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“If You Build It, He Will Come”: Reflections on Vocation

I’m very proud to have as my guest on the blog today my student Alexander Westenbroek.  Alex is from Grand Rapids and is pursuing a degree in Linguistics here at Calvin; he graduates next May.  We talk a lot at Calvin about vocation (you’ll remember in the spring that I featured the writing of another of my students on this very topic).  I enjoyed reading Alex’s recent reflection on the subject–and I thought you might too. 


As I write this, I’m sitting on the deck in my backyard. It’s October, so the leaves are all changing, and a cool breeze is blowing through them. It’s Sunday. I had coffee with my parents this morning after church. I can hear my best friend bumping around in the kitchen behind me, making our homegrown apples (which we picked yesterday) into cider. I’m drinking a warm cup of tea, and our huge silver maple has formed a veil over the yard, filtering the sunlight in that untranslatable way.

I’m in heaven.

Afternoons like these are awful times to ponder vocation, because vocation (for me) will necessarily entail vacation. Part of growing up is leaving home.

And to leave home is to willingly break your own heart.  

For me, growing into Christian adulthood involves a two-step process. I often hear of the whole process summed up in one word: vocation. I, however, want to speak of vocation only as the first step, the second step being mission. I realize that this is a bit over-simplified, since we rarely solve the mysteries of our lives in a single experience. The real vocation/mission sequence works more like a continuous circle, but more on that later.

I’ve spent roughly four years mulling over this vocation/mission sequence in my mind (which is important), but I’ve come to the critical point where I must start making decisions. By this time next October, adult life will be happening. I believe I know my vocation and my mission (though I can hardly say I understand them), and now all that’s left to do is go.

And it’s going to hurt.

Now, let’s unpack this binary metaphor that I’ve proposed for growing into Christian adulthood, beginning with “step one.” Vocation derives directly from the Latin voco (“call”), so a vocation is, quite literally, a calling. You’ve heard this before, I know. I highlight it because I want to take the word in a more narrow sense—a more literal sense. I think of God’s calling as just that—an alert, a grabbing of attention, a “hey you.” God speaks and I do my best to listen. In other words, when I talk about vocation, I’m talking about my relationship with God, and not much else. I ask myself questions such as, “How has God spoken to me recently?” “What has he been saying?” “Have I been listening?” “How can I be more committed to God?” Vocation is turned inward; it is one-on-one.

I think of some of the famous names of the Old Testament: Abraham, Samuel, etc. While I would like to stress that I’m making no attempt to compare their faith to my own, I believe they accurately illustrate the model of vocation that I’ve been explaining. When God calls to them, they respond, “Here I am.”[1] Vocation is an exchange of God calling to us and us answering with a simple “Here I am.” It necessarily involves a discipline of prayer and pondering, and it takes a lifetime to perfect. This leads to another claim: vocation doesn’t stop being an issue after college graduation or after landing a dream job. These years of college are the formative years, during which we enter into the relationship of vocation. And I should stress again that vocation is a discipline. Recently, I’ve felt like I’ve had to shove metaphorical toothpicks between my eyelids and metaphorical funnels into my ears. I feel like I have to clench every muscle in my body and focus every cell in my brain just in order to pay attention to God. A confession: I’m not very good at it yet. Thankfully, however, God’s voice is loud and articulate. And it’s strangely catchy—I find myself coming back to it.

God’s voice gets under your skin. I draw, here, on another analogy: “If you build it, he will come.” The famous Voice from Field of Dreams works somewhat like God’s voice. It gets your attention; it gets under your skin. If you’ve not seen the movie, Ray, a farmer, hears the mysterious Voice out in his cornfield, repeating the short sentence: “If you build it, he will come.” He yells confused pleas and questions in response, but gets nothing. He wrestles with the words for a while, before coming to a decision on what they must mean, and what he must do about them. Wrestling with God doesn’t work in quite the same way, but you get the analogy. We hear a calling, and we give that calling our undivided attention. We sort out our calling, our vocation, and what it means for our lives.

While vocation is the attention-getter, the opening of the door, the mission is the real substance of the dialogue, the “what.” Now, when I talk about mission, I’m not talking about what you might call “world missions.” I’m not talking about being a missionary. Mission also comes from a Latin word: mitto, which means “send.” So while vocation is a calling, mission is, quite literally, a sending. When I talk about mission, I’m talking about the act of God sending someone into a particular realm of life. I’m talking about God’s saying, “go be a linguist,” and my saying, “OK.”

