Do I Need a Job or a Vocation?
Every year some untold numbers of students enter their senior year in colleges and universities across the nation. They’ve done it! They have successfully navigated the complexities of earning a bachelor’s degree in their chosen field of study. They have masteredthe art of reading, listening, note-taking, test-taking, and essay-writing and demonstrated some amount of competence to their professors. Diploma mills aside, they have earned an education, perhaps even a good one if they went to the right school. Proverbially the world is their oyster!
Yet the future is often uncertain and before long a general anxiety tends to set in among this population of university students. What will I do after I graduate, they ask? Should I go to graduate school? Should I get a job? Where should I live? Who should I live with? Moreover, these students have parents who are (at least) middle-aged and (likely) have been taught by a fair number of middle-aged professors. Recently a talk with a student brought up the reality that I have been a university professor long enough that she wondered why I wasn’t tired of it, perhaps especially since I too am middle-aged. She was concerned about the prospects of her own future and she expressed that she did not just want to have a job but invest her life in something more meaningful.
Now, many forms of employment can be meaningful to some people at some times but there are way too many people who appear to be only working for the weekend or working for their next vacation. They do not necessarily enjoy their jobs but they enjoy some of the side benefits: summers off for teachers, generous retirement contributions or good medical coverage, for example. Mostly they are unhappy with the day to day realities and rhythm of their life so they attempt to compensate by being materialistic (a “at least I make lots of money” mentality as they accumulate more and more stuff), by being negligent (“I’ll do my job but not too well because this place sucks”) or being discontent (jumping from one job to another, chasing an elusive dream perhaps). Let’s face it, it would stink to study accounting to find out that you hate being an accountant and it would be a miserable experience to find out that you studied to be a nurse but then realized you hated being at a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office day after day.
So what is it that might make someone happy over the long duration of a job? What may stave of the discontentment of yet another day at the office? Many folks who are happy in their jobs will tell you, “I do not have a job, I have a career.” Fair enough. Some people do find meaning in their jobs by realizing that this is a career, something that they have striven for and worked hard to achieve. But sometimes, perhaps often, even this sentiment will not redeem a rather harsh job situation. If you are a teacher and you hate the rhythm of your life due to the school year, realizing that your job is a career will likely bring no more happiness once August comes around again.
Theologically, however, there is something more: vocation. Now, “vocation” is not just another word for “career.” Rather, it has a divine connotation and weight to it. It has been said that the greatest contribution that the Protestant Reformation made to the Christian church was the re-affirmation of the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and that the second greatest contribution was a theology of vocation. And talking about vocation was something that the Protestant Reformers did with regularity and to great effect. For example, Martin Luther once preached that “Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs, so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept, the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.” (“Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity,” preached on October 3, 1529). On another occasion he preached to Christian rulers, “The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor… The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living” (“Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar,” preached on October 25, 1522).
In the Scriptures there are two primary meanings of “calling” or vocation (vocare = to call): 1) the call to membership in the people of God (e.g., Is. 41:8-9); and 2) particular callings by God toa special work, office or position of responsibility within his covenant community. To illustrate, the word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia, which is derived from ek (from, out of) and klēsis (calling). Thus, the Greek word for church literally means “calling out of” or “called out ones.” This etymology demonstrates a general call to membership in the people of God. Yet, God calls some individuals out of the church (literally, out of the called out ones) to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). This illustrates God’s practice of calling out to a special work, office or position of responsibility. Some callings are to specialized roles in church and society and others are to particular duties within these spheres. Theologian Douglas Schuurman sums it up well when he writes that “the Bible has two basic meanings for vocation or calling. Each of these has two forms. The first is the one call all Christians have to become a Christian and live accordingly. Of this there is a general form, where the proclaimed word echoes the voice of creation calling all away from folly and into the wisdom that is Jesus Christ, and there is a specific form, where this call becomes existentially and personally felt. The second meaning is the diverse spheres of life in and through which Christians live out their faith in concrete ways. Of this there is a more general form, such as being a husband, wife, child, parent, citizen, preacher, etc., ‘in the Lord.’ And there is a specific form, where it refers to the actual duties each of us takes on in our concretely occupied places of responsibility ‘in the Lord’” (Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life, pp. 40-41).
Thus, for the Christian believer there is already the call to be a Christian. But there is also the call to be something else, to live into other callings that are just as divine as one’s call to be a Christian. And this is where one’s “job” fits into God’s economy. If X is my calling then I will hesitate (or, at least should hesitate) to see it only as a job to be regretted or a burden to carry until the weekend or my next vacation. Rather, it is God’s special calling on my life and therefore worthy of my best attitude and my best efforts. It is the task that God has given me to do. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer’s Post Communion prayer: “And now, Father, send us out into the world to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” First and foremost we are sent out to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul and mind to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we are also sent out, I think, to do that work that God has called us to do by way of our other divine vocation; that is, to our particular callings by God to a special work, office or position. In other words, we are called by God to love and to live into both of, all of our vocations. Thus, today’s university students do not need jobs, they need vocations and may God call them and may they hear this calling.