Have you ever reflected on your career and found yourself still asking the question put to every kid: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Questions of purpose and calling seem ubiquitous and are probably intensified for Christians among whom the idea has an eternal dimension. At 40, I still ponder it on a regular basis.
My firstborn often gets asked this question by adults, but it poses no problem for her. She just started first grade and has already begun preparing for her career. To date, that includes marine biologist, zoological veterinarian, geologist, archeologist, metallurgist and singer. She seems nonplussed by the amount of school all that might require and has begun to promise Mama some perks. She will take me diving for pearls and make me a necklace. She will save me a front-row seat at the concert. She will make sure our cat lives as long as I do.
Adults love to ask children about their future aspirations, perhaps because the answers are charming in their reach or because it’s inspiring to watch a child gaze with courage into the future. But somewhere between six and 26, that courage and passion – confronted with the unforgiving reality of jobs, wages, cost of living and lack of opportunities – dwindle. And many a person continues to wonder what she could have done or what he could have become well into adulthood. Maybe beyond?
I didn’t answer this question well when I was young and find myself doing business with it now again, both on my own behalf and in preparation for my children. I am starting to understand that calling, purpose, destiny and all such things are rarely, if ever, revealed in advance. What we are meant to be and do with our time here comes to us through action and choice and listening to the whispers of our interests and desires, however faint. As one metaphor puts it, a boat must be at sea before the wind can move it. Or something like that.
God could show us the way to our calling with a magical banner on our 18th birthday or he could implant, from earliest memory, a niggling interest that we just can’t ignore. God could withhold the great revelation of our destiny until we have prayed enough prayers and fasted to fainting and self-flagellated within an inch of our lives. Or he could suggest, through the offhand comment of a teacher and a friend, that we might have gifting in a certain area. God could make sure that all but one university application are burned in a mailbox fire, or he could just use need and restlessness to direct us through a series of dead ends until one opens just a little and slowly, inch by inch, shape a path for our journey. Perhaps our jobs and careers and what we do are not the point at all but merely tools to shape our hearts.
My daughter has loved sharks for most of her five years, although I have no idea to what end. It could be just a passing interest or it could be a signal of her life’s work. But what I want to teach her as she grows is to pay attention to the things that interest her, to follow them and engage deeply with them and let them propel her like a strong wind. I will encourage her not to get stuck, but to keep moving, even if that means abandoning one course to follow another. I will help her collect hints, like notes on a report card or suggestions by friends or thoughts that strike during prayer, and treat them like signposts along the way. And I will remind her, and my own heart while I’m at it, to be courageous and full of hope that God is strong enough to get us where we’re meant to be.
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