Two Jews, two Protestants, and two Catholics walk into a hospital.
It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually the way I spent the summer of 2005. Like many rabbinical students, I participated in an intensive unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), learning how to be a chaplain. My compatriots in this endeavour did indeed constitute the punch line of a joke – two protestant ministers, two students in priesthood, and a fellow student rabbi. Together the 6 of us explored what it is to care for and serve others in times of need.
As part of that process, there was a lot of talk about purpose. I remember that my Christian colleagues often used the language of being “called.” Called to ministry; called to serve others; called by God. And while I understood the power of that language for them, I rejected it internally. I just don’t think about God that way – I don’t believe that God calls me, or chooses things for me, or that the work I do is part of some larger plan. That always felt like somebody else’s way of seeing the world, and maybe even some other religion’s way of seeing the world.
But it turns out that the language of being called by God is deeply Jewish. This past week we read in the Torah about Abraham:
God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
This is the beginning of the Jewish journey, and it begins with a call from God: Abraham is called to leave the life he knows and to begin a new endeavor – because it is what he is meant to do.
And that got me thinking about things we are meant to do. A few years ago, I read a book that affected me deeply – The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis. Hollis is a Jungian psychologist, and he argues that what we affectionately call the “midlife crisis” (you know, when you quit your job, buy a flashy new car, or take a year off to backpack in Asia because your life is depressing you) isn’t a crisis at all – it is a passage from one stage of adulthood to another. In the “first adulthood,” we busy ourselves with building and proving – building careers and families, proving our worth to the world and to ourselves. But in the second half of adulthood – for those who make it there – we are moved to live by our own values, to live the lives that are in concert with our true selves. Part of that, he writes, can be the shift from holding a “job” to seeking a “vocation.”
A job is what we hold to earn money to meet economic demands. A vocation (from Latin vocatus, calling) is what we are called to do with our life’s energy…. We do not really choose a vocation, rather it chooses us. (Hollis, The Middle Passage, page 72)
We all have things that we do that light us up, that engage us so fully that it is as though we are meant to be doing them. Often, time seems to move more quickly – think of the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Mihali Csikszentmihalyi, another respected psychologist, calls this phenomenon “Flow,” and argues that we are happier and more productive when we do the things that enter us into Flow. We are also more likely to be successful at what we do, because we love what we are doing. That’s the lesson of Abraham. What did he do with the first 75 years of his life? We don’t know – it doesn’t matter. We’re more concerned with his incredible success and productivity once he found his life’s calling.
So maybe I should stop gritting my teeth when my minister friends talk about God calling them to their work. Because, in the end, I really do believe in this concept. I know that when I am writing or teaching the world feels different to me than at any other moment. Time moves faster; the world seems brighter; I feel happier and more alive. And it’s different for everyone – one person might enter into Flow while crunching numbers, while another might be called by the work of visiting the sick. Some of us are lucky enough to find our calling in the work that we are already doing; others must look outside their job to hobbies or volunteer work, or even to career changes. (That explains why my mother moved 20 years ago from nursing to selling chocolate – thank you Mom!)
Wherever we find it, it is worth our while to go looking. To strain to hear the calling – from God, from the universe, from our own inner being – that tells us what our life’s work is. Having a job may be the way to sustain your body, but finding your calling is the way to sustain your soul.