Well, it’s Labor Day weekend—summer’s last hurrah, so to speak. Many people are traveling or otherwise engaging in some last minute leisure time. I’ve always had kind of an ambivalent relationship with Labor Day, however…mostly because once school starts, summer’s over and I’d rather just get on with fall already.
I also think that Labor Day is probably the most ironic holiday. Think about it—we celebrate labor, work, and workers by doing what? Not working. What’s the message here? To truly celebrate work we have to escape it? In order for us to truly appreciate work we should stop it for a day? According to the U.S. Department of Labor web site, Labor Day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” I’m sure that’s what everyone will be thinking about tomorrow as they grill out.
Perhaps the way we celebrate Labor Day speaks more to our actual relationship with work rather than our veneration of it. For many people, work is seen as a necessary evil—something one has to do in order to earn a “living.” Work is the thing one must endure to get to the “real” part of life—family time, leisure time, etc.
The economic realities of 21st century life have a lot to do with our attitudes. I was reading a column on MSN this week that talked about the fact that in 1970, more than half of all college students were pursuing degrees in the liberal arts. This year, more than 60% of students are majoring in business or technical professions. As college costs rise, students see the reality of having to pay those bills and are opting for work that can pay them enough to satisfy their financial obligations. It makes you wonder how many would-be poets, writers, artists, and historians have become accountants or computer programmers because they’ve been afraid to take the liberal arts vow of poverty!
The result is some real ambivalence about work in our culture. A recent Harris poll says that 45% of American workers are satisfied with their jobs—less than half. Only 20% of American workers say that they are passionate about their jobs, and 33% believe they have reached a dead end in their careers. 21% are eager to change careers altogether. But maybe our ambivalence about work is less about current economic realities and more about how we’ve been trained to see work in general. As many people focus their education and experience on preparing to perform a particular job or function to make money and provide some standard of living, fewer people seem to be focused on the deeper issue of vocation—a life calling.
The word “vocation” comes from the Middle English word “vocacious’ which implies a kind of religious calling. It’s a word that has little to do with function and more to do with philosophy. If the word “job” implies a functional, task-oriented, time dependent means of employment, then “vocation” implies a broader worldview where one’s life is important because of purpose and call. To put it another way, a “job” is something you “do” from 9 to 5, but a “vocation” is something you are 24-7.
The whole issue of vocation is what’s at stake in this morning’s scriptures. In Exodus we see Moses wrestling with God over his call, issued spectacularly from a burning bush. As God converses with Moses in this sequence (which goes on for a couple of chapters), Moses hears God as giving him a task…a job to do—lead the people out of Egypt. Moses grew up in Egypt, ran away from Egypt, knew what an impossible task it would be for him to challenge Pharoah. Moses is pretty happy where he is, living there in obscurity in the desert with his wife and children shepherding the flocks. His current job satisfaction was probably only 50%, but it was a comfortable life and, more importantly, it didn’t really involve the possibility of a violent death at the hands of a king.
But while Moses is pushing back against the job, he also fails to see the bigger picture—that his life has been claimed and called by God to be God’s representative in saving a whole people and creating a nation through which the whole world might be saved. This was Moses’ vocation!Notice the exchange in Exodus 3:11-12. Moses reviews his resume and realizes that he’s not qualified for the job that God is asking him to do. “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God, however, is not interested in Moses’ resume. God does not always call the qualified, but God always qualifies the called. In response to Moses’ plea “Who am I…,” God says, “I AM” and “I will be with you.” In effect, God is saying to Moses, “It’s not about what you do, but what I do through you that matters.”
The tasks, jobs, and functions we perform are not necessarily our vocation. Our primary vocation is to reflect God’s presence with us and through us no matter what it is we are doing at the moment. As the first question in the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it succinctly: What is the purpose of humanity? To glorify God and enjoy God forever! Our vocation is to glorify God wherever we are.
