My Dear One,
What is your purpose in life? Does God have a calling for each of us or only for some of us?
I recently had a conversation about this with someone I have a lot of respect for. She is a doctor and she does incredibly important work brining healing and health into the lives of her patients. She said something I found surprising. As we were talking about my work as a pastor, she said it was uniquely different than other kinds of work because it was holy work. I get it. I understand what she’s saying. I just don’t agree.
I agree about the holiness of my calling. I don’t disagree with her about that at all. Every time I have the profound honor of standing behind an altar to celebrate Holy Communion, every time I stand beside a hospital bed and pray with someone who is ill, every time I step into a pulpit to proclaim the good news or in front of a crowd to teach as Jesus taught, I am deeply moved by the holiness of it all. It is a profound and humbling gift to be a pastor, to share the sacraments, and to walk with people through some of the best and worst days of their lives. Holy work? Yes, each and every day, there is no doubt.
What I disagree with is the idea that what she does, that her work, is uniquely different than what I do. Her work is every bit as sacred as my work. In fact, in many ways it is the exact same work. We both are in the business of blessing brokenness.
I stand each week before a table called an altar, lift up a loaf of bread, break it in two, and proclaim that God is present in and through this broken bread “given for you.” It is precisely the fact that it is broken, and precisely the fact that Jesus allowed his own body to be broken, that makes this bread the Body of Christ. This of course mirrors what Jesus himself did at the Last Supper:
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Matthew 26:26
Why break it? Because that is how it gets shared. You cannot share a piece of bread you are not willing to break in two. And you cannot share Christ if he doesn’t allow himself to be broken into a billion pieces, enough to feed the world. We saw this foreshadowed in the story of the Feeding of the Thousands. When it looked like there clearly wasn’t enough food to feed everyone, Jesus took “the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.” Luke 9:16-17
This is, I believe, precisely what my friend the doctor, a psychologist, does as well. People come before her with their brokenness. They are set on a table (or chair) before her. And she blesses them with the knowledge that despite what looks like “not enough” there is more than enough and that their brokenness isn’t something that makes them insufficient, but rather sufficient beyond their own understanding.
The only difference between one kind of work being holy and another kind not being holy, I said, is whether or not the holiness of the work is acknowledged.
It reminds me of something Martin Luther once preached:
The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor....The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.
Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (translation found in https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/25-4_Work_and_Witness/25-4_Editorial.pdf)
God is present, Luther says, when we acknowledge the holiness of our work. But I find that most people feel the same way this doctor felt. They might be able to see the holiness in what someone like me does but they struggle to find the holiness in their own work. Most people don’t see what they do as a calling from God. But I believe any work worth doing is work God is calling us to do. We may feel inadequate to the task. That is ok. Most people do. And most people in the Bible do. But God doesn’t care about that. What God cares about is if we are willing to listen to and answer the call.
Perhaps the most moving call story in the Bible is the story of Eli and Samuel. It’s all about our willingness to listen and acknowledge the presence of God:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 1 Samuel 3:3-9
Samuel clearly heard God calling his name (and he responded!), he just mistook where the call was coming from. How often do we likewise sense a call but don’t realize that the call is in fact coming from God. We might think it’s just a hunch, or an intuition, or a sense of duty, or just a way to make money, or simply the “right thing to do.”
But it’s not just those things. It’s ministry. And it's not just our ministry, it's the ministry of Jesus Christ. We aren’t just called to our own little individual ministries. We are called to participate in the larger work of God. Again the Lutherans (ELCA) get it right with their motto “God’s work. Our hands.” We are called to be the hands of Christ to a world in need.
And being a pastor is only the most obvious way one could do that. But any work that in some way is of service to another, that seeks to improve them and the quality of their life, that is done not for selfish building up of the worker but is done for the betterment of the other, is a part of this same fabric of compassion woven by the Holy Spirit in the life of both Jesus and us.
Do you have a calling by God? If the answer is yes for me then it must absolutely be answered yes for you as well. Don’t get caught up on the WHAT of the calling. There are a million ways to serve God by loving our neighbors. And any way you might choose to do that will bring joy to God’s heart. So don’t think that God has one particular thing in mind and if you don’t find and do that one thing, you will be a disappointment. That’s not a calling, that’s a trap.
Rather, know that anything you might choose to do, if it is done in love for others and in an awareness of God’s presence, is holy work. It is your calling.
Do it and do it well. Do it with all your might. And do it with a Heart of Love. If you do that, only that, simply that, you will have lived a good life. You will have fulfilled your calling.
12The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” Luke 9:12-13a
following The Way,
This Week's Elders: Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin
Quaker teacher and vocational deep thinker, Parker Palmer has written eloquently about discerning our call and vocation. Courtney Martin is a weekly columnist for On Being. Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream. In this week’s video, they are in conversation with Krista Tippet about our journey towards finding our place in the world and how rebellion formed and inform this journey.
You can watch the unedited video below (1hour 10 minutes) or listen to an edited podcast at On Being (with written transcript, 51 minutes)
Suggested Reading: Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
The single best book I know on vocation is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. Here’s the description from Amazon’s listing,
“With wisdom, compassion, and gentle humor, Parker J. Palmer invites us to listen to the inner teacher and follow its leadings toward a sense of meaning and purpose. Telling stories from his own life and the lives of others who have made a difference, he shares insights gained from darkness and depression as well as fulfillment and joy, illuminating a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives.”
Here’s the description from Amazon’s listing,
Are we living the good life—and what defines 'good,' anyway? Americans today are constructing a completely different framework for success than their parents' generation, using new metrics that TED speaker and On Being columnist Courtney Martin has termed collectively the "New Better Off." The New Better Off puts a name to the American phenomenon of rejecting the traditional dream of a 9-to-5 job, home ownership, and a nuclear family structure—illuminating the alternate ways Americans are seeking happiness and success.
Note: When you purchase the book from this link, Amazon will give a portion of the proceeds to support the ongoing work of following The Way. Thanks.
Question of the Week:
In the video, Parker Palmer asks the question: "What is your life trying to do with you?" What’s one thing that has surprised you about where life has taken you thus far? Help build our community and share a few words about it in the comments below.