Vocation

The next prompt in Writing in the Margins:

Jonathan Ammon speaks of his “Ebenezer”-a stone of help-from Samuel 7:12.  Read this text in its context.  What are your “Ebenezers”?  Write these in gratitude in your margin.

There have been any number of moments where I have felt God’s help, but the moment I would memorialize with a stone relates to a day that my perspective shifted and I sorted out a new understanding of vocation. I went from spinning my wheels and being trapped in my thoughts to living life more fully. I was really having trouble finding words to explain what happened. I decided to search for quotes on vocation. I love good quotes almost as much as I love Bible verses, so I got a little carried away. I’ll share my own concluding thoughts at the end, and of course, the journal entry in my Bible! (If I were to be a student of theology, this is the topic I would study! And the quotes below look like the start of a good reading list!)

Quotes on Vocation

“You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.”-W.H. Auden

“We will never find our vocations by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be yourself.”-Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

“The doctrine of vocation deals with how God works through human beings to bestow His gifts. God gives us this day our daily bread by means of the farmer, the banker, the cooks, and the lady at the check-out counter. He creates new life—the most amazing miracle of all—by means of mother and fathers. He protects us by means of the police officers, firemen, and our military. He creates through artists. He heals by working through doctors, nurses, and others whom He has gifted, equipped and called to the medical professions.”—Gene Veith

“A woman told me about getting involved in Bible study that demanded strict commitment to the study of God’s Word. ‘You should make the Bible your number one priority,’ she was told. That meant getting up early and the very first ting in the morning doing Bible reading and having quiet time with the Lord. She did this, but to her consternation every morning as she would start to read her Bible, the baby would wake up. She found herself resenting the interruption. Here she was, trying to spend time with God, and the baby would start fussing, demanding to be fed and distracting her attention away from spiritual things. After a while, though, she came to understand the doctrine of vocation. Taking care of her baby was what God, at that moment, was calling her to do. Being a mother and loving and serving her child was her vocation, her divine calling from the Lord. She could read the Bible later. She did not have to feel guilty that she was neglecting spiritual things; taking care of her baby is a spiritual thing!”—Gene Veith, God at Work

“Cause every task of your day to be a sacred ministry to the Lord, however mundane your duties, for you they are a sacrament.”-Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

“The two ideas, justice and vocation, are inseparable…It is by way of the principle and practice of vocation that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy. It was thus possible for traditional cultures to conceive that ‘to work is to pray.’”—Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

“The book of Genesis leaves us with a striking truth: Work was part of paradise.”—Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World

“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.”—Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World

“The vocation of every man and woman is to serve people.”—Leo Tolstoy

“In the long term I think being a preacher, missionary, or leading a Bible study group in many ways is easier. There is a certain spiritual glamour in doing it, and what we should be doing each day is easier to discern more black and white, not so gray. It is often hard to get Christians to see that God is willing not just to use men and women in ministry, but in law, in medicine, in business, in the arts. This is the great shortfall today.”—Dick Lucas

“Everything. Everywhere, Every moment. That is the scope of God’s call on our lives, and that is the dignity our lives enjoy.”-John G. Stackhouse Jr., Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World

“The point of the calling was, quite simply, that it was appointed by God to serve neighbors. If along the way some self-fulfillment came as well, there was nothing wrong with that, but it was hardly the point of the calling.”—Gilbert Meilaender, Friendship: Philosophy.

“Your calling is to be faithful to God where you are, and in doing this all work is sacred, spiritual, worthy of your full attention and energy. When you get to work, you are not entering a secular environment as much as you are bringing the sacred into the world by following Christ wherever you are.”—Joe Thorn, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself.

