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Philip Boobbyer is a lecturer in modern Russian and European history. His publications include S.L.Frank: The Life and Work of a Russian Philosopher 1877-1950 (1995), and Conscience, Dissent and Reform in Soviet Russia (2005). He gave this reflection whilst attending a Initiatives of Change UK national fellowship weekend in Swanwick, Derbyshire, 25-27 May 2012.
How do we find what we are meant to do with our lives? It is a question that applies to all of us, whether we are at an early or a late stage in life’s journey.
One of my colleagues at Kent University was talking recently about vocation as a “gift”. In discussing how we find our vocations, he used an image that has stayed with me: “an exchange of gifts”.
His idea is that we do not possess or control who we are. Instead we discover it, or we receive it. When we give ourselves to God, we receive something in return. Our sense of calling starts to deepen. An exchange of gifts takes place. And the most precious gift that God gives is himself.
The Scottish scientist and devotional writer Henry Drummond says something like this. He is asking what happens to our own distinctive personalities when we choose to give our lives to God. In choosing a spiritual path, do we not sacrifice who we are? Do we not then start to live in an unreal and inauthentic way?
No, Drummond says. “You give everything to God. God gives is all back again and more.”
Of course there may be new habits to develop when we take a step like this, and that can be a challenge.
In the spiritual tradition that Frank Buchman founded, this has been an important theme. It was an important element in his own life - part of his experience at Keswick. He often used the word “surrender” in reference to the decision a person can make to give his or her life into God’s hands.
A letting-go is needed if we are to be able to live in the light of God’s purposes. We all know how easy it is in quiet times to present our own agendas to God, and then try to get him to rubberstamp them. A letting-go is necessary if we are to hear the still small voice.
Giving ourselves to God is a decision of the will. It does not always come with lots of emotion and feeling. Indeed, it is probably better without it. So there is no need to wait for a mountain-top experience to make such a choice.
Humility may be needed. There is a powerful story of vocation or calling in the Jewish scriptures - in the book of Isaiah (Chapter 6, 1-13). Isaiah goes through a process of repentance before he hears God calling him. “Woe, I am a man of unclean lips,” he says. At that, he is cleansed. He then hears a voice: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us.” He replies: “Here I am, send me.” The order of things is instructive. Isaiah does not present his genius for God to endorse. The process starts with him seeing himself as he really is - with all his sin and weakness - and then experiencing a cleansing. And then he hears a word from God.
Vocation, then, is not meant to be an ego trip. I recently heard an Anglican Director of Ordinands say that the problem with a lot of vocations nowadays is that people are looking for personal fulfilment without committing themselves to a wider community.
St Paul, in his teachings about the body of Christ, talked about the fact that our gifts are given to us in order to serve the community. Vocation and service go together.
Buchman often emphasised this. Working with others, involving unselfish service of each another, is meant to be a central part of our lives. Through teamwork, we can give our best to others, and learn from others too. And in that dynamic we learn to put our own contributions into the right perspective.
Buchman also interpreted vocation in the context of the needs of the world. Each of us has something to do, new ground to break, that will be a service to humanity. In working with others to serve the world, we can make a real contribution.
Our uniqueness is not diminished in this way of life, but enhanced.
I like this image from a Russian Orthodox priest (Serafim Batiukov): “Every bird has its own flight. An eagle flies in the clouds, while the nightingale sits on the branch, but each of them glorifies God.”
I made a decision to give my life to God when I was fifteen. It was an important turning point in my journey. Maybe this weekend could be an opportunity for some people here to make or renew such a decision.
Finding a vocation involves a kind of exchange of gifts. We give ourselves to God. He gives himself to us.
Who we are: Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own.
Purpose: We work to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.