Man Turned in on Himself, Excerpt 15
Vocation, from the Latin vocatio, can mean several things: “the proclamation of the gospel, through which human beings are called to be children of God,” the call to the divine office of teaching and preaching, and the work each one of us is called to do in our daily lives. Luther emphasizes this third use, underscored by the passage from 1 Corinthians 7:20 that says, “each shall remain in the same vocation (klesis) in which he was called.” It is this understanding of vocation that will be the focus of this section.
Luther, and many others, view vocation as the way God “has chosen to work through human beings, who in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve each other.” We serve each other as husband and wife, as mother and father, and neighbor and friend. We serve each other through our talents and professions, the fruits of our labors meeting the needs of others. Luther interprets Christ’s command against being anxious through the lens of vocation, expanding on the “trust” of the lilies and the birds:
‘He gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.’ God gives the wool, but it must be sheared, carded, spun, etc. In these vocations God’s creative work moves on, coming to its destination only with the neighbor who needs the clothing.”
And so we see that trust in God and trust in neighbor—as well as reliance on God and on neighbor to use their talents rightly—are essential to the great economy of vocation. “Whether we want to accept it or not, self-sufficiency is an illusion. We do depend on other people—the farmer, the plumber who puts in our water system, the doctor, our parents—for our very lives.” As we have turned away from God, we have turned away from the gift of vocation, which orients us in particular relations to others and their needs. We have thrown ourselves into work that was not intended for us in pursuit of greater wealth and power. We have grown bitter about daily tasks because we have forgotten that God is working through them. We have lost our trust in our fellow man, who is as self-absorbed as we are. This social trust—not just “trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that the people around you will do the right thing” —is the raw material that makes community possible. In America’s Fishtowns, social trust has been so greatly diminished that it may well be irreparable. And although America’s upscale Belmonts do have a higher degree of trust, it is only within their own sphere: since interaction between the upper and lower classes is rapidly decreasing, so, too, is trust. This disrupts vocation’s ability to make good on the promise that “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48 NSRV). This may well be what the wealthy are afraid of—that the blessings of a mixed community all move in one direction. This fear ignores the fact that the well-off financially will, in their lifetime, be just as likely to suffer illness, brokenness, abandonment, helplessness, or loss of stature or purpose, and that wisdom in these areas are just as likely to come from a plumber as a fellow investment broker.
When we are in right relation to God and neighbor, and we have a proper understanding of vocation, we can see that our callings change throughout our lives: A young man working his way through college may get a job in a fast-food restaurant. For the time being, that’s his vocation, and he is to love and serve his customers and his shift manager by flipping hamburgers. If he is fortunate enough to be going to college, he also has the vocation of being a student, which has specific obligations of its own (study!). Eventually he may get that computer degree, and he may go into his lifework. That will be his vocation then. And if his dot.com company goes bankrupt, and he goes from vast wealth back to flipping burgers, he has a new vocation. At every stage his calling is not something that will wait until he graduates, or even until he gets that big promotion. Vocation is in the here and now. (Gene Veith, God at Work)
In contrast, a secular notion of “vocation” as some ultimate level of success and comfort that we aspire to earn and keep, and to which we are entitled—as well as the skewed view of manual labor as a lesser call—has exacerbated our disordered view of work in the scope of our daily lives. Reverend Timothy Keller, author of Every Good Endeavor, offers new insight into our current American predicament. Surveying the United States’ privileged “knowledge classes,” Dr. Keller describes
A population that is “work obsessed,” holding their jobs to be the fount of “self-fulfillment and self-realization,” seeing leisure as merely “work stoppage for bodily repair” and allowing office principles like “efficiency, value and speed” to infuse and overwhelm their personal lives. In this world, where work becomes the chief source of identity and meaning, families ache and—from Wall Street to elite sports to political office— dishonesty abounds, because professional loss can sink a person’s sense of being. . . . At the other end of the class spectrum [is an] equal and opposite pathology: a common perception of work as miserable toil, inherently ‘frustrating and exhausting,’ to be ‘avoided or simply endured … Keller argues for a centrist understanding of work as calling—work that lends life meaning but doesn’t monopolize it, work that is performed not for personal glory but in service of others. He challenges the idea . . . that ‘work is a curse and that something else (leisure, family, or even ‘spiritual’ pursuits) is the only way to find meaning in life’; and he criticizes ‘the opposite mistake, namely, that work is the only important human activity and that rest is a necessary evil—something we do strictly to ‘recharge our batteries’ in order to continue to work. (Keller, Every Good Endeavor)
Even those without religious faith or an informed view on vocation would recognize the truth in Dr. Keller’s words. But taking action on them is something else entirely. For this people need God. Without a worldview of life as blessing, in which “darkness and light are all the same” (Psalm 139:12) and one lives and breathes in full confidence that salvation has already been secured—and there is nothing left of value to earn—there is no way to understand that flipping burgers and running a successful dot.com are equal endeavors. Even with a Christian worldview, it is hard for Americans to shake their “return on investment” mentality. Our ever-anxious selves continue to assert that every ounce of effort must pay rich dividends in a determined ascent to the top—some fictional heaven where one’s social standing and financial security seem sufficient to cushion one from earthly suffering. They, too, it seems, forget that God’s notion of “return on investment” for each one of our lives was spelled out in Isaiah 55:10:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving see to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE: “MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis