vocation

Everything I Needed to Know About Vocation I Learned at the Lord's Supper

On my mother's Sunday table was a feast fit for a southern king: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, pecan pie, and plenty of other country delicacies. Back then, eating at a Chinese restaurant was about as cross-cultural an experience as I could imagine. Over the years, I've expanded the horizons of my palate to sample everything from Iranian to Indian to Russian cuisine. And most of it, while no match to my momma's cooking, has pleased my palate. However, I do live by a strict rule: when I'm about to try a new cultural restaurant, I never go alone. I take along a food-wise friend. I lean on him for advice about what to order, what combination of foods is best, what drinks complement the entree, and even how to eat (with my fingers? a fork? a piece of bread?). The meal, in addition to a culinary experience, also becomes a learning experience. The meal at which I have learned the most, however, was not at a restaurant but a church. There’s no need for a menu because everyone receives and consumes the same items. The conversation around the table is minimal. I eat, then drink, while on my knees. Outwardly, the meal is spartan, hardly sufficient to ease a man’s hunger or slake his thirst, but inwardly the meal is regal, feeding a man’s hunger with the only food that satisfies, slaking his thirst with a drink that puts to shame the finest of wines. At this meal of meals, the supper of Jesus, He serves me Himself. And in so doing, He also teaches me something profoundly important. As He feeds me His body, as He pours in me His blood, I learn how to be a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a worker. Everything I need to know about vocation I learn at the Lord’s Supper.

Vocation: More Than What We Do For a Living

Let me explain what I mean by first clarifying what I mean by vocation. We usually understand vocation in a very narrow sense; it’s your job, your “calling.” Vocation, however, is not so much what you do for a living but what Christ does through you for the living. It’s a 24/7 calling, not a 9 to 5 occupation. A child’s vocation is to be a son or daughter to parents; a spouse’s vocation is to be a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband. And, of course, if you have a job, that too is a vocation, whether you’re a priest or policeman, carpenter or accountant. In each of these vocations, you have people to love, to serve, to take care of. Yet—and this is of the utmost importance—it is not so much you who serve your neighbor as Christ who serves your neighbor through you. You have been crucified with Jesus on the cross of baptism, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you (Gal 2:20). It is no longer you who are a wife but Jesus who is a wife through you; no longer you who are a teacher, but Jesus who is a teacher through you. Your vocation, as with your identity, is bound up in Him.

Permitting Ourselves to be Eaten and Drunk

Whatever vocation God has given to you, you learn what that calling is all about at the Lord’s Supper. Just as He gives Himself to you in this meal, so He goes on to give Himself through you to your neighbor in your vocation. He pours the blood of His love into your body and then pours Himself through you into others as you faithfully serve in your vocations. Luther puts it this way:

Now this is the fruit [of the Lord’s Supper], that even as we have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Christ the Lord, we in turn permit ourselves to be eaten and drunk, and say the same words to our neighbor, Take, eat and drink…meaning to offer yourself with all your life, even as Christ did with all that he had. (Sermons of Martin Luther; trans. and ed. J. N. Lenker; Grand Rapids: Baker; Volume 2:208)

We eat the Lord by the faith of the Word which the soul consumes and enjoys. In this way my neighbor also eats me: I give him my goods, body, and life and all I have, and let him consume and use it in his want. Likewise I also need my neighbor; I too am poor and afflicted, and suffer him to help and serve me in turn. Thus we are woven one into the other, helping one another even as Christ helped us. (2:213)

Therefore, when I kneel beside my wife at the altar rail, there Christ also shows me how to be a husband to her. Just as Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her, uniting His body with her own in this meal, so I should love my wife as my own body, nourish and cherish our united body, even as Christ does for the church (Eph 5:25, 28-29). When I kneel beside my son and daughter, there Christ shows me how to be a father to them. Just as Jesus feeds and cares for me in this Supper, clothes me with His righteousness, so I in turn care for my children by giving myself wholly to them in my vocation as their dad.

