“Finding Our Calling” Mark W. Harris
April 14, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Parker J. Palmer
Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.
Reading – The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
2nd Reading – from My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Who am I? At first glance there might seem to be many answers to that question. I might say: I am a minister, or a man, an older man, an older man with white hair, an older man with thinning white hair. Yes, we all have many roles or identities we claim. Rather than old balding man, I might prefer to say father or husband, teacher or historian. The idea of asking “who am I” was popular when I came of age. Perhaps it was because in the 1960’s the spirit of the times asked us to focus on self-discovery. Rather than reflecting on what kind of job we needed, or whom we might marry, we echoed musical groups who intimated that all we needed was love. Success was not finding a job, but finding ourselves. That is exactly what I said to my Father. “Dad stop hassling me about getting a job, I’m trying to find myself.” And he invariably replied, “I never knew you were lost.” I am sure it was frustrating for him to have a son who wanted to discover in himself the person I felt I was born to be, or try to find that precious passion calling from within that I needed to fulfill. After all, he had known abject poverty growing up, had worked at some kind of job since the age of 10, and his favorite brother labored in the Erving Paper Mills for 45 years, a factory job, that gave him small increments of pay increases, but never much job satisfaction beyond the friendships he made. It was about standing in the line, and repetition, and boredom, and the only meaning was found in getting the job done. Life, for my father, was about surviving and earning a living, not endless introspection or searching for meaning.
Yet at one time, we have all had to face that question of what am I going to do when I grow up. I have a passion, but what am I going to do with it? I didn’t love how machinery worked, or how to swing a hammer. I didn’t love weeding the garden or driving a truck. I loved books more than anything. I loved the sweep of history, and how people built cultures, and clashed, and slowly moved forward, hopefully to new births of freedom. I loved stories; stories about people who created communities of families and homes and churches and shops who built temples of aspiration where they would reflect upon visions of love and compassion, and tried to forgive themselves for falling short. Here they would help one another and cheat one another, go broke, get rich, fight, lose, win, celebrate life’s wonders, and cry over its losses. I studied what I loved, but how does one balance that with the responsibility of earning a living? When I finished college I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, except that I loved history. In those days we heard that historians were a dime a dozen, and usually ended up driving a cab. Was that what I wanted to do?
The long and the short of this inner contemplation of my life’s goals was to forego graduate school in history and choose a career in ministry Notice I used the word choose. Was it because I was not going to get a job as a college history professor, and could see a pathway in ministry to employment? Or was it something deeper? Today seminary students, like the ones who serve here as interns almost always use the term “call” when they are asked why they have entered this profession. Yet among Unitarian Universalist seminarians nearly forty years ago when I started, virtually no one would have used this term. In fact, they probably would have laughed at you. Call? Is the big daddy in the sky dialing you up long distance to say, I have chosen you for this mission to preach the gospel to these non-believing heretics. The idea of a call by God to the ministry was taken literally then, and so most students eschewed the concept entirely. We were not biblical Jonahs in search of Ninevah. There was no direct dial from God. Yet despite the rejection of the idea of some higher call, I was deeply concerned that I fulfill a sense of spiritual yearning in my life’s work.
When I went to college in the navel gazing 1960’s and 70’s, many people had no clue about the direction of the rest of their lives. In my case, I went to grad school because I did not know what else to do, except that I did not want to work in my father’s retail fuel business. We didn’t have any clergy in our immediate family, and so it was an odd choice to make. This morning we heard a reading from the novel My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Asher is a young man with amazing artistic skills, but the idea of becoming an artist in this tight knit Jewish family causes conflict. Asher’s parents rescue Jews from Communist countries, and art is seen as a kind of hobby that one might dabble in, but would not be a vocation. Later in the book we meet a Jewish painter who has rejected his traditional faith, and this sets the tone for how Asher’s dream is perceived. Yet Asher has tremendous skill, and moreover a driving passion even a physical need to express himself artistically. So much so that he becomes sick if he does not paint or draw. Here the implication is that each of us has gifts that are more than merely means of earning a living, but are either from beyond ourselves or somehow present in the very fabric of our being. It may not be what we think we desire, and certainly not what our loved ones or friends think we should do or be, but there it is, gnawing away at our soul. Asher’s father wants him to be a diplomat, but Asher’s grades disappoint him. What his father fails to see is that another’s calling could be just as important as his own. Asher comes to understand that rejecting his artistic skills would be like rejecting himself. In the reading Asher meets with the rabbi, who tells him no calling is better than any other, as long as it is lived out with deeper values and principles. It is not the job itself that is important, but what drives the very purpose of the vocation.
