We talk a good deal about vocation at Calvin University. It’s a big part of our first-year programing. We have a four-year innovative program called LifeWork that develops students’ readiness for life beyond college. It’s one of four all-university goals in our “educational framework”—a document that explores “the enduring characteristics or qualities of thinking, doing, and being that mark a Calvin graduate.” And it’s one of the required components of the senior capstone class that students must take in their majors.

I’m teaching that course this semester—as I’ve done pretty near every fall since I started at Calvin—so I’ve had a lot of conversations with students and thought a fair bit about the topic. I assign readings and informational interviews and various ways for students to think about what their calling is. Naturally, given how much we emphasize it, they can get a little fatigued about the topic, but in senior year, facing post-college life, there’s an often frightening immediacy to the question.

At least I can tell them that all the stereotypes about English degrees leading to unemployment are wildly offbase: a little over a month ago, for example, the New York Times reported In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure.” And I have an ever-growing email folder of articles that says that exact same thing. If only parents would believe them.   

Of course, the whole point of a theologically sophisticated notion of vocation is that it is bigger than just job. We want a capacious idea of vocation—one in which, if one is a Christian, one’s call is to discipleship, to following Christ. Everything else is secondary.

How that looks in the living out, however, is something else altogether. Students—as we all do—feel that pressure to achieve a life full of meaning. But how to know what really counts?

I sometimes think that obituaries are one of the surest registers of what we value as a culture. Who gets one and why, what we include (and don’t), which relationships are selected as essential.

And that’s why one obituary stood out to me this summer when, in its headline, it singled out the importance of a woman’s life as the “best friend” of a famous person. Intrigued, I read on. Surely, other famous people had best friends—why would this rise to the level to qualify for an obituary in a major newspaper? Surely, that couldn’t be important enough? Or so unusual?

Research turned up other headlines that went further, claiming the woman was a “good friend to many.” Indeed, one article reported she “was known for being the best friend you could find….Everyone who knew her was her friend, and they could always count on her to be welcoming, loyal, nurturing and kind.” The quality of her friendship turned out to be more impressive than her successful work and personal life—also mentioned, but somehow not as important. Testimonies of her talents as a friend were all over social media.

Friendship doesn’t always feature in obituaries—sometimes a really good friend gets a mention, but it’s never the default like for families. Part of that is, no doubt, the general American Christian idolatry of the family. But also: maybe it isn’t included because, generally, friendship isn’t something that makes the cut in the final accounting of life. Despite the depths of modern loneliness, friendship doesn’t count enough in our reckoning of success. It’s beaten out by work and hobbies and memberships. Everything we tell our college students that vocation isn’t about ends up being one of the main things accounted for.  

And maybe we’re not good enough at it to feature it. The rueful joke that the most miraculous thing about Jesus is that he had 12 good friends as an adult tells us something about our own insecurities and inabilities.

What if friendship is, in fact, the measure of our vocation?

After all, the God of the Old Testament testifies to its importance by modeling friendships with Enoch and Moses and David. And Jesus–criticized for his friendships with tax collectors and sinners, women and outcasts–centers friendship at the heart of his message, claiming no love greater than the sacrificial love for friends (John 15:13). Even by calling us friends, even in figuring his own sacrifice as something for companions (not servants or even sibilings), he asks us to follow him into radical reimagining of relationships:

friend of God,

friend of each other (including those in our families),

friend of creation.

That sounds like a calling that needs a lifetime’s work, indeed.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? 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 the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

6 Comments

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks, Jennifer – you’re right on!

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I think there’s a lot more here than meets the eye. Very stimulating. If I think about the whole official Kuyperian corpus of why we do education, I’ll bet “friendship” has never come up once. The Friends of God thing I was first introduced to by St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco. It all reminds me of Larry Herzberg’s rationale for learning foreign languages: Love. What! Love? And not just love of languages, but love of language-users. Friendship as a powerful cultural force is well worth thinking about, especially for Christians, who (apart from C. S. Lewis) seem to take it for granted as nothing to do with sanctification. Friendship as a “salvation-reality”.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    We live on a dead-end street in the city, and many of the first generational home builders still lived here when we bought our house from its original owners. We love the increasingly diverse community on our street, but we knew it was unique when the obituary of one of the elderly widows listed her “Lonsdale Neighbors” as her surviving family.

  • Jena Vander Ploeg says:

    Love this! (As well as your wonderful use of “capacious!)

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