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On Vocation Blog

Posted November 27, 2018 by Center for Faith and Innovation
Tags: Vocation and Calling


Vocation as Preposition

New words for the vocational quest – and a reflective exercise

If you have desired to discover and live out vocation in your life – to find meaningful work that fits you, serves others, and honors God – you have probably not found this a straightforward or simple quest. In fact, we’d like to suggest that vocation is a deep and complex enough undertaking that even the kinds of words we use for it can significantly help us – or hinder us – as we pursue a life worth living.

So in the spirit of finding the right words for thinking about our own vocations, and helping students think about theirs, here’s a question to consider:

Is Vocation a Noun or a Verb?

Vocation author Kathleen Cahalan opens her excellent short book, The Stories We Live, with just this question—and her response to it gives us a new way of talking about vocation.

Cahalan observes that people often talk about vocation or calling as if it were a noun – a “thing” to be discovered. They treat vocation as something ready-made that comes straight from the hand of God, giving their lives meaning. But that way of talking about vocation, she observes, ends up making it sound “static, passive, and singular,” when for most people, vocation is actually a complex process throughout their lives requiring their active, creative participation. So “noun language” about vocation doesn’t seem to do the trick.

Then she asks, what if we thought of vocations as verbs? Verbs are the words that “create action and movement” in a story. This seems better. It captures the experience many of us have of finding meaningful work—work that seems “vocational” to us—as we respond to God and to others, whether they be our friends and family who tell us what they see in us, or others whose needs touch our hearts and imaginations as we consider how we can help.

Answer: Neither!

But Cahalan isn’t satisfied with the “verbal” way of thinking. She goes on to suggest that

. . . another kind of word explores vocation even better: prepositions. They are parts of speech that connect words to other words: to the store, with Ed, away from barking dogs, for milk. Prepositions express relationship. When we frame vocation through prepositions, callings become more relational, dynamic, and multiple. Prepositions express the whole of our lives, even the places and experiences we never thought of as callings.

Cahalan then zeroes in on eight prepositions that may help us describe vocation as a relationship between our lives and God’s purposes:

I am called

by God (who is therefore the source of our callings),

to follow (the way shown by Jesus and taken up by his disciples),

as I am (a unique person with a particular history and circumstance),

from grief (and the losses we suffer over time, so that we can embrace life again),

for service (to give our lives for others, not simply for our self-improvement or fulfillment),

in suffering (fulfilling God’s purposes in mysterious ways even in the midst, at times, of deep suffering),

through others (because vocation takes root in community),

within God (in his loving embrace, both now and in the life to come).

Cahalan suggests that “by shifting the grammar of vocation” in this prepositional direction, we can be helped to “see God at work in our own life,” thus finding our story within His.

Exercise: Reflecting on “the prepositions of our vocations”

For a moment now, try out this exercise adapted from Cahalan’s book:

Begin to consider your own life story so far, allowing your thoughts to take prepositional form in response to the prompts below. You may even want to jot down an answer to one or more of the prompts. As you do so, you may also want to think about how you could use these sorts of prompts with students that God has put in your life:

BY God

Recollect a time when you felt God at work in your life. What did you learn from this experience?

What images of God and vocation come to mind from your callings?

TO follow

How have you experienced the calls that we all share as Christians: to be a Christ-follower, worshiper, witness, neighbor, forgiver, prophet, and steward?  What features of those callings stand out in your life?

How do you experience multiple callings in your life?

AS I am

What are the contexts of your life? How do these contexts shape your sense of your callings?

How did you experience callings in childhood or as a youth? How do you experience God’s callings now?

FROM grief

What has God called you from, either in your past life, or even now in your present life?

Where did this calling lead you, and where might it lead you now and in the future?

FOR service

What gives you great joy? What are your gifts?

Who needs your gifts, service, and work?

THROUGH others

Who has been an agent of God’s calling for you? Who are you called to be an agent for?

How might your community become a community of calling?

IN suffering

In what situations have you struggled to hear God’s call?

What have you learned about your callings in times of suffering?


What practices might help you cultivate a sense of God’s calling within?

How might you live so as to prepare to die?

If this material and this exercise prove helpful to you, we’d love to hear about it. Feel free to drop Chris, Ben, and Erin a line at opus@wheaton.edu. When we hear from readers, it helps us make a better e-letter for all of us.