In responding to our various callings, we cooperate in God’s care for humanity across the wide array of creation

“Right-sizing.” It’s hard to argue with a term like that. Why would anyone want the wrong size? And yet, if I were working for a company that was talking about right-sizing, I’d be nervous. In the business world, it seems, right-sizing really means downsizing. And downsizing means firing people. Or “letting them go”—as if people wanted to leave their jobs.

There are other contexts in which the term “right-sizing” is not used to mask an unpleasant reality. It might mean making things smaller. Or it might mean making them bigger. In either case, it will make them better. If I bring a pair of pants to the tailor for right-sizing, they may be taken in or let out. Either way, I’ll be happy with a better fit.

From time to time not only our clothes but our work may need to be right-sized. But unlike our clothes, our jobs may need to be made bigger and smaller at the same time. Bigger in one respect; smaller in another.

Let me explain.

In the last episode of this season’s PBS series Call the Midwife, one of the midwives, engaged to be married, explained to her fiancé that their wedding would not be fancy. Her father was a vicar in the Church of England and was about to leave for missionary work in Papua, New Guinea. Unlike the regular run of people, she explained, her father had a vocation—and thus not much money.

This explanation on the part of the midwife reflects a common understanding of vocation. Only some people have one: those called by God to a special work in the church. In fact, early in its history, the church made an outstandingly unhelpful distinction between two ways of being a Christian, two roads to heaven. The high road was for those who were willing to forsake the world and take up residence in a monastery or serve the church full-time. They were the religiously serious ones. These people had received the call to leave jobs, family, and property behind for the sake of full-time Christian service.

The low road was for the rest of us, those of us either unwilling or unable to free ourselves from our attachments to the world. We live an ordinary life: we work for a living, go to church on Sunday, and try to stay out of trouble. We have one foot in the sacred realm, the other in the secular. We never got that special call, that vocation. We’re part-time Christians.

Martin Luther, the German Reformer of the 16th century, rejected this two-track version of the Christian life. He insisted that all Christians have a calling from God. And that calling can be, and usually is, fulfilled in the midst of everyday life. “It looks like a great thing,” Luther said in his lectures on Genesis, “when a monk renounces everything and goes into a cloister, carries on the life of asceticism, fasts, watches, prays, etc. On the other hand, it looks like small thing when a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service of God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all the monks and nuns.” Even the ordinary work of the household could count as full-time Christian service.

In Luther’s view, everyday life was was charged with religious significance. Our daily life, according to this understanding, is the scene of God’s providential activity in which we participate through our work. God calls us to serve our neighbors in the various roles, or “earthly stations,” in which we have been placed. If I am a baker, God has called me to meet my neighbor’s needs for daily bread. If I am a doctor, I attend to my neighbor’s need for healing. If I am a car mechanic, I serve my neighbor’s need for reliable transportation. This is God’s preferred way of provision. For the most part, God acts in this world through the agency of human hands. God even milks cows, Luther claimed, through the hands of the dairy farmer.

But our stations extend far beyond the realm of paid employment. If I am married, God has called me to love and support my spouse; if I am a parent, God has called me to care for my children. If I am a citizen of a democratic country, God has called me to participate in the political life of the nation to secure the ends of justice. If I am a parishioner, God calls me to exercise my spiritual gifts in support of the community of faith. A vocation does not bid us to leave the world, but to engage the world for God’s sake. In responding to our various callings, we cooperate in God’s care for humanity across the wide array of creation.

The concept of vocation is deep, rich, and broad. It cannot be reduced to paid employment.

Our vocation spans the various ways in which we are typically related to others. It covers being a partner, being a parent, being a citizen, and being a member of a church as well as being an employee. The workplace is just one of the places where I respond to God’s call to love and serve my neighbor. Even if I’m in a season of unemployment, I still have a vocation.

This is good news for those of us whose paid jobs do not occupy the center of our lives. The focus of our vocation may lie instead in another area of our life—in the care of a child with special needs, in the ministry of the church, in the efforts of a local nonprofit organization or neighborhood association. The apostle Paul, after all, was a tentmaker. But clearly tentmaking was not where he found his life’s highest purpose. Rather it was a way of supplying his own needs as he pursued his primary calling, which he described as “the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:4).

On the other hand, if I do find my career compelling, fulfilling, and absorbing, the expansive sense of vocation may be cause for some reflection. If my job monopolizes my time; if it commands all my attention; if it drains all my energy so that I have little left for other relationships and responsibilities in my life, then perhaps my job has gotten too big. It’s sucking up all the oxygen the other aspects of my vocation need if they are to flourish. My job needs to be right-sized by getting smaller.