In the conversation with the rabbi, Asher is also reminded that he must continue to honor his mother and father. In this case, we immediately see that when we try to follow our life’s calling or vocational passion it may be in conflict with our responsibility to loved ones and family. Can we work at our passion if we have a family to support? Obviously in some cases we find we must put off what our life seems to be calling forth from us because we need to see the children graduate or pay for a mortgage, and know that a miniscule salary from painting or pottery or even unemployment may make survival unlikely. Those of us in the ministry know many people who put off their passion to become a minister in a church community because they had other responsibilities or obligations to fulfill. The story of Asher Lev also reminds us that we may disappoint our parents or loved ones with the choices we make. While it may be impossible to convince them that we are right about those choices we have made, we can acknowledge that we are sorry that we disappointed them, but we hope it will not come between us, and they will come to accept it. Asher and his father both need to learn that neither calling is better than the other, but that if they are serving their own deepest needs, then they are fulfilling God’s spirit. It is not about being right, but about hearing each other, and accepting each other in whatever path or calling we have taken. Calling is not just about living out your own passion, but about seeing this in the context of the community.
While calling is a term we perhaps most frequently associate with religious vocations, it can also be reflective of the deepest search each one of us may make into our souls longings and needs. For Unitarian Universalists it may be the least important term, or conversely the most important. It is the least important when we see it as a theological non-starter. We might say no divine spirit is communicating with me about the talents I was born with. Either I develop whatever inherent skills I have or I don’t. We also may believe that we are not called to any particular vocation, but that we are free to be whatever we want, and can achieve that, if we work hard enough. It is a little hard for me to see that I can follow whatever calling I choose because it was clearly not in the cards that I was meant to be the bass player for the Rolling Stones or the first baseman for the Red Sox. I was never called to be a singer, as evidenced by the fact that I quickly move away from the microphone as soon as I announce the hymns on Sunday to avoid being the object of ridicule. While we are not free to be anything, we are each endowed with certain abilities and skills, and paying attention to those and developing them probably will mean some degree of personal satisfaction. It was unrealistic that I would be a skilled craftsman because I had big clumsy hands and no readily available mentor, but it was not unrealistic that I would discover some interest that would endlessly inspire me. Here, calling, even for the theologically disinclined, can become the most important direction for our lives, for it reiterates that basic question we started with, who am I?
The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther identified calling as central to his religious faith. In the Catholic faith he inherited, being part of a religious order was considered a greater calling than any mere occupation, almost like a pecking order of which vocations are more important to God. He struggled with this when he stopped being a monk; butt then began to realize that some people take on vocations or occupations only to serve themselves. He took a vow of poverty, which led him to take material goods from his neighbors and then live in confinement behind monastery walls. Luther believed that God calls to people to fulfill their calling through the natural order of spouse or parent, too. This led me to see that we might mistakenly neglect the part of calling as bearing responsibility to something larger than ourselves. This is what the Rabbi tried to point out to Asher Lev. It is not merely about self fulfillment, or what Joseph Campbell called “following your bliss.” If we commit ourselves to a job and work eighty hours a week, or if we spend endless hours on community charitable work, we might be perceived as being a tireless worker who is totally committed to his/her profession or a wonderful community organizer who cares about creating a better place for all of us to live. We might say, what a great person. But Luther would have said that we can misuse our perceived calling to work or social service because it might mean the neglect of spouse or children. How often have we, or a loved one fled a difficult parenting situation by staying at work for needless long hours. We may avoid the conflicts or the relationships in order to immerse ourselves in self-interest, while neglecting our obligations. Luther was set free to serve others when he embraced the responsibilities of calling, which included husband, father, preacher and teacher. Rather than doing something that serves only the self, Luther realized the importance of commitment to vocation in the Biblical passage from I Corinthians 7: “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.”
