Sunday, March 04, 2012


Sunday Reflection: Vocation

I've been thinking about vocation lately, and visiting last week with people like Stacy Rector, Todd Lake, Jeanne Bishop, and Randall O'Brien (all of whom live out a strong sense of vocation) has only deepened those thoughts.

Vocation is something more than a job-- Hulitt Gloer, quoting someone, described it to me once as the place where "your great passion meets the world's great need." It's something more than a job; it is what you do with your life, that thing you can give, and which feeds you spiritually as you do so.

Almost everyone I know who are my vocational heroes, including those four people named above and people like Bob Darden, Susan Stabile, and Neil Alan Willard, exemplify some of the things I see in true vocation. First, there is passion for an idea involved, and also there is something else... the best word for it, that I can come up with, is transgression. People with a vocation almost always are striving to make the world better, and in doing so, they transgress settled expectations. It isn't easy; I suspect that constant accolades are not a sign of true vocation, because the hard work of defying expectations and setting the bar higher is going to upset some people. And humility... that, too, is always part of the mix. So my recipe is Passion + Transgression + Humility = Vocation.

For Christians, the idea of vocation includes the driving force of faith, and a faith which is always (when viewed honestly) unsettling. It is, literally, a cross to bear. And perhaps Jesus's work is the best example of vocation, in the way I have described: Passionate, humble, transgressive, and going directly to this world's great needs. I fall so short of that example (and the example of the others I hold up here) that I am sometimes taken aback. Last week was wonderfully humbling that way....

In terms of what I do, the most important thing is teaching. The best teachers I have known had exactly those traits-- passionate, transgressive, and humble. In my advocacy work, what I do has a purpose (I hope)-- I want to sand down the roughest edges of our criminal justice system. That is what links commutation, my projects with the sentencing guidelines and my work against the death penalty and juvenile life without parole. (To hear me talk about commutation, you can hear my interview today with Stewart Harris at Tennessee Public Radio at 2 pm central time at I'm not great at it yet, but I am learning. Luckily, I have some very good role models.

The source of the quote your friend gave you:
Frederick Buechner (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC).

Buechner starts by talking abut the fact that the word "vocation" comes from the Latin word "vocare" (to call) and implies that we are called to do some kind of word (the trick being for us to distinguish between the voice of God and the other voices calling us to different things. He then writes:

“… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet [emphasis added].”
sorry - I pulled the quote from someplace else and neglected to delete the emphasis added...I couldn't figure out how to do italics on a blog comment.
When I read, see or hear about people like you and Jean Bishop and Susan Stabile I feel humbled and troubled at the same time. If vocation is what God asks of us to do with conviction, with passion and humility, what about the rest of us that go around living our lives without transgression. Right at this very instant and for some insane reason (given the kind of incredible work you all do) there is one person, beside myself, that comes to mind... Carlos. Carlos is the new janitor on my floor at work. He comes after a guy who treated his janitor job as something to do to make money before he went on to loftier work. I guess I don't need to get into the details of a janitor job not done right. When Carlos came it didn't just make a clean difference, we all felt we could work better. He goes about silently doing his job right, he's learned all our names and he never fails to mention it when greeting us. He always smiles when I talk to him and I like to talk to him. He takes what he does for a living seriously, he has four children and a wife depending on him, faith and church are central to their lives and he is one of the most decent human beings I know. If it were to apply the definition of vocation to him I'd say he has is, transgression: not so much. And now I wonder what happens to all of us like Carlos? Are we going to a different place when we die, the long and the short line: janitors and such through here and extraordinary people this way?

First of all, from what I know, aren't you and your lab working on friggin' curing cancer??? Most of us would consider that pretty darn important.

As for Carlos... isn't what you described him doing exactly what I described as vocation?
Carlos is probably more transgressive than you think-- I say that having worked as a janitor. When you do what he does, it sets a higher standard for others, and they often resent that.
We should all aspire to be a Carlos. One can consider the eight beatitudes foundations of virtue - “settled.” Which should we aspire to be transgressed? Carlos is an example of living life “quietly loud.” He honors the task with humility while seeking his reward, the opportunity to perform another task – to serve a need.

Carlos can be fed as spiritually as one who seeks to transgress, with great passion, settled expectations. Though his moments of being noticed and heard may not be as visible or acclaimed, he is called – as are all.

Does fulfillment less noticed diminish its value? How will we answer? How will we serve? With great passion, I pray…
Mark is correct.

We all know his courage to continually stand up and speak to injustices and to acknolwledge and give credit to others in so doing.

The blessing in knowing Mark is when he reveals his inner "Carlos" - glimpses of quiet, that include doubt, discernment and humility that help fuel his passions...
Walter Brueggemann preached at my church today, and his benediction was on this very subject. He said:

"It matters that we are baptised and have been given this vocation: hospitality, forgiveness, generosity and justice. It matters that you carry this vocation and act it out all this week."

It was for all of us: my saints and heroes Stacy and Todd and Susan, Randall and Mark, Carlos and John, the sheriff I see being unfailingly kind to the handcuffed prisoners who come into his lockup every day.

I looked up "transgress", and one of its meanings is to exceed a boundary, as with the sea spreading over land. I love that image, of the love and devotion of Carlos and John and the teachers and preachers, writers and advocates I so admire, spreading outward, boundless.
I realized I separated vocation and transgression reflexively and I wondered why. I guess you don't call it “Sunday Reflection” for nothing because I kept thinking about it today. I finally came up with a reason for my immediate reflex. I somehow view transgression as a proactive form of prostration. I see how it may be inherent to faith, but if I were to pinpoint one thing that I always struggled with in my Greek Orthodox tradition it was.. it still is, prostration. I learn now from all of you that there are other ways to look at transgression and for that I am grateful. Still not convinced but I'm sure I'll see it. I always thought that God doesn't need my prostration to love me and help me do the best that I can. Carlos doesn't go out of his way to do what he does, he doesn't part the sea onto the land, he just does what he does the best that he can.
But... what Carlos is doing is spreading the sea over the land, making it different than it was. That was the core of what you were saying!
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