Some Thoughts on Vocation

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Lilly Program for Vocation and Ethical Leadership
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By Lucy Forster-Smith
Former Co-Director of the Lilly Program for Vocation and Ethical Leadership and Chaplain of the College

Presented at “‘Life’s Work’: A Six-College Convocation on Work, Ethics and Vocation,” hosted by Macalester College, January 17-19, 2003, in Burlingame, California.

As a chaplain and one who has been called into working with issues of work and vocation at Macalester College, with an incredibly diverse and talented student body, there are days when the questions of why I do what I do humbles me and send trembling through my being.  We live at a time in history when questions of meaning and purpose are not simply personal, navel-gazing questions, but questions that drive to the heart of the purpose of this world, in our own lives and the very future of this planet.  The globe is at my fingertips…through students who arrive at Macalester from over 90 countries…through the brilliant faculty members who casually discuss such issues as the impact of post-modernism on our concept of God, to student affairs colleagues who literally stay awake all night for fear that a student might end her life.  And with world right out the window or burning on the computer screen, the question of why we do what we do, and how we decide upon or respond to this illusive calling in our lives is crucial.

It seems that work and vocation has become center stage in our day.  From the Christian group in a Twin Cities suburb who offer Christians a chance to find ones work through use of self-assessment tools and prayer, to fancy speakers who charge fancy fees for their fancy self-disclosure on how they found meaning and purpose.  But our assumptions about issues of work and vocation are challenged by those in this world who work for a pittance, who have no choice in the work they do and respond to the immediate needs of their community or their families.  I think of those who live in a township in South Africa near Capetown where I had the privilege of being this fall, where there is 80% unemployment and a deep despair that simply putting clothes on a child and a little mealy meal in their mouths is out of reach, the issues of work, and how we can connect that with contribution…with the needs of the world has arisen to new proportions.  Or families and congregations who find their calling to be one that responds when a member of family or community contracts a terminal disease.  Why are we so focused on these issues?

I think there is a global restlessness that has the wonderful potential to join heart and mind; spirit and body; work and vocation.  There is a clarity in this generation of students—a sort of no-nonsense approach to their school work and their life-work.  You students in the room, ask really pointed questions of my generation about our commitments, about our purpose and intent about this world.  You are unwilling succumb easily to the patterns my generation has assumed such as work holism that my generation tends to assume as normative.  Rather I see patterns shifting where young adults are setting a priority on relationships, on balance in your health and your work-life and trying to bring some sanity to the world by having a little fun.  But at a deeper level, the quest for this generation is no different than any of our journey through this life, it is as Sharon Parks says, “The ventures that matter most are the ones that enable us to become truly at home in the universe.”  We all know along with Parks that “this journey can be a profound and life-changing experience, or can be endless and without purpose.”

My hope is that your journey that began for many of us in another time zone…another state…another set of smells, landscapes, faces, voices…can become a quest or pilgrimage or to paraphrase of Sharon Parks, “a going forth and return home” that enlarges both the meaning of both self and home.  (Sharon Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, p. 50)

This time together will provide a holding context for this work.  Our time here is only as rich as we all make it.  We are a unique and diverse group of people here…some faculty, some student affairs professionals, support staff, program directors, students from all over the country with many interests and backgrounds.  And we bring to this time questions, answers from our experiences and academic questing, pain and promise.  Throughout this time we all look forward to learning and being taught by one another.  Thank you so much for agreeing to take time out of the demands of your lives and join us here!