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.