In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord holds nothing back. He gives us His life. He gives us His forgiveness. He gives us Himself. When we return to the pew, then later go out to our cars and drive home, then awake Monday morning to go about our various callings, we still carry Jesus with us. Unlike every other meal, wherein we digest the food and turn it into ourselves, in the Lord’s Supper the food turns us into itself. Jesus transforms our bodies into His. We become as He is. So whatever we do, we do in and through and with Jesus. Or, as I prefer to say it, Jesus does it in and through and with us. We become His lips to speak, His hands to work, His feet to walk. Just as He gave us Himself in the Supper on Sunday, so He gives Himself to others through us in our vocations every day of the week.

The next time you change your baby’s diaper, or make a sales call, or nail a shingle to the roof, remember this: just as Jesus has hidden Himself under those simple forms of bread and wine, so He hides Himself under the simple acts of your vocation. And just as He gave Himself to you in such simple profundity, so He continues to give Himself to others through you in the simple, but profound, acts of your vocation. When all is said and done, everything you need to know about vocation was learned at the Lord’s Supper.

The Blind, Demented Woman Who Introduced Me to Myself

I had to introduce myself to her every time I visited. A thin curtain, strung from wall to wall, halved her already tiny room. The air was thick with that unmistakable nursing home odor. She’d point her two sightless eyes in my direction and ask, “Who?” I’d tell her again. Then as she sat on the edge of her tiny bed, and I on a nearby fold-up chair, we would visit as if for the first time. And as we talked, this blind, mere wisp of a woman would unwittingly remind me of who I was.

Who was I? A very different man from who I am now. I was a naïve, inexperienced pastor in his mid-twenties; now, a couple of decades and a lot of scars later, I am no longer a pastor, no longer naïve, and certainly experienced in a few things of which I wish I’d remained ignorant. Time and life and sin—yes, let us not forget that dirty word—they have their way with a man. Nevertheless, as I peer back over the years between the me-then and the me-now, I see one striking similarity. I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.

When I sat in that nursing home, with this sweet elderly woman, I was her pastor, there to give Jesus to her in word and meal. Yet what I really wanted people to think of me was that I was a professor-in-training, a man of deep learning, who knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand. I was a man who wrestled with doubt and unbelief, but I wanted everyone to think I was a man of unwavering faith. I was a mere servant, and not a good one at that, but I wanted everyone to think of me as that guy with those three Master’s degrees, who has mastered this, and mastered that, and deserved to go far and do well.

Today, older yet evidently still as foolish, I fight the same battles. I drive a truck for a living, delivering and picking up freight, but I want others to think of me as a former professor who’s published a couple of books. I am now very happily married, but also twice-divorced, but I want others to think that I’ve never screwed up, that I’ve always been the ideal husband. Some days I wonder if there even is a God, much less one who loves me, yet I want other to think I’m a Christian who’s got it all together. Yes, I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.

A woman who suffered from dementia, who saw nothing through her eyes but blackness, she would remind me of who I am. An amazing thing would happen as we talked. When we got past the superficial introductions—since she always forgot who I was—I would speak to her of our lost condition, of our sin, of the dreadful place we find ourselves in apart from God, condemned by His law because of our transgressions. Then I would tell her of Jesus, who sought us in love, who bled out His life’s blood to wash away our transgressions, who exited the tomb alive and well that we might follow Him in our resurrection.

Every single time, after she had listened, speechless, to all I said, she would respond with shock and surprise, as if this were the first time in her life that she had heard the Gospel. She would literally rejoice, almost laugh with glee, that God loved her so much that He would do all things for her. If blind eyes could light up, hers would illumine the room. Then I would open my little Communion case, pour a little wine, select a couple of wafers, say the words of Jesus, and feed her the body crucified, the blood poured out, the gift given in God’s own Son.

Every time I visited this precious child of God, I remembered who I was really was. And thinking back on now, I remember the same. She would introduce me to myself. I am a man with a life full of regret, full of failure, whom Jesus loves without regret, without fail. No matter what job I have, I am defined not by what I do but by what God has done for me in His Son. No matter how stupid or how smart I am, no matter who much I know or how little, the only knowledge that really matters is that Jesus was ready and willing to die for me. That is my identity: I am Jesus’ friend, for He is the friend of sinners.

A woman who could barely remember who she was, much less who I am; a woman who couldn’t see a thing, much less read my soul through my eyes; this woman would teach me who I was. She would see the real me, and introduce me to myself.