by Dan Morehead
I am a psychiatrist by vocation. I sit in a chair all day and think with people about who they are and what they are supposed to be doing with their lives. It’s very meaningful for them to think about their lives and purpose in this way, as it is for all of us. But I find it extremely difficult to think about vocation in the abstract. It seems like water, slipping through my fingers as I try to get some kind of hold on it.
In this way (and perhaps only in this way), I envy the clergy their orderly sense of vocation. They have to jump through plenty of hoops to become clergymen or women, meet with numerous discernment committees, write about, pray about, talk about and dialogue about their true vocation. But they have a formal, explicit process by which they come to a sense of clarity about their vocation, and they have a church which explicitly confirms this through ordination. The rest of us can feel much more at sea about our true direction, and probably many of us non-clergy feel a lot more uncertain and ambivalent about our own callings.
And there is another reason why “having a call” seems to refer to priests and not the rest of us. Priests, it seems, cross over from the “world” into the sacred realm of church, religion, and spirit. While the rest of us work our secular “day jobs” and go to church on Sunday, they are set apart for praying and serving and doing holy things all the time. The rest of us, it seems, do that only “part time” because we have to deal with the “real world” the rest of the time.
When I was a child growing up in an evangelical church, we talked a lot about just being “Sunday Christians” and not living out our faith in the “rest of the week.” There seemed to be a huge divide between the sacred and the secular in life. Some people talked about their day jobs as unimportant, existing only for the purpose of earning money to support family and church. All of this made it very difficult to think about “vocation.” How could you be “called” to some holy purpose when you were doing school, work, or childcare with almost all of your time?
As an adult (and Episcopalian), it is easier now to see what was missing. As evangelicals of 50 years ago, our goal was ultimately to leave the “world” and “go to heaven.” But Jesus did not primarily call people to follow him so that they could go to heaven. Jesus called people to live out the Kingdom of God, right here, right now. Jesus called followers and friends to join him in the healing of the world: He calmed storms, fed the hungry, healed the sick, treated outcasts like family, and invited people out of misery and sin. Jesus went about setting the world right and sent out his disciples to do the same thing.
So vocation is not just a matter of being a morally good person, or of financially supporting your family and church, or being a “success” in life. Vocation is about perceiving your particular way of participating in the healing of the world. Our calling, together, is to heal the whole world, with no exceptions – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
If you are called to take care of a disabled parent or child, quietly sacrificing years of your life, you are participating in the healing of the world. If you are called to a job which involves picking up trash or landscaping or cleaning, you are participating in the healing of the world.
If you are tasked with loving, gracious service to people who are ungrateful and self-centered, you are participating in the healing in the world.
If you are tasked with showing generosity and justice in a greedy, dishonest company, you are participating in the healing of the world. If you are called to face a long, terminal illness, to die with dignity and grace, you are participating in the healing of the world.
Why is this so? Because, however imperfectly you do these things, you are living out the way of the Kingdom and the way of the cross. You are absorbing within yourself some of the brunt of sin, evil and decay, and you are fostering new life. You are absorbing some of the chaos, negativity, and callousness of the world, and giving out love, beauty, and grace. You are absorbing the hate and giving away love, absorbing destruction and giving the best of yourself to a better world. And that world is the Kingdom of God, the world as it was meant to be.
Every day, I sit with people and think with them about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Every day, I sit with people who have chronic illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Some of them are “disabled” by those illnesses. Vocation is not a “choice” for them, and it has little to do with “following their dreams.” They are called to face disease, pain, and disability as a large part of their vocation. Every day, they humble and inspire me with their courage, their generosity, and their genuine humanity.
They teach me, and those around them, to accept the damage of this damaged world, own their own little part of it, and work as best they can for its healing. As they do so, they profoundly affect me and my efforts to do the same thing. For me, they are the shining examples of vocation. They are the lights of this world and the salt of this earth.
Daniel Morehead is a psychiatrist in private practice. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and 14-year-old son, where they attend St Mark’s Episcopal Church. Reach him at