What’s the point? Occupation versus vocation

Occupation versus vocation

Americans born around the turn of the 20th century were often referred to as the Greatest Generation. They lived through some of the lowest lows and the highest highs in our nation’s history. The Great Depression was a blunt reminder of the fragility of our economic system and, indeed, life itself. One in four Americans couldn’t find work, and tent camps like Hooverville emerged as homes were lost and families were turned out into the streets. At the same time, extreme drought and ignorant agricultural practices conspired to create the Dust Bowl, the worst episode of topsoil erosion in American history, contributing to food shortages and exacerbating already rising poverty.

World War II disrupted daily life on the home continent, but it also rallied the people around a common cause, one that seemed to be black and white, good versus evil, the Empire versus the Rebellion. Patriotism was high and domestic woes seemed minor in light of the global battle against the darkness growing out of central Europe and Japan. And, as history has shown time and again, wars stimulate the economy. WWII provided the economic stimulus that lifted us out of the Great Depression and into much more abundant times.

The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939 by some accounts. My Nana (Lilian Lorraine McElvogue), my aunt (Maxine McElvogue), and a friend, ca. 1935, Des Moines, Iowa.

The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939, by some accounts. My Nana (Lilian Lorraine McElvogue), my aunt (Maxine McElvogue), and a friend, ca. 1930, Des Moines, Iowa.

Talk to anyone from that era (there are so few left alive now) and they will tell you that one of the biggest lessons they learned was the value of a job. Any job. Men who had once been doctors were thrilled to find work hauling trash during the Depression. And once the war began there was industrial work available for nearly anyone willing and able to work hard.

Born in 1970, I am a Gen X-er. And one of our hallmarks is that we’re persnickity about the work we do. We’re job snobs. We change jobs on average every four or five years, always in search of something better. And when we can’t find employment that fits our perceived social status, we stay home and keep looking rather than take whatever is available. In less than a hundred years we’ve lost much of the wisdom of the Greatest Generation, and we can’t be bothered with work that is not satisfying, or is beneath our standing or education – even if it would mean the ability to pay the bills.

But the flip side to that coin is that we feel called to do work that has meaning, work that will change lives and impact the world. This is one of the reasons we’re job snobs: we train to do something meaningful and feel like we’re selling out to take a job just to pay the bills. We’re the most educated generation America has yet seen, and we expect that education to pay off in job satisfaction.

Here we need to make a distinction between occupation and vocation. An occupation is something that occupies your time and provides an income. It might be something satisfying or it might be drudgery. When I was 14 I was allowed to get a limited work permit in the State of New York. As an industrious young man who wanted more money to spend than the $3 a week my dad gave me for allowance, I began looking for work wherever I could find it. I hired myself out for menial tasks through Rent-A-Kid, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, sealing driveways. Eventually, a rental company that hired me as a temp offered me a more permanent position. I cleaned rental gear: everything from small engine machinery to large wedding tents. I busted my tail (and a finger once) for $4.25 an hour. When I turned 16, I started bussing tables at restaurants, making $2.50 an hour plus tips. On a good shift I could make an additional $30. This was good money for a high school guy in the 1980s. I continued in the restaurant business until graduating from college in 1995. This was my occupation.

When we take our training, gifts, and passions and build a career around using them to serve others, we call it a vocation. My friend Rob Simpson (front of the line) leading student outdoor guides over a steep colouir between Lady Lake and Upper Jackass Lake in the high Sierras, May 2015.

When we take our training, gifts, and passions and build a career around using them to serve others, we call it a vocation. My friend Rob Simpson (front of the line) leading student outdoor guides over a steep couloir between Lady Lake and Upper Jackass Lake in the high Sierras, May 2015.

By contrast, a vocation is something more personal, something sacred almost. Vocation is what we are called to do. It’s our assignment. I don’t know who or what an atheist would say does the calling, but as a Christian I believe that God places a call on each of our lives. He invites us to do work that is more meaningful than what we’ve been doing. Work that uses our gifts in ways that serve others and God Himself.

Vocation is a way of partnering with God in work He is already doing in the world. When I am building something in my garage shop, my youngest son Josh will often want to get involved. I’ll set up the drill and hover over him as he drills a hole in a 2×4 for me. Maybe he’ll drive some nails or even cut a board with the chop saw, my hands always on his as he maneuvers the arm. In a sense, this is what God invites us to do vocationally. He says, I’m up to something, and you have the gifts to work alongside me. Let’s go out to the shop and you can help.

Take-home point: God has an assignment for you, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Take-home verse: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

Questions for thought

Do you have an occupation or a vocation?

Have you discovered your calling, your assignment? What is it?

Do you think our calling changes during different seasons of life? Or does it stay the same throughout our lifetime?

Prayer (in Spanish, just to shake things up a bit)

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu Nombre. Venga a nosotros tu Reino. Hágase tu vountad en la tierra como en el cielo. Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día. Perdona nuestras ofensas como también perdonamos a los que nos ofenden. No nos dejes caer en la tentación, y líbranos del mal. Amén.

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About Dave Cummings

Dave Cummings is a husband, father of three, college professor, biologist, and urban outdoorsman. Most importantly, he is a Christ follower.
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One Response to What’s the point? Occupation versus vocation

  1. L. Euhus says:

    Word origin follow up note.
    -vocation. From the Latin; “a call, summons”
    -occupation. From the Latin; “employment; an activity that a person spends time doing”

    Just like you said!

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