Living your vocation
by Sharon Simpson
My family comes from a refugee journey – one that continues all over the world today. War creates chaos, fear and trauma for people. This is followed by fleeing the conflict, living in temporary refugee camps and seeking asylum in a safe country. This is my grandparent’s story. They left their established homes, communities and economic systems to come across the world to an unknown land where they started all over again with sustenance farming.
What were their aspirations to make a life? First and foremost, to survive. This was closely followed by walking in faithfulness to God, their protector and sustainer. They were making their new life in their new country in the middle of the world’s most significant economic downturn. The dirty 30s stole livelihoods, dignity and hope from people. The unemployment rate reached an unbelievable 30 percent of all Canadians. It was a time to work at any job in order to survive.
During these years, one of my elderly friends was sustaining his life by gathering and selling firewood. On the side, he was a volunteer debt-collector. He did this voluntarily among his own people. Each one of the refugees had borrowed the money to come to Canada. His own family had to buy 12 tickets so they could come together. It was an outrageous sum that his parents could never repay. Each child needed to pay back their own ticket – even if they were a dependent at the time that they fled. Many did not. They began their lives and dismissed the repayment. The debt was in their parent’s name. They moved on. This man took six years to pay back the ticket that was purchased on his behalf before he was 12 months old. He hauled firewood and visited others to collect their ticket-debts. The love of his life waited those six years to marry him until his own debt was paid.
“Those were hard times”, he told me. “It’s not like today. We didn’t get everything we wanted and we worked hard doing anything just to survive. I wanted to do what was right and it was a sacrifice.”
During these tough years, a senior told me about his job as a milk salesman. I was confused. Didn’t everyone buy milk if they needed it? Didn’t they have their own cow to milk? “No”, he said, “I sold condensed canned milk to faraway places, like the logging camps. I’d drive my truck full of canned milk up-country until there were no more roads. Then, I’d put it on the train. I’d take it off at the next stop and drive the logging roads to sell and deliver the milk.”
An elderly woman stopped me to ask what exactly I do in my work. I told her a bit about my job and how much I love being a support for seniors. Her response? “These are great days for women. I was a teacher. I could have been a nurse or a teacher. I chose teacher. Now, you can almost do anything you want. There are jobs like yours that didn’t even exist when I was young.”
She is right. The world has opened up for women – and for men. There are ways to make money that don’t even seem like jobs. People are making a living by making YouTube videos and getting paid for the advertising that appears at the beginning of each video. There are jobs in science, research and technology that are beyond the imagination of a 20 year old in the 30s who was gathering firewood to pay back his ticket-debt.
With the expansion of opportunity comes innumerable choices. These days, the world tells young people that there is a perfect job for them and that they need to find it in order to have a fulfilling life. The pressure is there to “get it right” and if you don’t, your life will have gone sideways. Many young people get overwhelmed. They may need an expensive education to get going in life. They aren’t going to be able to make their living selling firewood foraged from the forest in this day and age. For some, this is exciting. For others, it’s completely paralyzing. They aren’t expected to live a life of survival, but one of adventure and endless excitement – a life that costs a lot of money in a job that brings deep meaning.
Brother Lawrence, a kitchen worker in the 1600’s shares his unique perspective in the compilation of his writings, The Practice of the Presence of God. As he worked in the kitchen doing dishes, he said, “Let us think often that our only business in this life is to please God… there is no greater lifestyle and no greater happiness than that of having a continual conversation with God.”
His words help us understand the common ground between elderly seniors making their lives and the choices faced by young people today. There is another world in the equation – there is another way of thinking, being and living. It is the spiritual life that God calls us to, regardless of our job or circumstance. We see this in the Psalms as the shepherd finds his deep meaning in knowing and connecting with God. He calls out to God, he worships God, he tells God his true feelings about others around him. His day-to-day work gives him ways of understanding God’s nature and character, but it is a deep connection with God that gives him life.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer encourages this connection between the person you are and the way that you express your life. He says that listening to who you are and living it in obedience to God is your vocation. One of my favourite quotes comes from Fredrick Buechner, a theologian. He says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The first time that I heard this quote, I was listening to a wealthy middle-aged woman tell of her journey into becoming a pastor for the homeless. She was describing the exact intersection of her gifting, her capabilities, her heart, her passions and her spiritual gifts with the needs of those whose lives are broken and in need of accompaniment.
Many seniors lives were filled with activities and work that didn’t, in and of themselves, bring fulfillment. I have heard many stories of blasting out stumps to clear land and making 10 loaves of bread a day to feed a large family. For many, it was their spiritual foundations that made their lives meaningful – the generosity they could express through the money they earned.
For young and old alike, there is nothing more meaningful than discovering the spiritual gifts and passion that God put into your very core and expressing those gifts through your day-to-day life. May God bless you in any stage of life as you continue to live out your vocation.
Sharon Simpson is the Director, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place.