“What am I supposed to do when I graduate?” Recently on a college campus, I heard again that plaintive, perennial cry. Vocational discernment is no easy matter and many 20-somethings feel real angst. If only I could offer definitive guidance! But of course I can’t. No one can. God could if He wanted to, but from my 51 years of observation I’d say that the burning bush is a rarity. He usually lets us choose from among many good options, all of which are perfectly fine in His eyes.
But while it’s difficult to say with precision what career a particular Christian should take up, it is possible to suggest some overarching vocational aims to pursue. Here are five—each with a story to illustrate.
1. Conserving as Salt
Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth. That means plenty of things. One of them is to preserve that which is good.
Harrison Higgins is a carpenter who is preserving the art of fine craftsmanship. He uses the same kinds of hand tools as did furniture makers from a hundred years ago. He revels in the beauty of natural woods and uses them, not chintzy particle board, for his creations. His goal is to make furniture that literally will last for a century. His work is “salty” because trough this approach to his vocation, Higgins is preserving something valuable from the past. And, by seeking to make furniture that is truly durable he is resisting the corruption of our culture’s ethic of disposability.
2. Being Light
Jesus also called us “the light of the world.” Vocationally, being light can mean bringing imagination and innovation that illumines new and better ways of doing things.
Years ago interior designer Cynthia Leibrock was hired to design a residential facility for people with physical disabilities. This was a new challenge for her, stretching her into new arenas of learning. She realized that she could incorporate the principles of universal design into her project. Universal design strategies remove barriers to mobility by reconfiguring such things as doorways, hallways, kitchen countertops, storage drawers, and bathtubs. Changing the standard designs to accommodate people who are in wheelchairs, or who have limited strength, reach, or range of motion can open new vistas of dignity for the handicapped. These innovations make possible new levels of independence. As Leibrock likes to say, a person is in a house where he can do the things he wants to, he’s no longer disabled there.
Salt and light are familiar biblical images. My labels for the next three aims have both biblical warrant and Church history behind them, but are less familiar. My attention was drawn to these categories by my former pastor, Greg Thompson, during a sermon series he presented on the book of Ruth. In that classic story, Thompson noted how God did at least three things for Ruth. He met her exclusion with inclusion. In the face of her vulnerability, He offered protection. And in response to her poverty, He showed her generous justice. What God did for Ruth we can do for our neighbors, through all kinds of different labors.
3. Answering Exclusion with Invitation
Addressing the problem of exclusion with invitation is a strong biblical theme. We see it in the Old Testament with God’s insistence to the Israelites that they welcome the stranger and show compassion and justice to the alien and foreigner. And we see it in the New Testament’s emphasis on practicing hospitality.
Jimmy Lin is answering exclusion with invitation through an innovative volunteer effort within the medical research community.
Jimmy’s amazingly smart, holding both a medical degree and a Ph.D in something called “computational biology” (which is way over my head). He and several of his brainiac friends who work in prestigious medical research labs across the country have joined together in an initiative called the Rare Genomics Institute. These scientists have committed to volunteering a portion of their time to come alongside families of kids with extremely rare genetic diseases.
Roughly 250 million children worldwide suffer from these very rare diseases. Since each disease affects only a tiny number of people, these kids are excluded from traditional medical research. There’s virtually no funding supplied for studying their conditions. Thus, families are left with little hope of understanding the disease afflicting their child, much less finding a cure. Rare Genomics pairs families with a research scientist who commits to creating a genome sequence map for their child, because this mapping process is the first step in gaining insight into measures that could help address the condition or mitigate its symptoms.
4. Offering Protection to the Vulnerable
Meeting vulnerability with protection is also a strong biblical motif. We see it in the ancient biblical practice of establishing cities of refuge and in the New Testament’s call to Christians to take care of widows and orphans.
In Phoenix, AZ, Nadine Grobmeier owns and manages Airport Park Auto Shop. As a widow, Nadine understands something of vulnerability. And she knows that some women feel susceptible to abuse when they walk into a car repair shop. (I know I do.)
Nadine is committed to addressing that problem. She’s committed to honest dealings with her customers, and her shop has won several local awards for being a great business. But her care goes further. Nadine runs “Knowledge is Power” car clinics to teach women some basics of auto care and repair so that they are better able to defend themselves from dishonest mechanics.
5. Meeting Poverty with Generous Justice
Finally, the theme of meeting poverty with generous justice pulses throughout the scriptures. We see it in the Old Testament in such practices as the gleaning regulations, the 3rd year tithe for the Levites and the disabled poor, and the Jubilee. In the New Testament we hear the apostle Paul’s exhortation to sacrificial giving and the apostle James’ command to employers to pay their workers fairly.
In four cities across New Jersey, business entrepreneur Alfa Demmellash is working to bring economic uplift to her neighbors. Alfa came to the U.S. as a young teen from Ethiopia. Following her graduation from Harvard, she and her husband launched Rising Tide Capital to provide business classes and access to capital for underserved entrepreneurs, mostly struggling immigrants. Alfa generously shares her business savvy to provide opportunities for low-income people to create sustainable small businesses. Rising Tide serves about 600 entrepreneurs annually. In 2015, 73 trained entrepreneurs launched new businesses and overall, Rising Tide graduates created 228 new jobs.
The theologian Walter Brueggemann defines vocation as finding a “purpose for being in the world which is related to the purposes of God.” We can be confident that the five aims discussed here are indeed related to His purposes. A job in any field that positions one to lean into these aims is clearly a good choice.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good.