Faith: A vocation is what you are called to do

Deana Armstrong

Evelyn Waugh, in the book “Brideshead Revisited,” records this conversation:

Cordelia: “I hope I’ve got a vocation.” Charles: “I don’t know what that means.” Cordelia: “It means you can be a nun. If you haven’t a vocation it’s no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can’t get away from it, however much you hate it.”

Like Cordelia, most of us go through life confused about what a vocation is. And most of the reasons go back to the story about Moses and the burning bush. We spend a lifetime drawing the wrong lessons from the text.

First, most people assume that a vocation is only for religious professionals — ministers, priests, nuns, missionaries and the like. We might be willing to stretch the point to include doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers and, maybe, possibly lawyers. But the word “vocation” is almost never applied to jobs like beautician, accountant, real estate agent, garbage collector, coal miner, rancher, grandma or retiree. The usual distinction is that “vocations” deal directly with God and/or educate, protect or heal people. “Jobs” are what everyone else has.

It’s not hard to see why we get confused. Most denominations have an office of vocations. If you call up the denomination’s headquarters or mention to your pastor that you are thinking about missions or ministry, you’ll get sent to this office, and they’ll send you packages of flashy videos and booklets describing the process. We don’t send you to the office of vocations, if you aren’t thinking about ministry or missions. The truth is: We should.

We’ve come by the mis-definition honestly. Most of the stories about vocation — or calls — in the Bible are given to people who are called to do something for God.

The story of Moses and the burning bush is usually accounted the first such call story in the Bible. It is in the vocation’s documents of almost every denomination from Catholics to Baptists. Moses is being asked to do something hard — to lead people out of slavery into freedom.

He will become the law-giver of three of the monotheistic faiths. His story will inspire freedom movements the world over. If that is what vocations are supposed to be, then most of us just don’t have them, preachers included. If specialness and world-changing power are the requirements, then vocations rightly belong only to kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers, and the odd revolutionary or two.

I disagree. Vocations are God-given occupations. They don’t just bring in a paycheck. Any job can be just a job, true, but any job where the worker’s primary goal is to give God the glory, can be a vocation. Ideally, all jobs should be vocations. We should wake up — at least most mornings — get ready to go to work, praying and thinking about how we serve God today. How will we bring light or joy to another person? Does the God speak through us with a voice of gentleness and hope? Do we give encouragement and turn the other cheek when rebuked? If so, then, today is a day when our job is a vocation.

Even retirement can be a vocation — no paycheck needed. I’ve heard one person say, “If I could retire and do my volunteer jobs, I’d be the happiest person in the world.” She loves those jobs and wants more time to do them. She is devoted to the idea of giving someone a leg up. That is her vocation.

A vocation is what you are called to do — for a lifetime or a season.

Second, like Cordelia, many people assume that a vocation is hard to come by. She seems to be saying that desire alone is not enough. She’s about half right.

Jesus put it this way: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?” (Matthew 16:25-27)

Vocation is about giving up the life we thought we were meant to have and taking up the life God calls us to live. We live into a future where God gives us a promise. We work for a better life, not just for ourselves, but for all the world. This kin-dom creation is a cooperative effort. God invites us to participate in it. It is a life that requires everything we have and will send us into paths we never expected.

We can spend a lifetime looking for vocation. We may not be sure what God is calling us to do. All of us have one — some of us have more than one — and sometimes the vocation we are called to changes.

Too many people assume that calls to a way of life and a job require some kind of special revelation. Sometimes they do, but most of the time vocation wells up in us naturally.

Think back. What made you choose your job? What is the job of which you are most proud? Most of us don’t choose these jobs because of the six-figure salary or other benefits. We chose them because they look like fun. They hold a special joy for us. Sometimes our neighbors think we’re crazy. Sometimes we are.

Parker Palmer, in “Courage to Teach,” tells us to let our lives sing. As a young man, Moses proves he has no tolerance for injustice and strikes a man dead, and later drives off people harassing a group of young shepherdesses. He marries and tends the sheep of his father-in-law.

This is his trade school. He will need all the skills of a desert shepherd to guide the people, and the patience that must come with it. God does not saw off all the rough edges. By the time, they meet on the mountain, God has taken the young hothead impatient with injustice and settled him down a bit. His life has sung his vocation into being.

The same is true in your lives. Our lives are meant to be full of joy, and if we believe that God only calls us to do something contrary to our nature, we will be miserable. This is not vocation; it is torture. If we are to find our vocation — or our new vocation — then we must listen to our lives. We must let them sing. The song is the voice of God calling us toward joy and toward God.

Rev. Deana Armstrong preaches for First Congregational United Church of Christ in Craig.

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