on vocation and vacation


    I turned down a job last week.

    I was surprised, actually. The position was Chef and Kitchen Manager for a local shelter that serves about 650 people a day. I would have had a chance for my careers as minister, chef, and teacher to integrate in a way I have not experienced. I even went for a “cooking interview,” which was quite an experience and a wonderful day. I wrote about it this way in a note to some friends who were praying with me as I went through the interview process:

    . . . and it was like being on a cooking show. I arrived at 6 am to find they had pulled some thin-cut bone-in pork chops out of the freezer (a donation from a Muslim charity who had received the pork and could not use it). I found a #10 can of orange marmalade, a big jar of spicy brown mustard, and about ten regular sized cans of cranberry sauce and decided we would grill the chops (there’s a grill in the kitchen) and then finish them in the oven with the sauce. I found about 40 cans of baked beans and also got about 62 cups of uncooked white rice to which I added four #10 cans of Ro-tel tomatoes and some broccoli I found in the walk-in. (Did I mention they said to cook for 200?).

    My first volunteer was an old man who could not speak, only growl (Errrgghhh) and I had him open the beans which, when I turned my back to check on the grill, he dumped in the pork sauce. So I fished them out. The big square skillet where we were cooking the rice didn’t come on correctly at first and, about an hour and a half before lunch I found out they had only thawed 100 pork chops and we needed twice that many.

    The folks working with me were awesome. We all put our heads down and lunch was ready when it needed to be. They told me the first wave would go out and tell the others what was for lunch and how well they liked the meal would determine how big a crowd we would have overall.

    We served 230.

    They called the next afternoon and offered me the job. When they began talking details, there was a limited amount of vacation time. I countered telling them now much I liked the job and how I knew I needed more time off, but they were confined by the policy of their board and I turned them down.

    I’ve never done that before.

    Growing up in a minister’s house, and spending some years in ministry myself (the UCC considers me “retired”), I was in my thirties before I learned to differentiate between what I do and who I am. I didn’t learn it in church. I was working at Blockbuster video in Charlestown, Massachusetts to try and help pay the bills while Ginger and I tried to plant a church there. I walked up to a woman who had been looking at the rows of video boxes for some time and asked if I could help her find something.

    “Oh,” she said rather startled, “I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”

    Her insensitivity turned into a chance for me to see myself in a new light. I worked at Blockbuster. I wasn’t the guy who rented videos. That was what I did. Still, in all three of my more lengthy vocational experiences – as minister, chef, and teacher – there’s no way around inhabiting the job in some sense. I’ve never felt like I left those things at the office, if you will, the way I could walk away from the video store at night. Yet, even though I am a minister and a chef and a teacher, I am more than those things. And I need more out of my life than work.

    When Lent arrives, I will mark two years that I have been off of my antidepressants. Things are better for reasons I both can and cannot explain. I have learned some things about how to ride the monster a bit differently so that it doesn’t get the best of me. I also know some of the things that trigger the gathering storm. Staying at work all the time is one of them. But that lingering fear is not the main reason for walking away from the job.

    I asked for what I needed to stay healthy and live a somewhat balanced life – and to have some quality time with Ginger – and they couldn’t offer that. So, staring down all the faces that came through the food line, I took care of myself. I felt good about it, I felt sad about it, and I felt a little guilty as well.

    I’m comfortable with the first two emotions, but I’ve stared the last one down. I was a good fit for that job, but I am not the only person in the world, or even in Durham, that can do that job well. One of the passages by Frederick Buechner I have carried with me for years comes from Wishful Thinking:

    Vocation” comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a [person] is called to by God.

    There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self interest.

    The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either.

    … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

    I read those words both differently and more knowingly after last week. I am a minister, a chef, and a teacher, but this was not the place for me to be those things. It was not an easy decision, and I did what I could to find the intersection and didn’t find it there. So I said, “No.”

    All I can do now is trust God and my decision.



    1. This is a powerful post about figuring out where God wants you. We often rush to the need intead of the obedience.

      I’ll be highlighting this on the High Calling weekly newsletter next Wednesday. It’s a message that needs to be hear.

    2. Great post, Milton. That pasage by Beuchner is one of my all-tie favorites.

      I really appreciate your sharing this, and am glad that David is highlighting it this week. Congrats–it’s well-deserved!

    3. This was so enlightening.

      I’m meditating on that passage by Beuchner. I’ve heard that last part quoted and didn’t understand it as fully as I do now. Having read the whole passage and listened to your story, it becomes so clear to me.

      It’s marvelous to hear such wisdom–that you would turn down a job because the rest would not be enough. We (I) push myself beyond what is healthy, and the aftermath plays out in my life.

      Great post. Thanks, David.


    4. It is an act of trust and dependence to refuse an offer of work because you know it will jeopardize your health. I’m impressed.

      And this quote…I think I’ll be chewing on it for a few days:
      “… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

      Thank you for writing this post.

    5. I read this one when you posted but am reading it again now. Thanks for putting out a blog that causes pause rather than a quickening of the stream of “info” that swells around us.

      I encourage you to continue making the decisions that nurture you rather than wear you out. Thanks for reminding us to do the same with your reflections.

    6. A prophetic post, Milton, for those of us who can’t say no and who believe, foolishly, that our identity is our vocation.

      I’m glad you did what you did, even as I felt pain for the shelter.

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