Thursday, July 30, 2009

Vocation: Job, Career, or Sacred Calling?

Throughout the last two years I have asked, sometimes in tears and always with deep emotion, the following question.:

"How can I find some way of thinking about [my job] so that it will not merely pay the bills, but it will give me… satisfaction, fulfillment, joy, accomplishment, a sense that I’m doing what God wants me to do?"

That was written by the head of a foundation that has doled out HUGE sums of money around the country to help advance the discussion and teaching of "vocation". He gets to the root of my struggles. Emotionally, I long to do something meaningful rather than slide into the trap of the daily mundane. Spiritually, I believe that following God means being counter cultural, and I long to be faithful. I read Piper's book "Don't Waste Your Life" an am goaded by the call away from purposelessness. Practically, I face questions of jobs and career and I have waffled here and there and everywhere, not knowing what I can or should do, or what I am particularly gifted for.

So, in the midst of my questions is the important idea of vocation. I've wanted to study it for a while, but didn't jump into it until I was due to lead a community group discussion and "vocation" seemed like a good topic. I asked facebook for recommendations about who or what to read on the topic and then spent the next week and a half reading and reading and reading.

Definition: Essentially, vocation means "calling", which comes as a surprise to those of us that use it to mean career or job.

Vocation in Church History:

In early Christianity, you were "called" to Christianity, and that itself had huge counter-cultural implications. Being a Christ-follower was their calling, and it is of course still ours.

As the Church developed (i.e. into the middle ages), the idea of monastic life grew. In the Catholic church those with a religious "vocation" were nuns and monks and church officials. If you experienced a "calling", that was your only option - to serve God in a monastic life. Even today when the Catholic church speaks of vocation, that is what they are referring to. Ironically, though, the modern-day Catholic church isn't nearly as bad about this as we are. We act as though being called into "ministry" is a true calling, and being a pastor or a missionary is superior to being a businessman or an elementary teacher.

The Reformers reacted against the separation of the Church from daily life. They emphasized that ordinary work, even sweeping floors and washing dishes, are legitimate vocations in which we are called to fully serve God faithfully, just like callings within “ministry”. They taught that everyday activities should be treated as sacred. They weren't concerned with how to (rejecting ecclesiastical callings as unique and rejecting the church/world dichotomy - there is an inherent dignity in everyday activities.) They weren't concerned with how to figure out your vocation so much how to live out your calling to Christ in the life given to you.

Some reformers (i.e. the Mennonites) disagreed that all areas of life can be sacred. They identified that much of secular life is corrupted and so in response they pulled away from the world and formed spiritual communities where they could engage in redemptive lives. They believed they were "called" to a Christian life. Evangelicalism sort of retook this idea - we formed Christian schools and camps and conferences and businesses and essentially tried to create a safe world where we could be Christians without dealing with the messiness of the secular world. I very much dislike this way of thinking. :)

A natural outflow of Calvinism and the belief that our lives are predestined for us is the perspective that we have a particular calling that God has determined for us. During the Reformation this was relatively uncomplicated - the career and station that believers had is clearly what they were called to.

Nowadays the implications of this is complicated. If we have a particular path that we are called to, what do we do as we hit college and decide our major, and then pick jobs, or hit our 20's (like me) and ask the same questions all over again? Now we have choices, and so we struggle to know how to determine the will of God or hear His voice as we make our choices from the career salad bar. So - today we teach vocation and give people career and personality tests - vocation becomes just another choice to make.

So... this is already long, so I'll stop here for today and move on to some of my conclusions later. I'll leave you with the quote from Frederick Buechner that came up again and again and again as I read about vocation. It seems to sum up most of the modern-day church's thinking on vocation:
“The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That intersecting point is your calling, your vocation.

My question is, do you think this is true? What does this say about our society TODAY?

Further thoughts: Part II and Part III of my thoughts on vocation.


That Married Couple said...

Hi Kacie,

I just stumbled across your blog and was excited to see your series on vocation. It's something that I've also been contemplating lately: what is it and how does it apply to my life? I love the quote you have at the end here, and thought your analysis of it in your later post (that it's a bit selfish) was intriguing.

I'm not familiar with the history of this, so I thought it was interesting that the early Protestants emphasized that ordinary work could also be a vocation. From what I've read (mostly by contemporary Catholic SAHMs), this is also very much the opinion of the Church nowadays. One's calling/vocation to marriage/motherhood involves tons of repetitive work (from dishes to laundry), yet it is still a path to holiness. While vocations in the traditional sense (religious life) are still super important, everyone is called to a particular station in life, and marriage is very much a vocation.

I was curious if you had any particular book recommendations, since you said you've done a lot of reading on this. I especially have my youngest (Protestant) brother in mind, who's a senior in college and desperately searching for a career he can be passionate about. I think it'd help him to seek his vocation as opposed to just a job. Thanks!

Kacie said...

yeah you know, I did a lot of skimming and searching in a variety of books, but the one I found MOST helpful and formational is this little book (it's just $14 on amazon!),

That Married Couple said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely look into that.

You know, I realized I don't actually have any specific story of my "conversion" on my blog yet. Just my thoughts on specific issues. I'll have to think about doing that, though! Best wishes and prayers to you as you continue your contemplation of it all!