Six Ways to Thrive in Your Vocation
“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” is one of those slogans that lingers and lasts because it can be applied to so many situations. The phrase originated in the spring of 1939 in Britain as the country anticipated the dark days of World War II. The [British] government designed the famous poster and printed more than two million copies but according to Brittany Fowler, author of a history of the phrase, for Business Insider magazine, “not one of them was posted, as officials had last-minute doubts about whether the content was too patronizing or obvious.”
Most of the posters were destroyed, but, more than sixty years later, one of them surfaced when a bookseller found it hidden in a book that he bought at an auction. He put it up over the cash register at his bookstore and customers began asking where they could purchase the poster. The shop owner started printing copies, and a craze was born.
The phrase has been adopted, adapted, and some might say exhausted over the last several years. But its truth is timeless because it captures an essential quality of faithfulness, steadfastness, and resolve in difficult situations. So how do we apply this to vocation ministry?
I offer six ideas to encourage thriving among vocation ministers and other wanderers, wayfarers and dreamers of God’s realm. I hope these thoughts will help us to keep the faith and carry on when the road seems treacherous and we discover more dead ends than expressways, more roadblocks than rest stops.
# 1. Live in the Now
Thomas Merton mused, “Time is given to us not to keep a faith we once had but to achieve a faith we need now.” Time passes quickly, and with so much pain and suffering in the world, we are often advised to “keep the faith.” But what faith are we keeping? Is it the faith that served us as children when we were spoon-fed without questioning? Is it the faith that leaves little room for doubt and often fails to give others the benefit of the doubt?
What kind of faith do I need now? The older I get, the more doubt crowds in. I need a faith that leaves room for doubt and gives others the benefits of my own doubt, understanding that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. I need a faith that helps in those times when fear threatens to get the best of me.
The kind of faith we need today is one that reminds us that no matter the bitter disappointment or the beauty too stunning to describe, life goes on. Perhaps the work of faith is to simply know and believe that life goes on.
Recently, I was listening to National Public Radio’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. The guest was Norman Lear, the television producer. The host asked him about his longevity – he is almost 94 years old – and is still working, still creating. Lear said essentially that he is guided by two words, “over” and “next.” The image he suggested is a hammock between two poles marked “over” and “next.” So, how does he remain creative? When one project is finished, whether it is a success or a failure, he moves on to the next.
Then there is the image of the hammock. To some it might be a symbol of a summer’s day. But, it also speaks to the creative process. Taking the time to listen, to emerge in the gentle rocking back and forth allows one to stay focused, stay faithful, remain calm, before carrying on to the next project, the next person, the next possibility.
When we apply this to religious life and particularly to vocation ministry, if we dwell only on our losses, we’ll get stuck. We must allow time for quiet to invite the Spirit to stir our creativity. And then we move on to what or who is next.
#2 Keep your eyes on the road
Every Sunday in the New York Times is a column on leadership called “Corner Office” which carries interviews with CEOs of successful companies. In a recent column, the CEO of a software company said he learned many life lessons from his rowing coach in college who gave him this image: “When you are driving and rain is pouring down, with the windshield wipers going,” he said, “you can either watch the windshield wipers or you can watch the road. Which is going to be more successful?”
When we are going through difficult stretches on our journey, if we pay more attention to the rain, the storm, the wipers, instead of keeping our eyes on the road, we’re going to be in trouble.
Keep our eyes on the road is what spiritual writers call mindfulness. It is the ability to center oneself, to pay attention to what is most important, rather than being distracted by the worries and fears that can cause us to lose our way. We can be “attentive and compassionate toward our own fear without being paralyzed by it,” spiritual activist Robert Gass writes. Awareness of fear “while cultivating…a capacity to think and act with clarity and power” is at the heart of the matter of mindfulness.
Cultivating this inner silence is an absolute necessity when confronted with a culture that is impatient and prone to shame and blame. Thus, if we are less than enthusiastic about our mission or ministry, we need to check the pulse of our prayer life. Keeping our eyes on the road affords us the opportunity to pay attention. Time in solitude will lead us to connect with others who share a passion for our community mission.
# 3 Cultivate Community
Author and pastor Rick Warren has noted that most people fall into three categories: caretakers, undertakers and risk takers. Our communities are filled with people who dwell in each of these categories. Which category do you dwell in?
Most of us are caretakers – that is the nature of religious life. We take care of one another and those we are called to serve. We take good care of those we love and even those we find difficult to love.
But we also know some undertakers in our communities – those who take us under, whose cynicism and sarcasm serve as sharp shovels to dig a grace and bury us. Sometimes we are the undertakers and we dig our own graves with our negativity. We sense the life drain from us as our energy is depleted by the shadows of doom and gloom that often shroud our world. When we fee on this negative energy of those who take us under, we will experience an acid reflux disease of the soul. Its symptoms are anger and bitterness.
We need to surround ourselves with people who are not bitter, who do not suffer from lethargy of spirit, with people who remain grounded in hope. We need to surround ourselves with risk takers, people who enlarge our minds, hearts, and imaginations and instill hope.
The biblical tradition is filled with risk takers. From Abraham and Sarah to Elizabeth and Zechariah to Mary and Joseph; from the prophets of old to the first disciples and witnesses to the resurrection, we have numerous examples of ancestors in faith who took the ultimate risk to trust God and say yes to what seemed incomprehensible and unimaginable.
What allowed them to be risk takers? Is has something to do with this understanding that we are formed, known, dedicated, and appointed by God. Those are the verbs expressed in the call of the prophet Jeremiah (1, 5). He could be the patron saint for vocation directors because he thought he was too young to be a prophet. He needed more time in community to understand the history and spirituality, and to deepen his relationship with God.
In reflecting on the call of Jeremiah, we often focus on his excuse instead of the original call of the prophet. Notice the actions taken by God: formed, knew, dedicated and appointed. God forms us and has a purpose for us before we are born. Our vocation reaches back to the very mystery of life. We are formed and known by God.
Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet was his purpose in life. Discerning one’s purpose is at the heart of vocation ministry. When time get tough and losses mount, it is important to return to the original source of our call and to ask ourselves: what risks are we willing to take to promote and propel the reign of God in our lives? What risks are we willing to take to make our charism, spirituality, community and ministry know to those who are seeking to belong? What risks are we willing to take in calling forth from our congregations a deeper and wider commitment that will shake, rattle, and roll those undertakers in our community who have their sights set on death rather than life? Next week: Preserve your perspective.