One problem we inheritors of the Puritan work ethic can have is that we view calling or vocation as a glorified work ethic. In a way this can be interpreted to mean that God wants us to work, harder and harder and harder. This is fulfilling our purpose as productive, useful people. Luther turned this around to say our work is a reflection of God, and thus we all have a role in making the world work. This helps every day workers who we might think have boring mundane jobs to see that God or the divine moves among us in every thing we do if it is done in the service of something greater. And so Luther said God is milking a cow through the vocation of the milkmaid, and by extension hugging the child in the role of parent, or kissing our loved ones in the role of spouse, or listening to our friend in the role of church member. God is in every act we do.
People often project roles onto people merely by external observation and stereotype. Levi’s karate teacher used to look at his tall broad frame, and say, you ought to be a football player. Or we might hear she looks like movie star, or carries herself like model. When Jesus was making his way around Galilee, he asked the disciples, who do men say that I am? They answered things like Elijah or one of the prophets. Finally Peter said he was the Christ. And Jesus’ response was, don’t tell anybody. At some point others will know. He does not want rumors or others ideas about his calling to be forced upon him, as a parent might demand of a child. He wanted those who knew him best to identify who he really was, what his true calling was.
One good way to understand calling is to think of how a church like ours brings on a new minister. In our system of congregational polity, the minister that the congregation chooses is called not hired. What this means is that it is not a job where I am hired for a fee for services, but rather where the people choose by vote, or by mutual understanding that a person lives in the community to teach and show by example that everyone here lives by a calling. This means responding to what our hearts call us to be and do, and fulfill that calling by developing our passions coupled with service to others and responsibility to family and friends to make the world a better place.
Let me tell you how I perceive a calling. It is not a divine phone call, nor is it a sense of being skilled or accomplished at something. I didn’t become a historian because I liked to read books or a minister because I liked being around churches. Your calling may not be your job that earns you money. A calling occurs when you must do something, mindful of your responsibilities. Long ago I studied the history of my hometown. I had the passion for history already, but soon it also became a study of the place that nurtured me, and then it became a study of the church there, which just happened to be a Unitarian church. So it started with the history I loved, but it became home, and community and faith coupled with a dream of social justice, and the realization that I must do this. My life was calling to me to do what I felt I must do – live a faith, teach a faith, build up a faith community. The exciting thing about calling is that it is ever unfolding. We always have a chance to find and live out our deepest calling – an expression of artistic skill, a genius with words, or a nurturer of children. What within you calls, beckons, or demands that you discover it, and allow it to unfold in beauty and magic and wonder. My wife loved a certain author when she was a girl. Is she now called to write her biography? She would have to answer that, but surely there is the passion in us to immerse ourselves in something that will not let us go, but opens our hearts and demands that we tell its story, express its beauty.
Each of us, at any time can contemplate a call. We ask, what am I to do? Who am I? What do I need to express myself, to you, to the world. Sometimes we may not realize a call. We may not realize an unawakened passion for artistic expression or teaching. I have a colleague who was having a difficult time recovering from a series of illnesses. Slowly he started with oils and began to paint, and suddenly it would not let him go. He thought at first, “I can’t do that.” “I have never drawn a picture.” But then it grasped his soul. It helped heal him. Along the way there are examples to follow, things to learn, mirrors to reflect what makes our passions live. Don’t neglect them. There is a voice in you, a small voice that is calling out and waiting to be fulfilled. As Howard Thurman once wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Closing Words – from Elizabeth O’Connor
In our wishes, small urgings, dreams and fantasies, we are given intimations of the way we are to go. It is our way alone and cannot be learned by reading books or listening to scholars or following others. We can learn our way only by taking seriously the sign that we see and the small voice that we hear. These we must treasure up in our hearts and ponder over. The code we are trying to decipher is written into our genes and sent out to us, as it were, from the core of our beings.
What voice do you hear?
When you stop to reflect on your life’s journey,
When you listen to where your life is in the intersection of past and future that is today.
We may hear the voices of time and memory –
Distant points of origin that help define us.
We may also hear a quiet sound – difficult to discern perhaps,
But it is drawing us toward our destiny
Is there some small sound there – a yearning, a hope, a dream. Is there a hunger in us, pulling at our very skin to go where we are needed, to do what we must do,
Today we have our ears open, our hearts on alert, we long to live in a place where the gladness of our souls will be spoken , and the wonder of our lives will be realized.