Advent Day 20: Vocation and emptiness

I find myself, at this early hour on a Friday morning in December, tempted to fall into approaching these morning blurbs like sermons. For those of you who read these but do not ever find yourself in a pulpit, the difference might not be so obvious – it’s not obvious to me all the time, either, except in how I feel on the inside as I’m writing. So I almost made today’s reading from the Gospel, the story of the 3 workers with their talents. But I’m just too accustomed to approaching that text as a preacher and I don’t want to do that here.

I think if I could sum up the difference between preaching and blogging, for me, it’s that when I’m working on a sermon, I’m always thinking about how different people in the congregation might hear it (not necessarily real people, but thinking of all the different places people are at on Sunday mornings.) There is so much variety in most congregations that it takes some careful thought and intention.

But here my main audience is… well, me. I’m not thinking about being palatable or applicable to anyone here. I’m just writing what comes to mind and not worryIng about the rest. I write on my blog for fun and for my own spiritual development – I open it up for the internet to read because the best (and possible all real) spiritual growth happens in community.

With that in mind, here’s the excerpt I’m centered on this morning, from the book of Isaiah:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens 
and return not again, but water the earth,

Bringing forth life and giving growth, 
seed for sowing and bread for eating,

So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; 
it will not return to me empty;

But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, 
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

So I’ve been raised in a theological tradition that asserts that God is and loves truth. Truth sets us free. Where I have experience truth as both the hardest to embrace and simultaneously the most freeing is around the beginning and end of life – birth and death. Often we so badly want to believe that we are deathless and infinite. That we have always been and always will be. That there is no real ending or beginning.

It’s possible. I have no idea what’s actually true about human finiteness, but as I said, I was raised in a strand of theology that teaches that true freedom comes from embracing even the most difficult truths. That instead of trying to drown out the fact that we are born and we die, we begin and we end, we find joy in embracing the truth that we are small, very limited in perception, unable to ever really see the “whole picture,” and, yes, finite. We all will end.

That might sound depressing, but I will be really honest here: when I am able to embrace all of that is when I feel the most free, the most grateful, the most hopeful.

This morning I am thinking about this in terms of my vocations as a musician, a writer, a pastor and a teacher. I have often jokingly referred to the work I do in the world as the least valuable – believe me, kids, majoring in music and religion is not the way to go if you’re looking for professional “success” as we usually understand it. I am almost 40 and I can honestly say that these past 2-3 years have been the first time in my life I have gotten to do meaningful work and had enough to comfortably live and in fact prosper (prosper meaning: start to sack money away for my kid’s college education.)

I have at times had one or the other – meaningful work or enough money – but never, until very recently, both. Mostly I’ve had meaningful work.

I’ve struggled against my vocation. I’ve tried many times to do something, anything else with my life – something that would come with a salary and benefits, something that would be easy and have a path charted out for me. But here’s the reality: I am actually really bad at most things that fall into those categories. So at one point I had to choose: am I going to do something in which I have talent, something God has clearly created me to do, and embrace the risk and the pitfalls of it? Or am I going to choose instead to not contribute all that much to the world by dedicating my life to doing things I am not very good at and don’t find joy in?

This was greatly complicated, for me, by the fact that it was hard for me to make the case to myself that my vocations actually did do some good in the world. You know? The world is burning, and I’m a f*cking poet? I play the stupid harp? I pray with people?

OMG, couldn’t God have given me some more useful gifts in the world? Something that could actually change things? Or hey, something where I could actually support my family?

But at some point, over many years, I had to embrace my finiteness in regards to my vocation. I had to trust, in some sense, that the words of Isaiah were true – that the Divine Energy of the cosmos that had brought me into being for these fleeting moments knew what they were doing. That that energy would not send me into the world, made the way I am, for no reason. I may not ever or always be able to see it, but God’s word never comes back empty. It’s a powerful thing – Take that risk to give yourself, your true self, to the world, and you will be a blessing here. In the most basic sense, this isn’t about playing harp or writing or pastoring or whatever it is you do. It’s simply about being actually and fully present to the other humans and beings around you, and actually being willing to take the risk to see them and let them see you.

I think about the multitudes – the majority, really – of the world who lack the privilege and access to do things like dedicate time and money to learning a musical instrument or writing poetry or doing whatever needs to be done to really live out and fulfill their vocation. The people who are born into circumstances that make even the development of empathy so hard or impossible. And it’s true: we are finite but we are also dreadfully powerful when it comes to squashing or annihilating the possibilities for our fellow humans. I don’t know what to make of that in the grand cosmic equation except to say that vocation is never an individualistic “I need to find myself” kind of thing. Our vocations come out in our communion with one another and our vocations need to be supported – and when we squash the vocation of someone else, we are also in some way limiting or withering away our own. We do not exist except in communion and community with one another – and this, too, is one of those difficult truths we can either run from and insist on living in denial, or we can learn to embrace it and find deeper freedom than we could have ever found on our own.

Thanks be to God.


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