Last week my mum rang me with a question that had been bugging her.
“I was talking to one of the ladies at the Mothers’ Union, and she asked me what you do … what should I have told her?”
I knew straight away that when she said “What do you do?”, she didn’t mean I walk the dog most nights and I’m handy with a screwdriver. She was talking about work … and specifically what pays the rent. And I honestly didn’t really know what to say. I do a bit of broadcasting and a bit of journalism; I teach a bit; I’m doing some study. I think of myself as an Undercover Theologian – but what does that actually mean?
You won’t be surprised to know that no-one actually employs me to be an Undercover Theologian. I do all sorts of different jobs to pay the rent. But in all the things I do and all the people I meet, I see it as my job to try to find where God is at work – and if I can, to point it out to other people. I guess that’s what I’d call my vocation.
Except … I’m a bit wary of the idea of vocation. It’s a word Christians tend to use a lot. Often, the suggestion is that there’s a job out there that you’re called to do, and you have to find it if you want to be happy. It’s a bit like the idea that there’s one person out there somewhere amongst the seven billion of us who is Mr or Ms Right for you, and you have to find them if you want a happy life.
I don’t buy that at all.
Sure, there are quite a lot of people who could make you unhappy. But there are quite a few who would make you happy too … certainly more than one. It’s not just who you marry, but who you are with your partner – that’s what makes the difference.
Same with work. If you can make a job out of doing the thing you love, that’s great. But lots of people don’t have that luxury. Lots of us just have to find whatever work we can and try to make something of it.
So what about vocation? I think of it like a Venn diagram. In one circle is the person you most truly are: your skills and interests, and most importantly the things you really care about; the things that stir your passion. In the other circle is the world with all its opportunities and all its many many needs. You will find your vocation in the place where the person you are deep down overlaps with what the world most needs. If you can hit that sweet spot you’ll find a rhythm where your self dissolves easily into the tasks you have to do.
Now you might say “You’re an Undercover Theologian. What about listening to God?” To which I reply – listening to God is not as easy as it sounds. Not everybody ‘hears’ God’s voice in a way that’s clear enough to put God down as a reference on an application form. But everybody has a place that’s right for them.
If you want to find what God is calling you to, listen really honestly to yourself, and your heart’s deep longing; then listen hard to the world, and its deep need. And what you hear there – that will be God speaking to you. The place where those two things meet, whether it’s being the Prime Minister or pressing flowers, that place is where you are called to be.
Vocation is not just about paid work. That’s really important to know, because getting a job is not as simple as deciding what you’re called to and walking into it. We don’t have all those choices available to us. But we can choose what sort of person we are, and to some extent how we spend our time, and who we spend it with.
I’ll finish with an old Hasidic story. Towards the end of his life, an old rabbi called Rabbi Zusha was asked whether he thought he had done enough to please God. “In the coming world,” he said, “God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusha?’”
+ Andrew Graystone is a freelance writer, teacher, broadcaster and undercover theologian. He presents Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 and The Daily Service on BBC Radio 4.