No Future without Forgiveness: Some Thoughts on Vocation and Forgiveness  

When I read recently of the passing of Desmond Tutu, I went back to his book No Future Without Forgiveness and its hopeful yet clear-eyed message about how and why forgiveness and reconciliation are necessary.

Pondering anew Tutu’s life, vocation, and writings has driven home to me that forgiveness is integral to vocation. There is no vocation without forgiveness. This is true in our personal vocations, and I believe it is true in our public calling to justice and the civic good. Forgiveness and, where possible and safe, reconciliation, heal the past and liberate us from bitterness, resentment, anger, and the need for retribution. They also free us from the control of those who have hurt us. Without release from these toxic emotions, we cannot fully enjoy our gifts and our vocations. They will never give us enough success or enough happiness. Increasingly, research even suggests physical health benefits accompany forgiveness. Twelve-step groups for addiction, divorce, grief, trauma, as well as other types of recovery and counseling teach the necessity of forgiving others and forgiving ourselves for the sake of our futures.

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Creative Agency: A Lutheran’s Perspective

 Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere (Die Farbenkugel), 1810. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Teaching vocation requires the instructor to strike a balance between making too much or too little of vocation. A good balance works out differently for instructing first-year students than it does for instructing seniors, and it likely works out differently for undecided students in a liberal arts college than it does for majors in pre-professional programs in a comprehensive university.

In my experience having also taught vocation concepts outside the academy, a priority for vocational discernment and reflection seems dependent on the audience’s affinity or urgency for conceptual frameworks. I generally have a more difficult time getting people who work in “fast time” vocations—action-, labor-, and task-oriented—to be energized by vocation concepts than those people who work in “slow time” vocations—thought-, relationship-, and process-oriented. I can only imagine the reactions I’d experience teaching vocation to people who are insecure about the things I take for granted; I speak from a point of privilege and to people who enjoy degrees of privilege.

What got me thinking about how much to make of vocation was an essay by Danish professor Anders Michelsen, in a book for Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, Your Color Memory. Michelsen’s essay is titled “Color and Self-Creation,” and it uses color systems to explore creative agency and cultural contingency. A phrase repeated in the essay is, “We create systems that create us.” This claim, confined to the domain of color, is elaborated by a historical overview of color theory that concludes with, “We organize our colored world around systems that are increasingly of our own making . . . by adaption, exclusion, interpretation, and creation.”

Against what prevails in culture as a hesitancy about color, Michelsen argues for the positive value of self-creation systems and for their creative agency. Color grants humans the field for deciding, reflecting upon, and setting color systems; color systems are modes of human imagination. If readers are interested in how this framework leads to a “politics of creation,” you may want to become familiar with David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, 2001. {For an excerpt, click here}.

Michelsen’s essay takes me in a different direction, however. How does the idea of self-creation systems apply specifically to teaching vocation concepts?

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Belonging and retention: it’s not rocket science

A recent article in the Chronicle offers what may be a needed reminder about the importance of advising and the role it plays in fostering a sense of belonging for students. Aaron Basko, who previously worked at Salisbury University and is now assistant assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, wonders whether we have gotten student success “completely backward.” In our efforts to apply “complex technocratic approaches” to the problem of student retention, Basko writes, we forget to consider what makes students stay.

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Queer Embodiment in a Vocational Journey

Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us. That, to me, is the essence of a spiritual journey. It is more than that. In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, Queer Virtue (2016).

I have often wondered about the role that queer identity can make in a person’s vocational discernment. In what ways does queer identity become an integral part of how one discerns, what that discernment looks like, and the result of the discernment process? What is the role of eros, desire, and the body in the process of vocational discernment? Most, importantly, how can we educate students in their vocational journey to embrace an embodied discernment that includes gender, sexuality, and passion?

For any person, the process of what I have named “becoming-selfhood-in-relation” comes into being through the integration of many factors— body, mind, and spirit, as well as through social context, culture, history, and social location factors (Embracing Disruptive Coherence, p. xi). For LGBTQIA+ persons there is an added step in a vocational journey: understanding and embracing an identity awareness in relation to the hetero-normativities that exist in society, and making peace with both its disruptiveness and its capacity to create more internal coherence. For LGBTQIA+ persons, a vocational calling is discerned most fully and clearly within the integration of their vocational journey with the process of their queer identification, which is deeply connected to an awareness of gender and sexuality in their lives. Thus, queer embodiment—the visible awareness and manifestation of their queer bodies, desires, and identities—must be an integral part of their vocational discernment.

