The comes from the Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer from his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.
I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.” I found those words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant: “Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.” Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me – it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose.
So I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.
Today… “Let your life speak” means something else to me, a meaning faithful both to the ambiguity of those words and to the complexity of my own experience: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and
try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.
That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for “voice.”
Vocation does not mean a goal I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.
Last month I happened to read a collection of oral histories about the experiences of refugees who come to the United States. There was a short passage in the book about a social worker who works with the newly-arrived refugees and helps to find them jobs. She relates a story about a particularly challenging placement, a refugee from Myanmar who, when asked what he had done for work, replied, “I keep tigers out of my village.” Even though this story receives just a brief, passing mention, I have to imagine that this villager experienced this work of tiger patrol as a calling. I do not doubt that his work was valuable, worthy, important. The consequences of doing this job carelessly seem severe. And I do not doubt that amidst all of the other changes and challenges this man faced – a new country, a new language, a new culture – on top of it all this man faced a vocational crisis. What do you do when there aren’t any tigers that need to be kept out of the village? When we talk about vocation, we’re really talking about people’s sense of worth, purpose, and identity. This is holy stuff.
The sermon series we’re starting this morning originated when a member of the Worship Team told me that she’d be interested in hearing about the different kinds of work that members of this congregation do for a living and how those members understand the spiritual significance of the work that they do. Over the next several weeks we’ll hear reflections about the spiritual significance of the profession of teaching, about the spiritual significance of being a nurse or a doctor, and also spiritual reflections on being a librarian. I selected these three fields not because they are more valuable or virtuous than other professions. It is really not my intention to put some of our members on a pedestal or to propose a hierarchy of worthiness. Rather, I selected these fields because they are well-represented in our membership, not to mention well-represented among the members of the Worship Team itself, which happens to include two teachers, two doctors, and two librarians. It is easier for me to delve into the spiritual callings of educators or health care professionals than to try to preach on tiger patrollers.
This morning I want to do three things as we launch this sermon series. I want to offer a meditation on the idea of vocation as calling. I want to talk briefly about some of the things that can disrupt our sense of calling. And, I want to suggest a model for how you can reflect theologically on the spiritual significance of your work, so that as we listen in the coming weeks to the spiritual reflections of teachers and nurses and librarians, you can also reflect on the spiritual significance of your calling.
There is a Biblical model for calling that might or might not be helpful to us. In the Jewish and Christian scriptures, callings are received in unambiguous and dramatic fashion. Perhaps no calling is striking as the calling the prophet Isaiah receives in Isaiah 6:
Isaiah describes how when he received his calling the Lord appeared to him sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Angels were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. Isaiah expresses reluctance. One of the seraphs flew to him, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched Isaiah’s mouth with the burning coal. Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah accepted the call, saying, “Here am I; send me!”
There is a lot that can be said about this passage, starting with how absolutely terrifying what with the appearances of God and several angels, the building shaking and filling with smoke, and hot coals being pressed to lips. But another thing that can be said about it is that after Isaiah has this experience, he goes forward with his life, his calling, his vocation, with a great deal of certainty and confidence. How sure are you, Isaiah, that being a prophet is what you were meant to do with your life? “I’m as sure as it is possible to be,” he’d answer.
Back in Divinity School, the process of becoming a minister asked us to engage in a lot of reflection and discernment about our calling. A lot of time was spent talking about, writing about, and trying to make sense of our callings. Students spoke about their callings in lots of different ways. Quite a number of my classmates – including some of my Unitarian Universalist classmates – described receiving their calling in a scene that seemed like it could have come from the Book of Isaiah. Their calling came to them as a profound and intense mystical experience of the divine. Their calling came like angels blowing trumpets from the highest heavens. They fell to their knees. “Here I am Lord, send me.” This wasn’t Oral Roberts. This wasn’t the Moody Bible Institute. This was Harvard. These were Unitarians. I am 100% convinced that these experiences are real; I’ve heard them described enough times. But not all callings are experienced this way.
