A good conversation with a friend brought up the topic of vocation, and I think that we have it all wrong. That’s a problem because — if you thought the church was good at anything — you would have thought that helping people sort out the call of God in their lives would have been on the shortlist.
But here we are. People are still deeply befuddled about it. Some people believe that God has a list and the challenge is to guess what is on the list. Some people think that clergy are the only ones with “a call” and laypeople are on their own, to make as much money as possible doing anything that is legal. The church is without structures to help anyone on a regular basis, apart from the clergy, and they are pretty much on their own after ordination. And a lot of people have given up trying to guess what it is that God wants from them.
So, what’s wrong with our thinking about vocation?
One, we have over-identified vocation with employment. To be sure, our work-worlds are an important laboratory for sorting through the question of who we are. Our creative impulses and work can be a great place to sort out who we are. BUT – and it’s a big BUT — that’s not always the case.
There are lengthy portions of our lives devoted to education and preparation. We all eventually retire. And our work can be interrupted by layoffs, illness and a variety of other factors. If employment equals vocation, then that means a lot of our lives has nothing to do with the calling of God.
To make matters more complicated: Some of us never get to pursue the question of who we are very deeply at work. Sometimes work is all about a paycheck, about providing for our families, about paying bills. Our work-world aspirations can be frustrated by geography, a lack of financial opportunities, economic change, technological transformations, a hostile boss, and a host of other factors.
There is also much more to our lives than the work that we do. We are grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, spouses, friends, and mentors – to name a few common activities that give definition to our lives. We find and express ourselves in the hobbies that we pursue and the recreation in which we engage.
Two, we have over-identified vocation with work in and for the church. Far too often seminarians begin their studies, claiming that – at long last – they are doing the work that God has called them to do. The natural inference is that what they were doing before they came to seminary did not have anything to do with God’s calling on their lives.
The same inference is played out in the ordination process in most churches. If a board or commission on ministry concludes that you are not cut for ordained ministry, then you are on your own. They may promise to pray for you, but that’s it. And, if you are not considering ordination, then you have nowhere at all to go.
Three, we have glamorized and privatized the adventure of vocation. He is a competent theologian and an exceptional writer, but Frederick Buechner’s oft-cited observation has put our thinking about vocation on the wrong track. God’s calling on our lives is not “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
One, apart from the kind of gladness that arises from aligning ourselves with the will of God, gladness, on the whole, is transitory. Think Moses in the wilderness with really unhappy traveling companions, think Jonah coming to grips with God’s insistence that the covenant with Israel embraces Gentiles, think Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or Paul sitting in prison.
Two, what the world hungers for and what it truly needs are two different things. Ask anyone who has ever attempted to up-end the lives of comfy suburbanites with the notion that being a part of the body of Christ might involve something more than getting your ticket punched on Sunday.
And, three, as I noted above – sometimes those two things never meet. It is easy for privileged middle and upper class Americans armed with a college education to wax eloquent about finding their “deep gladness,” but for a lot of people in this world life is about getting from tonight to tomorrow morning and they fall face down into bed – if they have one – unable to speculate on the luxury of finding gladness.
So, how should we be thinking about vocation?
One, vocation is not about what we are doing, but about who we are becoming before God. And that happens every – single – day, in the good and the bad, in the places that are easy and the places that are hard, in the choices you make and the choices that are forced on you. There are times when all we may be able to control is how we respond, but in responding we give yourselves to the things of God or we give yourself to darkness. And in so doing, our choices become a life.
Two, the growing edge of that adventure may be anywhere in our lives: In the relationships we are building or in the care that we extend to those who are in our circle of care. It may be in struggling with things that are hard and messy. It may lie in transcending our own failings and shortcomings or the hatred of others.
Three, vocation is also found in the commonplace. As we respond to the daily demands of life, we can be open to God’s call on our lives, even if the activity is mundane, unpleasant, obligatory, or simply our duty in the moment.
Four, vocation can be discovered by attending to the way in which we respond to those commonplace demands or by attending to the way in which we behave toward others and the way in which we open ourselves to God’s work in and through us.
Five, that can also happen by asking ourselves, “Is the kind of person I am becoming the kind of person who draws others to God and into community with those around me?”
Six, for that reason, we also need to remember that vocation is not something that lies in the future. It lies in the here and now.
Seven, we also need to remember that the call of God on our lives is not a solitary enterprise. It is shaped by the way in which we treat one another. You and I have the capacity to make that easier or harder for those around us. The way in which we act toward one another can nourish hope in others and promote that journey. We can also crush one another and frustrate that journey.
There is more, but this much is clear: Our vocation is about the restoration of the image of God in each of us, and the specific paths we take are less important than the way in which those paths promote or frustrate that restoration.
So, church, it is time to do the work we were given. In-corporation into the body of Christ is all about the restoration of the divine image in us, and helping people make that calling on our lives a reality. If that conversation is missing from our sermons and efforts at formation — if people think it’s all about the clergy – or people are left on their own to sort that out, then we have failed. In an environment in which an increasing number of people are spiritual but not religious, because they can’t see what going to church has to do with their lives, we need to do better.