As If I Did Not Work At All

Video here.

“Because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.”[1]  Words from Donald Hall, a modern American poet born and raised in Hamden, Connecticut—my hometown. When I finally decided to use this reading this morning and to use these words—as if I did not work at all—as a title for this sermon, I did so because they sum up for me what it means, or at least what I believe it feels like, to have a vocation. Vocation is our ministry theme for January, and this morning I want to explore this notion of working—often working very hard—and simultaneously feeling as if I did not work at all. Vocation, in short, is work to which we feel somehow called, work we are passionate about, work that gives us a sense purpose and meaning, work that meshes seamlessly with our gifts, talents and aspirations, work we love.

However, on this weekend when our nation celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life work—whose vocation—was to provide a ministry of leadership to American movements for civil rights and economic justice, I think it would be an egregious oversight to come into any pulpit in the United States and preach a sermon entitled “As If I Did Not Work At All” without acknowledging that by most estimates there are 13 million people who literally aren’t working at all due to the long-term impact of the 2008 recession. And of course there are likely millions more who are currently able to work but have left the labor force altogether, frustrated, disheartened, demoralized. It feels somewhat awkward to speak about vocation when there are so many people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to find meaningful work at this time.

Having said that, the fact that so many people are out of work is also not a reason to avoid speaking about this theme.  In fact, in the midst of such high rates of unemployment it may be useful and even inspirational to talk about vocation. I suspect we’ve all heard stories over the past few years about people who lost jobs in the recession and used the ensuing period of unemployment as an opportunity to reinvent themselves: to start a new business, to go back to school, to get involved in civic organizations, to run for office, to care for aging parents. The list of ways we can reinvent ourselves is long. We have such stories in our congregation. When Sam Adlerstein lost his job he decided to start his own consulting business. He says, “I had always struggled with Finance as my vocation, not that I couldn’t do it well.  Rather, it was never a passion.  In fact, when I became a Certified Public Accountant, I didn’t even realize that I could connect work with my natural talents and passions.  That realization, better late than never, has now made a huge difference in my life.”

Priscilla Dutton lost a long-time job and decided to go back to school to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. When I asked if I could mention her in this sermon she said “of course you can and I wish I could attend, but my new vocation is now my life and I’m loving it. I believe very strongly that I wouldn’t be so successful so quickly if I hadn’t followed my passion.” I remember walking into the UUS:E kitchen last spring to find Priscilla in the midst of baking some amazing dessert for our Annual Appeal kick-off dinner. She was covered head to toe with flour. She looked like a ghost. I thought, this person has found her calling. Sometimes losing a job opens a pathway to one’s vocation.

But let’s also remember that one’s job—what one does to earn a living—and one’s vocation—how one pursues one’s passion—are not necessarily the same thing. In fact they’re often quite distinct. We don’t always earn a living through our vocation. Many of you have retired from careers and no longer earn a living through a job, but you still pursue a vocation—like writing, crafts, photography, tutoring, mentoring, social justice organizing and advocacy. And there are others of you who don’t work outside the home earning an income, yet you still pursue a vocation through artistic endeavors, activism and volunteering—including congregational leadership. Here’s another reading from Donald Hall that helps clarify this distinction between a job and a vocation. (Note in this passage he’s using the word work in the way I am using the word vocation.) He writes:

There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work. Reading proof is a chore; checking facts is a chore. When I edit for a magazine or a publisher, I do a job. When I taught school, the classroom fit none of these categories. I enjoyed teaching James Joyce and Thomas Wyatt too much to call it a job. The classroom was a lark because I got to show off, to read poems aloud, to help the young, and to praise authors or books that I loved. But teaching was not entirely larkish: Correcting piles of papers is tedious, even discouraging, because it tends to correct one’s sanguine notions about having altered the young minds arranged in the classroom’s rows. Reading papers was a chore—and after every ten papers, I might tell myself that I could take a break and read a Flannery O’Conner short story. But when I completed the whole pile, then I could reward myself with a real break: When I finished reading and correcting and grading and commenting on seventy-five essay-questions about a ben Jonson or a Tom Clark poem, then—as a reward—I could get to work.[2]

His job and his vocation, in this case, are not the same thing.

But let me step back further and try to name the relationship between vocation and our spiritual lives. I’m currently reading Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief to my boys. This book came out in 2005, the first in the wildly bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Without going into too much detail, we’re at the point in the story where Percy’s identity as the son of Poseidon has been revealed (sorry, should’ve said “spoiler alert”). He has just learned the news of the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt, that the pending war between the gods will destroy life on the planet as we know it and, even though he is only twelve years old, that Percy is the one who will need do something about it. His wise councilor, the centaur Chiron, says, Wait—don’t just go running off. First you must visit the oracle.[3] And the oracle, in ancient Greek and Roman religion, is a divine voice that gives hints about one’s future and the wisdom of one’s decisions. Percy has begun to feel called to go on a quest to recover Zeus’ lightning bolt. The oracle is there to say whether or not his call is genuine. This is the ancient origin of vocation, this hearing of divine voices, this receiving of a divine call to engage in some sacred work, some spiritual task, some holy mission. We see this in a variety of forms in Native American spirituality, in indigenous African spirituality and in ancient Near Eastern religions.

We certainly see it in the Bible. The books of the Jewish prophets typically begin with the prophet hearing a divine voice calling them to engage in some sacred task or to bring some message to the people of Israel, often a warning.  No prophet enjoys being called. It upsets their lives. They resist. They refuse. But the call keeps coming. Ultimately they can’t escape it. They eventually accept it and enter into their prophetic vocation.

