“It seems to me,” David Buschart told us over one dollar beers at Old Mill, “that the idea of calling depends on the doctrine of God’s providence.”
The four of us had invited David, a theologian from the seminary, to help us make sense of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. Of course, the book was just an excuse for four guys in our twenties to get together, look smart, and talk about our lives, wives, and jobs. And by choosing Old Mill’s cheapest possible beer, we confessed to the world we were both woefully ignorant of the what a beer should be—and we were utterly broke.
That night I was intent on trying to figure out my winding, seemingly aimless, career path. I got my master’s degree, now had a job in a completely unrelated field, and could barely support my wife and newborn daughter. In my head, the script was never supposed to work out like this. And so when the local wiseman tells me the key to understanding my work was to trust in the sustaining, providential hand of God, I wasn’t sure whether this was just I’m-here-to-make-you-feel-better counseling or if I should pay closer attention.
After speaking with dozens, maybe hundreds, of men and women about their lives and career paths, I’ve now come to think that my winding road may be more the norm rather than the exception.
I think Jayber Crow, the narrator of Wendell Berry’s great novel, understands us. As a young man, he thought he was going to become a pastor, but as he grew older (and wiser) he understood he was called to be a barber in Port William, Kentucky, the smallest dot on the map. Looking back on his days, here’s how he put it:
That is to say that I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have—and beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber…in spite of my intentions to the contrary.
Now I have had, most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led. I will leave you to judge the truth of that for yourself; as Dr. Ardmire and I agreed, there is no proof.
In the moment, when Jayber was a young man, going to school, then traveling, it seemed like he was “wandering in the dark woods of error.” But as an old man, he now has the feeling “which never leaves me anymore” that he was being led, that the wandering path may have actually been the straightest path laid out for him.
Who of us haven’t doubted whether we are on the right path? And who of us has had a perfectly linear path from college to success to the Heavenly City? Later in the book, here’s again how Jayber explains his journey:
If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.
(Did John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress only tell us half the truth? That we are indeed pilgrims, but life hardly ever feels like progress?)
Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The name of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.
I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet, for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.
I think of my own journey, wandering and unmarked. A waiter at Popolano’s, a family restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana, learning to balance trays and decorate desserts; a missionary in Latin America, which mostly meant trying to get people to teach me Spanish while crammed into a diesel spewing bus; teaching kids to play lacrosse in seminary (I have no idea how to play lacrosse); leading worship with eight Mexican teenagers at a church in northern Denver, while massacring the Spanish language; the failure of having almost worked at a high-paying, highly respected church in Minnesota - until they said it just wasn't a good fit; sitting in an an admissions office at a tiny school in Littleton trying to learn what a sales funnel is, and wondering why I had spent three years studying biblical Greek, philosophical ethics, and “big idea” preaching.
Yet looking back, I too can’t shake the feeling off that I’ve been led.
My pride while in graduate school was gargantuan - just ask any of my professors. (It now is merely enormous.) My skill set and experience was painfully narrow. I expected the world to be like PowerPoints and writing term papers - and I expected to be handsomely rewarded for getting good grades. My ability to listen to others was dormant, until I was led to a job selling private education, where 90% of the school tours I gave were simply listening to the honest hopes and fears of parents for their kids.
How easy it is to forget that pilgrimage includes suffering. Yet in the suffering, the wandering, it may be that we are being led - shaped, formed, refined - for a purpose that we cannot fully see right now.
Perhaps those of us who desire a “call from God”should first open our hearts to God’s providence, God’s provision, and to simply trust that He is there and leading me right here and right now, in this less-than-ideal situation.
And perhaps like Jayber Crow, looking back on the journey, I might come to see that He's been there all along. And on the journey, Often I have received better than I have deserved.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.