Answering God’s Call to the Soul: Marjory Zoet Bankson

by EEWC Update editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni

I see ‘call’ not as a vocational choice but as a special way of understanding what we are here for,” writes Marjory Zoet Bankson in her new book, Call to the Soul. Calls are not rationed to one per  lifetime.  When one call is completed,  it’s time for a new one to begin.

I asked Marjory how she began thinking about the concept of call.

Marjory Zoet Bankson“I would say it goes back to the period when I was about 13 or 14,” she replied.  “I used to practice the pipe organ in a mortuary in Bellingham, Washington, because the mortuary was warm and the church was cold.  Seeing people who were dead gave me a sense that life itself was sacred.  And if life itself was sacred, then my life was sacred.”

This experience marked the beginning of an alternative way of looking at her relationship with God and what it means to be loved by God.

“At that age, the only language I had for that experience was the language of being sent to the mission field,” she continued. “So I went to talk to my pastor about this sense of  being called to serve God in some way.  But he just patted me on the knee and said, ‘There, there. Your hormones will catch up with you soon enough,’ and basically dismissed that sense of call.”

This was the 1950s, she pointed out, “and there weren’t any places for women in the churches except to send them overseas as missionaries.” Yet her pastor wasn’t even taking that seriously.

How did Marjory feel? “Oh really put down—and dismissed!  I expected some kind of hearing.” Traces of the hurt were still evident in the retelling.  “So basically, I swallowed that sense of needing the approval of church.”  She paused.  “I must say I was a very mystical kid.  I used to pray and read my Bible and talk to God and listen to God.  Most of that was not rewarded or encouraged in the church.”

But her family was supportive and provided nurturance for her growing devotion to God.  “I come out of a deeply rooted Biblical background in the Christian Reformed tradition,” she said.  There was  Bible reading every night at dinner, and her physician father modeled a sense of call, believing that he truly was his brother’s keeper.

It was also a home that nurtured self-esteem.  “I’m the oldest of three girls,” Marjory said, “and both my father and my mother raised me to believe that I was just as important in God’s eyes as a boy would have been.  Since that was never tested by having a brother, I just separated what was happening at church—and the patriarchy of the church—from what I would now say is a mystical experience.”  Marjory does not consider such a sense of direct contact with God unusual.

“I think most teenagers have some kind of mystical opening to God,” she said, “but it’s very rarely blessed or encouraged by the church.”  That was especially true if one were female—at least at that time.

“I thought maybe government service would be what I would do,” Marjory said.  “so I went off to college and studied government and economics.”  If the foreign missionary door was closed, perhaps the door to foreign service would be open.

“I suspect that a sense of call and vocation was something that felt natural because my father felt it so keenly,” Marjory explained

She married Peter Bankson “right out of college.”  She laughed as she added, “Instead of going to the foreign mission field, we went to Alaska.”

This was the first of many moves she would make with her husband, whose career was military service.  In Alaska, Marjory became a schoolteacher, “one of the things that was open to women.”

Not only did military service mean many moves together; it also meant much time apart apart—a fact of life that was never easy for Marjory and Peter (who, as this issue of EEWC Update went to press, had just celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary). Twice Peter was sent to Vietnam.

Marjory Zoet Bankson“The first time Peter was in Vietnam, I started potting—working with clay,” Marjory said. It served as a “kind of therapy.”  Still teaching history and English during the school day, she dreaded the long, lonely evenings without Peter. “So really to keep my sanity,” she explained, “I began working evenings at a pottery studio.”

“It was there that I began to feel a sense of God’s call again,” Marjory said.  “This time it was, Who would I be if something happened to Peter?  Beyond being Mrs. Peter Bankson, what was my identity? What was my reason for being?”

It was not a case of what would she do if she didn’t have Peter, but who would she be.  “I think working with clay allowed the question to remain unverbalized for a long time and yet the process of working with clay helped me see, just as Jeremiah saw, that when the clay is spoiled in the potter’s hands, you can remake the pot.  I began making connections between that and  the theology of crucifixion and resurrection.”

She continued:  “Working with clay gave me a visceral sense of new hope rising out of failure—or out of ending. Or death.”

Peter returned from Vietnam in 1970, and they moved to Kansas.   Marjory began offering pottery classes.  “And I began theologizing out of the clay experience.”