There may be another sense, however, in which my job needs to get bigger.

When we look at the word calling in the New Testament, we find variations on a single theme: we are called to repentance and faith (Acts 2:38); we are called into fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9); we are called out of darkness into light (1 Peter 2:9); we are called to be holy (1 Peter 1:15; 1 Cor. 1:2); indeed, we are called to be saints (Rom. 1:7). In short, we are called to follow Christ. In that sense, we all have the same calling.

But how shall we respond to that calling?

Each of us is likely to answer that call in a different way. In the great commandment, God bids us all to love our neighbor. But how exactly do we propose to do that? Here we find the New Testament emphasis on the variety of gifts. Within the community of faith, individuals have different gifts: those who have the gift of teaching should teach; those who have the gift of prophecy should prophesy; those who have the gift of administration should administrate. As members of one body, the church, we have different roles to play based on our gifts (see Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 12).

Reformers like John Calvin believed that the same principle holds for society at large. We should seek to serve others on the basis of the gifts God has given us. Not just our spiritual gifts but “all the gifts we possess,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes, “have been bestowed by God and entrusted to us on the condition that they be distributed for our neighbor’s benefit.” For, “we are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor, and are required to render an account of our stewardship.”

The connection between the call of God and our gift-based work in the world seems natural enough, viewed in this way. But in our culture the tendency has been to separate our sense of religious vocation from our professional practice, to separate the kind of life to which God calls us from the life demanded of us at work. We have learned to resolve any potential conflicts between the two by relegating them to wholly separate spheres. We have become experts at compartmentalization when the need arises. And what we get in return is a religion that seems irrelevant to a big part of our life and a job that often feels empty of real significance.

What would it be like to connect a strong sense of calling to one’s work? To see our job as a place where we respond to the call to love our neighbors?

Here is one example of what that might look like. Every year Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College gives out “Giants Awards” to outstanding leaders in the local African-American community. Several years ago, Ruth Jones won the Hattie Beverly Education Award. Ms. Jones was the principle of a local public elementary school. The school was in trouble when she arrived. Morale was low; discipline, lacking; test scores, wanting. But under her supervision the school gradually turned around—dramatically.

Because of her faith, Ms. Jones had an expanded view of her professional mission. “My prime thing is to create good people,” she said in an interview with The Grand Rapids Press. “I want to make sure my kids have a good heart. There are a lot of brilliant people in our prisons, but their hearts are not healthy. Their spirits have been broken.” She continued, “I was created to please God. I please him by becoming everything I was created to become. I was created to be a blessing to children. I know my purpose, and that is a wonderful thing. This has made me believe I can do anything, with God helping me.”

Given her role in turning the school around, she said, “Everybody wants me to pass out a handbook and say, ‘Here’s the model you should use.’ But the bottom line under all of it is love. So many kids come from a lot of pain at home. We can salvage a lot of these kids just by loving them. It doesn’t cost anything.”

During the interview the kids were out on the playground for recess. She went to her window and opened it, calling out to the children, her voice booming. “It’s good to see all you wonderful leaders. Look at all the beautiful sunshine. Make sure you have sunshine in your heart, by being kind to each other. I love you—have fun out there.”

Ms. Jones could have taken the safe route and confined herself to the standard duties of a school administrator. She could have fulfilled the official list of job expectations while adopting the self-protective role of an educational bureaucrat. But she didn’t. Her sense of vocation made her job bigger than that. It enriched her work. She made the magic connection between Sunday and Monday. And in return, Ms. Jones lived out her faith each day in a job filled with significance.

Our job is a place where we can respond to God’s call to love and serve our neighbor. That call gives meaning and purpose to our work. But our job is only one of the many “earthly stations” where we encounter God’s call. We are not only workers, but children, parents, partners, neighbors, citizens, and parishioners. Given the full measure of our vocation, let’s make sure our job is right-sized: small in one respect but big in another.

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Comments

Thanks for the great article Lee.  I'm a lawyer, having practiced for 38 years now.  I've never doubted that it is a vocation (and one of several that I have).  

I've had many clients over the years who are the same, even if of a different vocation.  Some produce food, some homes, some education, some healthcare, some financing, some counseling, some pastoring.  Indeed, our vocational choices are many, assuming our perspective as to the reason we do things is an obedient one.