An open letter to my beloved sons, in whom I am well pleased,
I’m writing this fatherly letter about the difference between a career and a vocation. I learned this wisdom from Jim Forest, an old man who was a famous peace activist in the 1960’s and walked many of the top spiritual activists of the twentieth century. He personally taught me some important lessons on vocation that might be very helpful to you, and he specifically had you three in mind when shared this.
When I say ‘career, ‘ I mean the idea of a job that you work at to make money, get promotions, become an expert, and eventually retire and earn a pension. There’s nothing really wrong with having a career, or even a few careers. For example, you could say I was a ‘career pastor’ for twenty years.
But there is something more important that we call a ‘vocation.’ A vocation may also include getting a paycheck and going to a workplace, but there is much more. A vocation is a ‘calling’ that can span over many careers. For example, I think by vocation I am called to teach. I did that as a youth pastor, a church-planter, a college teacher, a seminar facilitator, an author and a publisher. All of those mini-careers are just the platform I used to live out my calling.
Also some people have a calling that has nothing to do with their career. Grandpa Jersak has had a long-term vocation as an encourager-evangelist, even though his career was entirely given to government bureaucracy. It can take time to find your calling/vocation and you need not pressure yourself to assume what it is too quickly. But what I feel is really sad is when someone never finds it and doesn’t even know how to go about recognizing it.
So I said to Jim, ‘This is great, and I even think my sons already get the idea that career is not all-important. In fact, they are even willing to sacrifice some of the benefits of career for a higher calling or vocation. But how do they find out what that is?’ Here is what he said:
1. Pray for God to reveal his will for your life. If you don’t, you likely won’t be attentive enough to notice what it is and you could waste your life chasing your own ideas and dreams, only to find out they aren’t what your heart really wanted anyway. But if you pray for God to reveal his will for you, then He will. Of course He will!
2. Experiment with different types of service. So try out a variety of opportunities for service; volunteer in different environments to see what draws out your gifts, what gives you joy, what people respond to best. For example, you all experimented with helping the ‘5 and 2’ Street Ministry, and Stephen tried out teaching in Thailand, and working with folks who have autism, etc. You could spend time until you’re 25 or 30 year old tasting many options so that after that, you have a sense of calling for the next fifty years, even if you never nail it down to one career. I noticed that Jim used the word ‘service.’ Career is about achieving, competing, advancing and can end up being all about what I get out of life and out of others. It can be entirely selfish. A vocation focuses on serving God, the world, and others, which ultimately makes for a far more satisfying life.
3. Look around and see where you can help. This picks up on that idea of service. Sometimes your vocation is not revealed from inside of you, like what I ‘feel like doing.’ The calling can come from the outside through the needs of others who are calling for help. Jesus said that he only did what the Father told him to do … BUT, he often heard the Father tell him what to do as he listened to people call for his help and then responded with compassion for them. Some of our most rewarding experiences as a family happened when God called us through people who needed extra hands in the work they were doing. When we went to help, we received more than we gave because we met Jesus in the people we met. They ended up helping us more than we helped them.
4. As you pray, experiment, and look around, doors will open. As you know, looking for a job or a career can be hard work and you end up spending a lot of time handing out resumes and filling out applications. This is part of life and while it’s not much fun, if you want to eat and provide for your family, it can be necessary. But with vocation, you don’t have to do all the hard work. With vocation, God is involved in the search and there are so many needs out there, doors will start to open that give you clues about where to go and what to be. For example, I don’t know if you knew this, but I have been doing seminars two to three times per month for over 12 years. But I don’t remember ever asking a church to invite me, except may two or three times when I already knew the people and they were my friends and I just missed them. All the rest of the time, they invited me. Even the teaching gigs that I’ve done in Colleges … the only one I applied for never got back to me. I’m not saying it’s bad to knock on doors or apply, but when doors open by themselves, that’s a good hint about vocation.
5. Don’t be afraid. Jim said I should tell you or expose you to a lot of stories showing you that you don’t need to be afraid. For example, I have often been afraid that if I teach and write what God is showing me, then doors will close and money will dry up and I’ll end up having to settle for a lousy job that I hate. But that’s not been my story, has it? That’s just career-thinking. But calling-thinking tells me that when I do what God calls me to do, he will open the doors and make the connections for me to do it. When I have been faithful to take risks in teaching on the edge and pissing people off, you guys know what has happened: God opened many more doors and provided many more opportunities, and brought us the best friends in the world. He’s provided everything we need. But it’s not just when we’ve been faithful to God’s calling. Even when I have screwed up badly and made colossal mistakes, instead of disqualifying me and putting me out to pasture, God and his people have been gracious and kind beyond what I ever deserved. Even my haters seem only to be able to help God develop my character and close doors to places that won’t receive my message. So there is just no need to be afraid as you pursue God’s calling.
6. Listen to stories that encourage daring. Jim didn’t just mean non-fiction stories, although those are great too. But he was talking about giving yourself a lot of exposure to works like the legend of St. George and the Dragon, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or the Lord of the Rings … stories and myths that became epics by inspiring courage to try great things that are way over your heads. That’s when you see the greatness of God and the greatness he’s put in you that you might never have suspected was there. These stories show us something about taking the way that is not always comfortable and enduring hardship for the sake of something greater than our own pleasure. They tell us that the battle-scars of love and sacrifice are not a burden, they are an adventure. And the really great tales aren’t just about the biggest, toughest conquerors. They are about children and hobbits and anti-heroes who are scared spitless but do what they have to do for a greater good. These stories also include the importance of selflessly doing the hard things that are boring and frustrating and tiring to get to whatever prize God has in mind.
7. Look at examples in your life of people who show courage and channel mercy. Jim said that such examples can be contagious. I’m talking about people you know well–those who show you what deep character looks like. By character, I mean they are faithful to what God has asked them to do, and they are motivated by unselfish love through horrendous challenges to leave something good. You are lucky to have so many examples of this, but I will mention just one for now and let you write me back with another five each. More than anyone else in the world, you’ve been able to watch the supernatural love and courage of your mom. If you want to become like anyone in this world, become like her. You didn’t get to see what an Amazon she was pushing each of you 11-pound guys into the world through sweat, blood, agony and shrieking … (and that was just me!). But you have seen how hard it was for her to suck it up, work hard and take on leading the church when I was pretty-much non-functional. She’s been gracious when I’ve been a lousy husband and she’s found a way in all of that to really be a great mom to you. I know you appreciate it and you love her, but also, remember that you carry her physical and spiritual DNA … there is something of her in each of you. Don’t squander that great and precious gift on what the world tells you that you need to do or be. Give that gift back to God.
I’m not saying you have to measure up to mom, but if you’re going to pick a role-model, don’t waste your attention on lesser people than her. If you want to become real men, become like that woman. Her secret: total surrender to whatever God wants, not just what she wants.
So at the end of the day, I guess vocation will boil down to surrendering to what God has for you, because it’s far better than anything we’ll dream up for ourselves. If your life is a coin, let God spend it. Stephen, Justice, and Dominic, I love you and will pray that God will give you the gift of vocation that you were born for. That should be a good story.