Friendly Vocations

What does it mean to live vocationally? Living out of a sense of calling is radically different from other motivations. Whereas actualization may be a worthy interest, “being all that one can be” is more self-focused than “giving all that one can give.” Likewise, motivations tied to outward measures of “success” are entirely different from seeking to be responsive to a leading. Throughout history, God has called people not to be successes, but to be faithful. Friends have thus historically placed the emphasis on living vocationally—responsive to the callings of God upon our lives—and this applies to us individually and collectively.

Discerning a particular calling, however, takes prayer and reflection. Sometimes a calling emerges from sensing the world’s deep need; sometimes it grows out of seeking to be a steward of what one has received. As Fredrick Buechner writes in Wishful Thinking, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Whatever the case, living and organizing vocationally connects with sensing the mission to which God has called us.

As an evangelical Friend, I would like to comment on three levels of vocation among Friends: global, organizational, and personal. On the global level, I wonder if there is anything Friends worldwide can say as one. Indeed a good number of our differences are substantive ones, and yet a common heritage may also yield a common vocation. As I think about a message that is needed in the world today, the message that Christ is come to teach his people himself, without need of religious intermediaries, continues to be as powerful today as it has ever been.

This message plays itself out in two particular ways. First, inviting the world to transformative spiritual encounter with God as the center of faith and practice transcends particular religious patterns and expressions. In that sense, our vocation is not to call people to be Quaker, or to join any particular religious group, but to be receptive and responsive to the ever-present Word of God calling every person from deep to deep. I believe people hunger for that sort of experience, and the great interest in spirituality today suggests that authentic encounter with the Divine is what people are really hungry for.

Second, there ought to be a way to address the physical and social needs of humanity as the center of spiritual concern, rather than its periphery. Most of what Jesus did, and what he sent his followers to do, involved social ministry. Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, liberating the oppressed (inwardly and outwardly), healing the sick, consoling the distraught—these were the works of Jesus along the shores of Galilee, and they continue to be his work today. Coming to see the world through the eyes of Christ renders our hearts to be touched by the things that touch the heart of a loving God. Ministry, then, becomes a spontaneous response to the needs of the world, energized and empowered by the transforming love of Christ. It’s hard to put it better than the Epistle of the 1985 World Gathering of Young Friends at Greensboro:

We have often wondered whether there is anything Quakers today can say as one. After much struggle we have discovered that we can proclaim this: there is a living God at the center of all, who is available to each of us as a Present Teacher at the very heart of our lives. We seek as a people of God to be worthy vessels to deliver the Lord’s transforming word, to be prophets of joy who know from experience and can testify to the world as George Fox did, “that the Lord God is at work in this thick night.” Our priority is to be receptive and responsive to the life-giving Word of God, whether it comes through the written Word—the Scriptures, the Incarnate Word; and Jesus Christ, the Corporate Word—as discerned by the gathered meeting, or through the Inward Word of God in our hearts which is available to each of us who seek the Truth.

On the organizational level, let me speak for what I sense as the passion and calling of evangelical Friends. While other concerns are real, for over a decade now, John Williams Jr. (superintendent of Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region, and regional director of EFI-North America), Chuck Mylander (Director of Evangelical Friends Mission), and others have been emphasizing the “Great Commission” and the “Great Commandments” of Jesus as central missional objectives of Evangelical Friends International- North America Friends. The former calls Jesus’ followers to make disciples among all nations (Matt. 28:18-20); the latter calls us to love God and humanity fully (Mark 12:29-31). As a result, new mission fields have opened up in Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Philippines, and elsewhere internationally. Likewise, ministering to the needs of others at home, including programs for youth, families, education, and outreach are of central interest to evangelical Friends.

In keeping with the Valiant 60 in the first generation of Friends, Evangelical Friends have believed that encountering the Good News of the Gospel implies a calling to be a steward of that which has been received. They also see the best way to change the world as a calling to change, one life at a time—from the inside out. Peace with God and others begins with the changed heart, and the changed life of the individual is the central hope collectively for the world. With Fox, Barclay, Penn, and others, Evangelical Friends see the primary battle of humanity as a spiritual one, and they believe that because the Light of Christ enlightens every one (John 1:9), at least potentially, the way forward involves helping others attend and respond to the saving-revealing Light of Christ in faith. Indeed, the Quaker movement has doubled in the last century directly as a factor of Friendly missionary work in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. In that sense, the most recent century has been the most explosive in terms of the growth of Quaker movement, and this is a factor of Friends seeking to be faithful to a calling to share the Good News we have received.

At this point, some might object, claiming that “Friends do not proselytize.” This is a good point, and this is why Friends do not seek to “Quakerize” others or pressure people to join a group. Evangel, though, means “good news,” and this is what Jesus came announcing to a needy world. Thus, to be authentically an evangelist is not only to announce the Good News of God’s saving-redeeming love for the world, but to be that news. The challenge is living up to the name.

Friends also believe that the Holy Spirit “convinces” humanity of the Truth (John 16:8) far better than people can, and that the Truth is always liberating (John 8:32). Therefore, convincement is the way of Christ, rather than coercion. However, we also testify to the Truth as we have encountered it, and one of the most important of Quaker testimonies is the conviction that God’s loving presence is available to all, to be received by faith and to be lived out in faithfulness. A distinctive aspect of Friendly approaches to evangelism is that we also want to listen to others’ accounts of God’s working in their lives, hoping to learn something as well as being willing to share. In that sense, the evangelist seeks to continue finding, helping all parties involved listen to the one Voice beyond the many—the still, small Voice of the living God.

As I consider my own sense of calling as a Friend, several elements of vocation come to mind. First, my calling is to seek the Truth and to be a steward of it. As people come closer to the Truth they come closer to Christ, and as they come closer to Christ they come closer to the Truth. This relates, then, to two other callings: to teach and to write. As a student of the Bible, I want to know all I can about how the inspired text came together, which provides a solid basis for inspiring interpretation. As a student and advocate of Quakerism, I feel compelled to testify that:

  • alternatives to violence are always superior to the use of force
  • sacramental reality is incarnational rather than formalistic
  • authentic worship is impressive as well as expressive
  • empowered ministry is inclusive, inspired, and compassionate
  • integrity and authenticity are central to abiding in the Truth
  • the Truth is furthered by convincement rather than coercion
  • effective Christian leadership facilitates the attending, discerning, and minding of Christ’s leadership.

As intersections between the deep hunger of the world and our deep gladness, these concerns are more weighty than mere interests or aspirations. They bear within themselves the true markings of vocation. At the heart of Quaker faith and practice, however, is the calling to be authentic followers of Jesus. Each of our testimonies roots in the example and teaching of Jesus, and believing the risen Christ seeks to lead all humanity into liberating truth entails an invitation to live responsively to being led. After all, as in John 15:14-15, abiding in a knowing sense of what Christ is doing in the world, and participating with Christ in doing our part, is what makes us Jesus’ “friends.”

Paul Anderson

Paul Anderson, professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies at George Fox University, is a member of North Valley Friends Church in Newberg, Oreg. The Quaker testimonies he offers in this article are developed more fully in seven essays in his "Meet the Friends" series, and in his essay, "A Dynamic Christocentricity—The Center of Faithful Praxis," in Quaker Religious Thought, # 105 (2005). He is the author of two books on John, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel and The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus, and a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Navigating the Living Waters of the Gospel of John.