“Why Am I Here?”: A Missional Approach to Identity and Vocation
We live in a culture of workism where people both define themselves by their work and struggle to find its meaning and purpose. In this two-part series, Tamara Hill Murphy of Church of the Apostles explores a missional approach to the areas of identity and vocation. In Part 1, she shares how listening to the 9-to-5 stories of her community has opened a path for blessing and connection.
By Tamara Hill Murphy
Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong?
The questions of identity and vocation are nearly universal, linking us together with our neighbor. We all want to know what we are uniquely made to accomplish in this world, and we spend our resources trying to fill the gap between what we were made to do and what we are actually doing with our days. This gap is no small thing; it often feels like an ache we can’t name and leaks out in the midst of our day jobs and our too-short weekends. We carry the sense of wanting something more with us into every relationship, job interview and religious affiliation. We know, in our innermost selves, we were made for something good and most of us are not sure how much attention that feeling deserves.
Identity questions reflect our unique place in the cosmos. They’re a human response to the gift of life. The lilies of the field do not worry and neither do the birds of the air or my daughter’s pit bull, Juliet (who should maybe have a few more concerns about her place in the world).
When it comes to our struggles with identity and vocation, we have a stunning model of non-anxiety in Jesus. He carried his place with the Father, his community, and his purpose in the world with a gentle certainty that’s been compelling us to find the way into His presence for millenia.
Learning Through Language
Are we talking about calling? Vocation? Mission? Faith and work? At my parish, Church of the Apostles, we’re trying to answer those questions, and we’ve found nothing deflates a mission statement more than jargon. Part of the work we’re called to in this season is relearning terms. In the area of personal identity, we’re digging into conversations about vocation, calling and work. We’re gathering in small teams to understand how proclamation and deed energize mission. Weaving throughout is the thread of our desire to offer love and truth as we walk with anyone through anything toward the healing, cleansing power of the Cross.
Once we’ve settled on the terms, what’s next? At Church of the Apostles we’re reacquainting ourselves with the power of story—listening to others’ and telling our own. We’ve found the topic of our daily work lives is a theme that seems most accessible for people in our parish and our neighborhoods. We’re learning to share our personal stories of suffering and celebration and learning what it means to be together in both. We are learning to listen to the Spirit, ourselves and others as the key practice of both faithful, non-anxious Gospel conversations.
Recently, I stumbled into a deeper appreciation for the power of story to bless and connect us in the area of vocation. Last fall, during the waning weeks of Ordinary Time, I invited a dozen or so friends and acquaintances to share a day in their work life as a contribution to a weekly written series called “Work Stories.” In all my years inviting stories on diverse subjects ranging from lament to favorite hobbies, I’ve never had an easier time finding willing participants.
As I began to have more volunteers than weeks left in the series, I recognized the benediction I’d inadvertently conferred on each guest. The invitation to present a snapshot of their weekday work life in a space committed to liturgy and sacrament helped the contributors rightly frame their livelihoods as participation in the kingdom. The guest contributors seemed energized by the opportunity to share a bit of their everyday occupational lives, and in turn, told me they’d received a renewed sense of gratitude for the community with which they spend the majority of their lives—their colleagues.
In her excellent reflection on the story our work lives tell, Finding Livelihood author Nancy Nordenson draws our attention to the communal nature of our work lives with the question, “How can an individual body of work contribute to a corporate body of work to participate in a universal, eternal, world-without-end body of work?”
A Missional Invitation
We can offer our communities an invitation to listen to their stories of livelihood, the ways they “participate in a universal, eternal, world-without-end body of work.” As work culture has taken the place of church community and finding one’s purpose has evolved as its central creed, we can invite stories as a gift to those who are questioning the inherent value of their work.
We confer blessing when we ask the questions, “What do you offer the world?” “Where do your gifts belong?” “What does your life look like, say, on a Tuesday afternoon?” “What weighs you down by Friday?” “What gets you out of bed on Monday?” “What’s the story your work is telling about you, now and world-without-end?” And then, we can, and must, in a faithful, non-anxious way, listen to what they have to say.
This may sound like strains of the last decade’s faith and work conversation among Christian leaders. It contains that conversation, but the scope is deeper, wider and broader. In her theologically-grounded work, Kingdom Calling, Amy L. Sherman describes the traditionally-embraced faith and work strategies as limited to evangelistic strategies or righteous work ethics. She encourages readers toward a view that our work is a place to bring “foretastes of the kingdom of God into reality.”
The thread connecting mission and vocation needs to be sturdier than workplace relationships and habits—as valuable as they are. It needs to connect us to the questions of identity that are keeping our friends and colleagues awake at night. The thread is one of faithful, non-anxious presence among the adherents of what some are calling America’s new religion of workism, which does not offer a foretaste of the kingdom of God.
Tamara Hill Murphy lives with her husband Brian, an Anglican priest, in Bridgeport, CT. Her writing has appeared in Think Christian, Art House America, and Englewood Review of Books. Find her at tamarahillmurphy.com or follow her on Facebook at Tamara Hill Murphy-A Sacramental Life.