Vocation in the Real World

The amazing twentieth-century Black theologian Howard Thurman tells a story of meeting with his advisor at his predominantly white seminary. The advisor lauded Thurman’s work but was concerned he was limiting himself by commenting as much as he did on the Black experience instead of “the timeless issues of the human spirit.” About this, Thurman would later write, “I … wondered what kind of response I could make to this man who did not know that a man and his black skin must face the ‘timeless issues of the human spirit’ together” (With Head and Heart, 60). This simple but profound truth is what Thurman was actually talking about when he wrote the words I quoted last week: “The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives” (The Luminous Darkness, 111). He wasn’t just talking about the need to grow up in faith and into our truest selves, but also the reality that those true selves are never disconnected from actual human lives lived in a very messy, often violent and oppressive world. For Thurman, as a Black man in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, that meant his spirituality was always going to involve the arena of systemic racism. But there are all kinds of ways the realities of the world stand in the way of our wellbeing and thriving. And there is no question that a lot of the discussion about vocation and wellbeing has ignored this, assuming that anyone interested in vocation has the privilege to do and be whatever they feel called to do and be. So today, I’d like to try to give this issue its due and talk about the ways our circumstances shape how we live out our callings: This is vocation in the real world.

There is no doubt that our life circumstances are going to shape how vocation plays out in our world. Part of this is knowing who we are — the opportunities and limitations placed on our vocation by nature of our aptitudes and gifts but also by the ways we are privileged and marginalized. But, part of this is also, as Parker Palmer put it, “limitations … that are imposed by people or political forces hell-bent on keeping us ‘in our place’” (Let Your Life Speak). These are barriers like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia; here the limitation is not about something in our nature but is caused by other people’s reactions to who we are. To these barriers to true self- and vocational expression we should also add the limitations caused by injury or illness, or caregiving needs in our families. And, as the last few years have taught us, we also have to consider those limitations imposed by outside circumstances beyond anyone’s control: foreign invasion, famine, pandemic illness, and natural disaster. If we think of all these things together, it becomes clear that any notion of vocation that does not take them into account are naive and delusional: Human freedom always exists within limitations, and the exercise of our vocation is no exception.

It’s easy to see how the sad realities of our world can limit our vocational possibilities. Howard Thurman unquestionably a great man with a strong vocation to leadership; but as a Black man in the 1930s and 40s, he was never going to be President of the United States. In a more universal way, the pandemic of the past three years has limited, at least in the short term, the ways we live out our vocations: it has put careers, pathways, bank accounts, political systems, and relationships under incredible strain and made planning almost impossible. But limitations can also open our eyes to new possibilities. Living as a Black man in the United States led Thurman to develop the profound Christian theology of nonviolent resistance that inspired the Civil Rights activists of the following generation. Similarly, as hard as the pandemic has been, I also have friends for whom it has clarified their path and allowed them to connect with their true callings, whether through finding more meaningful work or through rediscovering the joys of family life when it is not all running around the city from one event or class to another.

Even if our circumstances neither open nor close doors before us, they will nonetheless shape how we go through them. As we saw a couple months ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s context as a well-connected, Christian dissident in Nazi Germany led him to live out his vocation in many different ways. His calling to proclaim the Gospel remained the same, but he expressed it as a theologian in New York City, a minister in Germany, an ecumenical leader in England building secret lines of communication between the German resistance and the Allies, a member of Military Intelligence, and even in his last years as a prisoner. It’s an interesting example of what we now call ‘intersectionality’: his privilege as belonging to a well-connected family allowed him greater opportunities than many, even as he was outlawed from preaching and teaching; but he used those opportunities to keep on living out the vocation from which the authorities thought they were barring him.

