I thought before I began my presentation, I should tell you about Unitarian Universalism. This religion has a long and rich history, which dates back to early Christianity and specifically to Arius, the priest who preached that Jesus was the adopted human son of God. Modern Unitarian Universalism is a religion in which people are encouraged to seek within themselves for their own spiritual beliefs—our denomination has atheists, humanists, Buddhists, theists, Jews, Christians, and even people who are unsure what they believe. While we do not hold common beliefs or creeds, we do hold some common values; some of which are a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, a desire for spiritual growth, belief that our existence as humans is part of a vast interdependent web of all existence. So when I was asked to address the concept of vocation from my Unitarian Universalist point of view, it is important for you to know that it is likely that no two congregants in my faith would hold a common definition of “vocation”, and most probably no two of our clergy would hold the same definition of this word. What I can do, though is start with my story about vocation, after which I will talk more about what I believe about how people today, particularly young people today, regard vocation.
I grew up Catholic. I was an altar boy; I received all the sacraments; I was active in all aspects of church, including CCD, religious education. Once when sitting quietly, as an 8 year-old altar boy, at a 5 AM service, I felt connected to something larger than myself—peace, mystery, perhaps the divine. I decided that I was called to share this experience with others and decided to become a priest. However, my mother talked me out of it—no money in priesting and she wouldn’t have any grandchildren if I were a priest. And so I stayed active in my other religious activities and put the idea of a priestly vocation on the shelf. When I was in my mid-thirties, I was a member of Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church. I was on the worship committee, and one Saturday night I received a call from the president of the congregation, who said to me that our settled minister had done something unethical. He asked if I would be willing to fill in the pulpit the next morning. This minister was removed from final fellowship in the denomination and lost his license to practice psychotherapy. His two callings/vocations were gone forever. This event caused me to reflect on my own life, and I asked myself, “What have I left undone in this life that I have been given?” When that question was asked, I experienced a wave of memories—dating back to childhood when I had considered becoming a priest. The emotions associated with these memories were passionate and intense—I felt the urgent need to answer this call in order to be my truest, most authentic self. These memories and emotions resulted in nights of insomnia and days of anxiety, as I struggled to find ways and reasons to ignore the whispers, and the shouting, of my heart. Everything would be changed; relationships, my security—everything. Saying “yes” would mean I would give up a portion of my financial security and my autonomy. No only would I have to find a way to attend and pay for seminary while still trying to support my family, I would be choosing to make my home, or homes, wherever I would be called to serve. And though this discernment process I always, always wondered: was it the sacred, or was it the self that planted this stubborn seed in my heart? This is a question that many of your students may ask themselves, as they struggle with vocation or calling. They may not be able to formulate a precise answer, but it would not surprise me if some students define vocation as doing something that will provide the income necessary to support him/her and his/her family; that is, not necessarily priestly, yet just as holy. Many of our young people don’t miss organized religion, but do define themselves as spiritual—and for them, spiritual may not involve a personal god. This spirituality shapes and informs their need to find a vocation that allows them to do something meaningful/something that makes a difference in the world. They want to do something that is outwardly focused, not focused on their own personal needs or the needs of family/friends, but on the needs of others, strangers, even the world.
Some of the research on young people shows an increasing number of nones—people with no religious affiliation, and really no desire for religious affiliation, but who do have a deep-felt desire to have meaningful purpose-filled lives. They want to make money, but they don’t want to just make money. Many are not interested in a 24/7 scramble up the corporate ladder. They instead experience their work as a means to an end, making just enough money and spending just enough time at work, so they can have time to be good husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, citizens, caregivers, and world changers. They don’t have the same values our generation has, and that is not to say they don’t have any values or have bad values. They just have different ones. They don’t want to be on committees to make change happen; they want to do things that make a difference now—like building a habitat for humanity house—time limited, start and finish, feeling a sense of completion of the task.
All this ties into their vocations as well. Americorps kids are everwhere these days, eagerly taking on civic projects. Enrollment in the Peace Corps has increased. They are not doing this only for money or for college grants, they want to do something that is meaningful, something that they can point to and say “I did that.” They are learning how to teach people to develop home gardens, learning how to help people who have survived disasters, learning how to protect the planet and preserve its resources. These vocations are just as sacred and holy to these young people as becoming a minister or a priest. They are committed to living their lives in a way that expresses their beliefs.
Each one of the people you will work with will understand what vocation means differently, will understand a “call” differently, what having a career, a job means differently. And they will all be right. You will not come to a mutual understanding of terms without asking them. You cannot assume you completely understand the answer, even if they check a box that says they are Catholic, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, or none. You have to be ready for and open to a true dialogue, one in which you area as open to new learning as you hope your students are. Today’s students have been exposed to ideas from all over the world—all of the people you will teach will have been brought up on the internet. In the past, people had a very limited world view, almost entirely shaped by their upbringing, Today’s student is not only shaped by their upbringing, but that upbringing is just one drop in a bucket of values and ideas that have informed their thought processes. You are better off treating each person you teach as an alien. Put aside any expectations or assumptions you have about the person sitting in your classroom. You are better served by asking questions and finding out who they are. I realize this may not always be possible, but if you are going to talk about vocation or calling, you cannot start by believing that the people in your classrooms will have the same understanding of these words that you do, or that anyone sitting next to them does.
Increasingly in ministry and in many other vocations, people are coming to realize that words, not only have power, but humans can have power over words. Words can be redefined, altered in some way. And not over centuries; change is more rapid now. Religion has traditionally meant a community which believes in and worships a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. And some people still hold this definition, but not all of them. Religion, for some people, has come to mean a community that comes together to struggle with the questions of existence. Traditional worship shows reverence and adoration for a deity. But worship, for some, has come to mean a communal expression of holding up what is of most worth and value. Traditional vocation has meant a divine call to God's service or to the Christian life. Today, for some people, if they have a definition of vocation, it could mean a priestly career or profession, but it could also mean living a secular, sacred life with meaning and purpose. Until you ask, and listen to the answers, you will not know what your common language is. And without a common language, your words will fall on unhearing ears.
You might say this is not the job of a teacher/professor, but I disagree. David Brooks, an American conservative political and cultural commentator, recently wrote in the New York Times (: June 20, 2013):
“Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.” This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage.” This, my friends, is the journey you can share with your students, if you choose to walk with them on their journey. Your students expect more than just memorization or research; they crave a genuine person in their lives who will give them guidance as they look deep within themselves. They want to grow in wisdom, truthfulness and courage—this is the discussion of vocation that young people wish to have now. And you have the opportunity to walk with the people you teach down a path that is most probably very different from the one you traveled when you were in school. It is your choice whether to walk with them down this path, but if you want them to embrace vocation with your students, this is the path you must take; take it in light of today’s reality. Your students will be enriched by your choice, and so will you.