Last year, my wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary by cashing in all of our Delta miles to visit Florence and the Tuscan countryside. As I think most Americans do when they visit Italy, we fell in love — with the landscape, the history, the food and, most definitely, the wine.
We spent a few of our afternoons driving around in a convertible Fiat, daydreaming of how we might sell everything and move to the Montepulciano hillside. Our daydreams were simple. We would own a little shop and live in a cottage with a back patio that looked out on the countryside. At night, we would uncork a bottle of wine by the fire pit and sit under the stars.
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I was in an Uber on the way home from the airport recently. The past few weeks had been particularly grueling, and the trip home was a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of work. On the plane home, and now in the car, I was reflecting on something that Annie Dillard once wrote.
In her book The Writing Life, she spends Chapter Two reflecting on the writing of her Pulitzer Prize winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book written, in part, not too far from where I grew up in Bedford County, Va. In that chapter, she reflects on the schedule and demands of writing. Dillard writes,
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives…
There is no shortage of good days. It is the good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”
How were my days adding up? Were they being too greedy?
The man driving my car made the point to tell me he was a professional driver. He took pride in his work and hated how hard driving was as a result of ride-sharing services. Not too long ago his business was a personal driver for Wall Street types and celebrities. Now he was schlepping people to and from LaGuardia for $55 a trip. He felt a sense of pride had been drained from his work.
We kept talking, and I found out the driver was born in Italy in a town close to our daydream cottage. He and I talked about the cultural differences between Italy and the U.S. and eventually made our way to discussing the Italian people and their work.
“People in the States don’t understand that there is more to life than work,” he said.
Yes, there is more to life than work. But on the other hand, I believe we were designed to work and to find purpose in that work. I think that purpose is what the driver sensed in the Italian people and perhaps what he and I were missing from our work in that moment.
So where is the line? When do the days add up to a life spent in a grind and heading nowhere? When do the days add up to something rich and meaningful?
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A few years back, I taught on this idea at our church. As I reflected on how my days had been stacking up the past few months, I couldn’t help but think back to the words I spoke that Sunday. They served as a reminder to me of a healthy view of work. Of calling, of purpose and of worship.
In the Christian context, words like calling and vocation and work are used to to help give proper context to the relationship between our lives and what we do with them on a daily basis. Understanding this relationship helps give a fuller understanding of work.
First, as a Christian I am called. Which is exactly what it sounds like — to have someone “call out” to you. As a Christian I am called by God, and my primary response to that calling is to follow God.
Second, there is vocation, which is synonymous with calling. One word is English-based, the other Latin-based (vocātiō). Vocation is not to be confused with one’s job because when understood correctly, calling and vocation transcend one’s occupation.
So, our calling and our vocation line up. However, our vocation is more than our work. We are citizens, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, neighbors. We are called to follow God in all of these endeavors, and all of these are our vocation. As a Christian, my vocation is the whole of my life responding to God’s call and promoting the healing of the world. This is not to be confused with my particular job or career.
Third, we have our work. Anything we do with our hands or minds in living out our vocations, regardless of whether we get paid for it, is our work. Our job then, is work we get paid for.
Now, one can have a vocation of music, for example, but economic conditions demand that they sell real estate. This doesn’t strip them of their vocation. They’re still obligated to live out that vocation in the evenings or on weekends as they write and play music, even while selling homes.
No one is paid to be a mother or a father, but this is still a vocation. It is still your work. This applies even if you go to an office job from nine to five and then return home. Your vocation is still as a parent as well as s an office worker; it’s just that the thing happening from nine to five gives you a paycheck.
Further, the Christian faith suggests that we were created to worship God and so whatever we do is in service to God, in worship. So when we work we are actually worshipping God in the same way we do when we attend church on Sunday. Yes, we have much opportunity to use our resources and talents to create culture (or make money). But beautiful culture only comes when we center our lives around being in the presence of God, listening to God’s guiding voice, and obeying the whispers in our hearts.
In this framing, we see that our paid work (our job) does not only have to be something we do to earn a living. It is not just a means to an end or a way to fund vacations and brunches and weekend adventures. It can be much more. It stands in opposition to the “life of sensation” and instead compels us toward “a life of the spirit.” Even if, for some period of time, the balance of work seems off.
* * * * *
The driver dropped me at my house. It was after midnight, and the house was dark and quiet. I took a minute to poor a glass of water and reflect on our conversation. I realized that my days were out of sorts. Too much sensation (striving to get ahead at work) and not enough spirit (striving to live out my purpose).
I wrestled with the balance of it all. I always will.
I drank my water, crawled under the covers, and fell asleep.
The sermon I taught can be found here and goes into the topic in more detail.