“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” ~ Ephesians 2.10
What are you going to be when you grow up?”
As a child this was an exciting question—especially if you had read colorful picture books about dancers or fire fighters or astronauts or circus tightrope-walkers. The world looked ready for exploring and conquering.
But that exciting question boomeranged back on us our senior year in high school when well-meaning adults asked, “What will your major be in college?” The world now seemed a little too large with too many options.
Once we were over the hurdle of what college major we wanted to pursue, we started asking ourselves questions like “what job will I actually find?” and “how am I going to support myself?” and “is this what I really want to be doing?”
Then, as we got older and found ourselves in new social settings, we were asked, “What do you do?” Each time we tried to find a way to answer this in a sentence or two, inwardly grappling with what to share or not to share about what takes up our days (or what we wish took up our days).
These all seem like fine questions, fitting each stage of life we have been in. Figuring out the answer seemed to be the tough part. Underneath the questions and the answers are deeper questions and deeper ideas about identity, calling, and how we spend our days. The simplicity of Annie Dillard’s “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives”  can be freeing and burdensome.
After my husband Ned and I were married, our main goals were getting jobs… so we could pay the rent and utilities, pay off college loans, buy groceries, and maybe go to a concert. As young people working at our first jobs and thinking about the future, our vision of a successful life was what we had seen growing up: working our way to buying a house and a car (or two), having children, serving in church, spending time with friends, and going on vacations. We assumed this was the path responsible Christians followed for a good life.
Concepts of identity and calling had not been part of any conversations we had had together, or with our friends. But within the first couple months of marriage, Ned was wrestling with what it meant to be a Christian and an artist, while I was looking through Scripture to learn what it meant to be a woman and a wife.
Without using the words calling or identity, we were face-to-face with the honest question of “what is our life for?”
Since then we have explored various thinkers’ ideas of identity and calling. Fredrick Buechner’s oft-quoted definition of calling— “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” —is still a poetic mystery to me. I love how he put the words together, but I don’t know how this idea actually works itself out. I have wondered, “What really is my deep gladness? And how could that possibly meet the world’s deepest hunger?”
Of course, I do keep reading Buechner, even if I can’t get my head around that quote. But I’ve found that a better starting point for me when working through the idea of identity and calling are the words of St. Paul’s: “we are God’s workmanship and created to do good works he prepared in advance for us to do.” The words have reminded me of God’s love, and they have encouraged me to keep seeking what those good works from God are for me to do. How amazing of God, I have thought, that He gives me something to do for Him that can be for the good of those around me—I get to be in on his New Creation plans as a child of God by being a wife, mother, daughter, friend, teacher, writer . . .
I have heard people say that being God’s workmanship is akin to being God’s poem, as the word poeima in Greek is translated into workmanship. Whether this is an accurate translation or not, I am drawn to this picture of calling because I love words and poetry. What a real comfort to think Jesus, the Word of God-made-flesh, is forming us to be part of His long epic poem.
To continue the analogy of poems, the mystery of discerning one’s calling and then living into it can feel like what happens to Billy Collin’s poem in “Introduction to Poetry.” In the last stanza the poem has been tied to a chair with a rope and been “beaten with a hose to find out what it all really means.”
All my questions about discerning God’s call, about ability and inability, as well as comparisons to others and the work of improving have been torturous. I much prefer Collins’s images of holding a poem “up to the light like a color slide” or water-skiing through life waving hello to the poet.
By our early thirties, through books we read and talks we listened to, through late-into-the-night discussions with mentors, as well as wrestling with each other and God, we delved into the idea of calling and what our callings were. One friend’s words greatly helped:
“Calling does not refer to just one job or one task. It encompasses the whole shape of our life: the web of relationships and diversity of work that God gives to each Christian. . . Calling is the comprehensive picture of the unique path laid out for each of us, consisting of the particular things God has asked us—and sometimes no one else—to do.” 
Paying attention to the community God had placed in our life, especially our family, church friends, and neighbors, and to the work that went with our passions offered us glimmers of clarity. We learned through hard life experiences that our callings didn’t always match our day-in and day-out jobs.
