The vocation of leaving or staying

What happens when the changes of life pit vocation and location against each other? Comment asked Chris Klein, who helps direct a research study on vocation, to describe when geography collides with calling. Chris Klein is the Assistant Director of the CALL Grant for the Theological Exploration of Vocation at Geneva College, Pennsylvania. Chris Klein is the Assistant Director of the CALL Grant for the Theological Exploration of Vocation at Geneva College, Pennsylvania.
February 3 rd 2006

I had a pretty hard phone conversation with a friend yesterday. You see, she and her husband moved away from us six months ago, for what seemed like a good reason—vocation. Her husband needed to pursue graduate work with fellow Christian academics, and he couldn't do it at the local university. Committed to each other, they left together. I don't think life has been the same for either of our families since. They have a new baby; a sweet little girl. We didn't find out about the baby's pending arrival until after they had shared their decision to move with us. We lament not being able to watch their little girl move from cutting teeth, to crawling, to walking, to words—like they were able to do with our toddler son. The hardest part about yesterday's conversation was the realization that pursuing vocational faithfulness is never just about one vocation. Sharing joy and fulfillment without sharing space in little Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania is not as easy as we anticipated; life apart is not the same as life together.

I had a pretty hard conversation with a friend yesterday. You see, he and his wife are trying to stay in Beaver Falls, for what seems like a good reason—vocation. But he was in low spirits yesterday. Since his wife had to quit working for medical reasons, he's had to quit teaching part-time at the local college in order to find a job with health benefits. It has been a few months and he's still unemployed; Western Pennsylvania isn't exactly a hot spot for jobs. Being without work for the last few months is taking its toll on him and his wife… and his friends. When the savings runs out in the next few months, they will have to sell the house they've restored and move away in order to find work. They haven't left yet only because of the reason they're here to begin with—to participate intimately in the lives of two young boys who lost their father to cancer a year and a half ago. That need hasn't changed, but my friend told me that the possibility of them leaving the area anyway was growing stronger with each passing day. I didn't like hearing that. Sharing joy and fulfillment without sharing space will not be as easy as we anticipate; life apart will not be the same as life together.

I had a pretty hard conversation with my wife yesterday. You see, we didn't realize how vulnerable we ourselves would feel when confronted with other people's vocational decisions. It's a source of both delight and terror to discover that that our ability to experience vocations the way God intended is directly connected to how other people play out their own vocational realities. The choices they make affect us, our son, our unborn child, our dog, our neighborhood, our church, our civic life, our other relationships. It's no wonder I am easily tempted to think that the good life is one that moves away from reliance on other people.

But perhaps we should rewrite the definition of a life spent well. When our children ask us questions about the decisions we've made about work and place, we want to be able to tell the story of home and vocation going together well. Maybe more importantly, we want to hear God tell our story a certain way. We want his sweet words to remind us of those beautiful, grace-filled moments when we experienced parts of life almost like they were originally intended—moments when vocation and location did dwell together well.

Working at Home

When the six of us friends (now nine with the addition of two babies and one dog) began life together several years ago we chose to neighborhood ourselves together. Neighborhooding for us meant sharing meals regularly, sharing lawn equipment and tools, walking around the block together, talking about books and movies while sitting in the back yard; it meant the ease of lives shared even when inconvenient.

All of us understood what we were working at: we were trying to create Home together. We were trying to encourage each other in a way that made each of us better together than we would have been separately—more than just casual friends, interested in more than our own immediate family needs.

We started with six, went up to nine and are now down to six, with the possibility of being only three. None of us expected it to play out like this. We didn't know seven years ago when we moved here for work that location would become such a significant piece of life on earth. We also didn't know that upheaval in our own lives would be so intimately connected to the upheaval in the lives of those we built life with.

What frustrates me, though, isn't the change itself. What frustrates me is that the change is out of my hands; what affects me is effected by others. The decision by my unemployed friends to stay in the neighborhood is ultimately not up to them—it is up to an employer, someone I don't know. In some strange way our own lives are intertwined with the lives of anonymous human resource managers who review the résumé of our unemployed friend. Do prospective employers know that when they read résumés other lives are affected by the fact they didn't like the type of font used? I want to add a little Post-It note to my job-seeking friend's résumé that reads:

From the friends of the applicant: you are reading the résumé of a gifted and committed man. If you don't hire him, he and his wife and dog will move away and that will tear a hole in the fabric of my life and the lives of my wife and son, and community. Kind regards, Chris.

Our lives are so closely intertwined that even his employment matters deeply to us—and somehow I think this is what God intended to happen.

A Different Dimension

What is to be done about vocation(s)? I guess I'm suggesting that you should be where you are—really be there. Drink the water, vote for the politicians, know your neighbors, find out where your trash is hauled and don't assume you will, can or should leave your neighborhood. Think twice about the choosing promotion and relocation over place and people. Maybe the power of the formal job call has been allowed to burgeon beyond its helpfulness. Maybe the upwardly or downwardly un-mobile life is more faithful.

Maybe a corrective should be offered, one that sees the multidimensionality of life. In many ways I don't think I'd feel the pang of sin's attachment to the creation as much if I participated in a unidimensional life—you know, fewer people, fewer commitments, and fewer problems. The irony is that even this temptation is one of the ultimate attachments/misdirections of sin to the goodness of creation. Participating in the fullness of life is going to bring both God's delight and the frustrations of brokenness.

In a few months I assume it will be the three of us. And my guess is that we will continue to talk on the phone with our dear friends who live and will live far away. We will laugh about stuff that only people who know each other deeply can laugh about. We will cry about stuff together that only people who know each other deeply can cry about. And in God's deeply divine providence we will weave ourselves into the lives of new and different people—creating new designs into the fabric of living. I guess in some way we have already begun this process. It's creational to do so; it's part of who we were created as image-bearing people to be.

Come to think of it, vocation is probably most beautiful when it blurs with the definition of "Home." Home and vocation as we experienced them, and will experience them again, can best be defined as places Christ in all his fullness is brought to dwell.

 

Chris Klein is the Assistant Director of the CALL Grant for the Theological Exploration of Vocation at Geneva College, Pennsylvania, where he's been since 2001.

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