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Killing John’s Ego (A Vocational Question)

Today, I’m continuing my series on vocation. For the previous posts, follow this link.

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This week, I’ve been wrestling with vocational irrelevance, with the freedom it could bring if it didn’t hurt my ego so much. As I’ve spilled no small amount of ink on the topic, I’ve been considering whether there might be some secret in the scriptures, some word on vocational irrelevance and the death of ego.  A person of the scriptures as I am (or would like to be), it seems appropriate to mine whatever insight I might from those pages. There’s gold in them-there hills, I’ve been told.

In the quieter spaces of the week, I took inventory of the people of the text, ordinary folks who laid aside their ego for a “cause greater than oneself” or to “surrender to a person other than oneself….” (A phrase we learned from Victor Frankl in yesterday’s piece.) I considered the vocation of mother Mary, how she laid aside her public reputation and endured a certain scandal in order to become a homemaker for the son of God. I considered Matthew the tax collector, who left behind the security and relevance of his businessman status to follow Jesus, who recorded Jesus’s warnings on practicing good works for the purpose of being seen, or relevant. I considered these examples and others, and then I considered the very cousin of Jesus, John the Baptizer.

Could you call John’s desert preaching a vocation? I’m not sure, and perhaps desert preaching isn’t a vocation or career as we’d recognize it today (ahem), but it was the thing he did, the thing for which he was known. And in his years of desert preaching, he was quite popular, a known quotient, a relevant fella. In that desert, he told the crowds–rich and poor alike–he pointing to the one who was to come. He was preparing the platform for another. But were those just super-holy-sounding platitudes? Were they nothing more than marketable words?

John 3 records the execution of the baptizer’s ego. There, in the desert where John practiced his vocation, his followers came to him, told him Jesus had set up shop upstream and was also baptizing the people. “Look,” they said, “everyone is going to that other prophet, to the competition.” In his slippery slide from Man-Of-The-Hour to complete irrelevance, John responded:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I have said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ … Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

~John 3:27-30 (ESV)

With that, the ministry of John ended, and it ended in complete joy. In a matter of months, John lost his head and made his way to the eternal shore.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to draw any conclusions from John the Baptist’s story. After all, how many of us are called to wear animal skin, eat honey-covered insects, and proclaim a prophetic word in the desert? (Though I concede there may be a few, they are likely not reading this piece.) But consider those things that might ring familiar. Consider his disciples, how they wanted their teacher to be The Big Deal In The Desert. Consider John’s response, how he told them that relevance was not the ends of his ministry; his vocational aspiration was to serve the person greater than himself, and in the end, he put his neck on the line to prove how serious he was.

So, as I end this series on vocation and our need for relevance, validation, and visibility (at least for now), know this: it’s okay to languish in irrelevance so long as you’re doing your best to serve the greater cause or surrender to the person greater than yourself. It’s okay to become less, to put the ego to death, so long as you’re elevating the divine. It’s okay to strive less, be seen less, be less known. Less relevant doesn’t make you less successful; in fact, from the eternal perspective, it might be the badge of your salvation.

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As I work through this short series on vocation, please feel free to invite others along.  I know I’m not alone in my questions on this topic, and I’d love to hear how you and your people are processing your own vocational questions.

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Lying Under the Invisibility Cloak (A Vocational Question)

Relevance, validation, affirmation—if we’re honest, don’t most of us want these? If we’re honest, don’t most of us hope to find these in our careers, our vocations, our workplaces? The more pious might chime in here, might say, “I only seek relevance and validation in the eyes of The One,” and perhaps that’s true (for them). But my life-experience has taught me something about the things we say: so often we use our words like fresh paint (as if there’s no rust underneath) or reverse psychology (as if we can say ourselves into believing) or invisibility cloaks (as if we can hide our human frailty under fantasy and magic).

The desire to be seen, known, and recognized as successful is as human as breathing. It grows from ego, sure, but weren’t we all created with an ego (which most certainly ensures our survival)? But the play of modern career–doesn’t it exacerbate the ego’s already voracious appetite?

Allow me to answer that last question for you. Yes.

This, I think, is why it’s high time we said the true thing instead of the right (i.e., the marketable) thing. And here’s the true thing, at least for me: I want you to see me as a relevant, successful, and important as I go about my craft, my career. (I said as much on Tuesday.)

