Tag Archive: Vocation


Lk 2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

“And he was called Jesus”- It doesn’t seem like a very dramatic conclusion to the nativity story. After all the angels and long journeys and wise men and shepherds, you might even say it seems downright anticlimactic.

Naming a child, after all, is for us at best a kind of release. For example, many children are named after a recently deceased relative; it can provide some closure as families work through grieving while honoring the relative. Or, like was the case for my son Kylen, a child might not have a name for hours, days, or even longer after being born and it is a release just to be able to finally settle on something that fits. But throughout the Bible, names and naming have a far greater significance than this.

We find a major clue in the word for the action itself: to call. Just as in English, the word call means both “to name someone or something” and “to beckon, request, or require something from someone.” When people are named in the Bible, “very often, the emphasis is… less on the fact that names are such and such, than on the fact that the bearers of the name actually are what the name  says about them” [kaleo, BDAG]. When your parents named you, they may have tried to find something with a positive meaning that they hoped you would live up to; but when God names you, when he calls you, the naming itself is effective in accomplishing it.

Counselors, colleges, even reemployment programs all like to talk about callings, taking the other meaning, as those things we do outside our homes to earn money to provide for family and maybe serve society. That is true in one sense; I am called as a student, a researcher, a writer, a teacher, a father, and husband. And god undoubtedly calls us to all those places. But our new name in baptism, the one we so often ignore is Christian- little Christ-. God calls us into that identity through baptism, not just in the hope that we will become Christians but in the same way he spoke “light” in the beginning and there was light.

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I realized today (actually it’s more of an emergent process than that, but today put the words on it) that within the next 10 months or so, I need to make an important decision which, although I can adjust as I go, will in all likelihood substantially bias my work for a good chunk of my life: Am I am big R or little r sociologist of religion?

Anyone who knows me can attest to my hesitancy and unwillingness to make this kind of decision; that’s why I have 4 degrees and am only now starting my PhD program and heading for two more. So what do I mean by big and little R?

A little r sociologist of religion concerns him or herself with the gradual accumulation of knowledge, the successive testing of aspects of theory using whatever data and methods are available to them. Most work in the field is of this sort, and much of it is very high quality and useful. The type of articles and books I review on my companion blog sociofaithful fall into this and can be very valuable both to people interested in the functioning of society and churches and to people with a practical interest in ministry. It is easy to collaborate with others, contribute to the growth of the discipline, and publish frequent and (hopefully) meaningful articles using this approach.

A big R sociologist of Religion, on the other hand, is as much a philosopher as a consumer of data. They are more concerned with the development of theory explaining broader phenomena and working across cultures than with the functioning of a specific cultural manifestation of religion, except insofar as it reflects larger concepts in the theory of religion. If dataheads are the pastors of the sociological academy, theorists are more like systematic theologians, trying to synthesize as much as possible to understand in broad strokes both (current and historical) reality and the sea changes that take place from time to time.

Neither approach disregards the other. Big R sociology without data is just speculation and pontification. Little r sociology without theory is devoid of content and falls closer to journalism (i.e. reporting) than knowledge creation. I love both. I can’t get enough good data to satisfy me, because it is the only way to see what’s really going on. But I can’t help but ask bigger questions than survey data analysis can answer. In the end, I will end up as either a theoretically aware quantitative dude or a statistically knowledgeable theory guy, but the two are still worlds apart.

And even though I am nearly 5 years away from the terminus of my program, the decisions start now, because there is not time to study numbers, ideas, languages, and the history of the discipline all to a level of mastery. If I spend my time studying social thought, I have less time to understand the inner workings of the statistics that are the bread and butter of sociological scholarship today. If I care enough about Japan to refresh and improve my skills in the language, what other opportunities am I missing out on? And while there is much of my life yet, Robert Frost touched reality closely in his famous poem of choosing a path:

[I] Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

Even more than that, I will be adjusting to the habit of producing certain kinds of knowledge whose processes are very different. Certainly at Penn State the natural choice would seem to be the little r; our faculty is among the best in the world at thoughtful, relevant, incremental knowledge production. But who am I? Because I am both, but the two identities are held in tension and not allowing one to grow beyond the other would stymie my ability to participate in ongoing conversations and be useful in creating new ones.

And it goes beyond personal identity to personal vocation and theology. Clearly, I have the ability to produce multiple things. My M.A. thesis is an abstract theological proposal; my undergraduate thesis is evaluative number crunching. But I have to ask, what is the role I have been given in the scheme of God’s unfolding design of creation: a (hopefully masterful) craftsman or an intellectual? In what way am I embodying my Jesus, my God in my world? In the end, the decision returns to the missional question, not in a utilitarian way that seeks to maximize some underlying value that can be quantified and tested against others, but in a contextual way that seeks to answer “What am I doing here now?” I appreciate your shared prayers and I would love to offer mine to yours also. Vocation is one of the deepest, most personal, most meaningful and contextual (and thus frustrating and exhilarating to figure out) aspects of a life of faith. Peace to you in your own call.