By Ellen Sims
Text: Ephesians 4:1-16
“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Paul* urged the Ephesians (4:1b). So what are you being called to do? That’s the question Mary Oliver asks at the conclusion of her poem “The Summer Day.” But she gets to the question about vocation after a series of very different questions. On this summer day, try entering into the poet’s world. Imagine the poet’s vocation is not so different from yours.
(Read the poem here and listen to Mary Oliver read the poem herself: http://maryoliver.beacon.org/aboutmary/media/).
Friends, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
That is the question we come here, Sunday after Sunday, to ponder, to live into. And today we’re going to make that question explicit. Because the goal of worship is to pursue that very question. Rooted in the Old English word for “worth,” the word worship describes what we do when we sift through all that tries to claim our loyalty in order to elevate what is truly worthy of contemplating and pursuing. As Paul put it, we can then pursue “what is worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called.” Each week “through songs and poetry, through conversation and prayer and silence, through sermons and sacraments and scriptures, we as a community try to discern together what is of ultimate worth” (from Open Table’s website). Worship is an ongoing discernment process that discloses and lifts up what is worthy of our lives and then points us in that direction. Worship allows us to include varied voices in our discernment.
Mary Oliver is one voice we’re listening to today. She suggests that paying attention to the world–and to tiny inhabitants of the world, like the grasshopper–is key to vocational discernment. Worship includes questions. Kneeling down in the grass reverently or just letting the mind be “idle.” Prophet-like, the poet reminds us that our time on earth is short and we dare not squander our “one wild and precious life.” This attentiveness and awe are spiritual dispositions necessary for vocational discernment.
Another voice we’ll hear is Parker Palmer’s. In addition to listening to the world, he recommends, in Letting Your Life Speak, that we listen to our lives. Palmer gently critiques ways the religious tradition can present the idea that one’s calling “comes from a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet—someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach.” He’s concerned about an understanding of one’s calling that’s “rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be ‘selfish’ unless corrected by external forces of virtue.” He recalls:
“It [was] a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap. Today I understand vocation quite differently—not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. . . . Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘n here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” (Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, p.10).
Spring Hill College is implementing this fall a plan to improve student learning by very intentionally fostering the capacity of students to discern their vocation. Both the curriculum and supplementary activities will foster vocational discernment from the beginning of students’ college experience to graduation. These capacities, it is hoped, will serve them for life-long practices of vocational discernment. It’s a holistic, integrated approach to vocation that is far different from my memory of stopping by the Career Services office late in my senior year of college. Because paying attention to one’s calling is a life-long process, not a one-time decision. Because vocation is not about how to make a living but how to make a life.
Sometimes vocational discernment, especially as college students might discern the trajectory of their life’s work for which they are preparing, is highly individualized. Even within the church differentiated callings are based on differences in our individual “gifts.” The diversity of gifts must be appreciated. But also we must appreciate Parker Palmer’s emphasis on finding one’s vocation more as a “gift to be received” than a “goal to be achieved.”
Toward the end of today’s Epistle reading we find Paul’s famous listing of Christ’s gifts to individuals in the church (4:11). He tells the church at Ephesus that some of them have the gift of being apostles and some prophets and some evangelists and some pastors and some teachers. Elsewhere (I Corinthians 12) Paul lists a different set of gifts, including the gifts of healing and speaking in tongues. Some people have made much of these lists of spiritual gifts—assuming that the list is exhaustive and that we must pick our gifts from one or both of these pre-approved lists. I don’t think Paul was creating a 1st century Meyers-Briggs-type test. I think he’s giving examples of various gifts that serve the community of faith. And that is my final point. My first point was that we are all called. My second was that we are called to use our wonderfully diverse gifts. My final point: We are called to use our different gifts for the good of the body of Christ.
Author Frederick Buechner’s defines the individual’s vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, p. 119). Finding work that meets needs while gladdening your heart is the clearest sign that you’re on the right path to vocational discernment. For me, officiating last Friday night’s wedding of a high school friend and her bride was one of the many experiences where, in my vocation, my gladness meets a need. Kaiden’s baptism last Sunday was another. Getting to know new folks who come to Open Table floats my boat. When I pray with you before surgery, when I have the privilege of accompanying you into a deeper experience of faith, when I learn along with you more about the life of the Holy, I find myself at ease. I am—to coin a word—vocationing—a experience that’s a cross between vacation and vocation where my “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Think about ways you meet needs with joy. Mothering your children. Making a new friend. Listening to someone who’s hurting. Using the power of the pen to try to influence public opinion. Using your business to improve our community. Rescuing a stray dog or cat. If these acts are congruent with your vocation, they don’t feel like work. You do them with ease or passion and energy or joy or at least a sense of rightness. Of course, even people who regularly find gladness while meeting needs will have to slog through some duties that are NOT fulfilling or gladdening—in order to experience the joys of their calling. Sometimes in order to exercise our gifts, we have to do things for which we are not especially gifted.
But no one expects you to have all the gifts. The beauty of being part of a faith community is the variety of gifts that come together to strengthen the whole. That means I don’t have to possess every gift and skill. That means I can’t expect YOU to have all the gifts necessary for our faith community to function. Though I want to continue to develop spiritually and professionally, I need to take the pressure off myself to know and do everything well. Each of us must celebrate the gifts our sisters and brothers bring to our faith community—without being frustrated with them for not having gifts they don’t have.
We can be gracious to one another by remembering our vocation is NOT for us alone. Nor is it for us to stand out, to become important in the world. Paul describes a shared calling to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). When we are working together, it’s less important for us to have a perfect product than a peaceful process.
Your vocation is about contributing to the unity of Christ’s body and for the common good, said Paul. It’s about me being the best at being me. Growing into the fullness of me. Then being able to give what I can to “us.”
Mary Oliver’s poem ends with the question of vocation: What are you going to DO with your life? But “The Summer Day” began with different questions—about who made the entire world and the lowly grasshopper she then studies with intense attention and delight. She doesn’t offer answers to the “Who made the ___ ?” questions. She doesn’t know how to pray, she says. What she does know how to do—because she’s a poet—is pay attention. What she does know how to do is to fall down in the grass and be idle. That’s her gift. She dares the reader to tell her a better vocation than the poet’s task to observe the world, one grasshopper at a time. And in case you think her vocation seems plain or lazy or unimportant, she turns the most important question over to the reader and asks: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Is there any other question more important than this . . .on this summer day. . . on this Sunday. . . on this day when the world is beckoning with beauty and need? “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
PRAYER: God of poets and grasshoppers, show us ways to use our gifts to joyfully meet the world’s deep need.
* Most scholars doubt the traditional attribution of this epistle to the Apostle Paul. I’ll use Paul’s name to signify the unknown author of this letter who may have been a follower of Paul.