If you have been in any conversations about vocation or calling in the last decade undoubtedly you have encountered the Frederick Buechner’s trite little phrase on the subject. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)
When I first heard the phrase, it was a like a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone wasn’t talking about a calling like it was a chain around your ankles, something you ran away from for years only to finally submit to its weight. Buechner helped many of us recognize that God might actually have something in mind for us that we are passionate about.
That’s the plus side of his catch phrase. But in the years following, possibly as I have grown into my vocation, I have to say it isn’t all roses.
Truth be told, a calling is work. There are things that need to be done in order to do what I am called to. There are deadlines and paperwork. People have expectations for me, and ask for things outside of my “passion.” And these same expectations often set up climates where I must be political and not speak the first words that come to mind.
Of course, there is some balance to be found here. When the things that sap my attention and energy far out weigh the joys of my calling, then possibly it is time for a change. But at the same time, I cannot just keep flitting between what excites me at each new moment. There has to be some staying power to my vocation, or otherwise it isn’t vocation at all. It is just a hobby.
Basically, Buechner got it half right.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many days when I pinch myself saying “I get to do this as my job.” There is certainly a sweet spot to find between passion, need, and work. There is even a place where God’s own desires meet the other three. And that sweet spot is not always easy. There are bound to be draining days, where tasks consume any joy. And there may be times where God calls us to places we would not go given our own preferences. But to be honest, we do harm to the wisdom of Buechner’s definition when we over-emphasize the “me” part.
And we do a great disservice to those around us in discernment when we invoke the phrase and ignore the costs of our calling. Though a vocation and true calling is life giving, it is not all apple pie and ice cream.
Lately, I have found myself celebrating with persons who have found the release when they finally step into the next stages of their vocation. And then, a sentence later, I find myself reminding them that it will be tough. There are requirements, hoops to jump, criticisms of others, and even hard work to be done.
That second sentence comes from experience. As people ask how I can possibly do this PhD thing, I frequently say something like this: “If I had known what it would take before I started, I most likely would have gone another way.” But honestly, I cannot imagine what that other way would be. The path to this vocation of mine has been paved with sweat and tears, literally. I have been medicated for anxiety and depression for years. I have cried at the shear effort expended to “claim my voice.” And I have laid awake at nights fretting over the papers to be written. I have yelled at colleagues and professors. I have been yelled at in return. And yet, when the page comes off the printer, or someone recalls something I have written, all of that fades away and I say simply “this is my calling!”
Buechner was half right. And the other half lies in the space between passion and hunger. In that space is the hard work of following after a God who leads us into lacking and need.