In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner describes vocation, or calling, this way:
“It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man (sic) is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this.The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done…Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Read the full quote here.)
I first read that quote almost twenty years ago, as I was attempting to discern my own vocation. It has stuck with me through all those years not only because of Buechner’s succinct way of summing up vocation, but also because I have found his description to be deeply and profoundly true. Both in my own continuous discernment of vocation and in observing the lived vocations of others, I’ve come to believe in looking for the intersection of the person’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.
As I read call stories in scripture, I’m struck by how many of them involve people leaving pretty good lives to go do something that seems crazy. Abram leaving Haran for Canaan. Moses leaving a peaceful life tending Jethro’s flocks to go face down Pharaoh and lead the Israelites (who turn out to be outrageous whiners) out of Egypt. Amos leaving his horticulture to speak a tough word of the Lord to the powers that be. Simon, Andrew, James and John, leaving a good living (and in the case of James and John, their father Zebedee) at the drop of a phrase from Jesus to hit the road and walk in the way of the cross. Based on that, on my own experience and on the experience of those whose vocations I’ve observed, I’ve come to my own rule of thumb for discerning vocation, influenced by Buechner and others:
You know it’s a calling when you wouldn’t put up with the crap that goes with it if it weren’t.
You see, that intersection of gladness and hunger can be a scary place, even a risky or dangerous place. Maybe it’s just a hard, dirty corner, when there are easier and more lucrative ways to earn one’s bread. But it might be the kind of intersection that puts one in real, physical danger: soldiers, police officers, firefighters, war correspondents and aid workers know that corner well. Often it is the kind of intersection where you risk getting your heart broken. Parenting. Volunteering in a food pantry or a homeless shelter. Teaching school. Caring for those in crisis. When I was a hospital chaplain, I knew a lot of nurses (and more than a few chaplains) who worked floors where they knew they could get their hearts broken, but who also couldn’t not do that kind of nursing.
I wrote the following reflection on the work of chaplaincy after one of those heartbreaking shifts:
Thank you, God, for this work. Thank you for the ineffable blessing of being your hands, your feet, the bearer of your presence in this place. Thank you, God, for this work.
Thank you, God, when it’s scary. Thank you for the grace to shut up when I don’t have any answers, for being with me when I don’t even know the questions. Thank you, God, for you are the eternal answer.
Thank you, God, for the ways that you restore my soul. Thank you for friends and colleagues, for amazing staff and patients who show me your face. Thank you, God, for revealing yourself to me.
Thank you, God, for the times when you call me to go down into the valley of the shadow of death, for the sights I cannot unsee, the odors I cannot wash away, the sounds that stay in my ears long after the shift is over. For the acrid stench of a house fire clinging to the fireman’s bunker suit. For the call to the room of the woman dying of alcoholism, every one of her bones showing through skin the color of a banana. For the beeping of the pager that summons me to stroke the hair of a lonely old man as he stands at death’s door and sing of your amazing grace when there is no one else to sing for him. For the holy and heartbreaking duty of bearing a stillborn child to her mother’s arms. For the call to sit with the family whose son overdosed today, as they rage against the demons that enslaved him. For the nurse who weeps behind her mask for the patient in her care. For sound of water burbling in the oxygen system as a woman fights to make it just one more day before cancer takes her, because tomorrow is her wedding anniversary. For the x-ray images imprinted on my mind’s eye, pictures of devastation wrought on bodies created in your image. Thank you, God, for showing me your grieving heart, laid open to the agony of your children.
Thank you, God, for the times when the horror and the agony of it all lead me to rage at you, to sob and to weep and to cry out, “Where the hell are you, God, that this could happen?” Thank you, for hearing my cry of dereliction, and the deep lament of my spirit.
Thank you, God, for the peace that surrounds me in my darkest hours, for your presence made real to me in the faces of your children, and for the privilege of bearing that presence to others, as I am your beloved child, too.
Thank you, God, for the blessing of this work, and for the price. Thank you for the profound joy, and the tears that roll down like rain. Thank you for the long nights of wrestling and for the blessing you give in the midst of them, and for the dawns that find me locked in your embrace, even if I’m left limping by the experience.
Thank you, God, for this work. Amen.
That, I think, is the essence of vocation: the work that you thank God for, even when it breaks your heart, because it fills your heart, too.
So, where is that intersection in your life? What is the heart-filling, heart-breaking work you feel God calling you to do?