Paul takes a similar tack in I Corinthians 3 when he writes about the work of those who follow Christ. A disciple’s life is built on the “foundation” of Christ, and all other tasks find their purpose in that foundation. All that we are, says Paul, will be tested by the fire of God’s judgment. If we have maintained this solid foundation, our work—no matter what it is—will “survive” us because we have seen our vocation as reflecting God’s grace through Christ. If we have focused too much on ourselves, that same fire will render our efforts as ashes. In the end it won’t matter how much we’ve accumulated, how successful we’ve become by the world’s standards, or how much recognition we receive…what matters and what lasts is whether we have reflected our primary relationship with Christ. It is to that relationship—that vocation—that we are called.
When we focus on tasks, on jobs, we get shortsighted about God’s call on our lives. There has to be something more, something better, some burning bush to tell us exactly what we’re supposed to do with our lives. I read an article by Barbara Brown Taylor in The Christian Century awhile back that I think speaks to this whole issue very well. She writes:
“Right this minute I cannot think of half a dozen people who believe that they are doing exactly what God has called them to do. Instead, they are waiting to find out what their true purpose is, or else they are waiting until circumstances improve enough for them to do a better job of fulfilling it. Things will be different once school is over, once there has been time to get more experience, once the right job comes along, once the children are grown and the house is paid off. Until then, one thing is for sure: this is not it–this present life, under these present circumstances–this cannot possibly be what God had in mind.
Now that is sad, but it is also useful, since it is all the permission most of us need to postpone full immersion in our lives. If this life is not yet your real life, then why give it all you have? Stay in the baby pool, where no one expects too much of you. If anyone asks what you are up to these days, say that you are still practicing. Keep dismissing what you do every day–keep discounting who you are–because it does not match your fantasy of what you, dedicated to your life’s true purpose, are supposed to look like.
The discovery of true purpose is not any one person’s job. It is the job of the gathered community–God’s called-out ones–who exist, among other things, to remind one another that the lives God is calling us to are the ones that we are living right here, right now, under these present circumstances. Whether you are a sophomore trying to decide on a major or a brain surgeon at the top of your profession, you have everything you need to respond to your divine call. You have what each of us has: one whole life to live on this earth, with tasks in it that we may choose to do well or poorly, and with people in it whom we may lift up by our presence with them or put down by our absence from them, even though we are standing right in front of them.Every night when we lie down to sleep, there is either more life in the world because of us or there is less life in the world because of us, and this remains true whether or not we have ever seen a burning bush.
Our purpose, for God’s sake, is to increase the abundance of life in this world. Who knows? Maybe God really does have something else in mind for you, but if you won’t live this life to the full, then why should God think up something more challenging for you? You can still abandon the baby pool. You can still put out into the deep water, let down your nets for a catch, and see what happens next. Whatever it is, you can bet that you have already been caught. You have already been called, both to live and to magnify, the abundant life of God.”
Perhaps the labor we should be celebrating this weekend is the labor of love—love for God, for neighbor, even for self. Regardless of whether you are a highly successful businessman or a struggling middle manager, your calling—your vocation—is to glorify God and increase the abundance of life in this world.
Some business people have caught this idea. A senior vice-president of a large utility company says that one of the roles of companies in the future will be to help employees discover their life purpose and to make sure that their work is consistent with and demanding of that purpose. "Imagine what would happen," he said, "if you had a company in which all the people were doing their life’s work. You would have more loyalty, more resilience, more creativity, more innovation, and a deeper sense of self-reliance, self-renewal and self-generation."
If you would receive that call from God imagine what it would do. Instead of wanting to just escape that life-choking cube farm you call your office, you might find ways to bring God’s life and love into that place. Instead of just showing up for work and watching the clock until its over, you might instead look at every moment as a gift and opportunity to represent God to your boss, your co-workers, your customers. If you’re looking for work, look for an opportunity to expand God’s call on your life in a new setting…that’s more important than even the benefits plan! Wherever you may be employed, remember that your vocation is to be a disciple of Christ!