Vocation Virtually: Telling Your Story

Part 5 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, and story.

A fifth metaphor of vocation is story, which underscores the sense that everyone has a story to tell. There is a narrative arc to each life, and that story has a beginning, middle, and end. This dimension of vocation invites students to author their own stories and, in the telling, claim agency. “In the beginning, I/we….” or “Once upon a time, I/we….”  

In The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel relates an old Hasidic tale about the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov. When the rabbi saw misfortune threatening the Jews, he would go to a certain part of the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer. The crisis would be averted. Subsequent rabbis confronted similar crises, but one forgot the prayer, another forgot how to light the fire, another forgot the location of the special place in the forest. The rabbis did whatever they could remember, and the misfortune was overcome. Finally, crisis came to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn. He sat in his armchair, head in his hands, and lamented, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was. Wiesel concludes: “God made man because he loves stories.”

“The gates of the forest”

John MacWhirter (1839-1911)

Public domain 

An Afghani Muslim student was so moved by Wiesel’s example of the power of telling stories that she began to craft her own narrative of a community under threat. Her family had fled Afghanistan only a few years before, leaving behind family, friends, and a region wracked by war. In her portfolio, she told the stories of the country she’d left behind, illustrating them with photos she’d taken herself, and using her tagline, “Between Two Worlds” as a title. She discovered that she loved to write; she discovered something else as well–she had a story to tell. 

Many religious traditions highlight stories, myths, and creation narratives. The Hebrew bible begins with a story of creation, “In the beginning, God….” The Torah goes on to narrate the covenants between God and God’s people, covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Alongside laws governing relationships to God and humans (halakah), Jews have stories (haggadah). In absence of a stable homeland, Jews located themselves in stories. The story of the exodus from Egypt is re-told and re-enacted every year at Passover around a meal. Remembering this story of liberation, Jews are literally re-membered into a community of promise.

The gospel of John draws on the first words of Genesis to narrate another creation story, this one about the creation of “the beloved community”. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The echo is intentional.

Understanding this dimension of vocation offers an invitation to become the author of your own story. To do that, students must first discover they have a story to tell. Authoring one’s own story creates agency. 

In a real way, all of the metaphors of calling come together in that narrative.   

Exercise:  Crafting a Public Leadership Narrative

Activist, organizer, and teacher Marshall Ganz locates his own vocation at the intersection of three overlapping stories: the story of self, the story of us, and, the story of “now.” Read his brief essay, “Why Stories Matter,” with particular attention to how he crafts those stories into a public leadership narrative. 

Story of self 

Everyone has a story of self. That story can be told differently at different points in our lives, depending on circumstance or audience or insight. Ganz talks about growing up as the son of a rabbi. Words from the Passover seder deeply affected him, “You were once a slave in Egypt.” He had to leave his childhood home in California, but those words never left him. 

You likely told a story in your “This I Believe” statement. Go back and review it. 

For your story, think of one major challenge you faced and describe how you coped with it. Introduce your story with a summary: “Here’s how I learned the importance of ….”  Then, narrate the challenge and how you handled it. Conclude with a return to what you learned, how it marks you as a person of faith and public leader, and why it’s important to share. 

Story of us

We are all part of communities or groups that claim us, communities that we claim. It could be a family, a faith tradition, a sports team or choral group. Belonging to a particular community orients people toward certain values, which telegraph to its members a reason or purpose for being in the world. As the son of a rabbi, Ganz lived inside the story of the exodus from Egypt, a land of slavery and house of bondage. Not surprisingly, he found himself in the civil rights movement in the Sixties, part of another exodus from slavery. 

You named some of your communities in the “Name your ‘peeps’/people” exercise. Go back and review that list. Identify one value you learned being in this community, tell the story of how you learned it and made it your own. 

Story of “now”

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,” his way of identifying the gap between the way things are in the world and the way they should be. Philosophers formulate this as the difference between what is and what ought to be.

Identify one of those gaps that you are particularly concerned with: climate change, racism, poverty, the achievement gap. How did you become aware of this problem (story of self)? Now, tell a story of how your core commitments (story of self) and community values (story of us) help you address “the fierce urgency of now.” Go back to your tagline from the original exercise on vocation as perspective.  You already have the title for your story!

In this series of posts on metaphors, I’ve identified some metaphors for vocation that have been helpful to me, as I work in religiously diverse classrooms with students who hunger to make sense of a broken world.  What metaphors have you used? Rebecca Schlatter Liberty proposes the metaphors of puzzle, river, and “treasure hunt.” Kathleen Cahalan finds nouns too static to capture the spirit of vocation, using prepositions instead. In her book, The Stories We Live, she argues that people are called by God, as they are, from some people, places, and things and to other people, places, and things, for service, etc.

What language would you offer? Are there other metaphors that you have used in thinking about vocation?

V-PORTFOLIO SERIES: Click here to see the entire series of posts describing the v-portfolio and each of the five metaphors.

Martha (Marty) Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University. Prior to joining the community at Augsburg in 2010, she taught at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in The Graduate Theological Union for 29 years. She wonders why it took her so long to get into higher education. She is an avid swimmer and writer, and she is a life-long pilgrim. For other blog posts by Marty, click here.

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