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RISING TO THE CALL
By Os Guinness
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2003 Os Guinness
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Ultimate Why
As you know, I have been very fortunate in my career and I've made a lot of money—far more than I ever dreamed of, far more than I could ever spend, far more than my family needs." The speaker was a prominent businessman at a conference near Oxford University. The strength of his determination and character showed in his face, but a moment's hesitation betrayed deeper emotions hidden behind the outward intensity. A single tear rolled slowly down his well-tanned cheek.
"To be honest, one of my motives for making so much money was simple—to have the money to hire people to do what I don't like doing. But there's one thing I've never been able to hire anyone to do for me: find my own sense of purpose and fulfillment. I'd give anything to discover that."
That issue—purpose and fulfillment—is one of the deepest issues in our modern world. At some point every one of us confronts the question: How do I find and fulfill the central purpose of my life? Other questions may come logically prior to and lie even deeper than this one—for example, Who am I? What is the meaning of life itself? But few questions are raised more loudly and more insistently today than the first. As modern people we are all on a search for significance. We desire to make a difference. We long to leave a legacy. We yearn, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "to leave the world a bit better." Our passion is to know that we are fulfilling the purpose for which we are here on earth.
These passions can differ enormously—from an Olympic gold medal to a Hollywood Oscar to a Nobel Prize to an executive suite to the White House. Artists, scientists, and builders often labor to create a unique work that can live forever in their name. Politicians, business people, and administrators usually think of their monuments more in terms of institutions they have created and sustained. Parents, teachers, and counselors, by contrast, view their contribution in terms of lives shaped and matured. But for all the variety, the need for purpose is the same. As Thomas Carlyle wrote, "The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder—a waif, a nothing, a no-man."
All other standards of success—wealth, power, position, knowledge, friendships—grow tinny and hollow if we do not satisfy this deeper longing. For some people the hollowness leads to what Henry Thoreau described as "lives of quiet desperation"; for others the emptiness and aimlessness deepen into a stronger despair. In an early draft of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the Inquisitor gives a terrifying account of what happens to the human soul when it doubts its purpose: "For the secret of man's being is not only to live ... but to live for something definite. Without a firm notion of what he is living for, man will not accept life and will rather destroy himself than remain on earth...."
Call it the greatest good (summum bonum), the ultimate end, the meaning of life, or whatever you choose. But finding and fulfilling the purpose of our lives comes up in myriad ways and in all the seasons of our lives:
Teenagers feel it as the world of freedom beyond home and secondary school beckons with a dizzying range of choices.
Graduate students confront it when the excitement of "the world is my oyster" is chilled by the thought that opening up one choice means closing down others.
Those in their early thirties know it when their daily work assumes its own brute reality beyond their earlier considerations of the wishes of their parents, the fashions of their peers, and the allure of salary and career prospects.
People in midlife face it when a mismatch between their gifts and their work reminds them daily that they are square pegs in round holes. Can they see themselves "doing that for the rest of their lives"?
Mothers feel it when their children grow up, and they wonder which high purpose will fill the void in the next stage of their lives.
People in their forties and fifties with enormous success suddenly come up against it when their accomplishments raise questions concerning the social responsibility of their success and, deeper still, the purpose of their lives.
People confront it in all the varying transitions of life—from moving homes to switching jobs to breakdowns in marriage to crises of health. Negotiating the changes feels longer and worse than the changes themselves because transition challenges our sense of personal meaning.
Those in their later years often face it again. What does life add up to? Were their successes real, and were they worth the trade-offs? Having gained a whole world, however huge or tiny, have we sold our souls cheaply and missed the point of it all? As Walker Percy wrote, "You can get all A's and still flunk life."
This issue, the question of his own life-purpose, is what drove the Danish thinker Sören Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century. As he realized well, personal purpose is not a matter of philosophy or theory. It is not purely objective, and it is not inherited like a legacy. Many a scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world, many a philosopher can survey vast systems of thought, many a theologian can unpack the profundities of religion, and many a journalist can seemingly speak on any topic raised. But all that is theory and, without a sense of personal purpose, vanity.
