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"Vocation in Life" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 24, 2017

posted Sep 25, 2017, 11:08 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Oct 4, 2017, 1:11 PM ]

This summer much of our family conversation centered around colleges.  Tomas and I toured many different schools and in-between talked about what he wanted to do.  It’s one of the big questions of his senior year.

In our church tradition, we often frame these questions as questions of “calling” and “vocation.”  What is God calling you to do with your life?  What’s your vocation?

One of the most succinct definitions of calling and vocation comes from Frederick Buechner.  He said, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”  Buechner’s definition suggests that we find our calling at that place where our joy and the world’s need intersect.  

And yet, finding that place of intersection is not always easy.  My conversations with Tomas took me back to my own senior year.  Back then, I wanted to go to work for the CIA.  The CIA had a large office in our town and my scoutmaster worked there.  Growing up outside of Washington DC made it seem like a natural thing to do, especially for a patriotic kid interested in politics and world cultures.  I felt “called” to work for the CIA.

But then I went away to college.  I learned more about our country’s foreign policy.  For instance, my scoutmaster hadn’t mentioned the assassinations of foreign leaders.  And I discovered the religion department professors asked the kind of questions I most cared about.  I learned something about my greatest joy; my sense of call shifted; I became a pastor.  

Many of us have similar experiences of feeling called to one profession and then shifting, even shifting abruptly.  Jay worked for a large animal vet in southern Indiana - cows, pigs, and horses.  He felt called to become a vet.  At the same time he accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship.  Turned out the Navy didn’t need large animal vets.  So on his first day his commander decreed, “thou shalt be an engineer.”  Some of us are called; some pushed.

Which means that even as we have this conversation about schools and careers at home, I’m mindful of the way a person’s sense of call can change, sometimes radically: from CIA analyst to pastor, from large animal vet to engineer.  

The question of calling and vocation is not limited to families with high school seniors of course.  It’s a lifetime question, one we come back to in many ways.  Where do we find our greatest joy?  Where do we sense the world’s deepest needs?  

Earlier this month, I talked in a sermon about a distinction David Brooks has made between “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”  Resumé virtues get you your job; eulogy virtues get you a life.  I continue to think about this distinction Brooks makes.  Too often the question of calling focuses on resumé virtues.  What work are you called to do?  But we need to ask a deeper question, one of eulogy virtues: what life are you called to live?

This turn from seeking resumé virtues to eulogy virtues can completely reorient a life.  Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on a French Chef who wants to return his Michelin Stars.  This is unheard of in the foodie world.  Three Michelin Stars epitomize success for a chef; the capstone of a career.  

And yet, Chef Sebastien Bras decided to turn down the honor.  As the chef explained, “[I want] to give a new meaning to my life.”  He wanted to move away from the model of hyper-perfection and honor-bound tradition that defines the Michelin rating.  As he further explained, “Food should be about love — not about competition.”  

Brooks would understand this movement from competition to love as the movement from resumé virtues to eulogy virtues; to want something more from life than success.  Too often our culture assumes that success in a career - getting those Michelin Stars - can make us truly happy.  But in reality, as Brooks says, “The ultimate joys are moral joys.”  

So when it comes to defining a calling and a vocation, perhaps we need to adapt Buechner: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest moral joy meets the world’s greatest need.”

The moral joys, or the eulogy virtues, might be named as love, integrity, compassion, courage, hope, service, wisdom.  To seek these moral joys means to live with a focus on purpose and meaning instead of chasing after happiness and success.

We easily know how to work on our resumé virtues.  We go to school.  We intern.  We seek mentors, find jobs, work hard, network: all of these can develop our resumé virtues.  But how do we tackle those ultimate joys; not success but service, not knowledge but wisdom, not competition but compassion?

It can be harder to know how to pursue eulogy virtues, to seek after the ultimate joys.  But Brooks suggests a path, starting with a quote of Montaigne, who said, “We can be knowledgeable with other people’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other people’s wisdom.”  As Brooks elaborated, “That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information.  It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.”

A resumé lists all our accomplishments - I did this and then I did that.  Resumés always paper over those awkward moments - the job that ended quickly, the too long of a gap.  But often those experiences we paper over in a resumé form the basis of our eulogy virtues.  

