Separated by a single vowel, “vocation” and “vacation” have a complicated relationship.
Vocation comes from the Latin word vocatio, which means a call.

Originally, the concept of vocation bore religious freight. Men and women were called to religious duty. Those called to serve God were also called to celibacy, for example. It was their way of life, their vocation, their work.

Protestant Reformer Martin Luther later expanded the idea of calling to apply to nonreligious work. A cobbler was called to be the best cobbler he could be. Again, it was a way of life, a way of work.

Vacation comes from the Latin word vacatio, which means an emptying of one’s self from work, a break from work.

National Public Radio has a most helpful transcript about the history of vacation based on an interview with Cindy Aron, author of “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.”

It appears that vacation evolved from something the elite did to an activity of the middle class.

In the beginning, Puritans valued work and viewed idleness as vice. Life’s pattern was six days of work and rest on the Sunday. The Puritan pattern paralleled the Hebrew Sabbath.

The Hebraic notion of Sabbath included a cessation from work – no gathering of firewood on the Sabbath – and a remembrance of God’s liberation from the bondage of ceaseless work. God wanted his people to rest on the Sabbath.

The Christian practice of honoring Sunday was not completely devoid of activity. Christians filled the day of rest with ceaseless activity. Sunday school, Sunday morning worship, training union and Sunday evening worship took up a good chunk of the day. Vigorous religious activity wasn’t defined as work, and it certainly helped Christians avoid idleness.

With economic development in the United States – the growth of the vacation industry and the accumulation of wealth – and the advice of doctors, vacation became acceptable.

Religious institutions contributed to the development of vacation by providing “religious resorts.” Christians took vacations at Christian camps where their spiritual and moral lives were nurtured with preaching, Bible study and fellowship with those who shared common values. No spiritual idleness on vacation. And no secular temptations – drinking, dancing, smoking.

For decades, Baptists, for example, headed in the summer to the conference centers in Ridgecrest, N.C., and Glorieta, N.M. Other Baptists took mission trips with their paid vacation days. Still others took vacation days to go to the annual Southern Baptist Convention.

The tension today between work and vacation is no doubt rooted in the economic uncertainty – job insecurity – and the 24/7 work cycle. Vacation has become problematic for some, probably for many.

Writing two years ago about my own struggle with vacation and vocation, I cited a CNN story that identified the United States as the “no-vacation nation.”

The news story referenced a poll, which found that “only 57 percent of U.S. workers use up all of the days they’re entitled to.”

Legal, economic, cultural and psychological reasons contribute to this dynamic.

From a theological perspective, perhaps one reason some religious workers don’t take all the vacation time is their sense of vocation – calling. After all, God called us to do his work, not to be idle or slothful, surely a sign of the hangover from the Puritan view about idleness.

But then, we have the biblical narrative that teaches us that God rested.

While I claimed to do “nothing” last week on vacation, I did feel compelled to read a new book – a work related one, of course. I did answer a few emails, return a few calls, read a few news stories and watch a news broadcast or two. I didn’t look at Twitter, write a word, setup a meeting or review footage from our forthcoming documentary on prisons and faith. My vocation crimped my vacation.

Vocation and vacation have a complicated relationship, much as the ideal and the real do.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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