Deep in our hearts, we all want to find and fulfill a purpose bigger than ourselves. Only such a larger purpose can inspire us to heights we know we could never reach on our own. For each of us the real purpose is personal and passionate: to know what we are here to do, and why. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal: "The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die."
TOO MUCH TO LIVE WITH, TOO LITTLE TO LIVE FOR
In our day, this question is urgent for many, and there is a simple reason why. Three factors have converged to fuel a search for significance without precedent in human history. First, the search for the purpose of life is one of the deepest issues of our experiences as human beings. Second, the expectation that we can all live purposeful lives has been given a gigantic boost by modern society's offer of the maximum opportunity for choice and change in all we do. Third, fulfillment of the search for purpose is thwarted by a stunning fact: Out of more than a score of great civilizations in human history, modern Western civilization is the very first to have no agreed-upon answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus ignorance, confusion—and longing—surround this topic more now than at almost any time in history. The trouble is that, as modern people, we have too much to live with and too little to live for. Some feel they have time but not enough money; others feel they have money but not enough time. But for most of us, in the midst of material and philosophical plenty, we have spiritual poverty. As a result, many people simply make do by constructing their own sense of purpose as best they can.
VISIONARIES WHO ADD VALUE
This book is for all who long to find and fulfill the purpose of their lives. It argues that this purpose can be found only when we discover the specific purpose for which we were created and to which we are called. The great Creator alone knows our reason for being and calls us into a life of purpose. As we human beings rise to the call of our Creator, we become sub-creators, entering into our own creativity, artistry, and entrepreneurship as made in his image—thus adding to the rich fruitfulness of the universe. Answering the call of our Creator is "the ultimate why" for living, the highest source of purpose in human existence, because it literally transforms us into "entrepreneurs of life." Apart from such a calling, all hope of discovering purpose (as in the current talk of shifting "from success to significance") will end in disappointment. To be sure, calling is not what it is commonly thought to be. It has to be dug out from under the rubble of ignorance and confusion. And, uncomfortably, it often flies directly in the face of our human inclinations. But nothing short of God's call can ground and fulfill the truest human desire for purpose.
One place where the confusion is lifting is the growing understanding that purpose cannot be found in means, only ends. Capitalism, for all its creativity and fruitfulness, falls short when challenged to answer the question "Why?" By itself it is literally meaningless, in that it is only a mechanism, not a source of meaning. So too are politics, science, psychology, management, self-help techniques, and a host of other modern theories. What Tolstoy wrote of science applies to all of them: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important to us, 'what shall we do and how shall we live?'" There is no answer outside a quest for purpose and no answer to the quest is deeper and more satisfying than answering the call.
What is meant by "calling"? Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.
And what is meant by "entrepreneur of life"? The entrepreneur is the person who assumes the responsibility for a creative task, not as an assigned role, a routine function, or an inherited duty, but as a venture of faith, including risk and danger, in order to bring into the world something new and profitable to humankind. Called in this sense, and answering such a call by rising to it in faith, entrepreneurs of life use their talents and resources to be fruitful and bring added value into the world—quite literally making the invisible visible, the future present, the ideal real, the impossible an achievement, the desired an experience, the status quo dynamic, and the dream a fulfillment.
To be sure, there is much in life we did not choose and cannot change. At the beginning of life none of us decided the date of our birth, the color of our eyes, or the pedigree of our ancestry. And at the end we do not decide the day of our death or the weight of our legacy. In between there are a million and one circumstances over which we have no control. But we are still, always, essentially people of significance—men and women whose entrepreneurial capacity to exercise dominion, to assert influence, and to multiply fruitfulness is at the heart of our humanness.
To stress the entrepreneurial must not be confused with the heartless heresy that an individual is valuable only in so far as he or she is profitable. But it is to see, as philosopher Dallas Willard states, that all of us have "a unique eternal calling to count for good in God's great universe."
The artist Vincent van Gogh captured this expansive view of artistry and entrepreneurship when he wrote to his closest friend, Emile Berhard, just two years before his death. Van Gogh noted that Jesus of Nazareth lived "as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as color, working in living flesh. That is to say, this matchless artist ... made neither statues nor pictures nor books; he loudly proclaimed that he made ... living men, immortals."