I remember a resumé I once reviewed for a non-profit.  It looked like a ladder of success from college, through promotions and new opportunities.  And then, after a gap, came a series of gigs delicately dressed up as “consulting.”  What lay behind this?  I learned about the illness that filled in that gap year and how it lead to a reordering of life, a desire to live near family, and a new sense of what mattered.  The resumé charted out knowledge; but there, in the gap of the resumé, lay wisdom.  

The meaning of our lives doesn’t come from our successes but from how we handle our vulnerabilities: the lessons learned in adversity and grief, the challenges presented by limitations and failures, the wisdom gained from unplanned moments.  And so, we might need to rethink the Buechner quote once more.  Perhaps we need to say, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest needs develop in you the world’s greatest moral joys.”  

All of which can be seen in the life of Abraham, whose story centers around the recurring promise of God.  Four times God called to Abraham with promises of greatness; and Abraham followed God despite all the hardship each of these calls involved.  And through them, we glimpse not just Abraham as a man called by God but Abraham as someone whose limitations, vulnerabilities, and uncertainties became a source of wisdom.

At first God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Abraham immediately left his homeland.  When called, he went.  But we often stop reading the story there, so we miss the irony of what happened next.

Called to be a blessing to the nations, Abraham ended up going down to Egypt.  According to the Bible story we heard, Abraham and Sarah were in their seventies.  And yet Abraham, as he approached Egypt, worried that the men would find his wife attractive and thereby decide to kill him in order to take Sarah.  Abraham’s gallant solution?  He decided to pass Sarah off as his sister and then let the Egyptians take her off and sexually exploit her.  God intervened.  The Pharaoh learned the true relationship between Abraham and Sarah.  And so he cast them out, saying, “What is this you have done to me?”  Hardly a blessing for the nations; and that’s even before we imagine what Sarah had to say about all of this.    

A call or a vocation doesn’t make our limitations go away.  Abraham remained a deeply troubled man; indeed, according to the Bible he later tried once more to pass Sarah off as his sister.  The call to greatness didn’t magically make all these moral problems go away.  But the call exposed them.  Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “The beginning of worthwhile living is thus the confrontation with ourselves.”  And so Abraham’s call began with a confrontation with his own limited moral choices.

In the remaining stories of God making promises, we hear Abraham name his increasing doubts.  When God promised “your reward shall be great,” Abraham argued back, “what will you give me, for I continue childless.”  When God came back with a promise of heirs and that even one hundred year old Sarah would yet bear a son, Abraham just laughed like a hopeless man.  And when God called for Abraham to sacrifice that son, a dejected Abraham marched up the mountain.  

If Abraham represents what it means to live a vocation, we might want to chose something else.  And yet it speaks to the way our notions of success don’t match well with the impact of a call.  Abraham was called to have more children than stars in the sky.  He died with just a few; and at least one of those, Ishmael, estranged from him.  But now over half the world counts itself his spiritual descendants.  Resumés shimmer with the successes we can claim, but our greatest impacts maybe ones we never see, ones the world never celebrates.

At least twice the call stories of Abraham reflect disturbingly on God.  At one point, God promises to make Abraham great and then lulls him to sleep.  As Abraham sleeps, God whispers to him, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be slaves.”  What kind of God promises greatness and whispers slavery?  Such a question only becomes more pointed when God called on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  What kind of God promises a child and asks such a thing?

There’s much to say about the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice, but today I’m just struck by the ways these stories raise the question of God’s trustworthiness.  Abraham, deep in his soul, must have faced that question: Can I trust God?  

David Brooks talked of the way the limitations and uncertainties of life can become the touchpoints of wisdom.  But Abraham makes clear the real question that arises when life sets us back on our heels.  Can I trust the power of the universe?  

In Abraham we can see the gritty reality of a vocation.  His greatest needs met the world’s ultimate joys, revealing his limitations, leaving him uncertain of his impact, and testing his trust.  And yet Abraham tried to answer the call of God in the way he lived his life.

Langston Hughes spoke about this in his poem about a mother advising her discouraged son.  She first said her life hadn’t been a crystal stair but she still went on; she encourages her son to do the same, saying:

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Whether we’re planning for college or reflecting on our life, we can move from thinking of resumé virtues to eulogy virtues.  Which means asking ourselves, “How do my greatest need develop in me the world’s moral joys?”  And means saying to each other, “I’m still climbing even when life ain’t a crystal stair.”  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Bilefsky, Dan and ELIAN PELTIER, “Acclaimed French Chef to Michelin: Take My Stars, Please,” New York Times, Sept. 21, 2017.