Beyond Our Labels

Back when I lived in Texas, I used to play basketball with a group of guys during lunch 3 times a week. This is a game that had been going on for what seems like forever. I first played with these guys when I just a skinny high school kid and had returned to play with them again after more than a decade.

The group changed throughout the years as people moved in and out, but the core was always there, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It’s one of the things I miss most about Texas.

One day while several of us were waiting for our turn to play, we were talking about life — our families, jobs, etc. Someone asked me about my ministry and so I told them about my church and what was going on with the youth group. One person who was only there occasionally gave me a puzzled look and exclaimed, “Wait, you’re a pastor?! You don’t act like a pastor.”

I didn’t really understand how to take that at first. Did I not act like a pastor on the basketball court? What would that look like anyway? If I got elbowed on one cheek would I have to turn to them the other? Would I be handing out blessings for turned ankles? Because my first thought was that I had not lived up to some expectation this person had.

It bothered me for a few days.

After I thought about it a while, though, it has become a special moment in my life. Because this guy didn’t see my as a “pastor”, he saw me as a person. Devoid of my title and position, I was just Allen, the guy on the basketball court.

Wearing the title of “Minister” can feel confining at times. When I first meet people I dread that moment when the conversation turns to profession. Not because I am in any way ashamed at what I do — I am very proud of my work. Rather because as soon as someone knows I’m a minister, the dynamics of the conversation change.

A wall goes up. People start talking about different things and using different words. I’ve even had people immediately find a reason to leave the conversation.

It feels like that as soon as that label is exposed, that’s all people see.

This really isn’t about being a minister. Because I’m certain you’ve experienced something similar in life no matter what your job is. You’ve been treated like a label instead of the person behind the title. You’ve wanted to look at someone and explain how you are so much more, how you are not defined by the role you have to play. You know what it’s like to be defined by others in unfair ways. You know what it’s like to want to be seen for who you are instead of a label you carry.

2dcc0abIt hurts when someone else does that to us.
But it can hurt even more when we do it to ourselves.

When we talk about vocation, we’re not talking about how others label us, but rather our tendency to confine ourselves to the titles we own.

The most imprisoning labels in our lives are the self-imposed ones.

We think that we’re only a paper salesman or only a stay-at-home mom or only a teenager or only a minister. We limit ourselves to the titles we have or the roles we play.

When the truth is that we are a conglomeration of talents and passions and interests and unique abilities. And each day brings us the opportunity to use these things to participate in the ongoing creation of the world, regardless of our job or our titles.

The labels we wear are merely details in a much bigger story.
They are context.
They are not the main plot.

There’s this great Zen proverb I really love:

“Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.
After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”

The message is this: You have a vocation in the world and it is much bigger than your title or your circumstance. The things you do every day — your responsibilities at home, your job duties — may not change. But the way we go about them and the way we focus on them are a direct reflection of our vocation.

So today, don’t limit yourself. Embrace your vocation in the world and go do that. Your circumstance may not change, but the world will be a better place as a result.

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