If we think of work as its own end, disconnected from God’s purposes, or merely as something we do to pay the bills, we put ourselves at risk of rationalizing anything to keep our jobs.Rod Dreher
I have for much of my life, dating back to my childhood, found myself struggling with a perpetual feeling of alienation from the society around me. At various times of my life I explained this feeling in different ways. I was a fairly mature child and was never all that interested in most of the normal activities and discussions of childhood, preferring adult company to that of my peers. I also felt the strain of seeking to develop an ever deepening faith in an increasingly secular society. As I struggled through my teen years I held on to the hope – I don’t know exactly where this idea came from- that when I became an adult all these feelings of unease and discontent would melt away as I found ‘my place in this world’ to quote a popular Christian song of that era. As I entered the adult world I was profoundly disappointed to discover those feelings did not disappear, but actually increased. This caused to me to begin to ask deeper questions about myself, my faith, and the nature of the society around me. Was there truly a place for me in this world? Why did I feel as if I did not belong?
I did not know it at the time, but much of what I was looking for could be encapsulated in the word ‘vocation’. In a previous post I began exploring the significance of this word as I traced it’s etymology as it was understood in European Christianity from the Roman Era through the Industrial Revolution. What stood out to me was that a word that was once rich with the idea of a calling from God to particular position in life has been reduced to simply referencing a particular type of job (trade schools being ‘vocational schools’), or at best referencing a person’s career with the sense of a calling stripped away. As I realized the Christian roots of the word I have become convinced that one of the most important things that we as Christians can do is to rediscover the meaning and significance of what this word encompasses. This is expressed well in Dorothy Sayers famous essay “Why Work” given in 1942,
“In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.
I have become convinced that we in the modern world would be well served to rediscover a fuller conception of purpose that brings our jobs under the larger umbrella of a meaningful vocation; a vocation that is born out of our heeding a call on our lives to not simply find employment, but to discover who we are in the process of meeting the needs of a broken world.
I am using the word vocation here in a broad sense to describe not merely a calling to a career, but a calling that leads to an understanding of a person’s place and purpose in the world. In other words, a person is not a called to a particular job or career, but chooses their job or career in response to their calling. This, in turn, begs the question of what exactly is a calling? As I noted in my previous post “the word vocation is derived from the Latin vocatio, meaning a calling, summons or invitation“. I like the description of a summons, a beckoning by God to a particular place in life. Discovering exactly what we are being called to is a much more difficult task.
There are two main difficulties we must confront. The first is distinguishing our own interests or desires from the call God is placing on our lives. Sometimes God speaks to us through events; a difficult or painful time may open our eyes to a new dimension of life such as the way that proximity to a divorce can open our eyes to the brokenness in families in our community. Tragedies may undermine our confidence in the philosophies and beliefs underpinning our ‘way of life’ in ways force us to reexamine the values that guide our choices. Sometimes God whispers to us by a nagging restlessness that we can never quite assuage or the persistent sense that we are somehow ‘getting it wrong’ on some of our lives most important decisions. Eventually we must realize that we are confronted with a choice: to continue down the path we have always been on or to let go and allow our lives to be redirected. We may try to ignore this feeling or drown it in perpetual busyness; we can stubbornly fight to continue down the old path; but the call will not simply disappear even when we wish that it did.
Heeding the voice that is calling us will take courage and the will to make the tough decision to let go of our own dreams and desires for our lives. This is the second difficulty we must face if we are find out true calling in life. Throughout our school years we constantly exhorted to follow our dreams, to work to achieve them, to never give up on them. And honestly for much of my life I embraced that mentality. It is only as I got older that I began to question that thinking as I began to think through the implications of my faith. Christianity teaches the idea of a surrender; a letting go of every part of ourselves to then give to God; something Jesus makes clear in his teaching and parables.
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it”.Matthew 10:37-39 NIV
“Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked,”Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good? Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
“Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied,” You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“All these I have kept,” said the young man. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give them to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”Matthew 19: 16-21 NIV
Letting go of everything to follow Jesus is the crux the Christian faith. Everything. Even those cherished dreams of where we want to go and what we want to accomplish in life. The key to understanding this is in Jesus statement, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” In a perfect world, following our dreams and following Jesus would align in perfect harmony. But in this fractured, broken world the reality is that our dreams and desires are often manifestation of our own selfishness, even if our dreams seem to be good in and of themselves. We may talk of our ‘dream job’ or imagine the perfect family for ourselves, but if we truly wish to rediscover vocation we must realize that even at our best our vision of the future is limited and focused on ourselves; God desires to weave each of us together into the larger tapestry of redemption. For this to be accomplished we must surrender our dreams and allow God to place us where he needs us according to his purposes; trusting that it will be for our good and will satisfy us far more deeply than if we were able to achieve the our own dreams for our future. To find our life, we must lose it, including and perhaps especially, our dreams.
I will explore this significance of the decision to let go and embrace our vocation in future posts.
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