She recalls that this was the time when she began forming the “language of call.”  At the same time, she ran across books from the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC—a church where, she says, “a really well-developed theology of call and gifts gave me language for what I was already experiencing.”

She believes her experience is fairly common among women.  “The language of our spirituality is more likely to be handwork—whether it’s cooking or sewing or making quilts or keeping a house,” she said.  “Or the kind of manual labor that women did for others—cleaning house , sewing, that kind of thing.  It doesn’t necessarily mean just being a homemaker; my grandmother was a seamstress, and I think that her handwork was indeed the language of her call.”

I waited to hear the point she was making.  It came quickly.

“Because the church has offered us so many theologically complex answers without listening to our questions, I think women have had to find other ways to ask the real questions of  ‘How am I valuable in God’s realm? What is the whole image of God—male and female?’  We’ve had to come at that through a different doorway.  And I think handwork has been one of those pathways for women.”

I asked how she came to think of calling as a cycle of stages, and also how she came to think about our lives as having multiple callings, in contrast to traditional views reflected in statements like, “When were you called to the ministry?”

“Part of it was looking at my own life,” she replied.  She realized that the first question she had to answer was “Who am I in God’s eyes?  Not what do I do, but a question of being.”

She continued,   “I associated that with my clay work.  I began to see the reality of resurrection in my own life experience.  It wasn’t just something that happened to Jesus but something that could also happen to me—and that resurrection of the body meant resurrection in my body.”

She said her second question was, ‘Then what am I here for?  What is my work?’ I would say that, for me, that has been the work that I have found in Faith at Work.”

Marjory has been president of Faith at Work since 1985.  She speaks of her work there as a wonderful combination of her “years of teaching and  the creativity of working with art materials—kind of offering a whole-brain learning experience for other people.”  She said, “I think I really am a teacher basically; it would have been easy to settle on that as ‘my work’—my vocare.”

But now I have just turned 60,” she went on. “And as I said in my book, beginning with my dad in his process of dying, it occurred to me that he still had a call—that there was something that is drawing us to God that goes beyond being productive in the world.  So it’s really my father’s dying and my own aging that raised the question of  ‘What is call beyond my life work?’”

As she then talked with a number of people she met at Faith at Work events “who are on the edge of retirement but certainly not ready for a nursing home,”  she found that their question was, “Where do I now offer the distillation of my work? Where do I offer my gift for the world?”

Aware that “the great yearning of older people in our youth-oriented culture is for a genuine place to offer the distillation of their work years,” Marjory related a conversation with a friend who was retiring after 37 years of teaching fifth grade.

“I asked her, ‘What is your gift right now?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘It’s the gift of organization.’  Then I said, ‘Now what is the question you are asking yourself spiritually?”  And she said, ‘Where to offer that gift so I don’t just fritter it away on something that other people could do.’  She wanted something that was uniquely hers and a place where she could freely offer that gift.”

Her friend’s reply made sense to Marjory.  It’s something she hears from many other older women.  “It seems to me that now that we can expect to live to be 80, if we retire at 62 or so we still have a couple of decades of productive life left to us.”  (In Call to the Soul, Marjory wrote that the traditional three-stage pattern that has regarded women as virgin, mother, and crone now needs to amended to include a fourth stage between the child-bearing years and the crone years.  She calls it “being Woman in the world.”)

According to Marjory, in the final stage of our life’s journey, as we accept death and “embrace God’s timeless story of creation,” our call centers around the question, “What is my legacy?”

“The question of our legacy is largely going to be answered by others,” Marjory emphasized.  “In a way, I’m not in control of my legacy.  It depends on my having lived the earlier stages faithfully.  One of the things we hear theologically at the Church of the Saviour is that God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful. To be faithful to God’s call at each stage of life is our legacy.”

“And because I don’t have literal children,” she continued, “my legacy will be measured by the extent to which I can give away my life. . . . There are moments when I can give myself freely but there are lots of times that I hold back. And I realize that my own faith says that the path of Jesus is ultimately a path of being able to give my life freely.  That’s really my hope.”

“In other words,” I interjected, “laying down your life for your friends, as Jesus taught us.” She answered with a strong and sincere yes.

When I asked how we can help others to realize that everyone receives a call—that calls are not reserved for a favored few—she spoke of the freshness of the language of call now that “calling” is being discussed and written about more.

She sees a need to alert people of all ages to the possibility of call at any point in life.  The career counseling teenagers may get in school can help them recognize their gifts, “but churches need to hold up the additional quality of ‘what is your spiritual life?’”

