When the Emmy Awards honored Fred Rogers with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, he did something that took everyone in the room off guard. The beloved public television star (and ordained Presbyterian minister) refused to make the moment about himself.
“So many people have helped me to come to this night,” Rogers told the audience of celebrities. “Some of you are here; some are far away; some are even in heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.”
In a culture that lauds self-made success, a lasting gift of Fred Rogers’s work is his subtle denial of the myth of self-sufficiency. He reminds us of what we all intuitively know after 10 seconds of silence: We arrive where we are because of God’s work in our lives, manifest in the relationships in which God places and calls us.
For the past few years, I’ve been working with university students at UC Berkeley to develop an integrated vision of vocation, one that refuses to bifurcate God’s call on their lives from their work and relationships on a college campus or wherever their future leads. One unique aspect of our theological exploration of vocation is the insistence that calling and vocation are best understood within a residential Christian community. Living together presents its challenges, but several years in, I am now more confident that vocation is best explored in lives lived together.
Scripture and history both offer examples of God’s call revealed to individuals directly, of course. At times, God’s call on an individual’s life challenges their community (the prophets, for example). However, discerning and living into God’s call is, by and large, communal work. One reason we need Christian community to discern God’s call on and for our lives is that we are mysteries to ourselves. Seeing ourselves rightly happens in community.
The Quaker writer Parker Palmer builds on this idea of the relational self by emphasizing our blind spots when it comes to personal giftings. “Our strongest gifts are usually those we are barely aware of possessing,” he writes in Let Your Life Speak. A sign of our greatest strengths is that we assume these gifts—be they listening, writing, or seeing patterns—come just as naturally to everyone else. It’s only in relation with others that the unique contours of God’s giftings in my life are revealed.
What are some of those things that come naturally to you that, with a little reflection, don’t come naturally for others? I encourage students to consider. Likewise, how can we pay attention to what comes naturally to others and reflect that back to them?
“This year has convinced me of the paramount importance of human relationships,” Jessica, a UC Berkeley student, shared after her first year in our residential vocation exploration. “Throughout my adolescence, I became pretty enamored by the myth of self-sufficiency. As scary as it has been at times to choose relationships this year, I’ve seen the ways God has brought joy and healing and richness and depth to my life in new ways through those relationships.”
In UC Berkeley’s hyper-competitive academic context, an environment where some of our country’s brightest students are molded by subtle, insidious narratives of scarcity and individualism (there’s not enough to go around; we all earn it here), Jessica’s reflection is equal parts counter-cultural and correctively Christian.
Created in God’s relational image, it follows that our understanding of God’s call will be revealed in relationships with others. In 1 Samuel 3, the young Samuel is only able to discern God’s call in the temple rightly with the elder Eli’s help. Likewise, and in a helpful move away from only understanding God’s call in terms of our strengths, Moses hears God’s call rightly only after naming his insecurities in communication and his brother Aaron’s giftings in the same area (Ex. 6:30–7:7). Here and elsewhere, God’s call manifests in and through community.
For my own part, writing is something I now consider central to my vocation, though 10 years ago I was too timid to share my writing aspirations even with friends. It wasn’t until my wife shared my writing with others, and I heard their encouragement to take this work more seriously, that I began to think this could be a path I was being called to pursue. But I was still afraid.
“You are a writer,” Debbie, an artist friend, assured me one summer, after confessing that I didn’t feel I had the right to call myself a writer until I was published. In that conversation, I realized writing was somehow reflective of who God had created me to be, of how I interacted with the world, regardless of the achievements I had or hadn’t accomplished.
Where self-doubt cripples and isolates, a community that encourages us to courageously steward our God-given gifts becomes essential. If these initial affirmations encouraged me to get going, others’ continued encouragement helped me persist amidst so many closed doors.
“Keep going,” my great-grandma May told me at the end of her life, with directness I will never forget. “We need all you can put out.” Her words came during a time when I wasn’t sure where my next paycheck was coming from and I was once again doubting the path I was on. In those trying seasons of uncertainty and closed doors, when the temptation to bury my God-given treasure in fear was crippling (cf. Matt. 25:14–30), it was overcome only because of God’s call to persist, heard through Christian community.