictable, and hard to follow. This is where our creative freedom once again comes into play. We have a say in spicing up the rhythm or calming it down a bit.

Finally, we come to the notion of gifts. In the grand song analogy, gifts are the instruments. Out of all four comparisons made in the song analogy, I think this one fits best. The instrument is played in key and is kept in time by the rhythm. There are a variety of instruments and a variety of gifts. A whole set of instruments can come together to make a beautiful symphony, but it does not begin compare to the riches of beauty seen in the Body of Christ as each part exercises its gift. Some people can play several instruments very well, while others can only play the basic notes on one. As we practice our instruments, our skills grow. In the same way, our gifts are developed as we put them to use. While they do develop, they do not change. Distinct gifts are given by the Spirit that last for a lifetime and we do not choose the one that seems right to us.

In conclusion, I do not disagree with the idea that God has gifted us with creative freedom that allows us to be co-creators with Him. I simply disagree with the limits that are placed on this gift. For Jones, there are no limits. Even our purpose can be co-created. For me, the gift of creative freedom is used for co-creating call and vocation, but not purpose and gifts. With that said, this is still a wonderful thing! The very idea that I am a co-creator with the God of the universe in any sense should absolutely blow my mind. The analogy of the song has helped me identify where I need to focus my prayer and discernment. I know the key pretty well. However, I am not very sure of which instrument or instruments I am holding. As for the rhythm, I think coming to seminary was the right move and I have a little clarity about where I am going next. As for the words of the songs, I feel like I have concepts of what I would like to sing, but I lack the language to express them.


2 comments on “Can Purpose, Gifts, Call & Vocation be co-created?

  1. I have a few thoughts on Holy Play. It seems to me that Jones elevates human happiness and independence as the supreme values of life, and I think he does so to the detriment of the God we see in the Scriptures. I can appreciate his intent in combating closed determinism, but his method and conclusions seem to be far off base.

    Jones seems to disregard Scripture rather than wrestling with it. He brings up verses that he deems to be restrictive and asks us to simply imagine things in another light. To me, it seems that Jones is more content to live in his imagination rather than in a life wrestling with the Scriptures. He has indeed created his own purpose, and I would say detrimentally so. I would also like to hear Jones exegete Luke 9:23 – We can’t base everything on if it makes us feel happy or satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, our emotions/desires are very much involved in faithful living and discernment -in fact, in Christ we have joy and peace to the uttermost! But I think our desires are also broken and sinful, and God calls us to do things that we would rather not do. He calls us to come and die.

    It seems to me that Jones’ god is weak. His god would never ask us to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him. He wouldn’t ask us to suffer. That wouldn’t be our desire. His god simply waits in the sidelines, cheering people on as they create their own purposes, while he isn’t actively doing anything in the world without permission.

    I agree with you, Joe. I think purpose comes from God alone. But I also think our call/vocation comes from God. I think we are free in how we respond to God’s invitation (perhaps that is the co-creative part), but our response does not change the call. It seems to me that God calls us and gives us the vision, and He invites us to trust in Him to bring us there. We don’t know how we’ll get there, which is where faith comes in. Faith leaves us dependent and trusting in God, not independent, as Jones would have it. It leaves us faithfully stepping out in order to live into this call.

    Call and vocation have the same Latin root etymologically (we looked it up in class), but I do think we have come to different meanings of those words today. Call seems to be the church’s version of vocation For me, I would say my call is to be a pastor, which is a vocation. Call and vocation very much seem like the same thing to me, or at least they are congruent. I guess the two could be separated if a person was living in opposition to God’s call (called to be a teacher but in a vocation as an accountant).

    Sorry to ramble. In all this, I think what I’m trying to say is that I agree with you 🙂

  2. love2justice says:

    Thanks for your response Stephen! You have just won the best comment ever on Joe’s blog award… definitely want to keep that on the resume.

    I’m only four chapters into the book and I was wondering how he would treat Scripture, if at all. We actually talked about this more in class today and I realize that my compulsion with using these words as precisely as possible probably leaves gaping wholes when applied to a variety of life experiences. It just helps me to break down the meanings of all these words since they get tossed around so much.

    I have also been grappling with denial of self and how that fits in to all of this. I agree with you that it doesn’t seem to fit at all in Jones’ paradigm. I was actually singing the chorus of “Lead Me to the Cross” the other day in worship and couldn’t bring myself to sing “rid me of myself.” I know that surrender is absolutely necessary, but we can’t ever stop there. Of course, surrender does not happen all at once. As Luke 9:23 says, take up your cross “daily.” But then we can’t forget what the cross actually means for us… it means resurrected, new creation life that is more abundant and free than we can imagine. Personally, I have found Jones’ message of embracing our divine empowerment to be…well, empowering. It is not so much trust in myself, as trust in the fact that the Spirit of God does actually live in me.

    Anyways, thanks again for the convo good sir.

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