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Finding Joy in Your Vocation 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

OCTOBER 30, 2011

Relationships That Give Life:
Finding Joy in Your Vocation
Genesis 29:13-20
John 5:9-18

Do you ever pause to consider how you use your time? If you are a typical American, you sleep around seven out of twenty-four hours. You take roughly two hours to eat three meals, and you probably use a couple of hours each day doing mundane tasks such as showering, brushing your teeth, taking out the trash, paying bills, driving from one place to another, or going to the grocery store or the pharmacy. But most of your time is spent at your work – whether you work in an office or on the road, at home as a homemaker or at school as a student. Not everyone has a paying job, but we all have a vocation, a calling, work that God intends for us to do. The average person in our country works between eight and ten hours a day, five days a week. This means you spend around 60 percent of your waking hours working, which one sociologist estimates comes to 80,000 hours during your lifetime.

It is amazing how much time we spend pursuing our vocations, yet how little time exploring the spiritual and theological dimensions of our work. Many people, often subconsciously, feel work is a curse, a necessary evil, forgetting that even in paradise, in the Garden of Eden, the man and woman were given work to do by God.

Several years ago, a city newspaper carried this ad: "Wanted: A man to live alone on an island on an inland lake. Transportation, food, cabin and boat furnished. No work and no pay. Address: Mr. Sunshine, Tribune Bldg., New York, NY." The name was an alias, but the ad was real. A well-to-do New Yorker wanted someone to keep watch over an island he owned where seagulls flew to hatch their young. More than 1,600 people applied for the job, which promised only peace and quiet, and an escape from their present work. It is very easy to get locked into a negative, cynical view of the work we are called to do – to see in our work only duty, drudgery and dreariness.

But there is another view of work that sees it more positively, that understands work as God-given, God-ordained activities that can give to our lives meaning and joy. Remember the song in the classic Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Whistle While You Work? I think that is God's desire for us – that we find joy and meaning in our work so it gives us a song to sing. I have always loved that short little line in the Book of Genesis about Jacob. He had promised Laban that he would work for seven years in order to earn Rachel's hand in marriage. He fell in love with the beautiful younger daughter of Laban at first sight. The Bible says, "So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her." Don't you love that? And haven't we all done work like that at some point in our lives? We believed in why we were working, and when you love what you are doing and why you are doing it, you don't watch the clock!

Our Christian faith gives a fascinating insight into the dignity of work in the passage in John where Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath. He was criticized for doing work on the Sabbath. But I find Jesus' answer to His critics suggestive: "My Father is working still, and I am working." Jesus was subtly reminding them that God is always at work, that "He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps," and that Jesus' work was one and the same work as His Father's. But Jesus is also implying something else: One of the common denominators between the divine and the human is work. God is always at work to create and redeem and sustain the world, and you and I are given work to do in order to participate with God in the work of the universe, the work of creation, redemption and sustaining God's world.

So why, if work is God's intention, are so many people so miserable in their work? I think first of all, Jacob gives us a clue. To Jacob, seven years seemed like only a few days. Why? Because he believed the reason he was working was worthwhile. He loved Rachel, and working for Rachel was a labor of love. How about you? Are you clear on the reasons you work? And do you believe they are worthwhile?

I have returned a few times over the years to Peggy Noonan's writing on working in her book, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. She writes, "I think that of all the ways you can spend your time between now and death, work is just … overrated. There are only two reasons to work. One is to support yourself and your family, which is the reason most people work, and is not to be argued with. The other is if you have a need to share something with other people who are alive. Artists and painters and great thinkers and makers of beautiful cabinets, people who make the best shoes ever, people who have a divine compulsion, they have to work. If Mother Teresa were married to a rich man, she'd still work, because she has to make the world better. Doctors, teachers, lawyers – some of them must work. People who have a compulsion to give. Priests, rabbis, people who just have to play the piano. These are the only two reasons that make sense. To work just for status is stupid. Who are you impressing? People so dumb they are impressed by a high-sounding job. To work for money when you don't need it is boring, and speaks of a lack of imagination."

