When 10 percent of Americans are unemployed and many more live in daily fear of losing their jobs, people will say that if you have a job – any job – you should be grateful you can pay the bills. This is no time, they will say, to get idealistic and think about your “calling.” And it is true that having the means to pay the bills should not be taken for granted.
Now, however, it is especially important to consider the calling put on our lives; otherwise we run the risk of making, on “practical” grounds, vocational decisions that might lead us to success but not necessarily to fulfillment, maybe to lined pockets but not to a better world. It becomes a matter of aligning our God-given gifts and abilities with the world’s needs.
Two recent stories drove home this point.
One is about Grant Desme, a top prospect in the Oakland A’s baseball organization who recently announced he was leaving baseball to enter the priesthood. The 23-year-old Desme told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“I’m doing well in baseball. But I had to get down to the bottom of things, to what was good in my life, what I wanted to do with my life. Baseball is a good thing, but that felt selfish of me when I felt that God was calling me more… . I love the game, but I’m going to aspire to higher things.”
The second story is about Mark Pope, who left the Columbia University Medical School when he was just 18 months away from graduating to take a job as operations manager for the Georgia Bulldogs men’s basketball team. It’s a ground-level position in which he can’t even talk about basketball with the players, but does such work as mailing recruiting letters and serving as the head coach’s chauffeur.
Pope, a former college and NBA player who hopes to one day become a head coach, told the Athens Banner-Herald:
“I can be passionate about the grunt work in basketball. Whatever ridiculous task the coach has for me, whether it’s driving him back and forth to the airport or stuffing envelopes, I’ll do it because that’s where my passion is. Basketball has always been my passion… . All my life, basketball has been what I’ve always wanted to spend my time doing.”
Note the language these men used in explaining their decisions: Desme talked about a higher calling from God while Pope talked about the “passion” he had for basketball but not medicine. We are all better off, it seems to me, if the world’s professions are filled by people who are doing what God wants them to do and what they are passionate about.
Frederick Buechner, as usual, put it well when he said that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
It is not, though, always easy for a person to know how to apply that truth. Someone may not have found what their “deep gladness” is or may not know how to match their “deep gladness” with the world’s “deep need.” Or the world’s “deep need” may seem so overwhelming that one feels helpless in even picking a place to start.
And then there is always that chance that what God requires of us does not quite fit with what we judge our “deep gladness” to be.
Evelyn Underhill once offered a long list of people – saints and heroes, all – for whom that was the case. For example, she wrote of St. Paul, who “did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles” but rather “wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar.” And she wrote of “Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, (who) was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called.”
Underhill concluded in “The Spiritual Life:”
“In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this – and they are constantly happening – gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.”
It’s not just about us. In other words, it’s about what God wants to do with us for the sake of others and the Kingdom.
In these difficult times, the focus on economic stability is understandable. But we must still ask the vital vocational questions: What is God calling me to be and to do? Where does my passion lie? Where does “my deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?” God needs us to keep asking. The world needs us to keep asking.
The answers, after all, might make all the difference – for us and for a lot of other people.
Michael Ruffin is pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Ga. This column originally appeared on his blog.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.