In its most ancient sense, then, vocation has something to do with hearing divine voices. Vocation and voice have the same etymological roots. This past week I noticed Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum, using the language of “call” to describe his campaign in South Carolina. I heard him say a number of times: “We’re called here on a mission.” I haven’t heard him say he feels called by God to run for President, but given his many pronouncements about the role one’s faith must play in public life, I’d be surprised to hear he believes a voice other than God’s is calling him. I am, of course, deeply suspicious of politicians who suggest God has called them to do anything. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, I can’t imagine a God who would take sides in an election campaign or, for that matter, a football game, which has been discussed incessantly in recent weeks in response to the overt sideline prayer-life of Denver Broncos star quarterback Tim Tebow. Nevertheless, I recognize that this ancient notion that our vocation emerges in response to a divine call is still operative for many people around the world.

Perhaps clergy speak of being called or having a calling more than anyone. I feel called to liberal religious ministry. Ministry, at this time in my life, is my vocation. I suspect it will always be my vocation in some form. I work hard at it and it’s true: on my best days I feel as if I do not work at all.  (I won’t mention my worst days—that’s another sermon . . . on imperfection, failure, managing stress and learning how to say no.) I feel called, but I never heard a divine voice—at least not one I recognized—saying “you shall become a minister.” There was no burning bush, no visit to the oracle, no prophetic dream, no flying scroll, no burning coal, no still small voice in the wake of the storm asking “what are you doing here?” There was nothing to refuse, nothing to resist. But I did—and do—feel called; and if pressed to answer what it is that calls me, the most authentic response I can give is, “I’m not sure, but I know it comes from inside.” What I am sure about is that the content of my calling has no better expression than the Unitarian Universalist principles. I feel called to engage the world in a way that respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I feel called to engage the world in a way that prioritizes justice, equity and compassion in human relations, that supports spiritual growth, that encourages a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, that utilizes democratic processes, that helps to build a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and that respects, honors and serves the interdependent web of all existence. These principles speak to something deep inside me. They ground me. They center me. They guide me. And at some point about seventeen years ago it began to make sense: If I could conduct my life—not just my work life, but my whole life—in accordance with these principles, I would find my vocation.

I wasn’t hearing a divine voice, but I was certainly learning to hear and heed an inner voice. I was discovering my passions, discovering my convictions. Such discovery, for me, is a pillar of Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Vicki Merriam—our Director of Religious Education—and I have been discussing how to teach our UU children about vocation this month. While we want to remind them of the ancient idea of a divine voice issuing a call, it seems far more important to us to teach them about hearing and responding to their own voice. Listen to yourself. Listen to your heart. Listen to your passions. Listen to your truth. Listen to your joy. What do you hear? How might you respond? What might your path be and how might you travel it? And for children, of course, the most important question for identifying vocation, which will be the final conversation of the month for our kids, is “What do you want to be when you grow up . . . and why?”

The why is important.  Let me share with you a poem called “There is Ministry.” The author is unknown. I’m going to change the word ministry to vocation as they really are interchangeable in this case. For me this poem begins to answer the why of vocation:

“Vocation occurs in places and circumstances, / likely and unlikely: / in churches, not often enough, but sometimes; / in prisons, and hospices, and hospitals; / by cribs and cradles; / in factories, offices, and stores; / in courtrooms and cocktail lounges / and clinics and garages; / in hovels, mansions, and at bus stops / and diners; / wherever there is a meeting that summons us to our / better selves, / wherever our lostness is found, / our fragments are reunited, / our wounds begin healing, / our spines stiffen, and our muscles grow strong for the task, / there is vocation.”[4]

We often leave the why out of the conversation when we’re talking to children. And, let’s be honest, we adults often forget to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Why are we passionate about a certain activity? Why do our natural gifts and talents lead us in a certain direction? Why do we love a certain kind of work? The why is important, because the work that truly calls to us—no matter what voice we hear—the work that presents itself to us as our vocation—is work that allows us in some way to serve and celebrate life. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation, as we learn to engage in it, allows us in some way to bring joy, healing, justice and love into the world. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to move from isolation to connection, from fragmentation to wholeness, from a potentially selfish individualism to a generous and caring engagement with a wider community of people and other living things. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to address the brokenness in society, the injustices in society, the evil in society. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way—in our unique way—to participate in that revolution of values Dr. King named in our opening reading this morning. Maybe not in ancient times but today, vocation, at its core, is our pathway into, in Dr. King’s words—and he said we are called into it— “a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation … a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [people.]”[5]

But we don’t just turn on that love. It doesn’t work that way. I think we first we need to hear what calls to us at the deep places in ourselves—that place inside where we encounter our truth, where our conviction resides.  That’s where we find our purpose. That’s where we discover the work we love. And once we’ve made that discovery, then with we need to do with our lives the work we love. I’m mindful of that quote about vocation from the mystic, Howard Thurman: “Ask not what you the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” For me, that is the surest path to loving ourselves, loving life, loving others and loving the world; for me, that is the surest path to working and simultaneously feeling as if we did not work at all.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hall, Donald, Life Work (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 4.

[2] Hall, Life Work, p. 4.

[3] Riordan, Rick, The Lightning Thief (New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2005) pp. 138-9.

[4] Unknown Author in Smith, Gary, col., “There is Ministry,” Awakened From the Forest (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[5] King, Martin Luther, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 190.