God calls his people to serve him in specific and unique ways. He always has. That is the reality for a great many Christians in the world today and for many students studying at Fuller Theological Seminary. It is what Fuller means when we say that we are dedicated to the “equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church.”
One should never confuse career with vocation, however, though it is often done. What you do to make money (career) may not be what you are called by God to do in life (vocation). As Henri Nouwen put it,
it is not our careers, but our vocation, that should guide our lives.
At Fuller, we train people for vocational ministry, and many go on to have long careers there. However, a significant portion of the alumni associated with the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts are in careers that seem to have no connection to their seminary training. Some of those are tempted to feel as if they have failed or wasted their time at Fuller. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These people are still called by God into their vocations, even if they are not paid for it. Some are called to be lay leaders, supporting vocations with careers as lawyers, doctors, social workers, executives, and administrative assistants.
No one understands this paradox better than artists, who are confronted with the lack of paying jobs before they even finish their schooling. As a result, some give up and stop creating, stop dancing, or stop singing. Artists who make this choice know it to be a rash decision, often accompanied by a deep sense of incompletion. Some of the lucky ones in this group will have a chance to rekindle that passion later in life and realize their calling. Those who do not give up often push through the distractions and defeatists with an unflagging devotion to their art because they have seen the light. They know their calling with a striking clarity and have embraced it.
It has been one of my greatest joys to see artists come to Fuller and realize their callings. Many of them go on in careers that are not naturally paired with their art, but they still understand their callings as artists. That passion sustains them over the din of life’s cynics. They don’t measure success by paintings hanging in galleries, for example, but rather by the knowledge that they are pursuing their callings with excellence as defined by God, not humanity. Truth be told, for every vastly successful, talented artist one might name, there are hundreds of equally talented artists who will never reach the same level of conventional success. These artists pay their bills by working a vast array of jobs, finding time to practice their art in the in-between spaces of their lives. These artists are my heroes, kindred spirits to all sisters and brothers who serve God’s kingdom in overlooked, unrecognized, but essential callings.
You are called to be and to do something for God. It’s important to discern what that something is. This is prayerful discernment—a discernment that requires the wisdom of the faithful in your community. How might God use you? How will you make peace with the fact that your career and your vocation might look quite different?
Finally, a word of encouragement to my artist friends: we so need you to speak truth into the world. We need prophetic, fresh voices. We need provocation and a mirror held up before us to see our true selves. And more than anything, in the darkness and the tragedy that so many are faced with, we need beauty. Go and create, tell us the truth, remind us of beauty and suffering, good and evil. Tell us stories that make us remember why we live. God has called you to it.
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2012, “Groanings Too Deep for Words: Engaging the Senses in Worship, Theology, and the Arts.”