I was at a meeting recently for a church group that was planning a conference.The planners got very excited when they started discussing the side excursions they could offer the participants.
“We can go to visit the holy places around Santa Fe,” they said. “There’s the Native American burial grounds, the old Spanish mission, the cathedral, the holy mountains and….”
“I know a Christian who works there,” I offered. “We could all go and sit around his desk.” They all looked at me like I had just said something in a foreign language. And I had.
You see, there is a special language for those who spend a lot of time with organized religion. It is a language full of words and images and assumptions. “Holy place,” for example, is a place where spiritual experience happens — a church, for example, or even a mountain top.
Ordinary lay people, however, do not always use the language of religion to describe our experiences. We may feel the presence of God in our office, or over the kitchen table, or at a political rally, but we would not necessarily dub those “holy places.”
Another religious word is “vocation.” Most lay people would not use that word to describe what we do or who we are. In fact, the word “vocation” is usually reserved for those in the ordained ministry, just like “holy place” is used only for locations of special religious significance.
“Vocation,” however, simply means “calling.” It implies that, in some mysterious way, God has called a specific person to a particular occupation or life work. When we use “vocation” to refer to the call to ordained ministry we are being accurate – such people do, indeed, have a vocation.
If, however, by using the word “vocation” exclusively for church ministry we imply – even by omission – that God only cares enough and takes the time to call people to that one specific career or state in life, we are making a huge mistake.
The idea that ordained ministry is somehow better or more important or inherently holier than other work is obviously not true, as most ordained ministers would be first to point out. All people by virtue of our humanity, and all Christians by virtue of our faith, have been “called” by God. We all have a “vocation” in the broadest sense of that word.
More specifically, many of us are called – by virtue of our talents, our interests, our opportunities, our states in life – to particular “vocations” that may have little or nothing to do with church ministry. “He was born to be a musician,” we say, or “I couldn’t imagine her being anything other than a doctor or nurse.”
People are “called” to be husbands or wives, mothers or fathers, sons or daughters, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. They may find themselves at various times in their lives working in widely differing jobs, doing all kinds of volunteer activities, caring for children or the ill at home on a full- or part-time basis. They might be unemployed or underemployed, retired, or studying. All of these are “vocations” in the sense that they can be what God wants us to be doing at a particular time or in a particular circumstance.
Would we act any differently if we were convinced that what we do every day was a “call” from God? Most probably would.
First of all, we would see the meaning of what we do very differently. Here’s how Margaret Hebblethwaite describes the meaning she finds in ordinary housework:
“I often resent the time I spend tidying the house, doing the laundry, cleaning the kitchen. I must remind myself that this is a share in God’s work, this is the task of creation – sorting, tidying, ordering, bringing harmony out of chaos. This thinking gives dignity and spiritual worth to tasks that could be boring. God’s work is never ended – nor is a mother’s. Creation was not just a ‘big bang’ in the beginning; it is an ongoing labor throughout time. It included peak moments like childbirth and the tedious, daily tasks of tidying up.”
Second, we would deal with other people differently if we felt that we were exercising a vocation. Coworkers, customers, clients, bosses, fellow commuters, even competitors would each be seen as opportunities of grace, rather than obstacles to be overcome. Maxine Dennis, a cashier at a supermarket, sees her job this way:
“I feel that my job consists of a lot more than ringing up orders, taking people’s money, and bagging their groceries.The most important part of my job is not the obvious. Rather it’s the manner in which I present myself to others that will determine whether my customers will leave the store feeling better or worse because of their brief encounter with me. For by doing my job well I know I have a chance to do God’s work too. Because of this, I try to make each of my customers feel special. While I’m serving them, they become the most important people in my life.”
Finally, if we all have a vocation, we would make sure that we took care to balance the various responsibilities in our life – job, family, community and church. If, for example, I am called by God to be a husband and father (which I am), then I had better not let my other responsibilities detract from my family life. But if I am also called to be an editor and publisher (which I also am), then that, too, must be faithfully attended to. If, on top of both of those vocations, I am also called to be a good citizen, neighbour and church member (yes, yes, and yes), then the task of balancing my life is a serious and holy one indeed.
Does this mean that we are always doing the will of God or that we are always hearing or responding to God’s call correctly? Certainly not. Many people ignore or misinterpret their true vocation or vocations. Some fight it, while others insist they are called to something that is totally wrong for them. Many make several attempts at responding before they get it right. (All of this, by the way, can also be said of people in the ordained ministry.)
But to assert that God only calls a few people to one particular type of ministry or work and leaves the rest of us “uncalled,” or to think that there would be even one child of God who is not called to something important, would be to underestimate God’s interest in and concern for each of us.
So, the next time someone asks if you have a “vocation,” be sure to answer, “Of course I do, and so do you.”
Then take him or her on a tour of your “holy places.”
Written by Gregory Pierce who runs a publishing company in Chicago. He is past president of the National Center for the Laity. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Content distributed by WorkLife.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.