“But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future´s sakes”
Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Town”
I grew up in a time when the spiritual gifts test was becoming popular in churches. When I first took it in college, my test was off the charts for “speaking” and “teaching” and really low for “hospitality” and “service.”
I’m a Mary, not a Martha.
At the youth group we worked with in Brazil several years ago, we thought it would be fun to hand out those tests to the college-age kids. It was great until we found out the older boys who didn’t rank high in “service” kept folding their arms after any activity and refusing to help because it wasn’t their gift to clean up. They’d yell at the one poor girl whose gift was service that she wasn’t doing it right. (College boys are college boys all over the world.)
To be honest, I feel like I do that sometimes. I focus on what I’m good at, what makes me happy, to the detriment of what needs to be done. The last ten years have been a long process of moving me away from this habit.
I picked a vocation that suits my gifts as an English professor. I’m really good at what I do. I like it quite a bit.
I also spend most of my time doing the things I’m not good at, serving and opening up my life and helping in ways that are outside my God-given gifts, or at least the ones on the test. I think, in fact, that’s the point.
I love the line in the Robert Frost poem that avocation and vocation become united “where love and need are one.” Because of my love for my children, for my refugee friends, and so many other unexpected friends in my life whose needs have slowly altered my focus, my avocation, my passion, my purpose, is changing.
I’m better at teaching English than I am playing patty-cake with babies or making jewelry or running a social business. I’m the most horrible at selling things; I was the worst salesperson in the history of my Girl Scout troop. Everything I know about fashion I learned from Project Runway.
Which is why the fact that I started a non-profit in which I help artisans make fashionable jewelry and then sell it, or that I’m quitting most things to adopt a special needs baby from China is so amazingly and outrageously crazy.
These are not the things I planned to do with my life.
Most of the things I do are not things I would say I’m very good at.
Honestly, if you had told me ten years ago what I would be doing, I probably would have responded like those boys in the youth group: “That’s not where my gifts are” or worse, “That’s not my job.
And yet I find over and over again in the handful of situations that I can claim with certainty that God has called me to, my spiritual gifts were not used. Sometimes I speak and I might even do it well; often I have served and done it poorly and yet God calls me back into that service unseen, unnoticed, day in and day out.
I have been the most useful through casseroles and prayer chains and hastily-made-up-beds and phone calls about open jobs a refugee might be interested in and playing on the street with children that I barely know.
I will be, by the end of this year, a doctor of English literature. The best classes I have ever taught have been to women who are illiterate in their own languages.
I am a woman who wasn’t sure she wanted children and now I am desperate to get to our third child in China.
To help our artisans, I’ve learned where to buy the best yarn, how to make a backstrap loom, how to say “shuttle” and “loom” and “weave” in various Hill Triber dialects.
I am learning, literally and metaphorically, how to weave.
Robert Frost’s poem implies that the avocation and the vocation, the passion and the job, can be the same. And for a select few people, I think that’s true. For the rest of us, there are seasons where our job is our identity and there are seasons when we leave it behind.
Sometimes that means quitting our jobs and moving to a far-off place and changing the world. Most often it means putting less of our focus on our careers and doing the small, unseen, unheard of things that change our own corner. For me, it means letting go of my own big grand goals and focusing on the small parts of my life I can impact every day.
It’s about worrying less about I’ll be when I grow up or what I’ll do when I graduate and thinking more about what I can do here, today.
In our individualistic culture we are so used to thinking we need to do the things we want to do or that make us happy or even that give us purpose. Instead, perhaps we are called to go to the places of need and darkness and discomfort whether or not it’s our passion or our gift.
Maybe we’re called to go to those places of need out of love, even if it’s not our job.
J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at loveiswhatyoudo.wordpress.com.