In her poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
There are a lot of ways to answer that question.
You could make a lot of money.
Marry a movie star.
Or become the most powerful person in the world.
But if you think about it, none of these life choices can be honestly described as “wild” and/or “precious.”
So how does one find a worthy answer to the question: “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Let’s not kid ourselves — this question isn’t simple. In fact it’s multifaceted. If we were simply trying to decide what kind of career to choose, whether to get married or have kids or where to make our homes, it would be so much simpler.
But the question is so much bigger than that. It encompasses all these possibilities and more. It involves our whole lives, and we only get one chance to make our time on Earth count.
In the Lutheran context we refer to this constellation of questions as “vocation,” a word derived from the Latin word vocatio, which literally means “calling.” In Luther’s day the concept of vocation was exclusively applied to religious callings like those of a priest, monk or nun. It wasn’t a word that applied to the common people.
As both a monk and a priest, Luther had a vocation, but he came to believe that the term applied equally to all Christians. He believed that God calls all people to different stations in life so that they can be a blessing to their neighbors.
That means that mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, teachers, farmers, businesspeople, elected officials and custodians have a calling. So long as these relationships and careers are done for the good of others they are as holy and important as those of pastors and church professionals.
Under-girding Luther’s understanding of “vocation” is a rather complicated theological concept called the “two kingdoms” or “reigns” of God.
Luther believed that God’s love is expressed in two ways. In the earthly kingdom (aka the kingdom on the left) God rules or reigns through the law. God orders our world so that the needs of God’s people can be met and all are treated justly. In the heavenly kingdom (aka the kingdom on the right) God rules through grace by granting us salvation and eternal life, not through our own merits, but by the blood of Jesus.
It’s easy to misunderstand Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms because grace sounds so much better than law. But it’s important to understand that God’s love is expressed in both kingdoms and that they are intimately related to one another.
Because of human sinfulness the earthly kingdom must be ruled by law, which at its best keeps us from hurting one another and actually allows us to be a blessing to others. In the heavenly kingdom there is no need for the law because we are in the presence of God.
The earthly kingdom is like a reflection of the heavenly kingdom. Often it’s a distorted reflection like you’d see in a fun house mirror, but it still retains the basic character of the heavenly kingdom. But through the law and our vocations God is at work in the earthly kingdom straightening out that imperfect reflection which will one day be as clear as day when Jesus returns and the heavenly kingdom becomes our only reality.
So what does this have to do with your vocation? With the many choices and decisions that stand before you?
The best way to answer that question is to look at the cross. The cross is what holds together these two kingdoms of God. Through the cross God has broken into our world and changed it forever. By conquering sin and death God has invited us into a new way of understanding our lives and our callings. God has given us direction and purpose for our lives through the cross on which God revealed God’s self and the reality of God’s kingdom.
The cross is at the same time both liberating and captivating. We are set free from sin and death through the selfless example of Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7a).
We cannot look at the example of Jesus on the cross and still believe that the purpose of our “one wild and precious life” is self-indulgence. Instead, we are called to empty ourselves, to take on the form of a slave in our vocations, so that we can reflect the self-giving love of Christ by using our freedom to serve and love others. That is our vocation. That is our calling.
The irony is that God has given us the freedom to do what we want with our “wild and precious lives,” and yet, when we look at what God has done for us, there is only one choice — to serve and to love.
There are a lot of voices out there trying to tell you what to do with your life. And most of them will tell you to abuse your freedom, to grab as much for yourself as quickly as you can. But that isn’t the example set for us by Jesus. Nor is it a life that honors the wild and precious gift that you’ve been given.
Don Miller opens his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years with these words:
If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you probably wouldn’t cry when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers.
You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on and sit in a chair to think about what you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.
But we spend years living those stories in real life and expect our experiences to feel meaningful. In truth, if the stuff we are doing with our lives wouldn’t make a movie meaningful, it won’t make a real life meaningful either. (p. 8)
Think about that as you consider what you’ll do with your one wild and precious life. There are lots of different ways for you to live out your vocation so that it both honors the example of Christ and is worthy of being called “wild and precious.” Don’t settle for anything less.