Henry van Dyke wrote the text of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” in 1907 while staying at the home of a college president. It’s full of sunny praise to God for all the places we see God in the world around us. Its final verse could serve as a brief coda to what you’ve been reading about vocation in this book:
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our brother, all who live in love are thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine. (1)
We could leave it at that: in our various vocations, a gracious God calls us to serve our neighbors, and in the midst of this service, we gain a glimpse of Christ’s own service to us.
But there’s one more piece we need to speak of. It’s connected to the second line of the verse: “Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!” Our existence and purpose in this world are intimately connected to our relationships with others, yet God is also working in our lives to provide both joy and rest. In some cultures, Epiphany, the festival remembering the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus (see Matthew 2:1– 12), is celebrated by baking a loaf of rosca de reyes (three-kings bread). The loaf is filled with candied fruit, drizzled with icing, and formed to the shape of a crown. Hidden inside is a tiny porcelain figure of the infant Christ. If vocation is a loaf of tasty three-kings bread, then joy and rest are the surprises hidden within that make living a true delight.
In his 1520 treatise on Christian freedom, the reformer Martin Luther described life with two contradictory statements: “The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” (2) Up to this point in this book, most of what you’ve read has to do with the second statement about being in service to your neighbor.
If vocation is a loaf of tasty three-kings bread, then joy and rest are the surprises hidden within that make living a true delight.
But what about all that freedom Luther said life also consists of? Freedom is one of the most important gifts young people can encounter— including those who have no particular faith commitment. For Luther, to be free is to no longer be bound by demands of the moral gatekeepers masquerading in religious language. Being free means gaining access to a realm of delight that you can explore. Theologian Mark Mattes says it creates an appreciation for the world and its beauty: when we’re liberated from needing to earn God’s favor, we can “enjoy an aesthetic of freedom, loving God for his own sake, others for their own sakes, and appreciating creation as a gift.” (3)
The creation we’re surrounded by is endlessly delightful, and being a creature in it provides equally endless joy and gladness. A world that contains such variety and symmetry is a world that can be watched with amusement and studied with scientific interest. In the book of Genesis, the name of the garden in which our first parents are placed is Eden, which can be translated as “delight.” We live in the midst of a garden of earthly delights: the intricate combination of pitches that blend into a Mozart piano sonata; the way tendons and ligaments, muscles and bones are knit together to form a limb; how words join to form the wildly different poems of Robert Service and Mary Oliver; and the perfect blend of tastes and textures that wind up as a dish of Cajun red beans and rice. God’s intention is not only that we live within the delight of his gracious attention but also that we delight in the world in which we live, including our own bodies (ear lobes, appendix, and uvula) and communities (all those vocations we’ve looked at so far).
What you take delight in does matter in the realm of vocation. The classic Frederick Buechner definition of vocation talks about your joy. He says your vocation is the place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”(4) When it comes to vocation, the problem with this definition is that deep gladness might arise from service to others, but it can just as easily feel like you’re connecting to your passion, especially when you know the Latin word passio means “suffering.” Living your vocation may give you gladness, but serving others can also feel like suffering. That’s because service requires that we give up something of ourselves, whether it’s our money, status, or life itself.
Living your vocation may give you gladness, but serving others can also feel like suffering.
In his story “Crazy Mary Katherine,”(5) Martin Bell tells of a faithful woman who temporarily resided in a mental institution. Some thoughtful church ladies show up, doing their best to fulfill Jesus’ words about visiting the sick (see Matt 25:36). After some small talk, the visitors inform Mary Katherine about the upcoming church fundraising campaign, and they tell her they hope she’ll contribute because it’ll make her feel good. They assume that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Mary Katherine replies that she’ll certainly give but refuses to be cheerful about it. In her mind, there’s no doubt that “giving is dying,” and she can’t imagine a sane person finding anything cheerful about doing it. In spite of Mary Katherine’s logic, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). But if your life includes being free to experience the gladness of being a creature, then your gladness can also lead to all kinds of interesting projects, quirky paths, and surprising connections to the world around you.