There are also those callings that come not like thunder, but from carefully listening to a still, small voice. That is how I experienced my own calling, a still, gentle voice that asked me to consider my blessings with gratitude and to serve with the deepest depths of my being the faith that had given me so much. It was a voice divine, and also a voice from deep within myself. This calling was akin to what Parker Palmer wrote about. “I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Some callings do come from out of the blue like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Some callings do come from attentive listening to our true selves. And, some callings just come from a process of rational decision making. When I was a college student I decided to make an appointment to visit my childhood minister to interview him about how he discovered his calling. He was a man I held in highest esteem and I think a part of me expected, or hoped, that he’d share a story about hearing angels sing or encountering a burning bush. Instead, h told me that when he entered Divinity School it was the late sixties, he had just graduated from college with a degree in English, his wife was expecting twins, and he was trying to make sure he wouldn’t get drafted for Vietnam. Ministry was a decision made from a combination of logic and necessity. This didn’t seem to prevent him from having a long and distinguished career. Go figure.
For all these lofty musings on the idea of calling, there is a reality that is quite different. Work in America is struggling. In late June Gallup released its annual State of the American Workplace report. The grim findings of that report revealed that 70% of Americans either hate their jobs or describe their attitudes towards their work as “actively disengaged.” Whether it is fast food employees participating in a day of strikes and walkouts while demanding a living wage, as they did across the country this past Thursday, or whether it is the feelings that are expressed by 70% of the American workforce, I do not doubt that a sense of calling is either frustrated or absent from a huge number of our neighbors and from number of the people in this room. The bad news is that there aren’t many easy answers. I would love to be able to snap my fingers and change the way that the vast majority of people experience their vocation. I would love to be able to snap my fingers and address the myriad labor issues in this country.
One of the things that might be helpful is to broaden our understanding of the word vocation. Callings are not just for certain types of professions, not just for “helping” professions, not just for professions that require a graduate degree or a college degree, not just professions that are considered to be “esteemed.” And, callings are not just for paid work either. A calling can be fulfilled through employment, but it can also manifest itself through a role that a person takes within a family, through a volunteer position, through a hobby, or even through just being. When Parker Palmer speaks of vocation not as a goal to be achieved but instead as a gift to be received, when he speaks of vocation as springing forth from deep within the wells of the self, he is talking about vocation as being true to one’s inner self. Vocation is more about inner truth than external circumstances. A retiree can have a vocation. An elder can have a vocation. Even a child. Parker Palmer writes that, “From the beginning, our lives lay down clues to selfhood and vocation.”
What do I mean when I talk about the spirituality of vocation? What does it mean to say that our work has a spiritual component to it? I want to propose to you two methods of spiritual reflection that you might find useful either in reflecting on the significance of the work that you do or in discovering your calling.
Our Unitarian Universalist seventh principle speaks of an interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part. Take a moment to imagine your connections. With whom are you directly connected? Customers, clients, people served, co-workers. Contemplate their lives, their longings, their callings. Now imagine all the people to whom they are connected. One way of doing spiritual reflection is to feel the power of connections, to sense how your life is interconnected with so many lives, indeed with all of life.
Another way of doing reflection is to think about what story you have a deep longing to be a part of. I remember hearing a story, I don’t know whether it is true or not, about the NASA space program during the 1960s. Someone went to study the people working on the space program and while visiting with different scientists and engineers and program officials he happened to strike up a conversation with a janitor pushing a mop bucket down the hallway. He asked the janitor about his job and the janitor replied, proudly, “My job is to send a man to the moon.” He understood his work as a part of a heroic, important story. Similarly, research on people who clean hospital rooms reveals that the most crucial factor in having a positive experience of work did not have to do with pay or whether the person liked their supervisor. Those who report liking this work saw themselves as playing an active role in the story of healing and those who disliked this work didn’t have this sense of narrative. This way of doing spiritual reflection begins with asking what larger story, what larger narrative, what living tradition, do you find yourself in? Or what story would you like to find yourself in?
Questions for Reflection
1) Some callings are felt as earth shattering epiphanies. Others come from hearing a still, small voice. Still others are the result of logical choice. Have you ever experienced a calling? What was it like?
2) One method I propose for reflecting on the spiritual significance of vocation is to imagine all those with whom you are connected. Who does your vocation connect you with?
3) Another method I propose for reflecting on the spiritual significance of vocation is to imagine the story you find yourself in through your vocation. What story are you a part of? What story do you long to be a part of?