As she knows well from her own life, “teenagers are often very idealistic.”  She sees among them, however, “a cynicism about our culture.”  One reason is “because that idealism and that spiritual nature that is so natural for young people gets filled with addictions like computer games.  In a sense we trivialize the deep spiritual hunger that is just beginning to flower in adolescence.   We need to invite teenagers to take their lives seriously, to know that they have a call and a reason for being, to hold up that question of call in as many ways as possible.”

This is true of younger children, too.  Marjory thinks that one of the attractions of the Harry Potter books is that they “speak of someone who is marginalized by the common culture but has this secret call!  It appeals to young people, because we all want to have a meaning or purpose for being here.” She commented on alarmist churches that dismiss the books as being about wizards.  “That’s ridiculous.  Instead, it seems to me, we could notice the deeper spiritual themes and help youngsters who are reading or going to movies to spot those themes in literature and films.”  She suggests that rather than condemning such materials as “evil” or “magic,” churches need to be providing an interpretive framework for young people and helping them deal with life.

I asked her to talk about why people often don’t recognize a call—or might not act even if they do recognize it.

“I think in the beginning, call is always quite fragile and small,” Marjory said. “And if it doesn’t get reinforcement or protection in some way, it’s like the seeds falling on hard ground or stony ground or on the pathway.  It gets trampled.  Many of us then hide that seed away until we’re in a more nourishing environment.”

She finds that a call often comes out again at midlife.  “You may spend the period from 20 to 40 pleasing others or doing a job that’s necessary to get some kind of financial grounding or get a foothold in the world.  And then when you’re able to be, in a sense, a ‘good parent’ to that call, it may resurface. That’s one of the things I believe about God.  It’s not just one chance in a lifetime.  God is the abundant sower.  A call is going to come again.”

I asked Marjory if there was any particular call in her own life that she most resisted.  There was a very long pause.

“That’s a good question,” she said thoughtfully.  “I would say the call to be a potter was probably the most difficult, because in my own mind it meant letting go of my academic background.  By then I had a master’s degree and was working on a Ph.D., and I had been potting as almost a recreational thing.  We arrived here in Washington, DC, and I couldn’t find a teaching job within a reasonable commute.  I began wondering if maybe I was being called to be a potter.  It really had to do with my willingness to trust God’s leading rather than what I had been academically prepared for.  So it had the quality of conversion to it, and that probably took me longer than most anything else.”

She continued:  “I had another experience like that in 1980.  I had a cancer diagnosis and had a hysterectomy.  In the middle of that, I had a mystical experience with Mary, the mother of Jesus.  And it opened up the feminine side of God in a very powerful way for me.  I think at that point I stopped ‘fooling around’ and began asking about my real work here in the world.  It was that experience which then took me to seminary and I think was the preparation for my coming to Faith at Work in 1985.  It was that experience of stripping away my life as a potter. God was saying, ‘No, I have something more for you.’”

That call was not so much resisted on the face of it, she pointed out,  but it removed some of the props that she said she had created for herself.  “It took me down to the bones of my life.  I think sometimes call does that.  You have to prune away your own expectations and even your own preparations so that they can be used in a different way.”  She now believes her work is all the richer because of the meshing together of these various aspects of her life.

It has become clear to her that God doesn’t waste anything.  “Even those 20 years I spent hating being a military wife,” she said.  She now realizes that this gave her “broad experience with people in different economic situations and in living overseas.”  That wide variety of experience has been very useful. “It opened my heart in a way that I never would have done had I been left to my own choices!” Marjory said.

She talks about a balance between work and quiet and firmly believes that spiritual disciplines can help us maintain that balance.  They remind us that we belong to a bigger picture as part of God’s creation.  “If we can find ways of stepping into God’s more timeless realm—kairos time, it will give us a sense of spaciousness and a sense of knowing that we have all the time we need,” Marjory emphasized.  “I think that would be a tremendous antidote for thepoison of the intense time pressure that people seem to be living with today.”

We must learn to see ourselves as part of a larger picture and know “that we belong to God’s story, which is much bigger than our individual lives.” Once we realize that, “we can know that if we miss the call the first time around, God will call again.” The biblical Samuel’s calling is a good metaphor.  “God isn’t going to leave us sleeping.  When the call comes again, this time we can wake up.”

© 1999 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 23 number 3 Fall (October-December) 1999
Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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