Do you feel trapped in an occupation? When asked to describe the perfect job, I often find myself frustrated, exclaiming: “It doesn’t exist!”
Recently, a friend confessed a dark day-dream: at least once a day he imagines that if he were to die, the world would go on fine without him. He imagines this because his job isn’t that important. Everywhere he goes he is reduced to his occupation: on Facebook, on LinkedIn, at church where he isn’t recruited to be a vestry member (he would be if he were in finance), at wedding receptions where people grimace slightly when asking him just what he is doing. The narrative of his occupation has engulfed the narrative of his life.
Our occupations get to the core of who we are. We are tasked creatures, such that what we do is important existentially. Even leisure is something we can be good at. We always need something to do, for when we run out of good things to do, we lose our bearings and whither away.
In tears, I responded to my friend’s despair: “But you are worth so much more than that! There is more to your life than whether you are universally admired for your job!”
What exceeds our occupations? Our vocations. They are intrinsic to who we are, to the stories of our lives. Even in times of immense turmoil, our vocations remain. Over Christmas I read The Cellist of Sarajevo. It tells the story of a cellist during the siege of Sarajevo. This former Olympic host was surrounded by snipers and mortar canons, trapping the valleyed city in a siege. Sarajevo’s population is reduced to an animal existence – scampering through public areas as they dodge bullets, barely acknowledging their neighbors whom they cannot afford to trust. In the midst of this, a weary cellist dons his tux, pulls a chair out into the street, and sings a commemoration for the dead on his cello. He does this once a day for twenty-two days despite bullets and bombs. As he performs his vocation in the midst of terror, his performance inspires others to return to the gestures that constitute their common humanity – to speak to one another again – to recall the vocation of being humans in community
In Lent, we see how Christ’s vocation takes him to places no occupation can sustain. Occupationally, his followers and adversaries have imagined him as a ruler – the King of the Jews, the Son of Man, the Messiah. In terms of vocation, he has been tasked by God with ruling by serving unto death. As his popular occupation disintegrates, his vocation remains. He listens to a lying friend, prays in the dark, is convicted at a rigged trial, undergoes interrogation by a Roman ruler, marches up a cobblestone street carrying his own cross—Christ’s vocation goes on. When the angry mob rejects Christ’s occupation as ruler, his vocation reaches its peak. Christ’s vocation costs him his occupation. And as all hell breaks loose, we see him perform his vocation to the end, pausing to ask a friend to take Mary as his mother in the future.
1st Peter 2 tells us to regard the Lenten story as an example: Christ sacrifices his perceived occupation and life in fidelity to his vocation, providing a model for us to do the same. Our vocation will define and outlast our occupation, even those occupations that are at first glance embarrassing and painful. A present difficulty is that there are few jobs that are vocationally satisfying – we labor far from the earth, with increasingly less time for family and friends, with more difficult upward mobility, in increasingly specialized roles that fewer and fewer people are willing to take the time to understand. As we live into these occupations in the service of our vocations, are we making a sacrifice tantamount to the sufferings of Christ? No. But the example of Christ remains, telling us to expect suffering as we pursue our vocations, providing solidarity as we do so.
A key emphasis of The Washington Institute is to remind us that our occupations matter. They are ways of embodying our vocations. Lent adds nuance, teaching us that our occupations will not live up to our vocations. In fact our vocations might occasionally require us to suffer occupationally. This Lent, do not run from the fear that you too might be professionally misunderstood, or that you might toil in obscurity for a cause that implodes the moment it appears to be most needed. Reread your difficult occupations as opportunities to express your vocation, and let the song of your vocation be the music you play out over a hope-starved world.
When we suffer occupationally, we suffer with Christ. Christ has already saved the world, a world that is his to save. To the extent we reign, we submit to him. To the extent we suffer, we suffer with him.
Don’t run this Lent. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be hard to figure out. Sing.
Madison Perry is a UNC graduate currently living in Durham with a wonderful wife and two children. He has studied law and theology at the graduate level and is now working for a start-up.