Vocational Identity

Eugene Peterson writes in his memoir, The Pastor, “the most effective strategy for change, for revolution – at least on a large scale that the kingdom of God involves – comes from a minority working from the margins.” He argues for a “vocational identity as necessarily minority, that a minority people working from the margins has the best chance of being a community capable of penetrating the noncommunity, the mob, the depersonalized, function-defined crowd that is the sociological norm of America.” (16)

Reading Peterson’s journey as a pastor, the features that formed him and his vocation, is helping me navigate my own vocational confusion – words that I can use in the meantime while I search for my own. I need these words because daily I struggle through the failure to make a name for myself here in Little Rock – to find my pastoral (or other) vocation so I can begin living out of my newfound purpose and significance. The truth is that this desire is really just a mirror image, a new instantiation, of the three-year struggle that eventually led Caralisa and me to this place: the frantic attempt to find my niche in the academic world so I could start living out of the significance of my degrees and intellect.

But Peterson’s witness to the nature of his vocational formation subverts my attempt to grasp my identity in the midst of the ecclesial mob. It reminds me how my desire for significance and purpose emerges from a broken imagination – one that, although fueled by images I’ve absorbed from the church, is not truly funded by the shape of God’s kingdom. Peterson’s story reminds me that I cannot manufacture the identity I desire. What I want cannot be delivered through the resources I seek. My identity (my vocation), rather, emerges from the margins, from a minority community with an alternate social cadence.

Right now this looks like seeking to be present in the seemingly mundane particulars of my day – seeking to understand how God is at work in my apartment, with my brother, and while substituting 6th grade PE (for instance). Yesterday I told Caralisa that as I’ve observed God’s work in the lives of others, as I think about the times when it is really evident that someone’s decisions flow out of submission to Jesus, it seems to me that work in the Kingdom is something that we back in to, or wake-up to, rather than accomplish through strategy and good planning. The problem is that somewhere in my body, beneath my cognition, is the desire for the safety of knowing that I am in control of determining my vocation – the satisfaction of knowing that what I’m doing is significant in tangible ways that others can notice and find impressive. I want plow my way forward into the life I’ve idolized (even if it is the church-y kind) instead of patiently waiting to receive it. I need to be reminded that the kingdom, especially as it is manifested in my day-to-day, does not come by force.

As Peterson says, this is the process of living into my emerging identity – the slow waking-up-to how God is at work in my life and the world around me. The renewal of this blog is part of that process. This is meant to be a space where I can get words on “paper” and you can think through them with me.

What do you think of a vocational identity that is necessarily a minority working from the margins – in ways that resist the prevailing images of significance and purpose? How have you backed into God’s work in your life?


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