Jacob worked for love. How about you? What are your reasons for working? Are you persuaded they are worthwhile?

If you are so persuaded, and you still are unable to "whistle while you work," then maybe you need to look at the attitude you bring to your vocation, your calling, your work. Let's admit first that even the best job in the world contains a certain amount of drudgery and routine, and every job has its aggravations and burdens. As a kid I dreamt of playing baseball. This summer Connie and I went to Huntsville to watch my cousin Barbara's son pitch in AA ball. As his mother described his life in the minors, it sounded like a complete grind. They live in cheap apartments, travel by bus to towns you have never heard of, never take a day off, and live with growing pressure to perform so they can advance. The dream can grow dim in such a world. the point is, none of us escape the fact that some of our work will be tiresome and exhausting and pressure-filled. Some of it will also be enjoyable and life-giving. Our attitude can determine whether work is worthwhile or a grinding, toilsome waste of time.

Two women worked as maids in a top London hotel. One of them hated every minute of it. "All I do is work like a slave!" The other said, "But dearie, you could work like a queen!" We each have some choice over how we work – with dignity, gratitude and enthusiasm – or with resentment, bitterness and anger. And this business of attitude is always a struggle for us in every relationship of life – and it makes such a powerful difference in the work we are called to do.

It is always easy in any circumstance to find reasons to gripe. But often our reasons have more to do with us than our work. It was Lincoln who said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." I know he was right! What if we were to look for reasons to be happy in our work? What if we looked for things we do like in our work? I make it a habit every day I drive into the parking lot here to notice how beautiful this church is. I look at the steeple and am moved by its grace. And I tell people as often as I can how fine so many members of our church staff are. I do it as much to remind myself as to let them know how I genuinely feel. I do it because if I do not, I will focus instead upon all the things that are wrong with this church – and you can find plenty of things wrong in every place where human beings abound! I used to say, "There is no perfect church." But then one day on my way to a ballgame in Atlanta, I saw it – an old church with a black velvet sign above the door with these words in gold: "The Perfect Church." I noticed it was not nearly as beautiful as the church I serve! "Gee, our church is more beautiful than The Perfect Church," I thought.

The other important insight to keep in mind is that you can serve God every day with the work you do. You really can! Luther called this "the priesthood of all believers." We are all called to serve God with the work we do. But I learned this lesson as a twelve-year-old boy with my paper route. I delivered the Pittsburgh Press for three or four years. One day I was shorted by two papers by my supplier. So not only did my family have to go without a newspaper until my Dad would get home from work and we would drive to town to pick one up from Mr. Weiss – this time I had to leave my next door neighbor, Mr. Wirtz, a note explaining that I would not have a paper for him until after six o'clock when my Dad got home from work. I will never forget the call I got from him when he got home from work at 4:30! He was not happy. "Todd, to you it's just a paper. But to me, it's the highlight of my day to come home and read the paper, to check the box scores, and to work the crossword puzzle." He was really upset. And I thought, "Wow! Isn't that something? I provide the highlight in another person's life every day when I deliver a newspaper! I make the world a brighter place for a lonely man." It changed for me the way I thought about that work and all my work since. There is an element of service to every job we do, and if we do it as if we are serving God, why even the most menial tasks can take on meaning. In writing to the Colossians, Paul said, "Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through Him." We can turn whatever we do into something we do for God, by doing everything in the name of "the Lord Jesus."

And that is my deepest prayer for you. That you will find in your work God's calling, and that in that calling your deep gladness and the world's great need will meet. That is what Fred Buechner wrote so many years ago about vocation, that to which God calls us. "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

George MacDonald put it this way:

I pray, O Master, let me lie,
As on Thy bench the favored wood,
Thy saw, Thy plane, Thy chisel fly,
And make me into something good.

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