This truth—calling—has been a driving force in many of the greatest "leaps forward" in world history—the constitution of the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, the birth of the Christian movement in Galilee, and the sixteenth-century Reformation and its incalculable impetus to the rise of the modern world, to name a few. Little wonder that the rediscovery of calling should be critical today, not least in satisfying the passion for purpose of millions of questing modern people.
* * *
For whom is this book written? For all who seek such purpose. For all, whether believers or seekers, who are open to the call of the most influential person in history—Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, this book is written for those who know that their source of purpose must rise above the highest of self-help humanist hopes and who long for their faith to have integrity and effectiveness in the face of all the challenges of the modern world.
The truth of calling has been as important to me in my journey of faith as any truth of the gospel of Jesus. In my early days of following Jesus, I was nearly swayed by others to head toward spheres of work they believed were worthier for everyone and right for me. If I was truly dedicated, they said, I should train to be a minister or a missionary.
I did not know it then, but the start of my search (and the genesis of this book) lay in a chance conversation in the 1960s, in the days before self-service gas stations. I had just had my car filled up with gas and enjoyed a marvelously rich conversation with the pump attendant. As I turned the key and the engine of the forty-year-old Austin Seven roared to life, a thought suddenly hit me with the force of an avalanche: This man was the first person I had spoken to in a week who was not a church member. I was in danger of being drawn into a religious ghetto.
Urged on all sides to see that, because I had come to faith, my future must lie in the ministry, I had volunteered to work in a well-known church for nine months—and was miserable. To be fair, I admired the pastor and the people and enjoyed much of the work. But it just wasn't me. My passion was to relate my faith to the exciting and exploding secular world of early 1960s Europe, but there was little or no scope for that in the ministry. Ten minutes of conversation with a friendly gas pump attendant on a beautiful spring evening in Southampton, England, and I knew once and for all that I was not cut out to be a minister.
Needless to say, recognizing who we aren't is only the first step toward knowing who we are. Escape from a false sense of life-purpose is only liberating if it leads to a true one. Journalist Ambrose Bierce reached only halfway. "When I was in my twenties," he wrote, "I concluded one day that I was not a poet. It was the bitterest moment of my life."
Looking back on the years since my conversation at the gas station, I can see that calling was positive for me, not negative. Released from what was "not me," my discovery of my calling enabled me to find what I was. Having wrestled with the stirring saga of calling in history and having taken up the challenge of God's individual call to me, I have been mastered by this truth. God's call has become a sure beacon ahead of me and a blazing fire within me as I have tried to figure out my way and negotiate the challenges of the extraordinary times in which we live. The chapters that follow are not academic or theoretical; they have been hammered out on the anvil of my own experience.
Do you long to discover your own sense of purpose and fulfillment? Let me be plain. You will not find here a "one-page executive summary," a "how-to manual," a "twelve-step program," or a readymade "game plan" for figuring out the rest of your life. What you will find may point you toward one of the most powerful and truly awesome truths that has ever arrested the human heart.
"In Ages of Faith," Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "the final aim of life is placed beyond life." That is what calling does. "Follow me," Jesus said two thousand years ago, and he changed the course of history. That is why calling provides the Archimedean point by which faith moves the world. That is why calling is the most comprehensive reorientation and the most profound motivation in human experience—the ultimate Why for living in all history. Calling begins and ends such ages and lives of faith by placing the final aim of life beyond the world where it was meant to be. Answering the call is the way to find and fulfill the central purpose of your life.
* * *
Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose in your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself? Do you want to go beyond success to significance? Have you come to realize that self-reliance always falls short and that worlddenying solutions provide no answer in the end?
Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.
Chapter TwoEveryone, Everywhere, Everything
One evening in 1787 a young English Member of Parliament pored over papers by candlelight in his home beside the Houses of Parliament. Wilberforce had been asked to propose the abolition of the slave trade although almost all Englishmen thought the trade necessary, if nasty, and that economic ruin would follow if it stopped. Only a very few thought the slave trade wrong, evil."
Excerpted from RISING TO THE CALL by Os Guinness Copyright © 2003 by Os Guinness. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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