Everyone was packed like sardines around the holiday table. Christmas Day was actually over a week earlier, but between work schedules and family obligations, this was the first time that all three generations could get together for a holiday meal.
Going into the meal, Maria dreaded the conversation that awaited. She had graduated from college in May, and still didn’t have a job in her field. Her job at Sonic was getting old, but she had only received a couple of interviews for full-time work. She thought she knew what she wanted to do for a career, but she was starting to wonder if she had picked the wrong field. She dreaded the inevitable questions about “why don’t you have a real job yet?” “When are you going to use that education that we paid for?” and “Are you sure that’s what you want to do for a living?” She nervously passed the cranberry sauce as she tried to avoid the conversation of vocation.
Little did she know it, but across the table, her father Jose was doing exactly the same thing. The last thing he wanted to do was to get into a conversation about his job. The truth was, he had turned in his resignation letter just before the holidays. He just couldn’t take it anymore. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that what he was doing no longer mattered. He saw the injustice in the corporate system, and felt like he was wasting his gifts in order to make the CEO richer. So, he turned in his letter of resignation, with no real prospects for a new job. Needless to say, as he nervously passed the ham, he tried to avoid the conversation of vocation.
At the head of the table, Mateo was actually doing the same thing as his son and granddaughter. The last thing that he wanted to do was talk about vocation. He had recently retired and for the first time in decades, he felt lost. He was still grieving the loss of his wife; she had battled the cancer for a year after his retirement before it overcame her. And not only was Mateo grieving her loss, but also the loss of his vocation. He knew what he was called to do for decades with the company. He even knew what he was called to do as he cared for his sick wife. But now, he had no idea what to do or how to spend his days. How was he supposed to spend his days? The last thing that he wanted anyone to do was to ask what he was up to. So, as he nervously passed the stuffing, he tried to avoid the conversation of vocation.
But all their efforts failed. It was the youngest at the table – little Marta – who made the announcement as soon as all the plates had been passed: “I decided today what I am going to be when I grow up! So now I want everyone around the table to say out loud what they are going to be when they grow up, and then I will be last and tell you what I decided.” And around the table, several faces turned the color of the strawberry salad.
Vocation. It is a subject that touches us, no matter what the age. From those early childhood conversations about what we want to be when we grow up…through high school and college majors and early workforce experimentation…though middle adulthood and burnout and change of heart…all the way through to retirement and questions of vocation in that new phase of life.
Most of us struggle at various points in our lives with the idea of vocation. What are we supposed to do? To be? Part of it is how we are to make money, to provide for ourselves and our families. But that is more about the realm of a job, or perhaps a career. Vocation is related…but different. It is about calling. It is about a deeper question of how we are gifted and how we might use those gifts.
Research suggests that those who see their jobs as a part of a calling or a deeper vocation will find more satisfaction, life purpose, self-clarity, and comfort. When we have the sense that what we are doing is tied to something larger than a paycheck, we value and appreciate our work more so.
But how do we get there? Like the generations around the table, for many of us, we simply don’t know if or how we are called. We aren’t sure that God wants to use us at all, and if so, we have no idea what that use might be!
We find a similar set of dilemmas in the pages of Scripture. Again and again, we find those who struggle with their sense of calling. Over the next few weeks, I want us to look at this idea of calling and how it relates to the Scriptures, as well as to our own lives. I want to look at the lives and callings of three individuals and ask how their callings might illumine our ideas of calling.
But first, I need to explain that the Biblical idea of calling is a big deal. Throughout the Scriptures, there are stories of those who are called by God to do certain things. Abraham was called to pack up his things and go to a land of promise. Moses was called to return to Egypt and convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Gideon watched the Midianites come in a take all of the crops from a starving people. Isaiah watched the people of God despair as the Assyrians inched closer and closer to their borders. And Mary saw that she lived in a world run by the Roman Empire, where the rich just got richer and the poor got poorer.
In each of these cases, someone like you and me looked at the world and saw it was not right. Something was wrong. Missing. Hurting. Needful.
And then they heard a voice. A burning bush. A vision. An angel. A voice in the night.
“Go. Do. Be who you were made to be.”
But in these Biblical call stories, we find the same sense of dread. Of fear. Of ambiguity that we found around the holiday table with Maria and her family. Look at the responses in these stories:
“Why me?” said Moses.
