Vocation - embracing the 'slash.'
I am a minister. That is the work I do that provides for me financially, and that is the public context where I use certain specific skills and ways of being to serve others. This role fulfils some of my core drives and desires, and is a space where I get to touch what is most authentic in me and in others. In that respect, I am very fortunate in my work. But if that's all I had to say about who I am and what I do, I'd be leaving a lot out. What a pity it's the first question people ask when you meet them for the first time.
I am a wife, and a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a member of a faith community, and someone who receives spiritual direction. These are the primary human relationships that define my being in the world. They are the private context where I am shaped and in which I shape others...where I am loved and cared for and where I learn to love and care. These relationships are the crucible in which I am called both to provide and receive in the process of becoming more fully myself, and serving others.
Sometimes, very occasionally, and with no great accomplishment, I am a writer and a painter and a singer. These are things I do that attend to a creative spark in me that comes alive in the presence of art and beauty. They are things that I do when my soul is flourishing. Sometimes, they add something to other people's lives too, but that is not the primary goal. I also have loves – things that I attend to and embrace that are my response of joy to the world around me, whether that's roses, movies, English landscapes, beautiful architecture, a small curly dog, or a tree-lined lake.
And, I am a child of God, whose way in life is guided by the pattern and presence of Jesus Christ – that is, I'm a Christian.
Which of these things I have named is my vocation? My calling? I would say, at the moment, all of them – except the last one. I say 'except the last one' because my faith identity is constitutive of me at a core place that is different from the various roles and activities that come and go – which also constitute me but not so profoundly. My faith identity is what affirms my entire life as a gift from God including all that I enjoy, all that I desire, and all that I'm good at. My faith identity is what tells me that everything else I do and love has meaning and purpose, and can therefore be called 'vocation' and not just 'stuff I do'. All these things I do and am have meaning because my existence has meaning – to glorify God by living the fullness of my own flourishing, for the good of the world God loves. My job, and the people who are in my life, and the interests I pursue may change, leave, or die. My beliefs about God will also no doubt change, and may for a time even be extinguished. But regardless of this, by the grace of God, I trust that my being held in God will outlast even my own death.
Why am I saying all this? I guess, in the context of this service on 'finding true north', I want to encourage us to have a very broad definition of vocation, rather than getting too hung up on the things we do to earn money. And I also want to encourage us to ponder how that breadth hangs together – what is the golden thread that helps us to choose where to spend our energies, and how to apportion value to the different parts of our lives?
I am going to leap sideways for a moment. Here's a passage from the book of Jeremiah:
Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Israel, says this to all the exiles deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce; marry and have sons and daughters; choose wives for your sons, find husbands for your daughters so that these can bear sons and daughters in their turn; you must increase there and not decrease. Work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you; pray to Yahweh on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends.
The context for this passage was that the majority of the Jewish people, including their leadership, was transported off to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem. In the midst of the confusion and sorrow of this time, many of Israel's prophets and teachers encouraged a kind of resistance, denial or rejection of the condition of exile, variously saying that God would deliver them before long, or that they should reject the culture around them. But then there was this teaching from Jeremiah, based on his conviction that the Jewish people would be in exile for 70 years. 'Settle down. Live your life. Plant and eat. And seek the welfare of these people that you're among, because your well-being is tied up with their well-being. 'Work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you.'
We are not in exile in the same way as these Jewish people were, but there are various uses of the exile metaphor in the New Testament that suggest that for the Christian, we have a dual homeland, and therefore this word from Jeremiah may have something to say to us. I'm not talking about our real home being heaven after we die. It's more that we are animated by a vision and a desire for the 'new heavens and the new earth', the renewal and restoration of God's good creation. To the extent that our longings are bound up with that longing of God's, for universal shalom, the condition of our world now, and our sense of place in it, will always have a sense of something incomplete, not-as-it-could-be. To the extent that we feel ourselves pulled away from our knowing of ourselves and all others as beloved and worthy in God, we experience exile from the communion that is our true birthright as human beings.
But it is here and now, in the place of discomfort rather than ease, in the place of straddling multiple visions and definitions of the good life, that we are to settle down and seek the welfare of all. There can be no Christian separateness or escapism that says that the pure or worthy life happens somewhere else, or some-when else. And the stuff of every-day-ness, the building of houses, the planting of gardens, the marrying and child-rearing and working, is the context in which we become a faithful presence in the midst of this culture.
I hope I don't need to say to us here at Cityside that the concept of 'vocation' is not restricted to Christian ministers, missionaries or community workers. We have, I hope, emphasised this point enough in the past. What I do want to affirm today is that the concept of 'vocation' is also not restricted to the thing we spend most of our time doing, or the thing that earns us our money. To me, 'vocation' has to do with everything that we are and everything that we do, when it comes from an authentic, faithful, God-inspired place within us. That is, a place where there is integration between what we desire, what we love, what we are good at, and our vision of the world that God is restoring to wholeness. I don't believe that vocation is something 'out there' that we have to find, kind of like throwing a dart and hoping we hit a target. To me, vocation is a process of flowering or unfolding – that which we are and that which we have to give blossoming in various ways in the different contexts of our lives. It's a 'who' question not just a 'what' question. Not just 'what shall I do' but 'who will be doing it', and what are the qualities of that 'who-ness'?