This represents a different perspective on vocation than has generally been historically recognized in Christianity. This is because of the historic conflation of vocation and role. But as we saw in the last post, there is good reason to distinguish between the work we are called to do in the world and specific roles through which we will do that work. A vocation to nurture can be lived out through many different roles — parenthood, nursing or medicine, pastoral care, and so on. Likewise, a vocation to leadership can be lived out whether you are mopping floors of a public school or are the principal, or the government Minister of Education. This is important because the sad realities of life in this world mean that not everyone will have the same opportunities to thrive; some roles will be closed off to some people for reasons beyond their control. This is a human tragedy, and our human calling that recognizes the image and likeness of God in all other persons demands that we take stands and make strides to improve opportunities for everyone. But this unjust state of affairs does not mean that vocation is only for the privileged; everyone and anyone can — and is called to — live out their vocation as best as they can within their circumstances.

At the same time — to my mind, miraculously — there are those special individuals whose calling is not to make do within oppressive and unjust circumstances, but to demand change. I love what Parker Palmer has to say about this:

The social systems in which these [marginalized] people must survive often try to force them to live in a way untrue to who they are. If you are poor, you are supposed to accept, with gratitude, half a loaf or less; if you are black, you are supposed to suffer racism without protest; if you are gay, you are supposed to pretend that you are not. You and I may not know, but we can at least imagine, how tempting it would be to mask one’s truth in situations of this sort — because the system threatens punishment if one does not. But in spite of that threat, or because of it, the people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live “divided no more.” They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out — and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood of millions of others. (Let Your Life Speak)

Either way — whether we live out our vocation within the circumstances beyond our control, or whether our vocation is to lead change (or, as with most of us, our vocation involves some degree of both) — there’s a beautiful side to this. For it means that there will always be ways to tap into the deepest longings of our truest selves: No one and no situation can stop us from living out our vocations, even if the ways we live them out are profoundly constrained. To put it another way, there is no circumstance in which we are not free to say ‘yes’ to God. A woman with a calling to leadership and pastoral care in previous centuries may not have been able to pursue that vocation into ordained ministry, but she could still hear and respond to that divine calling in her interactions with others and how she lived out her life in community. The Church has always had female leaders, whether it has officially recognized them with titles and roles or not.

But it’s also true that there are times — we pray, rare times — when the circumstances are so dire that the options before us are reduced to just a handful, or maybe even one. Even here, we can say ‘yes’ to God and respond to that with humility and grace. About a year into the pandemic, reflecting on the sudden and drastic reduction of opportunity, I wrote:

[N]o matter what else God may or may not be calling us to, our primary vocation is to be faithful — to show up for ourselves, each other, and God — right now. What is God calling me to do? The next right thing…. I believe wholeheartedly that each and every one of us is born with a unique set of gifts and experiences, a unique genius. And, I believe God has acted to restore us and empower us to use those gifts faithfully, and that it is God’s great joy to see those gifts bear good fruit for the life of the world. I also believe, with St. Paul, that God is working “all things for good … for those who are called according to God’s purpose.” But, it is also true that we still live in a sinful world, and that means that we are all battered and bruised in body, mind, or spirit, and that there will always be structures and people pushing back against God’s dream for us and our lives. For some that may be an abusive parent, for some that may be the forces of systemic racism, for some it may even be an imperial edict that feeds them to lions in the arena. Any of these things can snuff out the light we are called to shine in the world, or chop off entire limbs of possibility from the tree of our earthly life.

Because of this, we need to have a flexible idea of vocation that is not limited to roles or to any socially-determined notion of ‘success.’

There is no question that we are limited in what we are able to pursue in life, whether these limitations are about our own identities, about social and political oppression, or about circumstances in life or in the world that are outside of anyone’s control. ‘The world’ will do everything it can to keep us down and keep us small. But God longs for us — all of us — to thrive as much as we can amidst the very real limitations life throws our way. God is always at work, always creating, always freeing, and our vocations — whether general or specific — are always about being collaborators in that divine work. Every ‘yes’ we say to God is a step toward the true freedom and true peace that is the shalom of the Kingdom of God.

And so, I have to leave this post in a strange place. We cannot downplay the very real barriers people face when trying to live out their vocation. But neither can we assert that any circumstances can prevent us from saying ‘yes’ to God’s calling for us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God; nothing can prevent us from finding genuine meaning and purpose in life. Even if we can’t do everything, we can always do something.

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