Do you remember the great Canadian actor Raymond Massey? His portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in the movie Abe Lincoln in Illinois has got to be one of the most powerful and moving performances of Lincoln of all time. And his portrayal of the abolitionist John Brown in the film Santa Fe Trail is one that is forever etched in my mind. You may have your own personal favorite Raymond Massey film; he was one of the most distinguished actors in the 20th century.
So it may surprise you to know that Raymond Massey was never expected to be an actor. He came from a distinguished family that included his brother Vincent Massey, who served as Governor General of Canada. There was every expectation that Raymond would study law and then take up a career in government service but Raymond felt drawn in a different direction. When he finally mustered the courage to tell his parents he had decided to become an actor rather than study law, they seemed almost brokenhearted that their son would not follow in the footsteps of his father. Only years later, as Raymond succeeded as an actor, did his parents come to accept his decision.
The relationship between Raymond Massey and his parents was a complicated one. Maybe you’ve had something similar happen in your family. You hope your son or daughter will do one thing but they end up doing something entirely different. I have known many parents who hoped their son or daughter would go into this or that profession, take over the family business, or even marry this or that person, only to have their son or daughter take a completely different path in life.
The truth is that the generation gap is nothing new. Kids rebelling against their parents didn’t start in the 1960s, in spite of what the Boomers think. The gap between parents and children is as old as history.
Would it surprise you to know that Jesus’ family didn’t understand him? In fact, they resolved to take custody of him and bring him back home, perhaps as a way to protect him from himself.
When Jesus is told that his family is there to bring him home, he looks around at a crowd of total strangers and says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
There is little doubt that Jesus saw things differently than his family. That has to be some comfort for anyone who has ever felt misunderstood by their parents.
Growing up and becoming a mature human being is not about leaving home, or a buying a car, or going to college, or getting married, or having children, or purchasing a house. It’s about our resolve to do God’s will. The more open we are to God, the more grown-up we become.
Every one of us has a calling. None of us has been put on this earth by accident. We are created by God for some specific service. We all have our mission. We exist for a purpose. God has charged us with some responsibility which he has not committed to anyone else. No matter who we are, we are called by God to make some positive impact on this world, even if that is not understood by those around us.
Do you want to branch out, do something different with your life, follow the passions of your heart, but you hear voices that tell you: “Don’t do it! Why bother? You’ll never succeed! Who do you think you are to do what’s never been done before?”
I am sure such words were spoken to Martin Luther when he challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church. They were spoken to William Wilberforce as he led the fight in the British Parliament to abolish slavery. They were spoken to Mother Teresa as she left the comfort of a wealthy private school to begin a religious order that would focus on the “poorest of the poor” in India. They were words told to Dorothy Day when she began the Catholic Worker movement in New York City. They were words addressed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela when apartheid was still very much entrenched in South Africa.
Following your calling may be difficult. It may mean disapproval, misunderstanding, hardship or struggle. People will keep telling you that what you are trying to do is impossible, so don’t bother, give up, abandon your dreams and go along with everyone else.
But you have this passion in your heart, this desire to make a difference, this belief that God is calling you to move out of your comfort zone into a new horizon where the possibilities are beyond imagining. So you trust God, take that leap of faith, step out from your securities and hold firm to the belief that if God is calling you to do some work, he will not leave you unaided. God who gives you the call will also give you the grace. God will help you become what he calls you to be.
Of course, there is no one way for everyone. God’s call can sometimes shout at us in moments of crisis, or it can whisper in times of solitude. Oftentimes God speaks in moments of quiet reflection when we dare to ask ourselves: What is it I most deeply desire to do? What are the passions of my heart that reflect the gifts of my life?
When I was practicing law, I remember a fellow lawyer by the name of Linda who was wrestling with her calling in life. She was a stellar lawyer, working as an assistant prosecutor for the New York district attorney. When her uncle Bart died and she attended his funeral, family members spoke about him as the “family artist” – creative, imaginative and eccentric. He sold insurance by day but cultivated oil-painting during the evenings and on weekends. He didn’t play golf or watch football with the other uncles, but he loved to paint and his pictures were filled with grace and beauty and even humor.
As she talked about her uncle, Linda saw that her life was now at a crossroads. She was a talented writer and had some short stories published before she was in college. She had continued to develop her skills, getting up two hours early every morning to write before she went to the office. But the past few years had been difficult ones. She just hadn’t had any luck getting her stories published.
After the funeral, Linda mulled over the events of her uncle’s life. She began to realize that our time in this life is short. If we want to do something, we need to do it now, because tomorrow may be too late. She was deathly afraid that she would die without ever having lived. So Linda made a momentous decision: she was called to write. And that is what she is doing.
What Linda experienced is a calling-not a job, mind you, but a calling. The danger in life is to settle for a job without ever finding our calling!
A job is something we do to survive, to earn a living and to pay the bills. During college and graduate school, I spent six summers working for the New York Daily News as a clerk. It was a very good job with excellent pay, and I felt fortunate to have the position. I liked working at the Daily News, and the company liked me. It was a good arrangement. But I confess: I never felt called to be a clerk or to work in the newspaper business. For me, my summer job was just a job and nothing more.
A calling is different. It’s something you feel drawn to do. It is something that stirs the passions of your heart, that attracts you to such a degree that you can’t possibly resist. Your identity becomes wrapped in your mission. A calling is what gives your life meaning. It supplies motive for getting out of bed in the morning and putting your heart and soul into the day.
A wise priest once said to me when I was thinking of studying for the priesthood, “If you can possibly imagine yourself doing anything else besides being a priest, then by all means do it.” Now that is a calling – it’s what Catholics term a “vocation.” When we find and exercise our vocation, happiness follows.
This spring, hundreds of thousands of students are graduating from high school and college around North America. Even with the sputtering economy, they are entering a world filled with opportunity, challenges and choices-opportunity to develop and use their gifts to their fullest potential-challenges to commit themselves to selfless service and not selfish gain-choices to decide whether to heed the call of God and respond to it.
This much is certain: our happiness, our satisfaction and fulfillment in life, our effectiveness in the world and our usefulness to God all depend on our openness and generosity of spirit, on our willingness to step out in faith and move beyond our comfort zone, to give ourselves in service, and yes, even to sacrifice for causes greater than us.
When the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, was asked about his life’s secret, he replied, “Since the first day that God put the poor of London, England upon my heart, God has had all there was of William Booth.”
The question for us is: Does God have all there is of us? Are we ready to surrender to his will, to give ourselves into his hands, and to do the work he has called us to do? Will we pursue our life’s calling-the only calling we have or ever will have-and move beyond the safety and security of a pre-packaged future into a future which is God’s?
So take heed of the words of Jesus and stop trying to protect your life, but rather give it away to the God who already owns it. Take to heart what Jesus says to us: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.