There are two words very similar in sound but continents apart in meaning. What you do to make your living, to earn your money, is called your “vocation.” But if you just add one letter to the beginning of that word, you get something very different because adding an “a” to the beginning makes the word “avocation” something very different. Two people can be doing exactly the same thing yet for one it is a vocation and for the other an avocation. Vocation is simply a descriptive word for your efforts, your work, but avocation denotes devotion, love, something you don’t do for pay but would actually pay to do. Each of you will know some teachers, some nurses, some doctors, some pastors who merely have a vocation and others in the exact same field who have an avocation—their heart’s work. For some, their avocation is not their occupation but their hobby or their charity work or their mission work, frequently working for no pay and in some cases actually paying in order to participate. We get no pay here as we are unpaid, volunteer missionaries running the mission and all of our projects with our own money coming from Social Security—it’s all we’ve got and we give over 80% away every month.
In my opinion, one of the greatest evangelical movements in the United Methodist Church is the “Walk to Emmaus” which is based on the original Catholic “Cursillo” which started in the 1940’s. It exists in many forms with many names depending on the denomination or lack thereof, but each is almost exactly the same. It is a three-day experience in which, if you are open, you encounter the Holy Spirit and begin to understand what that means to your life. For many, it is a life change to a new direction and a new devotion to God. The people who do all the work, the speakers, the clergy, the kitchen staff, the sixty or so who work with the pilgrims or behind the scenes all have to pay to participate, and it isn’t cheap. No one pays them—it is their devotion to this experience that calls them to do whatever it takes to offer the experience to others. I’m sure there must be some folks, somewhere who do it for other reasons, but almost everyone I have ever met working these “Walks” were doing it because it had become an avocation for them. I went on my “Walk to Emmaus” in 1990 in Peacedale, Rhode Island, and up until we moved to Africa, I participated in almost fifty “Walks” serving as clergy on all of them and as Spiritual Director on more than thirty of them. You can’t work on one if you haven’t been on one, and even then, you have to be selected because there are almost always more who want to work than there are positions to be filled. What I am doing now here in Africa is my avocation, my calling, the thing I cannot not do, the thing that I will continue to do no matter what others may do to my name or position in the church back in the U.S., like the Bishop of Arkansas illegally stripping me of my credentials and kicking me out of the denomination. The God I serve is not bound by national boundaries or denominational labels or church politics. If you only have a vocation (and sadly, for many bishops, it is only that for them), you can get by in life, but you will never truly live it until you find your avocation—the thing you would pay to do. Your avocation gives you life, comfort, strength, resilience, patience, and the ability to overcome the obstacles placed in your path by other people and by circumstances. It would not surprise me in the least if each one of you has not known pastors who were merely following their vocation and pastors whose avocation led them to be part of the change that Christ has called for us individually and as a church. I didn’t want to go on a “Walk to Emmaus” and dug in my heels, but I did go and it changed my life, my direction, and through it I became an authentic Christian with my very own “Aldersgate” experience. It’s not the same for everyone, but if you get a chance, take a chance and meet the Holy Spirit in person. I did.