A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
Often when I’m researching a sermon I look all over for wisdom – magazines and journals, scripture, poetry, movies, music, Wikipedia (of course) and so forth. When I was researching this morning’s topic, ‘vocation’ I was excited about it. Of course, for a religious professional, ‘vocation’ is a very important, totally motivating concept. We necessarily have given our lives to just that, after all. But I didn’t just want to talk out of my own experience, so I was looking for other thoughts and I found this surprising quote from the great 19th c. French writer Honore De Balzac: “Vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.”
“Huh.” “That’s a little… harsh. A little… demoralizing. Not really what I was anticipating. I guess it can, if we’re constantly exhausting ourselves in pursuit of an impossible dream, or unfit in some tragic way for the task that calls us to it, or so obsessed that we can’t access or perceive anything else but the unending, overwhelming, vocation that is, um, sucking all the vibrancy out of our existence… sort of.” Then I thought: there must be more to Balzac’s thinking on this – what was he thinking about when he wrote this? So I clicked on the link, and then I saw that the beginning of it had been cut off by the way it came up on my computer screen. The whole thought was: “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” A-HA! Now that makes a little more sense – and not just because it’s much more encouraging and preachable.
It makes sense because we know what it’s like to love what we are doing, whether it’s something we love doing for moments or minutes or hours or days or years. A vocation is, necessarily, something that we love. It comes from the same root, in Latin, as ‘voice’ – because it is a giving voice, as the Quaker theologian Parker Palmer points out, it is a giving voice to self, and, paradoxically, it is also the answering of a voice, a voice that is calling, a voice that we hear, a voice that compels our response. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean that we find it deeply fulfilling, meaningful, absorbing. Across so many cultures and centuries, vocation has arisen again and again, because it is foundational to being human. It is ancient and it is modern, sometimes relegated to the realms of religion and vows, sometimes secular and central, like in the 1980’s when the scholar Joseph Campbell became famous, in part for urging all people seeking a path for their life and their life’s work to “follow your bliss.”
I took Joseph Campbell’s advice when I was seeking and failing to find my own life’s path, decades ago. Following my bliss led me to live and work on my own in Greece. And while I was happy in the years I lived there, I still had a sense that I hadn’t found what I should be doing. I went on a visit to the famous Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the most respected and important oracle in the world in its day. While I was exploring the site, it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to get some advice – I mean really, if not from the Delphic oracle, then who? I wasn’t actually expecting an answer, but I didn’t mind giving it a shot. Now the temple is no longer intact, and you couldn’t go up onto the temple anyway, the day I was there. Not to mention there was a whole long process originally involving conveying your question to the priests who would convey it to the Pythia, the priestess, who would go though a long set of rites and then speak in words only her priest-interpreters could understand and they in turn would render it into an – always cryptic – utterance. But entire countries and city-states and kings used to go to Delphi for wisdom and guidance. Famously, Athens sent to Delphi to ask how to defend itself against the enormous might and prowess of the Persian army during their great war. The Oracle advised them to ‘defend your city with a wall of wood.’ And that was all she said. The Athenians were appalled – a wall of wood would last against the Persians maybe a minute. But after reflecting long on her words, they realized what she must really mean by a wall of wood – a navy! – ships built of wood – and followed her strange, sage advice – and against all expectations, they won. So – the oracle had some credibility. And there I already was.
As I said, the temple and the Pythia are long gone, but in that sacred precinct, there still runs a sacred water source, a place of prophecy, the Kastalian spring, where pilgrims went to cleanse themselves before consulting the oracle, where indeed the Pythia and her priests went to cleanse themselves before giving an oracle. And the Kastalian Spring was accessible – and still running. It was a really hot, scorchingly sunny day but over by the spring it was cool and green and leafy. I knelt down and bathed my wrists for a bit, and then cupped some of the cold, clear water in my hands and brought it to my mouth. And as I drank the water I thought, deliberately and in words: “What should I do with my life?” And immediately the answer came, also in words, almost voiced in my head, but not in my voice and not in any voice I knew: “What You Will.” It said.
