Vocation.

Pastor Erik Samuelson

Pastor Erik Samuelson

If you can, you should check out Erik Samuelson’s blog, Pub Ponderings. His post this week was on the question of “vocation,” something that we work with at Pacific Lutheran University (where I teach) in the tradition of Lutheran higher education. Erik’s a former student of mine, and a damn (if you can use that word about a pastor) fine one. He asked (among other things):

“But I wonder, do the rest of us (non clergy folk) think much about call? What does the word “call” or “vocation” used in this way even mean to you? Do you all out in the real world think about the things that you are up to as callings? And if you do, do you think of them as callings from God? How is your calling connected to, or separate from, the work you do? And, do we ever actually talk about this other than in the context of people who think they are called to be pastors? Would it help if we talked about this sort of thing more?”

This was my answer to his post, with a few more characters added beyond the 4100 limit. I just wondered how others felt about his as well. If you want, comment here or on his site. 

As a young man from a thoroughly Scandinavian and thoroughly Lutheran family, I arrived at college with notions of vocation measured against Luther’s dramatic turn to the priesthood. Making the proper and vocational choice rested upon finding God’s “plan” by matching “gifts” (personal talents or characteristics) identified as valuable by authorities (such as family, school, church, and country) with goals that had been validated by these same authorities.

Although I had also been taught, as Luther also wrote, one might be called as a shoemaker or peasant, I didn’t come to college hoping to be either.  But the question of what I was called to do (occupationally) still loomed. Like many, I think, I presupposed that my vocation ought to have moral primacy (i.e., it should take precedent over the “rest” of one’s life), centrality (i.e., it would become the core around which the “rest” of one’s life evolved), and be financially sufficient if unrewarding.  But I was confident that, if chosen properly, my vocation would put all else on its proper God-determined track and allow me to leave my proper mark on a bettered world.

The late 60s and 70s provided models to emulate Luther’s role to “serve” traditional authorities by reforming and restoring them to their proper role. Our age values those who effect change (could we really imagine being “called to conform” except to a model of Christ as an iconoclast or reformer?) and I wanted to bring about change in, of course, the “right” direction. The tumultuous changes in American politics, the Cold War, and American religion seemed to provide many opportunities. I toyed briefly with the idea of going into the military (Naval Academy), and throughout college with different aspects of Christian ministry.

In retrospect, these initial career considerations were a response to a deep anxiety to serve properly (after all, who can question a soldier’s or a minister’s service?) and to make one’s mark by bringing about changes that—although not seen as “service” by some authorities—would come to be recognized as such by the new tradition established by the changes I would help to bring about. I finally enrolled in Seminex, which seemed to be a seminary that bridged the gap for someone who hoped to be both a grounded traditionalist and rebel reformist. It seemed a noble choice.

Nevertheless, life led me away from that path. Nothing was as simple as I though it was. I didn’t have the strength or the conviction that I thought I had. Just recognizing that others didn’t have the answers didn’t mean that I had them. Doing right thing for the wrong reasons wasn’t much better, in the end, than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. But I became strong enough for ambiguity, to not to be right, and secure enough to be unsure. And I learned that I was better at helping people find and explore questions for themselves than I was at providing them with my own or someone else’s answers. I lost my way, and somehow found myself.

I also came to a different understanding of vocation. Vocation, as I see it now, originates in the passions and with what compels, engages, and interests us deeply toward the ends of living authentically and with a deep sense of satisfaction, both as a human being and also as one’s self.  It can range from saving the world to loving one person well. It is the subtle and complex phenomenon of a life emerging in its best balance.

Unfortunately for my students, such “vocation” doesn’t happen at 18-21 any more than any other complex and rich human process does. And yet, students need to start out for somewhere, and by doing something.  As a professor, I do think that I can help them in that journey by deepening and fostering their awareness of a call that originates—often gradually—from within themselves, by helping them to avoid career choices based on fear and uncertainty.  And as individuals, we contribute most by living out our own vocations authentically, passionately, charitably, and with dignity.

Today, when I think of my own vocation, I think more of Leonard Cohen’s “Land of Plenty”:

Don’t really have the courage
To stand where I must stand.
Don’t really have the temperament
To lend a helping hand.
Don’t really know who sent me
To raise my voice and say:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

I don’t know why I come here,
Knowing as I do,
What you really think of me,
What I really think of you.
For the millions in a prison,
That wealth has set apart –
For the Christ who has not risen,
From the caverns of the heart –

For the innermost decision,
That we cannot but obey –
For what’s left of our religion,
I lift my voice and pray:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

I know I said I’d meet you,
I’d meet you at the store,
But I can’t buy it, baby.
I can’t buy it anymore.
And I don’t really know who sent me,
To raise my voice and say:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

For the innermost decision
That we cannot but obey
For what’s left of our religion
I lift my voice and pray:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

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3 comments for “Vocation.

  1. November 14, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    That’s a good suggestion–I think I’ll do that.

  2. November 14, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    “I lost my way, and somehow found myself.” You should detail this, how it is one can be lost from the original path and yet discover their real path in the process.

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