One concept my husband and I ruminated on was the reality of living corem Deo—before the face of God. All of life, no matter how ordinary or unseen, could be lived as an act of worship to Him. This was revolutionary to me, as I assumed only “spiritual” activities such as evangelizing and having daily devotions were what really pleased God.
Reading Edith Schaeffer’s book The Hidden Art of Homemaking was true North on my life compass. In each chapter, she elaborated on how a “Christian should show in some practical area of a growing creativity. . .” and being “created in the image of an Artist, we should look for expressions of artistry, and be sensitive to beauty, responsive to what has been created.” This book helped me enlarge the idea of living coram Deo. I was excited at how caregiving (caring for the people in my family and community) and cultivating (bringing beauty and goodness into the places God put me) could fill my days.
We understood that even if Ned worked hard as an artist and designer in his own business, he might not be what the world called successful, with big name recognition and a big bank account. One mentor encouraged us with these words:
“True artists . . . make the most of every opportunity. They do not wait for a national platform to really apply themselves. They give their best to God in their home, church, community, or university—being seen as faithful in the little things that they might be found ready and prepared for the bigger.” 
How could we partner together well, using our gifts, creativity, and passions in our everyday lives and for others? How could I intertwine beauty and goodness in the ordinary parts of our days and offer it to my community? Along the way, as we figured out some of the answers to these questions, we grew in our callings that included being husband and wife, parents, church members, and friends, and Ned grew in his craft as an artist and designer. I grew in my skills of being a caregiver and a cultivator by expanding my baking abilities, gathering friends together for book groups, enfolding newcomers at church, and having my daughters help me make meals for others. We deepened our commitment to the people and places God had given us.
This vision of the goodness of ordinary life was one God placed before me to keep my eyes fixed on Him and His ways. A crucial essay that helped me understand this was A Stick Becomes a Staff of God by Denis Haack:
“I dream of extraordinary things, of course, of things spectacular enough that the blessing of God is palpable and sure. Of doing great things for God not so much for the sake of fame, but to know for sure that what I do or accomplish is clearly significant in the eternal scheme of things . . . [Yet it is] pride that makes us go a-whoring after the spectacular and the extraordinary. Our primary calling as the children of God is to be faithful in the ordinary and the routine. The ordinary of everyday life that is before us moment by moment is not to be despised or considered insignificant or secondary. It is to be embraced and celebrated as the very sphere for which we were made and in which the grace of God is so spectacularly at work.” 
The richness of this essay included seeing how Creation (although truly a wonder) was actually the beginning of ordinary living and working as God’s people, as well as realizing how many of Christ’s miracles (although amazing) made it possible for people to go back to their ordinary lives. His work was restoring people to what they were meant to be. And as we think about Moses with his ordinary wooden shepherding stick, God took it and used it to do fantastic things, so that in the end, ordinary people could be set free to go live as his people—doing ordinary work.
I may have been called to do ordinary work with ordinary people in an ordinary place, but that didn’t mean that it would be boring or meaningless. My ordinary life could make for a really good story, our friend Charlie Peacock wrote “My life and my art are going to tell a story whether I try to or not. They will tell a story that says: This is what a follower of Jesus is. This is what he is about.” 
My imagination grabbed hold of this idea—that all of life, even my ordinary-on-Pine-Street life, could be an act of worship as well as a good story. I realized that this was what I wanted for my life and in our home. Small touches of beauty in our day would add goodness to the story, as well as enfolding others into our lives. I wanted to share huge doses of laughter, tears, conversations, and food with my people.
When my girls were growing up this included fresh flowers arranged in the morning, Ella Fitzgerald during fall evenings, candles at dinnertime, piles of new library books every other week, growing sunflowers, and teatime and dress-up under lilac trees. Also, as they grew I added in pancake breakfasts with poetry, picnics in the park, Shakespeare plays with friends’ children, and celebrations for New Year’s Day with a gathering of folks and sharing top-ten lists. I envisioned our life story to include loving and serving not just our family but also old and young church members, neighbors, and our daughters’ friends.
But living it out wasn’t always easy.
During my late thirties and early forties, anxiety and comparing myself to others was the trap I fell into often. I could at once feel confident, purposeful, and enthused about what I was doing, while under my skin feel I was either too idealistic, or I was play-acting and would eventually be found out as a fraud. Even if others couldn’t see it, I often felt trapped in insecurity and discouragement, wondering if what I did would matter.
