By Skye Jethani
Our culture is not very good with boundaries. We frequently confuse license with liberty; we think that freedom requires the absence of any restriction. This is certainly true in our cultural attitude about sex; Previous generations passed laws regulating acceptable sexual behavior, defining marriage, limiting appropriate dress for women and men, or restricting reasons for divorce. Such laws are now seen as antiquated and even discriminatory.
This perspective is predicated on a belief in the autonomous individual; that each person is free to choose how she wishes to live. Nothing external to the self—government, society, God, or even biology—should infringe on an individual’s desires. We are witnessing how this understanding of the self has led to a dramatic shift in the sexual vision of our culture, but these same values are also influencing our vision of work.
We assume that the work we do in the world is a matter of personal desire. We often ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” By itself this is a harmless question, but behind it lurks a vision of individual autonomy with no place for God. We have abandoned the belief that any external agent should assign us our work. Our families, our communities, and even our God should not infringe on our individual desire. As with our sexuality, we have rejected the idea that our work is a calling we receive from outside of ourselves. We have lost a theology of vocation.
Before the Reformation it was believed that the word vocation, which comes from the Latin vocare meaning “to call,” only applied to the clergy. Based on their reading of Scripture, Luther, Calvin, and others rejected this limited view of vocation and insisted that every Christian was called by God. First, they said we are all called to unity with Christ. Second, all Christians share a set of common callings as revealed in the Scriptures. Third, we are each called to a specific, good, God-honoring work in the world. We all have a vocation.
But how do we discover our vocation? How do we know what work God is calling us to do? Unlike our common callings which can be found by reading the bible, I cannot open to a chapter and verse to discover my specific calling. Discerning our specific callings comes through a mature communion with the Holy Spirit. In other words, a theology of vocation is contingent upon a practical theology of prayer, but if we do not slow down, cease from our work, and learn to commune deeply with God, we will not be equipped to hear his call.
We see this pattern in Jesus’ own communion with his Father. The start of his public ministry, the selection of his apostles, and his journey to the cross were all started after first ceasing from his work and devoting space for prayer to discern the Father’s calling.
I regularly meet with college students who are eager to discuss vocation. “How do I know what I’m supposed to do with my life?” they sometimes ask me with more than a little anxiety, depending on how close they are to graduating.
“Tell me about your communion with God,” I’ll ask.
Some have been confused by this question. They assume the answer is to be found in studying Scripture more carefully, by exploring their gifts through an assessment, or by uncovering a great need in the world they should devote their lives to remedying. Those are all well and good, but they also feed our cultural tendency of taking life rather than receiving it. Without a robust communion with God through which we discern his call, we revert to our cultural view of the autonomous self. We think that our work in the world is determined by the self. We ask, “What do I want to do?” rather than, “What is God calling me to do?” The former is predicated on personal preference, while the latter is predicated on prayer.
Many of the callings that have shaped my life have been received in silence and solitude, including my call into ministry. These callings were subsequently affirmed by others in the church, but the process started by cultivating the space in my life for prayer and reflection.
Henri Nouwen noted that we like to stay busy because we want to avoid the noise within us. “Your inner life is like a banana tree with monkeys jumping up and down,” he said. The discipline of rest forces us to acknowledge and tame our inner monkeys. Only then can we hear God’s calling, and then engage our exterior world accordingly. In this way, the fruit of our work is not determined by how much we accomplish around us, but by how connected we are to God’s Spirit within us.
If a redeemed vision of work in our workaholic culture means cultivating a rhythm of rest and the space to discern God’s calling, then we need to ask what the church’s role is in reestablishing these healthy patterns. Christ has called pastors to shepherd his sheep. That metaphor certainly includes feeding, leading, and protecting the flock of Christ, but we often overlook the shepherd’s role in providing rest. “He makes me lie down in green pastures... He restores my soul,” says David of his Shepherd in Psalm 23.
When I left my full-time pastoral role seven years ago, I began keeping track of my time in a journal. What I found surprised me. Between my work, my family relationships, the tasks of maintaining a home, yard, and body, I concluded that about 12 percent of my time was flexible. With this 12 percent I could read a book, volunteer at the homeless shelter, or take a nap. This 12 percent was also what the church was eager to fill.
It was often indirect and subtle, but from the moment I entered the church building on Sunday mornings I felt like my 12 percent was being targeted. Whether it was the children’s ministry seeking volunteers, or the upcoming missionary dinner, or the new tutoring initiative with the local elementary school. Between the songs and Scripture the morning was crammed with ads. Sometimes they were even cleverly embedded in the sermon itself.
Ultimately it was my responsibility to say yes or no to these opportunities, and I did not fault the church leaders for making me aware of the important work happening in our community. After all I preached for many years pushing the very same activities with the very same good intentions, but after a few months in the pews rather than the pulpit I felt exhausted. After a challenging week of work there were some Sundays where attending a worship service bought more noise than music to my life.
This led to me to reflect more honestly about my time in ministry and how I had led the sheep entrusted to my care. Was I a shepherd that provided rest, or was I singularly focused on winning a larger slice of their 12 percent? In the most work-focused culture in history was I helping to create a harmonious rhythm of work and rest, or adding to the cacophony of noise and the idolatry of achievement?
I wonder if our culture’s addiction to work, including within the church, is contributing to the church dropout rates. Based on conversations I’ve had with former church attenders, I think it is. Of course the work we’re calling people to in the church is good, godly, and important. But when they’ve not been shown how to bring redemptive patterns of work and rest, activity and silence into their professional lives, and healthy rhythms of rest are also absent in the church’s life, eventually the sheep will leave to find a pasture where they can lie down—even if its a couch in front of a television.
In 1974 Colonel William Pogue became the first American to go on strike–in space. The astronaut was part of the last, and longest, manned mission aboard the Skylab space station. About halfway through the 84-day mission, Colonel Pogue and the other astronauts requested ground controllers adjust the work schedule for more rest. “We had been over-scheduled,” Pogue said. “We were just hustling the whole day. The work could be tiresome and tedious, though the view as spectacular.”
Ground control refused. The work was too important, they said, and time was limited. Some worried the astronauts’ request was a sign of depression or physical illness. Pogue insisted neither was the case. They just wanted more time to look out the window and think, he said.
Eventually the disagreement between the crew and the controllers became so intense the astronauts went on strike. Finally a compromise was reached to give the crew more time to rest during the remaining six weeks of the flight. Pogue later wrote that having more time to look out the window at the sun and earth below also made him reflect more about himself, his crewmen, and their “human situation, instead of trying to operate like a machine.”
Isn’t Sunday supposed to be a time to cease from our work, gaze out the capsule window, and contemplate our lives and calling from a cosmic perspective? Aren’t the songs, sacraments, and sermons supposed to reveal the wonder of God’s kingdom amid the chaos of our world, and prepare us to reenter the atmosphere on Monday with a renewed sense of meaning? How did the goal on Sunday shift from feeding sheep to recruiting them?
There is no denying that our culture has embraced a broken vision of work. As the Cadillac commercial states, we are “crazy hard working believers.” But the church can help redeem work just as it has tried to redeem sex. We need to present a different vision of our work by modeling daily, weekly, and annual rhythms of rest. When we cease from labor, rest affords us the space to discern God’s calling so we may return to our work with a renewed focus. Rest also brings an order and efficiency to our work as well as harmony to our lives. And when pastors shepherd their flocks on Sundays to see the world from a heavenly perspective, they may be reminded that we are not machines and neither are they.
This post was first published in the With God Daily Devotional by Skye Jethani. Follow the link to subscribe. Republished with permission.