For three days, now, I’ve been noodling on vocation, relevance, irrelevance, and success. As much as I’d love for you to see this noodling as a poignant, maybe even novel work on the topic, let me be clear: this is not new stuff. (Is there anything new under the sun?) There are others who’ve written competent volumes on the ways in which our vocational aspirations so often fall prey to the ego. Consider vocational guru Victor Frankl’s statement about vocational success from his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Don’t aim at success [or relevance, or validation, or affirmation]. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. … [S]uccess, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

(The bracketed language is my own, but seems a fitting addition.)

See?

Success, relevance, validation—none of these things are ends. They are so often outside our control, even if we’d like to pretend that hard work and talent will bring us the goods. These byproducts–they come if they come (or on occasion, if you have the money to buy them), but if they do not, c’est la vie. Sometimes vocational success isn’t in the cards.

So, I can’t make you confront your lesser angel of ego, but I can lead you to purer water. And here’s how I’ll lead: I’ll be honest with the ways my ego drives my work, and I’ll say the true thing even if it’s not the thing I should say. In that confession, I’ll try my best to reach toward what Frankl calls serving a cause greater than myself or surrendering to a person other than myself. Maybe this will set me (even you?) on the proper vocational course. What is that course?

Let’s explore that tomorrow. See you then?

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As I work through this short series on vocation, please feel free to invite others along.  I know I’m not alone in my questions on this topic, and I’d love to hear how you and your people are processing your own vocational questions.

 

***TINY MEMBERSHIP DRIVE***

The content here takes hours (and no small amount of spare change) to produce. If you enjoy reading my content, whether here, in the bi-monthly Tiny Letter, or in any of my free email campaigns, would you consider SUPPORTING THE WORK? (It’ll only set you back a cup of coffee a month.) And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, sign up to receive it straight to your inbox.

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Bullets to the Bodies (A Vocational Question)

Yesterday, I wrote of my vocational transition, the ways in which I’m trading down–local vocational relevance for an increasing irrelevance. As an attorney, I cultivated the appearance of importance. I was a partner in the largest firm in the state. I worked on the right cases (sometimes), learned the right angles (a few acute and obtuse ones, too). I owned nice suits and power ties.

Then, I quit.

Now, I’ve adopted a new vocational persona–the pensive writer (let’s call a thing a thing) whose local vocational relevance is waning. I peck words on a keyboard in the local coffee shop, and The Suits I’ve known for so many years waive and nod from the counter without stopping by my table. (Except Dale Brown–a gentleman and scholar if ever there were one.) I’m not the person to know around the community anymore. I’m just a guy. Plain and simple.

But is it that plain and simple? I want you to believe it’s all so romantic, so take-up-my-crossy. But I can’t run from the truth: I ain’t no saint.

In the downward slide of local vocational relevance, I’m learning how easy it is to transfer my need for relevance and competency to the new vocation. Now, relevance isn’t measured by suits, or the amount of money in my account, or the size of my nest egg. Now, it’s measured in page-views, or book sales, or new subscribers, or social media shares. (That was a most embarrassing sentence to write.) It’s measured in the CLANG!-CLANG!-CLANG!-look-at-my-opinions-and-say-MMMMMMMMMMM-HMM (with all those M-s).

Relevance is the dog you adopted from the animal shelter, the one who will not ever leave you be.

My confession today is simple: my need for vocational competency and relevance did not die the day I left the law office, the day I’d have you believe I left everything behind to follow the divine path. (Doesn’t that sound so spiritual?) Perhaps leaving my previous career was a bullet to the leg but not to the head. And though I apologize for the metaphorical crassness, did Paul not say we had to murder our lesser selves to be set free? (Romans 6:7)

Like so many, I’m still looking for freedom in my vocation, and by freedom, I mean a way to be myself, free of expectation, the hounding need for competency, the need for relevance that’s as persistent as a hangover. I’m looking for a way to become more by becoming less. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m starting with the right question, I think:

What is the aim of my vocation?

Keep asking the question with me. Keep digging, digging, digging. Keep noticing how much of your vocation is driven by the need for relevance, competency, and validation. Keep noticing the lesser bodies that need killing.

Come along?

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As I work through this short series on vocation, please feel free to invite others along.  I know I’m not alone in my questions on this topic, and I’d love to hear how you and your people are processing your own vocational questions.

***TINY MEMBERSHIP DRIVE***

The content here takes hours (and no small amount of spare change) to produce. If you enjoy reading my content, whether here, in the bi-monthly Tiny Letter, or in any of my free email campaigns, would you consider SUPPORTING THE WORK? (It’ll only set you back a cup of coffee a month.) And, if you enjoy this website and haven’t yet signed up for the bi-monthly Tiny Letter newsletter, sign up to receive it straight to your inbox.

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