“From the outset, Protestantism rejected the critical medieval distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ orders. While this position can easily be interpreted as a claim for the desacralization of the sacred, it can equally be interpreted as a claim for the sacralization of the secular. As early as 1520, Luther had laid the fundamental conceptual foundations for created sacred space within the secular. His doctrine of the priesthood of all believers’ asserted that there is no genuine difference of status between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ order. All Christians are called to be priest—and can exercise that calling within the everyday world. The idea of ‘calling’ was fundamentally redefined: No longer was it about being called to serve God by leaving the world; it was now about serving God in the World.”—Alister E. McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First

“God himself will milk the cows through him whose vocation that is.”—Martin Luther

“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”—Martin Luther

“A true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself but for his neighbor. Therefore the whole spirit of his life impels him to do even that which he needs not do, but which is profitable and necessary for his neighbor.”—Martin Luther

“And speaking of options, these kids have all been told that theirs are limitless. Once you commit to something, though, that ceases to be true. A former student sent me an essay he wrote, a few years after college, called ‘The Paradox of Potential.’ Yale students, he said, are like stem cells. They can be anything in the world, so they try to delay for as long as possible the moment when they have to become just one thing in particular. Possibility, paradoxically, becomes limitation.”—William Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

“The struggle is not with others, but within us, to do what we are called to do.”—John Geddes

“We are not called upon to do all the good that is possible, but only that which we can do.”—Theodore Guerin, Journals and Letters of Mother Theodor Guerin.

“Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”—Mother Teresa

“Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”-Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

“A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live, and begins to live.”—Thomas Merton

“Then, overcome by joy, I cried, ‘Jesus, my love. At last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.’”—Therese of Lisieux

My Ebenezer Moment (and a little bit of backstory):

I grew up hearing that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I dreamed of being everything from a teacher to an astronaut, but most of all I always knew that I wanted to be a mother. My own mother is of the baby boomer generation and a feminist and wanted career choice and opportunity for her daughter. While studying for honors exams at Swarthmore, she called and said, “If you are getting married and your fiancé is starting law school, you need to be looking for a job.”   So I sent out a bunch of cover letters and resumes and ended up with a good job in the research department of a brokerage firm. I majored in economics and minored in English, so writing about stocks seemed to be a good fit.  Years passed and my husband took a job with a family law firm in smaller town in central Pennsylvania, and I had the opportunity to continue working as a security analyst with a home office. Then I received a call from my mother: “You could be anything. How did you end up working alone at home with spreadsheets? I’ll never understand how someone who likes people as much as you do ended up working with numbers.” Meanwhile, I was still hoping to be a mother! More years passed and I just fell into a funk. I sought counseling to get help with direction for my life, and I drove three hours to talk with my employer to say “I’m having a little bit of trouble staying focused on work right now”—just to be fair to him. And to be honest, I probably seemed as vexed and anxious to him as Hannah in the temple. But his response was to be understanding and kind, and then he gave me a project to do, that needed to be completed right way. It was just a simple thing, but I remember feeling like it took everything inside me to stay focused and get it done. I grabbed hold of a crystal figurine of a cross that happened to be sitting on the real office desk where I worked (as opposed to my virtual office), gritted my teeth, and did the task. And when I finished, it was like a light switch turned on, and I could see clearly the value in simply doing the work right before me. I’ve never really looked back or questioned my career choice since, but I have completely rethought my whole understanding of vocation.

This feels a little embarrassing to admit, but I once had a happily ever after view of vocation. I thought of finding the right career as the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an achievement of self-actualization. I naively expected to find a job that would fill me with joy while matching my skills and talents with the world’s needs (and make my parents proud!). And quite honestly this view was reinforced by a sermon at church that quoted Frederick Buechner:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

I remember hearing the advice and earnestly praying to find that place. I just wasn’t sure what that was or how to get there (and I was hoping to have children before I turned 30, which wasn’t happening either!)

When my boss handed me a new assignment immediately after I had just tearfully confessed to him all my troubles and uncertainties, my whole understanding of vocation changed. To my amazement, I found a quote that gave words to this turning point in my life and paused in wonder after reading them because I’m not sure I would have the courage to put it this way:

A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.—Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World

I don’t feel prepared to say that the above words are universally true, but the words definitely ring true of my own personal experience. In one heartbeat, my perspective shifted and I was able to clearly see my vocation as service and that my career was just one of many ways that God calls me to serve others. When at last I was blessed to be a mother, vocation had wonderful new meaning. I think maybe motherhood provides a clear example of vocation in its purest sense:

Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”-Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Vocation is like the involuntary response that a mother has to the sound of her baby crying; it is our call to the work to the work clearly before us offered in love.

Some of the assignments from Writing in the Margins have touched me very deeply. This was no exception. Finding words from Hannah’s story to offer God in prayer made me a bit teary.  Hannah and I worship the same God!

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