Today, as many members of congregations seek deeper meaning in their lives and, more specifically, in their work, it is becoming increasingly important for pastors to be able to communicate in meaningful ways about vocation. To do so may require a fresh look at this often misunderstood concept.
While the term “vocation” is now commonly associated with one’s work, its Latin root is vocatio, which means neither job nor career nor occupation. It means “voice” or “a voice calling.” Religiously speaking, it means “a calling from God.” For many people, this “calling from God” stuff can get mighty confusing—indeed, sometimes downright misleading. For one thing, a religious understanding of vocation often gets too closely tied to the act of taking up a religious profession. I am all in favor of people doing that, of course, but I believe something is wrong with this too-narrow usage of the word “vocation.” Why is it that we all know of people who hear God calling them to be ministers but of almost nobody who hears God calling them to other equally significant ways to spend their lives?
And then there is another problem: What does it really mean for any of us to hear God calling? Gary Badcock, a theologian who grew up in a devoutly religious home, writes that, as a child, he was taught that God had a plan for each life, a plan that a person might miss if he or she was not attentive to God’s call and obedient to it. “As a youth,” he said, “I felt as if I were waiting for a bus, or a streetcar named vocation; if I became bored and decided to wander away from the street, it would pass me by.”1 He was scared to death that he would somehow miss God’s call. It took him a long time to develop a more profound and helpful understanding. Somehow I don’t think his experience is too different from what many people are feeling today when they wonder what their calling might be and wait for the spiritual guidance to follow it.
What the Bible Has to Say
When religious things start to get confusing, as a Christian I often find it helpful to take a fresh look at what the Bible has to say. In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, we find accounts of how the people of Israel spent four decades wandering the wilderness after escaping generations of slavery in Egypt. Near the end of their journey to a promised new homeland, their leader had them stop for a while before proceeding across the Jordan River. Just before the moment when everything would become different, though no one knew exactly how, Moses called for a covenant renewal ceremony. “I set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” he told the people. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 30:19-20).
“Choose life,” Moses had said to the Israelites. “Choose life!” That is “the calling from God.” That is the meaning and content of vocation.
But that was then. This is now. How do we choose life? We live in a world saturated with choice. Look at the varieties of electronic gadgets we are all supposed to buy, the surfeit of TV channels to choose from. We are bombarded from every direction by merchants and advertisers devoted to making sure we are fully aware of our latest opportunity to select some new product—and by implication, a new image, a new lifestyle, even a new self! In our society, such choices are presented to us so insistently and so alluringly that we are tempted to become preoccupied by them. Despite ourselves we begin to take them seriously. We almost start to think that the very quality of our lives depends on these sorts of choices.
The Choices that Matter
In our hearts, we know that our lives do not depend on these choices. Our lifestyle might, but not our lives! So part of what it means in our time to choose life is to avoid getting caught up in these kinds of choices. Choosing life means focusing our attention and energy on choices that really do matter. And what kinds of choices are those? Moses knew. He said, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, then you shall live.” The commandments are quite specific. They tell us not to murder, or steal, or commit adultery; not to speak falsely about our colleagues or our neighbors, or to want so badly what our best friend or some hotshot competitor has that we get all bent out of shape in the process. Then there is the commandment to honor our parents, and the one that tells us to keep the Sabbath—to rest and to worship. These commandments are pointers to the big things, the things that matter, the really serious things about which we have to make choices: Choices about how we use our time. Choices about money, about how much “stuff” is finally enough. Choices about sex, fidelity, and commitment. Choices about the world we live in and how we are to make it better. Choices about ulti-mate allegiances—about which God or gods we will worship, give our hearts and souls to, orient our lives by.
In a wonderful book called The Shape of Living, Cambridge University theologian David Ford makes plain that our choices and our desires are deeply connected. The inner turbulence of our desires often reflects the cacophony of options before us. So, says Ford, “the dynamics of desire are often treacherous. We can be attracted onto ground that, as soon as we commit our weight to it, proves to be a bog we cannot get ourselves out of. Yet if we do not risk following our desires, we risk not really living. [Not only bad things, but also all] the best things in life are…objects of desire: love, joy, justice, health, truth, goodness, beauty. To satisfy our desire for them, even in part, makes life and the dangers of desiring worthwhile.”2
The Paradox of Desire
How, then, do we calm the turbulence and avoid the bog? Faced with far too many conflicting desires, some good and some not so good, we sometimes try very hard to limit them, to keep them under control, to make sure they never get out of balance. But, while safer than utter chaos, mere static “balance” is deadening. It is not good enough. We yearn for something more. This is the paradox: our desires may get us in trouble, but they also give us life.
Fortunately, says Ford, there is another kind of balance, “a balancing that is dynamic and always on the point of overbalancing as it moves. It is like a bicycle being ridden, or an airplane in flight. If they stop, they crash. It is a picture of desires that are being shaped by one overwhelming desire. Such a great desire is the movement that integrates and balances all the others. We never feel in control of it. It constantly overwhelms us with demands and new possibilities. But take it away and we crash, our life seems dead—or we become victims of some lesser compulsion that fills the vacuum.”3
In Luke’s Gospel, a recent graduate of the first century equivalent of Harvard Law School walks up to Jesus and asks him the biggest question there is: “Rabbi—Teacher—Professor—What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke: 10:25). Note what he is asking here. He is asking the same question the Israelites had asked of Moses—and that we ourselves are all asking in one way or another: How in the world can we choose life—real life, deep life, abundant life, life so well-lived that in the end the only way we can understand it is to recognize it as a gift from God? And how does Jesus answer the young lawyer? He sends him back to his law school days, saying, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The young man knows the answer immediately: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your
strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke: 10:26-27). He is quoting from the shema, the ancient Hebrew summary of the Law found in the book of Deuteronomy (6:4-5) and inscribed still today on the hearts of every devout Jew and Christian. Love God; love your neighbor: these two, inextricably tied to one another, compose “the one overwhelming desire,” “the movement” that, in the deepest heart of things, “integrates and balances all the others.” It is the great desire that, as Ford tells us, “constantly overwhelms us with demands and new possibilities.” Take it away and our lives will seem dead.
The way to life is the way of love. Whether we are parents, teachers, artists, shopkeepers, manual laborers, lawyers, scientists, public servants, or pastors of congregations, what matters is that we choose life, that we choose love. Love God, love our neighbor. To feel in our hearts, our souls, our strength, and our minds the deep beckoning of the way of love, which is the way of life—that is what it means to have a vocation.
This article is an adaptation of “Vocation” by Craig Dykstra, the original version of which appeared in the winter 2003 issue of Initiatives in Religion, a newsletter of Lilly Endowment, Inc.
1.Gary D. Badcock, The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 141.
2.David F. Ford, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Direction for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 52.