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Work and Vocation

We all work, sometimes we make money doing it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we like it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes, if we're lucky, it is our vocation, often (I think in this world today) it isn't.

Vocation is more of a calling, a passion. It comes out of your core, your True Self, your innate gifts and skills. It is something that yearns to become manifest in our lives and oftentimes we don't understand why we feel this way or where it comes from. But doing it will fill your soul. Theologian Fredrick Buechner seems to describe vocation when he says, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

My first real paying job was when I worked for my dad’s company. They were a specialty engineering firms that made one-of-a-kind machines for the semiconductor industry like powder coating or laser marking. My job was to clean the office… including the men’s bathrooms right off the machine shop. Yuck. It’s entirely possible that this was done deliberately to ensure that I would get a college degree. If so, it worked.

Still, it didn’t help me determine what I wanted to do with my life. I absolutely commiserate with youth today who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. I had to start somewhere, so I applied to colleges in engineering, following in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. I’ve always wanted to prove I was as good (or better) than the boys.

I was accepted into the engineering program at Marquette University in Milwaukee, but before I even started school I changed my major to Broadcast Communications. It fit my personality better, and my experience in theater, journalism and forensics. Then I found out there aren’t that many jobs in Broadcast Communications and I changed my major back to engineering. After getting a C in calculus, I realized it wasn’t for me, so I switched to Journalism. I already had a job on the Marquette paper, so that seemed logical. Truth was I didn’t love it. I finally figured I better graduate in something and switched to Business with a specialization in Marketing. Yep, that would work. It seemed generic enough and I figured I could make a lot of money as a marketing executive!

Following graduation I got a job in a small marketing consulting firm. But, as Parker Palmer described it, “the life I was living was not the life that wanted to live in me.” That life living in me Palmer described as a river moving underneath the ice in winter, sometimes you can catch a glimpse of that life living there, but it is so hidden that it can also be easy to forget or ignore.

It didn’t take long in the marketing world to know it wasn’t for me. Something was missing. First of all, the marketing world was too cut-throat and money hungry. And, second of all, I wanted to be doing something good for the world. I really wanted to go into the Peace Corps, but couldn’t convince my husband. So, instead I quit my job and worked in non-profit for three years – first for Easter Seals and then the March of Dimes.

For all practical purposes and to all outside appearances, everything was going great. I was hired away from Easter Seals with a promotion, then asked to fill in as the interim executive director at the March of Dimes. It seemed I had a clear path to running non-profit organizations. But I didn’t want it. Again something was missing.

Parker Palmer says, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”

It was time for me to listen to what the small, soft voice within me had been trying to say for a long time… I should be a pastor. It was so far-fetched as to be almost ludicrous. That should have been my first clue that it was the path that would lead me toward wholeness.

Vocation is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation isn’t about what we think we want to do, or about making money, or even what we might do well. Vocation is about listening to the still small voice within us telling us what our soul, what our deepest selves want to do… need to do.

I listened to that little voice within me and it has taken me places I never could have imagined. Clearly not all of my path has been easy, nor have I liked all the pieces of the job. But when we are able to follow our vocation in life, it captures us, it fills us and fulfills us.

I know that not everyone is able to find work in their vocation. Sometimes work is just work. Sometimes we even like our work. Sometimes we don’t.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher talks about his frustration at working so hard to be successful, to work wisely and skillfully, only to have to hand over the reins to his successor who may or may not be as good as he was. What was the point in all those years of working, worrying, struggling? It is all illusory, he says, it will all pass away.

It sounds like it took him a long time to gain a bit of wisdom around all this and what he discovered was that the accomplishment or the success will not be what fills your soul. What is most important is that we find solace, comfort in what we do. To find enjoyment and fulfillment in the work itself, not dependent upon results. And this surely is of God, he says, for “who can eat and drink and have enjoyment without God?”

When I pondered this passage, I thought about the church I left last and all that I had worked hard to accomplish: the programs, the relationships, the creative worship experiences, becoming a reconciling congregation, the new sanctuary we had built together. I put nine years of my life into that church. In the end, I had to hand it over to the pastor who would come after me, and a group of people who didn’t share my vision, knowing they could destroy all that I had tried to achieve. Was there a point in so much work, dreaming, visioning, striving, and building, if I had no control over what would become of it. Surely it was all illusory.  But the point was that I was following my soul, I was trying to listen to my True Self and not buy into the institutional game.

It was fairly bitter at the end, but when I was asked to start new progressive church, even though I said no, I knew deep in my heart that I couldn’t not do it… which was sort of annoying, because part of me was tired of being hurt by the church and just wanted to move on. But a vocation doesn’t just go away because we want it to, though it can perhaps change or evolve. I have a friend who was a nurse, then a teacher, and then a pastor and she felt that all of them were her vocation, and in fact that each of them built on one another.

I know many of you are retired. You can think about these concepts by reflecting on the work you did in your life, but it would be better if you ponder your vocation right now. Vocation is not merely about how you are going to earn money and make a living, it is about letting the river in your life flow free. It is about being your True Self in the world. It's about how we spend our time – our work time or our volunteer time or our personal time.

There is a Hasidic tale about Rabbi Zusya. When Rabbi Zusya was an old man he said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ or ‘Why were you not Elijah?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’"

What is your True Self, the Divine within, calling you to be in this world? Are you listening? Are you following?

Love & Light!