What you will? What does that even mean? I took it to mean ‘whatever you want’, or maybe more like ‘anything you realize you want to do with your life, don’t dither, do it.’ Kind of classically cryptic, so it seemed very authentic to me. But not super useful at the time, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do – I wasn’t wavering between options, I had no clue at all. But at least, the answer I got – maybe from my own head, maybe with a little divine intervention – the answer was affirming. In this world that can be so daunting, so large, so impervious to my efforts, this answer at least seemed to think that I was worthy and capable, which frankly, I appreciated. A lot.
It was only much later – though still while I was in Greece – that I realized I wanted to be a minister. And once I finally landed on that – on my vocation – it fit like a hand in a glove. I figured I had a lot to learn – and I did – but I knew what I needed to do with my life. And when it required sacrifice on almost every front, and hardship, and deep commitment, I never doubted it was worth it. Not because it was so valorous, or virtuous, or honorable a path. No, the reason it was so worth it was because I love it. It fits exactly with what Thomas Merton, the great American theologian and Catholic monk said about vocation – that people know we have found our vocation when we stop thinking about how to live, and begin to live.
It’s also kind of perfect that I sought, and got, that answer at a spring, at a small river, because the feeling of rightness, of being carried with a current, like a river, is part of the experience of vocation. Part of the sense that we’re not salmon, fighting our way upstream at the cost of everything we are, instead we are moving with the flow, aligned, belonging, confirmed. We have found our fit, our path, our calling. As in the poem we heard earlier, ‘what the river says is also what we say.’
So given all this, there’s an obvious question as we begin this month devoted to the themes of vocation and call – do we each have something we do that we truly love? Something that compels us, fulfills us, makes us happy, something that matters? It might be our work, it might be what we do when we’re not working – the question is: are we doing it? Have we followed our bliss?
Back when Joseph Campbell offered that advice, brain science was in its infancy. Now that’s it’s progressed some, we know, among other things, that the same parts of our brains light up when we are really interested in something, as when we are happy. Now that we think about it, that’s not surprising, right? It makes sense that something that we find fascinating, engrossing, would also make us happy. And that something that makes us happy would also, of course, hold our interest. So – are we interested? Are we happy? Or in the great Presbyterian minister and theologian Frederick Buechner’s terms: have we found our vocation, the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need? Because, again, vocation isn’t duty. It’s love.
And like love, vocation can take many forms. We have workmates, friends, family, lovers, spouses, children, all of whom command their own forms of love from us. So too we might find more than one vocation, even simultaneously. Our parenthood and our career. Our work and our garden. For some of you, the time you spend here at church, as a church president who leads our congregation through our present into our future, or an organizer in the food pantry, helping us serve our neighbors and friends, or a greeter whose warmth is the beginning experience of this church for everyone who comes here for the first time; for some of you, what you do here is a vocation.
And like love, vocation can evolve over time, over a lifetime. We might have more than one vocation in our lives. One vocation might lead us to the next. One vocation might no longer be possible for us, and we need to search for the next. Or perhaps, one vocation is it for us, and though the vocation itself may shift over time, the forms of it change; the essence will be the same.
But also as with love, our life is not whole without vocation in some form – or many forms. Balzac is right: without vocation we are incomplete. So we have to seek it and honor it when we find it. Our very natures show that we are meant for it, we vibrate to vocation like a tuning fork when struck. Without vocation, we lead a life, as the poet Shelley put it, of quiet desperation. – Sometimes, frankly, even with vocation, we lead a life of desperation – but it’s a different desperation, and the difference matters. The desperation of meaningful engagement that is challenging is very different from the desperation of engagement that never feeds our soul.
Even as I was writing this sermon, I got a message from our UUA president Susan Frederick-Gray, which she wrote to be shared, whole or in part, with our congregations. In part, Susan wrote this:
“As I mentioned in my sermon at General Assembly, two things are clear to me in this time. This is no time for a casual faith or a casual commitment to community. And this is no time to go it alone. The strength and mission clarity of our congregations is vital in offering a life-saving, life-giving message.
