“Here Lived a Great Street Sweeper…”

I’ve got two questions I’m going to ask you. Here’s the first one:

“So, what do you do?”

This is one of those standard questions we get asked when we meet somebody  new. Most of us answer with our job: “I’m a plumber”, etc. But why don’t we say, “I play football”, or “I drive my car”? Intuitively, the question expects that we will answer it with our occupation. Furthermore, an interesting grammatical shift happens here: “What do you do?” is answered with “I am…” So, what we do as an occupation is now how we define our very identity. Most of us, in fact, probably identify ourselves by our jobs before we do by our families (only those who work as parents all day answer “I’m a mum or dad”), or by our nation (not many answer, “I am an Australian/American/Italian, etc”).

And yet, there’s a flip side to this, seen in the answer to the next question:

“So, how’s work?”

Now, what emotion does that question evoke in you? Many of us immediately feel the urge to start complaining. The few of us who actually feel enthusiastic about the answer, often get rather nasty looks from people: everybody else hates their job, why should we be the lucky ones who don’t?

So it seems that now, our chief identity marker has to be linked with misery and frustration. This hardly seems to be a good situation!

Part of the issue is that there has been a shift over time, seen in the very word we use to describe our job: it is now occupation, but it used to be primarily a profession, and before that, it was primarily a vocation.

Vocation comes from the Latin for call (vocatio is the root for vocal, as well). Up until the Reformation, most people believed that God only called those who went into clerical or monastic jobs. But the Reformers argued that God calls people into whatever job they do. This meant that there was as much vocation in being a blacksmith as being a monk. Eventually, Catholics agreed (most notably Francis de Sales). But it was England’s Puritans who really took this on, leading to the “Protestant work ethic”. Puritans were often an employer’s best workers, because they worked not just for their boss, but for God Himself. This made work have a new dignity, and it’s precisely at this time that we really see work becoming a primary identity marker.

Secularisation tries to destroy that idea, making us feel that our jobs have nothing to do with God at all. You can see this in the shift from talking about our vocation to our profession. God didn’t call us to our work any more – we did. We professed it. At first, this was a celebration of our autonomy. We decided who we were. In the 1950s and 1960s “boom”, this seemed pretty true, since most middle-class people could choose their jobs.

But ultimately, we discovered that our job wasn’t always our choice. Our boss told us what to do. It thus became just something to occupy our time, our occupation. This has now happened to most of us, but it obviously was a reality for many from low socio-economic groups long before. Martin Luther King Jr once spoke to such a group, some African-American school kids about their job prospects, and this is what he said:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures… like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.[1]

King realised that having an occupation or even a profession just isn’t enough. What we need is a calling. And the only way to have a calling, is to have Somebody Who calls. The fact that such a Caller exists was a great reality that we really need to rediscover. His calling brings a whole new dignity, purpose and focus into our job, and may well change how we answer the question, “So, how’s work?”

Matt Gray


One response to ““Here Lived a Great Street Sweeper…”

  1. Thank you! I’ve been trying to share this idea with the kids I come into contact with in my job (which I view as a calling). I want them to seek that to which they are called. Seek to be the best you can be, don’t just try to get by. You’ve given me some additional stories, facts to utilize.

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