Monday, December 19, 2011

A study in vocation

What does the word "vocation" mean to most people? I can do the first natural thing which is to look at a dictionary, which tells me:

1. a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling.
2. a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career.
3. a divine call to God's service or to the Christian life.
4. a function or station in life to which one is called by God 
 Okay, fair enough. I would posit that generally, we trend towards the first definition of vocation, and that's it. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, and I won't go into the etymology of vocation extensively except to point out that its root is in the Latin vocatio, which means "to call". So generally speaking, the word vocation probably most accurately has the meaning of "a calling". I was attending a men's Bible study group when these questions in regards to vocation were brought up and frankly, while I feel they have been overlooked, when you stop and think about it, they're really quite natural and frankly, something that we don't consider enough. When we consider our "calling" the two questions that immediately should be considered are these: called by whom? and for what? Generally speaking, we only really consider what we're called to do, but seldom who called us and why.

As a Christian, the "who" part is fairly straightforward, it's God. We were made by God for a purpose, and that purpose is to glorify Him, Ephesians 2:10 reads:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Which for us makes a lot of conceptual sense, but in the end, how does that practically apply? Well, I suppose that's getting a little ahead of ourselves. While we've now considered who and why, it is still also important to know what. When we look at the above verse the question that many will jump immediately to is  this, "what are the good works?" Is it philanthropy? Community service? Church ministry? Donating to Goodwill/Salvation Army? General altruism? There's no real clear cut answer. I believe this is true partially because God's call to each of us is an individual call. While we have all been called by God for His glory, what we specifically do in that aspect is relatively to each of us. Consider 1 Corinthians 12:12:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

I don't think there's a huge amount of debate about this, we're all called to be and do something different. I understand that in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes in general regarding the church, however, does our calling extrapolate beyond the church? As some are gifted as and thereby called as "first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues." (1 Corinthians 12:28). Yet our calling ought to extend beyond Sundays, beyond the walls and confines of our weekly church services. If God's call does not affect our everyday life then have we really experienced it?

Well, some might argue, based on the definition of the word, we simply misuse the word "vocation" to mean "job", vocation, as seen in definition number 3 above, is for those who are called to be clergy. I entirely agree that to become a full-time minister there needs to be a call, but I don't believe that God exclusively calls pastors/ministers. This is a pretty traditional Catholic type construing of the word and I frankly don't really buy it. We all have vocations, and "vocation" as synonymous with "job" isn't necessarily wrong, but it does change the perspective, we are called to our jobs. As much as the world needs pastors it also needs engineers, doctors, and carpenters. The question I believe we as Christians need to ask is what is entailed in being a Christian engineer, a Christian doctor, and a Christian carpenter. God doesn't desire a world full of pastors but rather a world full of Christians.

We often hear a phrase that perhaps has over time gotten somewhat cliched: "live like Jesus is alive" or something along those lines. I know I've heard this before, but the question is how is that manifest in my life? Ultimately what it boils down to is what difference is there between Christians and non-Christians in the everyday facets of life? Is a Christian engineer simply an engineer who spends all his free time at church doing church things? Is he (she) simply an engineer who happens to profess Christ as a Christian? As you might surmise, this question continues to ring true for lawyers, doctors, accountants, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, retail workers, etc... What does it mean to be a good Christian [insert occupation/vocation here]?

This isn't a question that has a hard and fast answer, but just because we can't get the answers on Wikipedia or by Googling it, doesn't mean that we ought not consider it. For the sake of simplicity, I will continue with my example of the engineer. As we've established, we're not all called to be pastors, some of us in fact, are called to be engineers. So what does it mean to be a good Christian engineer? Well, let's boil it down first, ultimately we're looking at what it means to be an engineer right? So let's assume that's in the job description, what does it mean to be a good engineer? Succinctly, it means you're good at your job. Maybe it entails getting patents or inventing stuff, maybe it's as simple as going to work and being a productive and conscientious employee. There may be many takes on this, but certainly, it's something we can somewhat extrapolate to with relative ease. Now let's throw the adjective "Christian" back in. I don't believe it's really quite as simple as being a good Christian (which in and of itself is something of a redundancy if you think about it) and a good engineer at the same time. The word Christian, I believe is more suited when describing us, as an adjective rather than a noun. So, what's a good Christian engineer? That's the question of the hour.

It's a rather difficult thing to fully grasp and consider, at least for me. However, one thing that helps me is considering this question: what would the world look like today if it were full of good Christian [insert vocation here]? Businesspeople? Lawyers? Politicians? Engineers? Doctors? Athletes? The list goes on and on. It's not something entirely tangible, but it certainly does help give some sense of an idea of how we ought to behave in what we do. To bring it back to the topic of vocation, our jobs, despite being "secular" (which in essence is the same Medieval concept of holding clergy on some pedestal), if we are called by God to [insert vocation] for the purpose of glorifying Him, the question gets boiled down to this: how do I glorify God with my engineering? Accounting? Lawyering? etc... Is it just simply doing my duties as an employee and truly focusing my attentions on things of God? or is it doing my utmost in demonstrating to those in my workplace that there is no dichotomy between Christianity and professionalism? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. The cop out answer is that it's a balance. For, if I spend all my time in church, how do I minister to those around me (in the workplace)? Yet, if I spend all my time at work, how am I being nurtured, grown, and ministering to fellow brothers and sisters (in the church)?

In some sense, pastors kind of have it easy, their vocation is ministering, yet that's not really a good reason for us all to up and go to seminary, we still have to be called to it. We're not all supposed to be pastor's, yet even so, God calls each of us all the same. To me it seems counterintuitive that we spend 40 hours a week working at something that God hasn't prepared for us. Some of us may be called to be pastors, some of us may be what we now popularly term "bi-vocational", like Paul (a tent-maker), but Paul likewise had a very distinct call to minister. While not mentioned in the New Testament as prominently as say Paul or Peter or John, I would wager that most of the people associated with the early church (i.e. those Paul wrote to) worked for a living just as most of us need to today.

So how do I glorify God in what I do? Not all of us are called to the extraordinary, and even those that are have very ordinary aspects of their lives. The Bible leaves out a good 25 years of Jesus's life, does that mean he was idle until he began his ministry? I would think not. While what we are called to; be it engineering, lawyering, medicine, accounting, or pastoring, is important, more importantly we need to recognize who calls us; that is God, and what we are called for; that is, to glorify God. Thus we ought not underestimate the importance of the mundane, but rather, it is in these little things that God ultimately is most glorified, for our lives, even the great ones, are little more than the summation of the mundane things tied together by the grace of God.

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