So 'finding our vocation' has to do with noticing where we come alive, where we feel fulfilled, where we are stretched to grow, what deepens us, and contexts where other people respond to us with recognition and a corresponding aliveness. It isn't about what we are doing so much, as finding the way to do it that is an expression of who we are, and that contributes to the welfare of those who we influence or affect through our actions.
Having said that, given that time is finite we do have to prioritise and make choices about what will get our best energies. And we do seem to find it important to define and describe ourselves to others. In this respect, I enjoyed reading in researcher/storyteller Brene Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection about another author – Marci Alboher, an author/speaker/coach. Alboher researched people who were pursuing multiple careers simultaneously, and who have found themselves more able to have a sense of doing meaningful work if they use a 'slash' to name more than one thing when they're responding to the question 'what do you do?' Of course with the slash you can't list absolutely everything, but it's better than being restricted to one thing. Some examples that Brown cites from Alboher's work are a management consultant/cartoonist, a lawyer/chef, a rabbi/stand up comic, and a therapist/violin maker.
If you were to use the 'slash effect' to describe your current sense of vocation, what would it include? And what difference would it make to your relationship to the different parts of your life, if you give yourself permission to see them all as your vocation, rather than just the one that earns you money (assuming that not all of them will)?
It's in 'living the slash' that some of life's greatest challenges present themselves. What happens when one of those things that makes up our total life becomes so demanding that it impinges on our freedom to pursue the others? What happens when the thing we love the most, or that feels the most life-giving for ourselves and others, actually gets the least attention because of the competing demands of earning, or family life? I want to name three principles that might help a little.
Firstly, I think that as Christians who believe that God is interested in whole persons fully alive, we should be at the forefront of movements to bring change in how people are expected to work, how we are rewarded for work, and this question of feeling compelled to work more than is actually needed for financial comfort. Part of this is an investigation into values around work that were instilled in us from a very young age when the world was different, and part of it is the courage to question our culture's priorities around wealth, work, volunteering, community, leisure, equality and creativity. I know that many of us here have made decisions to try to structure work differently from the norm – decisions that create pressures of their own. I wonder if we know enough about how we're all working, and in what fields, and with what needs, to be able to support the various balancing acts we're involved in.
Secondly, when I ponder the 'slash', I see that for many modern people our paid work asks us to enter the realm of the mind – and possibly heart and spirit – and that the only thing we do with our hands is type on a computer keyboard and make ourselves a cup of coffee. For those people, it is probably important to prioritise non-work activities that put ourselves back in our bodies, whether that's gardening, making stuff, cooking, or playing an instrument. Or course for those of us whose paid work is mostly physical in nature the opposite might be true – giving non-paid work time to study, meditation, conversation or whatever engages parts of us that might lie dormant in our other work. While it's true that we have various gifts and leanings, my feeling is that it's simply good for integral human health for our vocations to incorporate our whole selves, body mind and spirit. And I use the word vocation here to signal a kind of intentionality that perhaps goes beyond 'hobby', and asks 'how can all that I do be part of this overall goal of glorifying God by living the fullness of my own flourishing, for the good of the world God loves?'
Related to this is the recognition that this kind of integration may not be simultaneous. There are seasons in our flourishing, times when some things we do, such as looking after small children, or doing a job that demands a huge proportion of our time, are pretty much all we can do. There are things to be gained and given in those seasons, even as we might long for them to pass.
Which brings me back, finally, to this theme of finding 'true north' and the observation I made at the beginning, that while my paid and non-paid work, my relationships, my loves and my creative activities are all part of my vocation, my faith is not. Christianity is not something I add in on the side, another interest or affiliation to squeeze in amongst all the rest. My identity in Christ is what under-girds and gives meaning to all the rest, and is what allows me to use the word 'vocation' to speak of the tasks that are mine to do in the world right now, paid or unpaid. In a way, the vocation of every Christian is to take the life that they've found in Christ and the community of faith and manifest it the wider world – in their particular way and shape, with their particular gifts and energies and style.
I don't speak here of evangelism as such. I speak of receiving a joyful welcome at the table of God and God's people, and thereby becoming an agent of welcome to others, in the broadest sense of what that can mean. Or of receiving an invitation to wholeness and love from God and God's people, and then working to promote wholeness and love in whatever spheres we move among 'out there.' In our culture, involvement in church has become something it's hard to find time for alongside all our other commitments and interests. And that's not surprising given how non life-giving church can be! My interest in this point is not to put the heavy word on you to do more church.
Instead I want to ask, where do you source your core sense of intent, and your core understanding of who you are and why you're on this earth? How do you celebrate and affirm and remind yourself of that, and sustain yourself in that? To what extent is your vision of the good life something that you achieve by yourself, or as part of a community? If your answer to those questions has to do with faith, and faith journeyed with others in community, then it will have an effect on everything that makes up your vocation. Our faith identity, then, is not one of the balls that we're juggling, it's the hands that are doing the juggling. What this means in practice will be different for each of us. But it will have a profound effect on how and what we juggle.
In sum, our vocation is not just that main task that we do for most of the hours in the day, or that we get paid for. It includes all the ways we give expression to the person God is making us to be, in all the spheres of life in which we move, for the good of the world. The challenge to us, is to have some idea of our 'becoming' in God, some idea of how to attend to and nurture that becoming, and to try to make all our various life choices in the light of it. May God bless each of us in the exploration of that challenge.