On Vocation and Vacation


by Rev. Aaron Payson

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks — we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

        Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins–not in what the world needs (which is every-thing), but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self, joy, the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.

        …As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosystem in which I was planted — the network of communal relations in which I am called to live responsively, accountably, and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself.” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak)

This Sunday we return once again to the Sanctuary and the start of our fall season of worship.  As we do so, I am mindful that I begin my 20th season in service to this congregation and our communities as your Pastor.  We arrived with our eight-month old daughter Morgaine in hand and we were all exuberantly enveloped into the life here. Our son, Charlie was then only a twinkle in my wife’s eyes.  We crammed our belongings into a small apartment in Shrewsbury and began to explore what this area was about. We did not know then that within a few months the Worcester Warehouse Fire would take the lives of six incredible fire-fighters. What I witnessed then was a community that came together across all boundaries to surround and support our fire department and the families who lost loved ones that day.  I was honored to serve with other ministers as part of the response, and as a congregation we held those in our midst closest to the tragedy through many difficult days.

For me, this is an apt example of what Parker Palmer, via Fredrick Buechner, entreats us to consider as part of his definition of vocation, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For me, gladness is not fundamentally about “joy”, in the popular sense of the term, but takes its meaning from the deeper history of the etymology of the term, which is to make smooth.  In this way, gladness is not about an internal feeling as much as it is about an intuition to reach out, to touch, to know that we are connected to something larger than ourselves, and to bring that awareness to bear most profoundly in those places where the sense of that connection has been ruptured.  To be sure the reclamation of this deeper connection often involves a sense of “joy” as we traditionally understand the term.  More often, however, I find that such moments transcend the terms we craft to describe them.  It is in these moments when I comprehend more completely that sense of divine giftedness about which Parker Palmer writes.

I am also mindful that “making smooth” can and has been the cause of injustice and deep pain in our world.  We live in an era largely defined by the capacity to manipulate information in order to maintain power; power that is, more often than not, unearned and undeserved.  Our present systems of governance and justice are maintained by systems of white supremacy, which, in a recent blog post, Steven Power describes in part. “White supremacist power needs you alive enough to build its prisons, police its territory, and fight its wars. But it doesn’t want you alive enough to build communities of resistance and self-empowerment/self-determination.” Here is the antithesis of the intuition of vocation as Parker describes.  This is systemic fear in its most base systemic forms.  Here is smoothing over for the sake of the appearance of peace in place of the presence of justice.

Beloved, I believe at our best we are called to respond to this reality by doing exactly what Steven Powers denotes, to build communities of resistance, self-empowerment and self-determination.  We are a justice making people.  This is a core part of our collective vocation, to recreate the world we love and in which we live so that every life speaks and everybody is heard. For me this is the essence of the challenge of this year’s Touchstone Ministry Theme “Let Your Life Speak.”

This effort to “recreate” begins as an intuition that is more-often a product of our own efforts to recreate.  As we return from a summer of vacation and work, might each of us be mindful of those experiences which energize us to make smooth ruptured places in our lives and in the world at large.  What experiences energize you?  Let us begin again. . .