A time when 10% of Americans are unemployed and when many more live in daily fear of losing their jobs might seem an unusual time for someone to remind us to listen for God’s calling in our lives and to follow that calling; after all, people will tell us, you’re lucky to have a job—any job—and this is no time to get all idealistic and to think about your “calling.” Just be glad for the check, those people say, and I accept the truth in what they are saying—having the means to pay the bills is not something to be taken for granted in times like these.
I believe nonetheless that in a time like this it is especially important that we do call attention again to the importance of following the calling that is placed upon our lives, whether you would say, as I would, that our calling comes from God, or whether you can only say that it comes from who knows where. Otherwise we run the risk of making vocational decisions on only practical or economic grounds that might lead us to success but not necessarily to fulfillment or that might line our pockets but not build our lives.
It is a matter, you see, of priorities; it is a matter of putting the way that our God-given gifts and abilities align with the needs of the world ahead of other factors that might play into our decisions about what we are going to do with our lives.
Two stories that I recently read drove home this point for me.
The first story is about Grant Desme, a top prospect in the Oakland A’s baseball organization who recently announced his retirement from baseball in order to enter the priesthood. The 23-year-old Desme, who just came off a solid season in Class A ball and an MVP performance in the Arizona Fall League, 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. It took awhile to trust that and open up to it and aim full steam toward him. 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 eighteen months away from graduating to take a job as the Operations Manager for Head Coach Mark Fox and the Georgia Bulldogs men’s basketball team, a ground-level position in which he can’t even talk about basketball with the players but does such work as overseeing academic performance, mailing recruiting letters, and serving as the head coach’s chauffer to and from speaking engagements. He hopes to one day become a head basketball coach.
Pope, who played on the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats national championship team and went on to spend six seasons in the NBA before entering medical school, told the Athens Banner-Herald,
I wish that in my heart, I had this driving passion for medicine, but I just don't have it. I'm just not interested in memorizing the nine primary signs of bacterial enterocolitis. I'm just not. That doesn't do anything for me. I wish I was a good enough person to become a doctor because all they do is help people.
He went on to say,
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. I've always had interests in a lot of things. But the proof's in the pudding. All my life, basketball has been what I've always wanted to spend my time doing.
Lots of folks will say that both of these young men are making bad decisions. After all, they are both walking away from careers that could have paid them a lot of money to go into careers that, in Desme’s case, won’t, and in Pope’s case, may not for a long time, if ever. Some would point out that, since professional baseball is a young man’s game, Desme could have spent a few more years playing it and winning accolades and building up his savings. Some will also note that being a physician certainly seems to carry with it much more potential for helping many more people in more substantial ways than does being a basketball coach.
Note, though, the language that these men used in explaining their decisions: Desme talked about a higher calling that he believes God has placed on his life while Pope talked a lot about the “passion” that he had for basketball but not for medicine. We are all better off, it seems to me, if the varied professions of the world 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 what that means for him or her. Someone may not have found what their “deep gladness” or their “passion” are; someone may know what their “deep gladness” and “passion” are but have trouble matching them up 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 seem to 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: 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…,” St. Francis Xavier whose “preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius” who instead “at a few hour’s notice…was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again,” “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.”
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. (Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life)
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 for the sake of the Kingdom.
In these difficult economic times it is understandable that so much attention is being given to getting and holding a job and to choosing and following a career path that might lead to stability.
I just want to call our attention to the need, even in such times, to ask ourselves 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.