As I look back over all the years of discerning and living out my specific callings, God has graciously been teaching me several things. Of most importance: I am His beloved.  Learning to fix my eyes on Jesus and resting in His steadfast faithfulness can be my source of daily confidence and strength. And, even though I am His workmanship, and He is completing his good work in me, the good works He has prepared for me are not just about my own personal fulfillment. Rather, my callings as a caregiver and a cultivator can be for the good of the people God has given me and in the places He has put me. It’s really about his New Creation story lived out in ordinary time.
The Spirit and Scripture point me towards learning how to love God and others, as well as learning to die to my pride and vanity. I appreciate Flannery Connor’s prayer in her college journal, “I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”  I’ve come to learn that as I lean more into the Holy Spirit for help and trust Him for the outcomes, the insecurities and anxieties that have kept me inward facing begin to take up less space in my heart.
It has been good to experience a deeper freedom of being God’s child.
Now I am in my fifties. I am at the point my twenty-something self could barely imagine. The beginning of my fifth decade continued on like the previous one—caring for family and friends and finding ways to be creative and to offer beauty and goodness in my community (this included teaching 7th and 8th grade literature and writing and producing high school and children’s theater). But this ordinary life took an abrupt left turn with my prognosis of two different stages and types of cancer. While life has changed, I realize my callings have not. All the things God had been working in me and doing through me have continued, although on a different scale and in different ways.
This gift of God I have been unwrapping over the course of my adult years has showed me the splendor of quotidian days—untying “brown paper packages tied up with string” and layers of anticipation and discovery. And now, one of the sweetest surprises I’ve received over the past couple of years is the good work of writing—putting what I see and love into essays and poetry. My observations of beauty in the ordinary now find its way out into the world through images, phrases, paragraphs, and stanzas. Jesus, the Living Word, continues to invite me to respond to His call of love through the work of caring for people and cultivating places, and, the wonder of it all, through the crafting of words into poetry.
These days I might ask a young friend, “What do you want to be when you get older?” But most likely I’ll look them in the eye and ask them what book they are reading. Or after shaking the hand of a newcomer at church, I’ll ask, “What takes up your days?” Or maybe I’ll ask what they have been doing lately that makes them happy. And if I’m asked the same question, I might pause and figure out how much to say or not to say, but then might simply say with a smile, “I love on my people and write poetry.”
“Even as you, in the infinite poetry
of your thoughts and the inexhaustible joy
of your love, spoke a universe into existence,
into life, into the complex motion of its myriad
particulars, so grant the grace that I might trace
by my thoughts and words the echoes of some
infinite pattern of your creation.” 
This essay was written with much gratitude for the various women and men in my life who have modeled what it looks like to follow Jesus in their callings. I am especially thankful for Andi Ashworth— her friendship and her writings about caregiving and cultivating planted an abundance of seeds in my imagination, helping me form a vision for how I have sought to live life corem deo.
Featured image title “Rosa glauca in early bloom” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
1. Ephesians 2:10
2. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. (Harper Collins: 2013)
3. Ashworth, Andi. Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2002). 22
4. Peacock, Charlie. “Making Art Like a True Artists.” It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, ed. Ned Bustard (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2007). 243
5. Haack, Denis. “A Stick Becomes a Staff of God.” Ransom Fellowship. May 29, 2007.
6. Peacock, Charlie. “Making Art Like a True Artists.” It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, ed. Ned Bustard (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2007). 248
7. Song of Solomon 6:3
8. O’Connor, Flannery. A Prayer Journal (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). 3
9. McKelvey, Douglas. Every Moment Holy: Volume 1, Pocket Edition (Nashville TN: Rabbit Room Press, 2019). 50
Leslie Anne Bustard takes great joy in loving people and places, whether at church, around her kitchen table, in a classroom, or traveling around. She delights in words, and marvels at the beauty found in the details of ordinary life. Reading, writing, teaching literature, baking, producing high school theater, and museum-ing are some of Leslie’s favorite things. Leslie is the host of The Square Halo, a podcast for Square Halo Books and is developing a book titled Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to the Best Children’s Books. She and her husband Ned have been married for 30 years and live in a century-old row house in Lancaster City, where they raised their three daughters.
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