Your vocation is to come alive

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner

This quote by Frederick Buechner is likely the first and last word every seminary student will hear about vocation. We hear it when we bring our shaky thoughts and plans to our pastor or priest, when we are examined, when we graduate, when we are ordained. When it is time for others to bring their shaky thoughts and plans to us, we will share this quote with them.

We spend many days and hours in retreats and spiritual direction trying to discern this special, very specific place where gladness and hunger meet. We perform gift inventories and, also, listen to others as they affirm our gifts. We recognize we are all equally gifted, but diverse in gifts, as diverse as the world’s needs. By the time we are ready to be ordained, we will have distilled our calling down to some version of this place.

The world is a lonely place. I am passionate about hospitality.

So many in the world are in pain. I can help people find healing.

Generations are growing up without the stories of Scripture. I can bring these stories to life.

Although vocation is a word and idea we dig into a great deal in theological education and discernment, it is not limited to the life of clergy. The writers of the epistles write about vocation all the time, even if they don’t use that word. They talk about calling. Vocation is not just what you do to make a living. In fact, I’d venture a guess it rarely is. Vocation is a blessing, truly. It will carry you through the difficult and frustrating tasks, the doubts and the worries.

At its best, vocation is what sets your heart on fire. When it is taken for granted, though, it can be completely useless or an incredible burden.

In my case, a responsibility hoarder, my deep gladness was buried under a world full of growing, ever deeper hungers. I heard Buechner’s promise in the context of an inherited form of the prosperity gospel. God will give you everything you need to do what God has called you to do. Add onto this the self-care wisdom which placed my health and well-being solely in my hands, and I was collapsing from spiritual, mental, and emotional starvation.

I confused “deep gladness” with satisfaction and gifts with skills. Faced with a problem, if I had a solution and the skills to execute it, and anticipated a sense of satisfaction, then God was surely calling me to it. But satisfaction in a job well done is merely a thin, fleeting mote of the deep, luscious, joyful place of Divine love that is the soil of our deep gladness. Satisfaction, ironically, does not satisfy.

Then, one day, listening to a favourite podcast, I heard this meme-worthy quote,

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I stopped walking, pulled out my phone, and listened to it again. Don’t ask what the world needs? But, if I don’t know what the world needs, how am I supposed to know what to do? Then, a loving voice from somewhere deep and far said, “I don’t need you to do, I need you to be. Alive. Flourishing.”

I felt a wash of relief. My sense of responsibility for the world’s hunger fell away. I recalled times when simply being myself helped someone, and the joy I felt in those moments and days after.

And, then, I got mad. I mentally raged at all my teachers and mentors, and at Frederick Buechner, none of whom were in a place to defend themselves. Vocation was never taught to me outside of service. The call of God was always a call to serve, not to enjoy. If we did it right, I had learned, then service would be our joy.

An angry blog post was coming, so I decided to look up that Buechner quote in context. Here is the full passage, edited for inclusive language.

“(The word vocation) comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a human 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. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve 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’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

“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.”

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

This very practical advice from Buechner got swept up into a much larger discussion not only about vocation, but about being human. The ideal, I believed, was for my sense of being to be rooted in my vocation. Actually, it is the other way around. How we live our vocation is rooted in our sense of being human, formed from breath and dirt, bound together by Divine love.

What the world needs is people who have come alive.

But, really, what about the world’s deep hunger?

Again, I made a mistake. I confused a lot of hungers for a deep hunger. Moved by compassion, I chased people’s needs and the needs of the world, but I was also chasing that fleeting satisfaction. To know the world’s deep hunger, we have to go deep in ourselves, our own hungers. We have to admit our own hunger which only love can fill.

What is my deep hunger?

Love

What is the world’s deep hunger?

Love

What is my deep gladness?

Divine love manifest in loving myself and others

What is my vocation?

To love by coming alive.

2 thoughts on “Your vocation is to come alive”

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about vocation and career and what I am able to do now. I keep coming back to the personal mission statement I wrote in 2015, and great accompanying process to get there: To live compassionately in the world in ways that bring equality and justice through kindness, intelligence and humor. I think I might be stable enough finally to live it out more fully now.

    I find the quote about coming alive very resonant, and more specific in some ways than Buechner’s great hunger quote in its short form. (The long form is so much better, more filled out.) I’m aware, however, that for some people, taking care of daily needs through any job that pays is more pressing than vocation. I have the luxury, privilege, of coming alive. And that’s a lot of pressure too. Hmmm… lots to think about.

    1. Thank you, Deb. Your personal mission statement sounds a lot like you. One of my learnings this past year has been that me being alive and a healthy, authentic version of myself every day is enough of a contribution to the world.

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