Once upon a time there was a pious man standing on his roof, surrounded by rising flood waters. A neighbour came by in his canoe and offered to take the pious man to shore. But he said, “No thanks, God will take care of me.”
The waters continued to rise. Then a county sheriff came by in a motor boat and told him to hop aboard. He refused, saying “That’s OK, God is my help.”
The waters rose again. An Army helicopter appeared overhead and dropped him a line. But he did not take it, calling out over the rushing torrent, “God will save me!”
In minutes the river swept him away, and he drowned. When he got to heaven the pious man asked God why He didn’t save him. God replied, “I made every effort! First I sent your neighbour, and you refused. Then I sent the sheriff, and you refused. Then I sent a helicopter, and you refused again!”
Connected to each other
With few exceptions, God has chosen to work in this world through the agency of human hands. Each morning we ask him for our daily bread, and already people are at work in the bakeries. That’s the way God provides for us.
Perhaps God could have created a world in which he saw to our needs directly. But he did not choose to create that kind of world; he chose to create an even better, if harder, one. He chose to create a world where we ourselves, as his image-bearers, are involved in the ongoing business of creation, a world where we assume responsibility for the well-being of the earth and all who inhabit it, where we must exercise our minds and imaginations, make choices, and invest our energies.
The world that God created is also a world where we are not sufficient unto ourselves. We have many strengths and abilities, but we are also creatures of need.
Again, God could have created the world differently. He could have made us self-sufficient. But God chose to connect us to each other in a circle of need and care, to make of us a society of interdependent persons who serve each other and are served by each other.
Each connection in the social bond is made where human need and human ability meet. We are born ignorant, but we have parents and teachers; we are born naked, and there are those involved in the design, manufacture, and distribution of clothing; we are born hungry, and there are those involved in the production, distribution, and preparation of food.
Soon we grow, and come to find our own place in this system of mutual service. When we do so, we come to participate in God’s way of caring for the human community.
Hear the quiet call
Another story might also be told about Fred, the drowned man’s neighbour. He was a plumber but never had a sense of God’s calling. For years he would pray for a sure sign—a voice perhaps—that would set him to a special task in God’s service. But it never came. And he remained a plumber until he breathed his last.
When he arrived in heaven, he asked God why he had never received a calling. And God answered, “Remember when you tried to save your neighbour in the flood? I called you then. For I have commanded you to love your neighbour, and I gave you a boat and a neighbour in need. The call was clear, and you responded. But as a plumber you were responding to my call all along—serving your neighbours in need with the talents, training, tools, and opportunities I gave you.”
We tend to think that God calls people only to special tasks in spectacular ways—and sometimes God does. But we also need to hear the quiet call of God in the ordinary, the commonplace, to hear him speak in the day-to-day circumstances of our lives. For there, too, God calls us to serve.
The sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin had it right when he wrote, “No task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.”
Like Fred, many of us do not see the connection between our daily work and the kind of life to which God calls us. Our work has little, if any, spiritual significance for us. We tend to restrict the scope of God’s call to church matters or mission projects. Our world has been divested of its religious meaning; our work has come to count only as our stake in a purely secular domain.
I want to mark out a path of reconnection between faith and the workplace, between the things of ultimate concern and the things of daily concern. This path was blazed several centuries ago. But it has since become overgrown, hard to see, and, by now, almost impassable. It is the path of vocation.
Concept of vocation
Although we may have lost track of the concept of vocation, we certainly haven’t forgotten the word. We use it all the time in connection with work. In fact, if current usage is any indication, the word “vocation” has come to mean the same thing as work: “vocational training”—that’s job training; “vocation counselling”—that helps you find the right kind of work; “vocational choice”—that’s career choice; and if you “missed your calling”—that means you’re in the wrong line of work.
Our vocation is our work; our work is our vocation. And that’s the problem. Because our vocation has come to be identified with our work, the concept of vocation has no critical leverage on our work. It’s an idea that has become domesticated and compliant. It’s simply another way of describing what we do for a living. It holds up no ideal; it opens up no horizons.
