By Krista Lackie, Bethel Seminary San Diego
2018 winner of the 100,000 Hours Colloquy!
I am pretty sure that I have thought about and wrestled with the idea of vocation more now—as I enter midlife—than I ever did in my twenties. Over the course of my life there are some repeated truths that God seems to show me, cycling round and round again through the years to teach me the same thing, but with greater depth than before. And so, over the past several months, I have sensed two repeated truths that are, this time around, related to my vocation: “lift your eyes off of yourself” and “trust God, not the outcome.”
When school begins anew every autumn, as a high school teacher, I have felt as if I was embarking on a new mission; just as my church prayed for and “sent” missionaries, there was something inside me that was a little disappointed that my church did not pray for and “send” me out into the new school year. In reading Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling, I found an echo of my desire to have my church join in my work as Sherman advocates for churches to learn “vocational stewardship” so that they intentionally and strategically deploy “vocational power—knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills, and reputation—to advance foretastes of God’s kingdom.”  Surely in the teaching profession, there are daily opportunities to bring these foretastes of God’s kingdom—His justice and shalom—into the classroom. It seemed clear that my church should pray for teachers and evident that a community would rejoice when its teachers and students flourish.
But then came the repeated truth: “lift your eyes off of yourself.” I began to think about the people sitting next to me in church. Do I pray for the work of my friend who is a mechanic? Do I see how God is present in the work of the grocery store clerk who sits across from me at Bible study? I can certainly see the good that my midwife sister-in-Christ is doing, but her work does not ebb and flow like a teacher’s does, with a clear beginning and ending each year. So, when do I remember to pray for her? As part of the Body of Christ, it is not just my work that has value, our work has value—and our work should be acknowledged, celebrated, and prayed for. And in order to live in the truth of “lift your eyes off of yourself,” I would need to respond with action; so, I am working with my church begin a vocational ministry in which we thank and pray for a different field of work each month in our worship service.
Several months ago my husband and I sensed that God was leading me to resign from my teaching job. At first I thought that I would return for one final year, and I looked forward to “finishing well.” I thought that, with the knowledge that the end was near, I would finish writing curriculum and several other projects I was working on. But as the school year ended, my husband and I knew that this was also an unexpected ending for my work as well. It was a new experience for me in grieving my work and wrestling with many questions related to my vocation. There was a sense of leaving things unfinished—ideas and personal projects left incomplete—and a sense of wondering if the work I did for 17 years mattered at all. Would anyone continue the things I had started? Is my work wasted because it is woefully incomplete?
But then came the repeated truth: “trust God, not the outcome.” And this time, that truth came in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” Tolkien, feeling discouragement and despair in his own work, writes the story of a painter named Niggle. Niggle had a particular picture in mind that he wanted to paint; he envisioned first a leaf, then a tree, and then, beyond that, a forest and mountains topped with snow. Niggle, knowing that a “necessary long journey” (death) was near, began to paint; he fussed and fiddled over a single leaf, but no matter how hard he worked, could not get much else on the canvas. In addition, he was frequently interrupted by neighbors who needed assistance, and Niggle kindly complied. When death comes for Niggle, he weeps over his unfinished work and his painting “Leaf: by Niggle” was hung and then forgotten in the town museum. When Niggle arrives in heaven, he sees “his” tree: the tree that he had envisioned. Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf comment in their book, Every Good Endeavor, “[Niggle] finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.” 
Tolkien’s story is deeply moving to me because I can identify with Niggle. While I am not a painter, as a teacher, I am always updating and revising my lessons and curriculum. Each new school year is a welcome opportunity to fiddle with and edit aspects of the course or include new material. Like Niggle, who remained focused on getting one leaf just right, my work was often focused on minutia, and yet both Niggle and I both had a vision for something much grander and more all-encompassing. But in order to live in the truth of “trust God, not the outcome,” I would need to respond with action. So I am—daily, and sometimes hourly—trusting God in the midst of questions and work that feels unfinished, believing that His faithfulness gives rest for weary hearts and hope for an outcome that is promised to be beyond imagination.
Image © Feliphe Schiarolli | unsplash.com