I want to leave you with a challenge: How are you being called to answer the need and the challenges of this time and how can this calling, your mission, guide your congregation this year? How will your community manifest and build the beloved community and who will be your partners in the work?
Our congregations matter in this world. Our faith saves and enriches lives every day. It certainly saved my life. And I know, together, we are going to continue to make a difference in the lives of one another, in the lives of our communities, and together in our larger world. I am grateful to share this faith and be with you in the struggle and the joy.”
I’m so glad Susan wrote this for us all right now, because this larger work she is talking about in terms of our faith and our existence as communities of faith is just the kind of discernment we will be doing in a couple of weeks with Thandeka – which is why it’s so important that as many of us as possible are present for that experience. (Read your insert! Mark your calendars! RSVP!) But it’s not my point this morning. My point this morning is about each of us, rather than all of us. Because we’re all able to help with the ‘all of us’ stuff – but the each of us stuff can only be considered and changed by each of us. We’re never too old, and we’re never too young, to examine and re-examine our lives in terms of vocation.
But I have one other point as well. Parker Palmer offers this definition of vocation: he says at its deepest level, vocation is something ‘we can’t not do’ even if sometimes we can’t explain it to another or even ourselves. But … I disagree. I believe it is possible to ‘not do’ our vocation – maybe precisely because we can’t explain it to ourselves or another. I think life, our values, our culture, others we are responsible to, or others we are responsible for, can diminish our ability to find our call at all, let alone honor it when we hear it calling. So for me it is a real issue and a real question when I preach this to you now and ask: Are you doing what calls you?
If you are – that is precious. Honor it and keep honoring it, even when life makes that difficult. The gifts we give from within us are sacred. They nourish each of us, and all of us, only when we manifest them. And when we manifest them, when we make them real and apparent and tangible in our lives, in the world – only then and only thus – can we share them.
If we are not doing what calls us – maybe because we may not have found our vocation yet, or because we have but it doesn’t fit well with the rest of our circumstances or expectations or abilities, or maybe it doesn’t fit well with the expectations other have for us, or what others tell us our abilities are – whatever the reason, if we are not doing what calls us – find a way. Listen to your yearnings, find words for what you feel, and follow the trail from what you eventually explain to yourself or another, follow that trail which makes words into reality. Or carve a different way: listen to your yearnings, do what they tell you without even stopping for words and explanations – and then, once you have the reality, find the words to explain what you are already doing.
Maybe you will create a book that will save someone, or a medicine that will save millions. Maybe you will help usher in a new era of justice and love. Maybe you will fashion a cradle with your own hands that will one day keep your grandchild safe. Maybe you will counsel someone out of drug addiction or an abusive marriage and thereby save a family. Maybe you have adopted a child. Maybe you will write a song for yourself that becomes an anthem for many. Maybe you will create new architecture or keep someone safe as they move through a fearful time.
Maybe you already have.
We are here, you are here, with this one wild and precious life, to do something, to be someone, to live as fully as you may. Every one of us deserves this chance. Every one of us deserves to seize it while we can. Vocation is love. Every one of us is called. Are you listening for your call? Because what we love, we yet shall be. Amen.
Meditation: William Stafford, “Ask Me”
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
The current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and going from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
Closing words: Listening For Our Song, excerpt, by the Rev. David Blanchard
On sabbatical in East Africa, I heard a story of a people who believe that we are each created with our own song. Their tradition as a community is to honor that song by singing it as welcome when a child is born, as comfort when the child is ill, in celebration when the child marries, and in affirmation and love when death comes. Most of us were not welcomed into the world in that way. Few of us seem to know our song.
It takes a while for many of us to figure out which is our song, and which is the song that others would like us to sing. Some of us are slow learners. I heard my song not necessarily from doing extraordinary things in exotic places, but also from doing some pretty ordinary things in some routine places. For every phrase I heard climbing Kilimanjaro, I learned another in a chair in a therapist’s office. For every measure I heard in the silence of a retreat, I heard another laughing with my girls. For every note I heard in the wind on the beach at Lamu, I gleaned more from spending time with a dying friend as her children sang her song back to her. What came to astound me was not that the song appeared, but that it was always there.