Once, in 4th (or 5th or 6th) grade music class, a young man dropped by to deliver something to the teacher. “Class,” said our music teacher. “This man was once my student.” Then turning to the young man as he stood in the wooden door frame in his work clothes, she asked, “What advice can you give these kids?”
Here’s where my elementary school memory snaps into clarity. He said: “Know what you want to be when you grow up. I didn’t, and it took me a while to figure it out.”
It seemed like sound advice to my grade school brain, so I filed it away for a blog post thirty-two years later. Know what you want to be when you grow up.
I’ve met folks who had a clear sense of what they wanted to be when they grew up. They doctored their little brothers, listening for a heartbeat through a red plastic stethoscope. They celebrated holy communion with Mentos wafers. They cuffed the neighbor boys and read them their rights. But there’s a whole lot of us who weren’t so sure, or who had kid ideas of work that didn’t turn out to be very practical (astronaut, anyone?).
The word we use for this thing we are and do when we grow up is “vocation.” Our vocation is our calling–literally. The word comes from the Latin vocare, “to call.” When we talk about our vocation, we may mean that we feel some inner sense of call, a calling that comes from the way we’re wired. But in Christian terms, it’s ultimately God who does the calling.
Often we attach vocation to work, and in this way vocation becomes a synonym for “career.” Our vocation is the work we were born for, the job that gets us up in the morning.
Except that it’s more complicated than that. You see, our job is not our vocation–at least not in a straightforward way. And I suspect that a whole lot of disappointment and angst would be alleviated if we had a clearer distinction between work and vocation. The two can overlap, but our paying work never exhausts the depth of our vocation.
In a Christian sense, the human vocation–the one we were all created for–is the one the turns up in the Scriptures. It’s a vocation that flows from God’s very character and that is transferable to all times and cultures. Our vocation is to love. The ancient Law teaches “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Jesus highlighted both as the hooks on which “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). We’re intended to “live the calling to which [we’ve] been called” being “built up in love” (Ephesians 4:1,16). “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
Our vocation to love can be expressed through our job. “Whatever you do you, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Any job that makes or grows, helps or heals, can express our vocation to love. In this sense, our work can be what allows us to live out our human vocation in concrete ways. We’re doing something that makes life possible and good for others.
Not long ago, I admired the work of the skilled plumber who rejigged the pipes and tubing in our bathroom. “Being a plumber seems like it would be satisfying work,” I told him. He shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said. But I wasn’t buying his reticence. Maybe it’s just my impression looking from the outside in, but it seems to me that someone whose job makes hot water and flush toilets possible is expressing love for his fellow man. That has to be satisfying.
Our vocation to love can also guide how we do our jobs. Work isn’t just bare work. There are ways to go about many jobs that allow us to express love through respect, compassion, attention to the rights of others, and care for the earth. In fact, if it’s not possible to live these values in a particular job, then we should ask ourselves if it’s really a job we want to be doing. I’ve met folks who have done jobs that didn’t jibe with their moral center. When we find ourselves in that situation, either we change jobs, or our jobs change us. No paycheck is worth the latter. “How do you benefit,” asked Jesus, “if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul in the process? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
When vocation and work align, it’s a beautiful thing. We feel these moments of flow when something imprinted on our soul stirs into action. Maybe you’ve experienced this. I hope you will. Not everything in my own work gives me this feeling, but one thing always does: communicating beautiful truths through beautiful words. I think that’s my vocation: to write and teach and preach. It’s how I live out my ultimate vocation to love.
How do you do it?