So the first thing we need to do is pry work and vocation apart. Having done that, we might better see how they relate.
The idea of vocation goes back to Martin Luther, the German theologian who set the Protestant Reformation in motion in 1517. Luther not only upheld the principle of grace, against merit, as is well-known; he also radically reconceived the Christian’s relation to the work of this world.
Before Luther, the church held that there are two ways to heaven: the high road and the low road. The low road is taken by those who live a regular life, work for a living, refrain from doing wrong, and attend church. Most of us are on that road.
The high road is taken by the few who leave their worldly occupations, family life, and all other worldly distractions and enter the monastery for the full-time Christian life of prayer and meditation. Those who take this road have received a call from God, a call to leave this world and to live the religious life. In fact, those who had this call were referred to as “the religious”; the rest were “secular.”
The religious activities of the monks had a role to play in the grand economy of salvation, as it was then understood. Engaging in works of righteousness beyond what was required for their own salvation, the monks contributed to what was called the “treasury of merit.” Folks on the low road, a little behind in their progress to the heavenly city, could draw upon this treasury through acts of penance, pilgrimages, or the purchase of an indulgence.
Luther was a monk before he was a reformer. He devoted himself to religious works that would advance his own salvation and the salvation of others. One of his assignments was to give lectures on the New Testament.
It was there, in the letters of St. Paul, that he discovered the principle of grace, and with it, a new appreciation of the spiritual value of everyday life. We are saved by grace, not our own works. Works should be directed to our neighbour’s good, not our own salvation. Faith does not call us out of this world, but to the world in the role of a servant.
Larger than work
How does the call of God come to us? Where do we find our divine vocation? The stations of life, Luther held, order the earthly realm. We might think of these stations as social roles—husband, father, neighbour, butcher, baker, candlestick-maker.
Duties attach to each of these stations. As a father it is my duty to love and care for my children; as a husband to love and be faithful to my wife; as a baker to serve my neighbours by the making of bread.
Each one of these stations represents a God-ordained pattern of mutual service by which God cares for the human race, provides for us through the work of human hands. What God calls us to do is specified in the duties that attach to our stations. That’s where we find our vocation.
But note: we have driven our first wedge between work and vocation. For, measured by its Reformation dimensions, vocation is much larger than work. It embraces all the ways we are typically related to others. It is not limited to paid employment. I have a calling as a father, a son, a citizen, a parishioner, and a teacher. My job is just one of my callings, one facet of my call from God.
Work might be part of my vocation, but it is not all of my vocation.
A second wedge between work and vocation becomes apparent if we consider the concept of call in the New Testament. Here are some of the key passages that speak of the calling of the Christian: We are called to repentance and faith (Acts 2:38). We are called into fellowship with Christ (I Cor. 1:9). We are called out of darkness and into the light (I Peter 2:9). We are called to be holy (I Peter 1:15, I Cor. 1:2). We are called to be saints (Rom. 1:7).
I could list more. But perhaps we can already see the pattern. The vast majority of occurrences of the word calling (“klesis“) in the New Testament do not refer to work, occupation, or paid employment at all. In these passages we are called, as the Scottish theologian, Gary Badcock, recently put it, not to a particular job, but to a way of life—a life of love for God and neighbour, a life of faith, hope, kindness, patience, and charity.
So my job is not even just one of my callings. It’s not my calling at all. Rather, my job is one of the ways in which I respond to my calling to love my neighbour. I do not choose this calling. There is no such thing as vocational choice. God calls me. God chooses me. I respond to God’s call.
An occupation, if I have one, is not my vocation. It’s a social place where I respond to my vocation. I respond to the call to love my neighbour as a builder of houses, as an auto-maker, as a school counsellor, or dental hygienist. But my job is only one of the places I respond to my calling. I also respond as a citizen of a democratic country, as a neighbour in my corner of town, as a member of a local community of faith.
Human life is multi-faceted. And so will be our response to God’s call.