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The Push and Pull of Vocation in The Chair

This fall, NetVUE hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about the theme of vocation in the Netflix series, The Chair. Kirsten Oh, professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, offered these comments about the main character’s Korean American identity and the experience of women of color in academia.

Old Main on the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, where much of The Chair was filmed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to binge-watch the series again with an eye toward family systems and its influence on vocation as presented in The Chair’s main character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. (And to answer the question that may be on some minds, NO, unfortunately, we are not related).

My initial viewing of the first few minutes of The Chair sent me to a space of euphoria. With Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D-Major,” The Chair begins with a bravado that proclaims a sense of arrival. And to have a Korean-Canadian who happens to share the same last name as me play the leading role of an American female professor—I felt represented. This, of course, is a widely shared sentiment among many Asian American female professors. To have our identity, belonging, and purpose showcased on a public screen is at once a surprising and astounding experience. In her friend and the embroiled colleague Bill Dobson’s words, Professor Kim indeed “ascended the ranks of her profession, the corner office, the publications, and so on.”

Yet, soon after, Gloria fades and she attempts to sit on a broken desk chair. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no ($%&#),” this probably foreshadows that her stint as a chair will flop and will be short-lived. And spoiler alert, her role as chair belies the academic system some of us who straddle the intersectional identities as women and persons of color face, that is the glass ceiling at both the teaching and leadership positions in departments, and within the institutions as well. In reviewing the series with a vocational lens there are at least these two movements that “push and pull” the various vocational contexts.

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Vocational gluttony and our fascination with unity

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, L. Roger Owens confesses that he is guilty of what a wise friend dubbed “vocational gluttony.” Recognizing his own malaise in that descriptor, Owens wonders, “Was I greedy for excessive variety in my vocational pursuits? Was I refusing vocational simplicity, refusing to focus, to settle down, to be satisfied?”

Owens goes on to refer to the “trifecta” of Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard, writers who variously invoke the significance (and necessity?) of a one, true calling. There is a compelling power to the idea of a unified singularity when it comes to how we understand our life’s purpose.

Woodcut attributed to Albrecht Dürer from Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1498. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a theme that Daniel Meyers’ takes up in “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” Daniel writes, “Vocation has too often been framed as a singular pursuit.  I hope imagining a plurality of callings might open new doors of reflection, new questions of discernment, and new ways of living out life’s many seasons.”

Ultimately, Owens’ settles upon the metaphor of a “through line,” the underlying reason for his many pursuits:

Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention. We might look at our lives and say, Yes, these pursuits make sense as chapters in a coherent vocational story, even if on the surface the relationship among them is not obvious.

L. Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” The Christian Century (September 28, 2021)
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Letter to a young colleague

The following letter is offered in the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (written between 1903-1908).

Dear colleague,

I have been holding your email in my heart and mind since I received it. Thank you for the confidence you have placed in me! You are in the throes of vocational discernment, even as you enter your mid-career. I certainly understand your concerns for the present and future realities of your calling.

The older I get the more difficult it is for me to control my own ego and impatience when I mentor others. Why do I, by default, frame the answers to other people’s questions by using my own “special” narrative? Why do I feel compelled to move quickly and forcefully to bold solutions? I hope my response to you is clear and measured in humility, empathy, encouragement, and honesty, and that it gives you something of the help you’re seeking.

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Conviction and Covering

After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.

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Being stressed out isn’t your purpose

Is it possible to be both in the profession and line of service you were meant to be in and yet not be living out your vocation?

You may have carefully explored what you value and the talents or strengths you possess. You have used these and your passions to identify a job that aligns with who you are. You know the work you are doing is important, you have passion for this work, and you value it. Beyond this you are good at this type of work—your abilities set you up to excel.  This work is truly your vocation, your purpose, so, you embrace this work and fill your life with as much of it as you can—more is better right? You over-schedule yourself with this type of work—but you are doing the work you were meant to do. So goes the cycle of so many, and many serving in ministry, academia, student affairs and administration reach a point of burnout.

Could the work we are called to do possibly be bad for us?

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Should biography be used to teach vocation?

Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.

Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.

I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.

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