Gladness, Need, and Calling: Frederick Buechner on Vocation

Last night my family hosted the students in Bethel’s capstone course for History majors. They turned in their research papers, shared a meal, tolerated my two-year old twins showing off all their tricks, and had one last seminar discussion together: on vocation.

Since this course is almost entirely composed of students about to graduate, there’s always a degree of anxiety this time of year: “I’m turning in my last college assignments… Now what?” That concern is particularly acute for students who’ve spent four years studying history or other humanities fields that don’t seem to translate easily to a job, or career. So I’ve always felt the need to dedicate at least a bit of class time to talking about such concerns.

Trouble is, I’d be the world’s worst career counselor. To an extent, I can help students make the case that their History major actually prepares them well for a multitude of careers (see two of my recent posts on this subject at our department blog: one on liberal arts preparing students to adapt to a changing economy; the other on careers in business for such students). But my own experience is so unhelpful (get bachelor’s degree in History, immediately go into doctoral program in History, get a tenure-track job within one year of earning the PhD) that I’m not sure I would take my words seriously if I were in our students’ shoes.

So instead I recenter the conversation on vocation, not employment, and have them read someone else’s thoughts on the subject: namely, a sermon by the pastor-novelist Frederick Buechner entitled “The Calling of Voices” (published in the 2006 collection, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons). Written in 1969, I’ve found it among the best reflections on calling in the Christian tradition.

Frederick Buechner
Frederick Buechner – Buechner Institute, King College

I can’t reproduce the entire text (rooted in a reflection on Isaiah 6:1-9), but let me highlight a few passages and the conversation each inspired with my students:

When you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life.

Here Buechner mostly wants to warn against paying heed to what he’s about to call “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture,” a voice that – among other things — tells you that “salary and status” are all that matter about work. Listening to that voice, for Buechner, risks your becoming one of the world’s many people “now engaged in a life’s work in which they find no pleasure or purpose” and “suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something that could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else.”

It’s a theme I had discussed just a few weeks earlier with students at the opposite end of the educational experience: first-years taking an introductory course on Christians’ experiences of Western culture. Reading John Calvin’s take on vocation in The Institutes (that we belong to God and must be faithful to his calling), I encouraged students — most of whom have not yet chosen their major, let alone their career path — to take care when listening to the many voices (mine included) speaking into their lives. Parents, professors, pastors, and even the media can speak powerfully and help us realize something about ourselves and our gifts that we hadn’t fully realized. But those same voices can also be noise, distracting us from the same voice that called Isaiah to a life of prophecy.

To my surprise, then, the student who was first to speak up on this issue last night said that the opposite problem was true: he didn’t feel like he was hearing hardly any voices telling him what to do with his life. Perhaps we’ve become too reticent to tell those around us what we think they could (let alone should) do with their lives. Or perhaps we’re too slow to be silent before God and listen for his voice — which whispers as often as it shouts…

…we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously…. Because surely [John] Marquand was right that for each of us there comes a point of no return, a point beyond which we no longer have life enough left to go back and start all over again.

Here’s where I worry that I’ve lost students. Already, I hear them thinking, “Buechner didn’t have to deal with this job market!” or “Buechner didn’t have to convince corporate recruiters that a History major is useful!” Now they read him warning his young audience that time is running out, that we don’t “have all the time in the world.”

So I try to underscore that the “point of no return” is unlikely to be one’s college graduation. That their first job is unlikely to be their career. And that (as I’ll discuss in my next Confessing History post) there’s a difference between being prudent and being cautious. I think Buechner encourages the former (which would call on us to make choices carefully, thoughtfully, but to make them resolutely when they must be made) and warns against the former (which, if taken to an extreme, leaves us on the other side of the “point of no return,” looking back with sinking realization and debilitating regret).

And then we come to the crux of Buechner’s advice, his two general criteria for how to recognize one’s calling…

To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go” [Isa 6:9], and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed.

First, Buechner would have us listen to “the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” Doing so would lead us to do with our lives whatever “makes us truly glad.”

Tiepolo, The Calling of Isaiah
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Calling of Isaiah” (1729)

Glad. Not “happy” — saying “Here I am” to God certainly didn’t guarantee Isaiah a life of unbroken bliss — but “glad,” which one student suggested was a synonym for “joyful” or “fulfilled.” I think that’s very much what Buechner has in mind, and while that can sound self-centered… Christianity does not teach the negation of the self, but the restoration of the self. While broken by sin, we are distinctive persons made in the image of a Triune God, and so, meant for relationship and community — not dissolution into a whole, but as members of a Body.

And so, second, Buechner would have us listen to the voice telling us to go “where we are most needed.” He contends that our gladness is not for our own sake alone, but is needed by others enduring “a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain….”

What does this mean for History majors? It is a question students can and must answer with nothing less than their lives, not a sentence or two in a class discussion. But I do think Buechner’s view of vocation underscores that it is not the same as job, work, career, or profession. What you get paid for is not the same as who you are. And studying History at a place like Bethel does not so much inform future historians as form people (called to a variety of vocations) who can live wisely in this world, without ever being of this world. (see our Mission and Objectives statement for more on this philosophy)

So I can do no better to close this discussion than to quote Buechner’s closing words, which describe a general vocation shared by all those who follow Jesus Christ:

Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” [Matt 4:4], and in the end every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the same word, and the word is Christ himself. And in the end that is the vocation, the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers we are called to. That is the vocation, the destiny to which we were all of us called even before the foundations of the world.


3 thoughts on “Gladness, Need, and Calling: Frederick Buechner on Vocation

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