‘Tis the Season: Advent, Justice and Calling

Photograph by the author

“I’m not ready for Christmas.” This was my immediate thought in early November when I noticed that several houses were already displaying Christmas lights on their porches and in their front yards. At this moment, I was reminded of why I love Advent: it’s all about waiting.

A liturgical season in the Christian tradition, Advent begins on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving and extends to Christmas Eve. It’s a season of anticipation, during which we recall the humble birth of Jesus the Savior in Bethlehem. Within cultural Christmas practices, advent calendars are popular—those countdown calendars to Christmas that offer daily gifts or goodies. In the church, the Advent season appears unsensational, especially when compared to the twinkle of lights on trees, the array of musical concerts, and festive gatherings with family and friends. But is it? Is the Advent season for anything other than waiting for Christmas day? I propose that it can challenge us to the continuous and transformative work of justice in our world.

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Counter story-telling in The Purpose Gap

Patrick Reyes’ The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive is an engaging, highly readable, and thought-provoking book that can be used to spark important conversations with students. The book does several things simultaneously. At one level, it offers a timely and needed challenge to the traditional discourse about vocation, and for that reason alone readers of this blog should pay close attention. It weaves together insights about how personal and communal thriving are intertwined; the import of design thinking—the physical design of urban spaces as well as the power of stargazing far away from visual noise; institutional vocation; cultural commutes and the challenges of “going home” when that commute is vast; the power of networking; and attending to daily practices. In short, there is A LOT packed into this book of less than 200 pages. Reyes intersperses these discussions with reflection questions for the reader, making the book user-friendly and ready-to-use with students both in and out of the classroom.

Reyes also uses stories from his own life to underscore his larger point about “the purpose gap.” In its pedagogical use of autobiographical anecdotes combined with an invitation to the reader to reflect on their own life, the book is not unlike Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, and yet there is a world of difference between the two books and the stories they tell. That difference is both a matter of privilege and of the target audience for each book. In this post, I want to explore how Reyes makes effective use of his own stories because it is much more than simply “sharing” his perspective or conveying his personal story. It is a powerful example of what critical race theory calls counter-storytelling.

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Exploring Selfhood in Let Your Life Speak

There are many resources available for engaging undergraduates in vocational exploration. I have found Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak to be an abundant source, full of passages that engage students and which easily serve as the basis for journal prompts that can be met with authentic response, leading students into rich vocational exploration and discernment. Palmer provides personal stories and invites readers to engage in their own vocational discernment in a stepwise manner. By first exploring authentic selfhood, he then asks the reader to search the depths of their inner life prior to exploring how to live and serve others within their community—to serve in a way that is authentic to your true self. He then calls them to step forward to lead within society. Finally, Palmer leaves readers with the idea that the vocational journey follows a process akin to the cycles of the seasons. As the first in a series on using Palmer’s book as a resource, in this post I will highlight the first step: exploring selfhood.

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Vocation and the folly of “time management”

What are we assuming about time when we consider our vocations or work to help students in discerning their callings?

The metaphors we use when we talk about time reveal some of those assumptions. In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett talked with Oliver Burkeman about time, specifically all the ways that we try to organize time when we engage in the project of “time management.” It puts us into a very strange relationship with time. Burkeman’s observations are a helpful reminder of something with which existentialists have wrestled for over a century.

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Seeing Constellations rather than Stars

When it comes to BIPOC students, we have a tendency to celebrate individual stars rather than seeing the larger constellations of which they are a part. Patrick Reyes offers some suggestions for how we might better appreciate the beauty and wisdom of the communities and traditions which have formed our students. In his new book, The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive (Westminster/John Knox, 2021), Patrick offers new metaphors and a different way of thinking about how to help students cultivate a sense of purpose and empower their communities.

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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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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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Poetry as aid to teaching vocation

“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.

I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.

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A Global Guide to Caring for the Self

In this third part of a four-part series on care in the academy, I want to share details about an upper-level course I developed for the Wofford College Religion department for Fall 2020 titled A Global Guide to Caring for the Self. 

In 2018, Wofford received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for general education reform. One high-impact educational initiative we have piloted is a senior culminating experience (SCE) for all fourth-year students. In our reform efforts for general education, we have focused on strategies that explore the growth mindset, identity and perspective, writing, and critical reasoning. I developed A Global Guide to Caring for the Self as an SCE course which embodies the idea of building cumulative learning.   

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Vocation in the Writing Center

As the director of a Writing Center that is staffed entirely by undergraduate tutors, I believe my first priority is to mentor and support my tutors. While every student on campus can benefit from the Writing Center, the students whose undergraduate experiences are most transformed are the tutors themselves. I have a unique relationship with tutors as both a professor and supervisor, at the intersection of their academic growth and their working lives. Hiring them as first- or second-year students, spending a semester together in training, and then mentoring their work as tutors for two or three years, I have the privilege to form meaningful relationships with tutors that contribute deeply to my own sense of meaning and purpose in life.

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