“What do you want to be when you grown up?” This question is the favorite for primary school programs and end-of-academic year reflection. The wording gets nuanced as you get older…people start asking, “what do you want to do after college,” but the sentiment is the same. And you know you’re somehow middle-aged when people quit asking you this question!
But the question lingers, even for people in their 30s, 40s, and beyond. The dream career in a hazy future gives way to questions of vocation, of purpose. Am I fulfilling my purpose in life? Do I even have a purpose in life? Does my work matter? For some lucky individuals, their work provides a great sense of fulfillment, but for many the day-to-day occupations that pay the bills feel hollow, empty of ultimate significance.
What is our vocation as humans, anyway? Do we each have some unique task we are called to, some unique role to play in the world of human work? And, if so, does that mean that some people are called to work at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s? Or is vocation simply another privilege of the rich?
Genesis tells the story of creation. In it God brings order out of darkness and chaos, day-by-day structuring the material world and making matter hospitable to life, to the flourishing of plants and animals. God commands the earth and all that is within it to be fruitful and multiple. Finally, the narrative concludes with God resting, enjoying what he has made. Within this story, humans are also created and given a specific role in the world. Humans are instructed to tend and subdue creation, to bring order and foster life. This work reflects the loving, ordering, life-giving and fostering identity of God.
In one of the two version of creation given in the Bible, Adam (a name that literally means, “earthling” or “dirtman”) is given the creative work of naming the animals. While some argue that this is an act of dominance, Adam does not impose order on the animals. Rather, he observes and names them based on their kind, making this naming an act of science and literary art. The story models observation, classification and linguistic creation as work particularly suited to humans.
Apart from naming the animals, the Bible presents the work of “tending” the garden, of “subduing” creation, and of being “fruitful and multiplying” as the basic work for humans. Many have misread and misused these words as permission to abuse the earth and/or subjugate women into purely reproductive roles. But such political uses miss the basic human vocation embedded within the narrative. What’s fascinating in this narrative is that the work of tending the garden, of bringing order and fostering the flourishing of the natural world is fundamentally domestic work. It is the routine, the hum-drum that we often position as a distraction from our real vocations. But, in Genesis, growing food and preparing meals, cleaning and organizing the home, bringing structure to children who grow like weeds, eating and loving and resting together are presented as the created purpose for all people—men and women. At its heart, the most essentially human work—the most basic human vocation—is the daily work of fostering life.
So, next time you are pulling weeds, cleaning house, mowing the lawn, or changing a poopy nappy, remember…this is what you were made for. In these humble acts you bear the image of the God who brings order to chaos, the God who fosters diverse and delightful life.