“Woe is me!” said Isaiah.
Gideon cried: “I am the weakest in my family, which is the weakest in my tribe, which is the weakest in the nation.”
Or as we read from Mary this morning: “How can this be?”
It is a fear and ambiguity that many of us know well, isn’t it?
It is the double fear that the problem is too big and I am too small to do much to change it. The Empire is so massive, and I am just one.
And yet, in each of these stories, God knew who he was calling. And did it on purpose. God called those with vision. With grit. With hope. Abraham….Moses… and Mary. I see the Annunciation as Mary’s call story. Mary had a choice! Unfortunately, we often see Mary as the useless and powerless tool of God…just a willing womb there to do the work of God! But I think that God chose Mary because of her strength. She was outspoken and fierce. She didn’t mind arguing with the terrifying messenger of God standing before her. She didn’t think twice about throwing a pack on the mule and heading down by herself to see Elizabeth. Mary was chosen because of her gifts. She was called because of her talents and personality. Just like Moses, and Abraham, and the rest, she had the abilities that God sought after. The abilities that the world had missed.
David Bartlett calls Mary the “first Christian preacher.” In the Magnificat, she proclaims the truth as she sees it happening – naming an alternative vision to the hurting world around her. She “embodies the good news that she proclaims,” says Bartlett. But Bartlett goes even farther: he calls Mary the “first Christian.” She “hears the word of the Lord and accepts it as a word about herself.” Isn’t that what being a Christ follower is all about…taking the message of what God is up to in the person of Jesus and applying it to our own lives?
But again, when we read Mary’s story, how often do we fail to see the whole package of who she was, instead of only focusing on one aspect? It is unfortunate that many Christians read this passage, and cannot get past the word “virgin.” Some say that they doubt whether Mary really was a virgin. Others say that if you don’t believe with 100% certainty, then you aren’t a real Christian. And the argument goes back and forth, ad nauseum. Now personally, I believe in the virgin birth. I think that there are times that God suspends natural process in favor of supernatural event. But I do have a problem the way that some folks translate this event. The danger of the virgin birth is that it makes it feel like the only way that God works is by suspending natural process…and it seems from experience and a lot of the Bible that that is the opposite of the way God almost always works.
For us to believe that God only calls through angels or burning bushes is to likely conclude that we are not called. If we sit around and wait for the supernatural, then perhaps we are missing what God is up to in our own lives today. Instead of arguing about the virgin birth, I would rather defend the truth that God speaks, that God calls, that God invites us to participate in what God is up to. I believe that the power in the story of Mary is not only one aspect of her personhood, but the way that God uses all her gifts to bring healing to a hurting world.
This is the reason I think this is a call story. Because like Gideon and Moses and the rest, Mary sees the pain in the world and has hope that God is at work bringing about an alternative reality. Like Bartlett suggests, she is the first Christian who sees herself as part of a larger story…a larger narrative of what God is up to. She offers the response of the faithful throughout the Scriptures. “I know that I am small. And I know that the problem is big. But I know that you are bigger, God. Here I am. Use me.”
And so, the same is true for us. What do we see in the world that is not right? What do we see that is broken? Who do we see that is hurting? Where is there a need?
Frederick Buechner’s quotation on vocation seems to sum all of this up:
“Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person 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 Superego, 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 to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.”
“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you need to do and that the world needs to have done.” That is truth that has no ending. Whether you are 9 or 90, there is vocation to be found in the place where the brokenness of the world and the hope in your hands meet. Just like Mary. And go ahead and tell God that you are not talented enough…that you are not wise enough…that you are not gifted enough….that your voice is not strong enough. Some of the best prophets in the Bible told God the same thing. But God didn’t give up. Nor will God give up on you.
May we instead, with the voice of Mary, sing, “Here I am, Lord. Use me.”
Little Marta’s question unleashed an explosion of conversation. Everyone around the table opened up and shared their stories, their fear, their ambiguity. It was empowering to hear that others struggled with vocation. And it was emotionally meaningful to hear that they were not alone.
Silent through the conversation, it was Maria’s friend Gabe who spoke up as the pies were brought in and passed around. He pulled out his phone and read a quote from Frederick Buechner. It was a long quote, but it was the last line that everyone remembered: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
May it be so.