I return to Field of Dreams. The vocation, here, is the Voice, and Ray choosing to listen to the Voice in the first place. The mission, then, naturally follows from the vocation; it’s the first clause: “If you build it.” This is the “what” of the relationship. Ray has started paying attention; he’s listening to the Voice, so he’s got vocation under control. But the next step is going out in doing something. He has to build “it” (a baseball field, as it turns out) in order to further, or, rather, follow through on his relationship with the Voice. The semantics of the word “call” include a sense of motion towards, but the semantics of the word “send” include a sense of motion away. You call someone to you, but you send someone away from you. So, if vocation is always turned inward, mission is always turned outward. Vocation says, “Pay attention to me.” Mission says, “Do what I say.”

Now that we know what we’re talking about, I’m going to make the bold claim that I have opened my ears to vocation and have come to understand my mission, at least for now (because missions can change). I believe God has sent me to teach people about language. This mission is twofold: first, I will go abroad and teach English. I can bring my knack for English grammar to non-native speakers and help them learn the language. Second, I will go to graduate school and become a professor of linguistics, at which point I will continue to share my knack for English grammar with college students. I will attempt to illuminate for my students the beauty of human language and the beauty of the models that we have for describing human language. My vocation is God; my mission is teaching about language.

Arriving at this point was a bit of a process. First of all, it involved responding to my vocation, which has been happening for almost my whole life (I was born into the CRC to two Calvin grads). I formally professed my faith at fourteen, and I’ve been trying to figure my vocation out pretty much since then. I still have a lot to learn and a lot of transforming to do, but I think I’m on the right track (I hope). I have heard God’s call—the voice in the cornfield—and I have whirled around in anxious response. I tried to hold myself open to God’s mission for me, the “what” that would become my life. I felt drawn to language study from a young age and always found affirmation in that subject. I loved the Schoolhouse Rock videos. I made up an “alphabet” that I could use to write in my invented “language.” I was good at Latin. I came to college wanting to study linguistics, and I felt confident. Throughout my four years, I still struggled with feelings of inadequacy and doubt. I struggled and even embarrassed myself in some classes. I read depressing articles about graduate school. I never made any sort of real decision to walk away from linguistics, but I began to give it some serious thought. Maybe I got my mission wrong.

Then, two things happened. Well, three things.

First, a mentor of mine made an offhand comment. “You have a particular gift for syntax,” she said. “Your understanding of traditional grammar far surpasses the majority of your age group in the U.S.” That’s a compliment that I have not treated lightly. It is a compliment that will continue to motivate me. Second, another mentor of mine passed away. During the aftermath, I realized the profound impact he had had on so many lives—the way he would illuminate the classroom and excite his students. I became overcome with the urge to follow in his footsteps.

And third, I conducted an interview with yet another mentor. This one was a much younger professor, only just out of graduate school. She told me about her life as a linguist up to that point, how she had come to love linguistic study after taking a History of English class late in her college career, how she was fascinated by the existence of allophones and by the use of noun strings, and how she thought that “practicality,” when it came to choosing a major, was a fallacy. I felt like I was talking with another version of me, only a few years ahead. She echoed my excitement about language, my worries about jobs, and my dissatisfaction with any sort of life that didn’t involve studying and teaching about language. She even stressed that teaching linguistics was more of a priority to her even than doing linguistic research, something that I have felt myself for a while now. I felt so affirmed after that conversation, since her mission was almost identical to mine, and she was living hers and thriving. Talent, longing, and opportunity all, so far, have pointed to this mission. This must be God talking. I have heard his vocation, and I’m now ready to commit to his (and to my) mission.

I’m ready to leave home.

I want teach students about language, and in so doing I will build God’s kingdom. This is really what all missions ultimately lead to: the furthering of God’s kingdom—the construction of paradise. This may sound airy-fairy, but I think the sentiment rings true. God’s kingdom is built on community, and what better way to construct community with other people than to share and teach the things that you’ve learned? Furthermore, doesn’t understanding more about God’s creation add to God’s kingdom? Language is an aspect of God’s creation, one that is particularly mysterious and tricky, especially considering how “out in the open” it is. And these mysteries and trick just beg for explanation. Furthermore, returning to the “practicality fallacy,” there’s no field of study that isn’t worthwhile. Everything—from linguistics to mathematics to political science to civil engineering—is worth knowing more about. All of these missions glorify God and add to God’s kingdom.

            “If you build it, he will come.

            If you live out your mission, Christ will come.

I’m terrified of leaving home. I’m terrified of independence and adulthood. I’m terrified of my mission, if it is indeed the right mission for me, if I’ve actually been hearing God right through all of this. But I’m going to go through with it despite my nerves.

J.R.R. Tolkien, the linguist who first piqued my interest in the field, offers a comforting verse that will conclude my reflection. Because vocation and mission are lifelong ordeals, and because they are pouring forth from God, always many paces ahead of me:

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.


[1] E.g. Genesis 22:1

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

One Comment

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Reading Alex's piece blest me richly this morning. I pause to thank God for him and for his important insights and gifts.

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