There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Five
"Every life is lived toward a horizon, a distant vision of what lies ahead. The quality of our action depends heavily on whether that horizon is dark with death or full of light and life." ~ Parker Palmer
I have mostly related the facts, circumstances, and organizational dynamics surrounding our transition from Jacob's Well to New Zealand in this series so far. That might make it seem like our decision was primarily a response to circumstances that had become unsustainable for me. While that was certainly a part of what was happening, it was not all. In this post, I want to consider our decision from a spiritual point of view - though I am not sure "spiritual point of view" is the right way to get at what I am trying to communicate. Nevertheless, to do that I'd like to refer to a comment a former pastor made in response to my last post. He raises the issue of "calling." I want to use what he wrote as a jumping off point to engage this facet of the story.
"I can identify with the issues of transition Meredith described to you from my own journey. What I re-learned was the importance of and the role of call, and that God's call on our lives is not a fixed state but can move us in new directions (or even countries!) for a season of life."
He is so right and I think he touches on a critical point that many of us misunderstand related to calling. It is common to conceive of calling largely in terms of a vocation or job. Thus, many people understand what they spend their time doing every day as their "calling." You might hear a person say that they are called to be a teacher, a mother, a banker, or a pastor, for example. And that idea about calling is right, or maybe true - as far as it goes. But such an understanding risks mistaking a particular manifestation of a calling for something more fundamental. What might that something be?
I would like to suggest that calling is less a thing we have or do as it is a way of being and responding to a God who speaks. To have a calling does not mean a person has discovered a career path that is now "fixed" because the necessary routes of discernment have been faithfully navigated - though that may be the case. I believe a calling is a ongoing way of being present to God such that our whole being communicates, in the language of the prophets, "Here am I."
To understand calling in this holistic way means that no part of our lives remain untouched. It means that we have accepted the invitation from God to follow his call. And what is that call? I believe it is the call to become truly human - as God in Christ intends human beings to be - and to participate with God in the renewal of all things through Christ. When the inner realities of our heart, mind, and will reflect a posture that says, "Here am I," the specifics of where we are and what we do take their appropriate and relative place. Understood in this way, calling becomes much more than a vocation or job. It becomes an ongoing way of being available and postured to respond. So oriented, our jobs or vocations become only one of a number of possible opportunities to experience and participate in the transformation God makes possible in Christ through his Spirit.
Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he writes, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters..." (Colossians 3:23). I think most people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the right "what." It strikes me Paul has little, if any, interest in the question of "what." He was a pharisee, a Jew, a Roman citizen, an apostle, a prisoner, and a tent-maker, after all. That is probably why he says that "whatever" you do, do it as a person called by God - not simply as an employee toiling for a paycheck. So not "what" then, but "who" and "how" and "why." The critical task is not discovering the right tasks, per se, but developing and maintaining a spirit of responsiveness to God in one's heart and mind and will (and body) in all circumstances.
Of course, that is much more easily said than done. It is further complicated by the fact that a job or vocation that was received in response to God's calling in one season of life becomes an impediment to continued availability when, in a new season, God's Spirit begins to move us in another direction. Let me clarify something that I think it is important to say at this point, though. I do not believe that being open to possibility or maintaining a posture of continued availability means we skim the surface of life and relationships, one eye constantly scanning the horizon for the next thing. To be called means being open to possibility while recognizing the goodness and necessity of stability and deep connections with people in specific places over a significant period of time. After all, God uses people to affect our transformation more often than not.
It was during my final season at Jacob's Well that I realized that it was becoming increasingly difficult to discern and respond to God's voice in the way I am describing. I had a growing fear that I was beginning to "go through the motions." The irony is that this was the exact phrase I used to describe what I felt in many of the churches I interacted with before we decided to church plant. I sensed many churches and leaders were simply going through the motions with little expectation of engaging with God or their environment. Jacob's Well began as an experiment to see if we might engage God as a community in ways that were creative, fresh, and faithful. By most accounts, it was a "success." The very thing we hoped for took place, though in ways none of us could have predicted. But now the success we achieved became, for me, a stumbling block to ongoing engagement with myself and with God.
I struggled during that time with what some have named a "holy discontent." I had a sense that God was actively drawing me into a new space, though I didn't have any idea what that space was or how I might find it. I thought I was called to Jacob's Well. What I later re-discovered was that God calls me to himself and that my connection to that or any community is nothing if it is not an overflow of this simple truth. It was now time to let go and entrust myself, my family, and the church to God. It was time to rediscover my identity and calling, not as a pastor or a teacher or a leader, but as a human being transformed into the image and likeness of God's Son, Jesus Christ.
So in a sense, I guess you could say I was going through a sort of mid-life crisis. Unfortunately, mid-life crises have become such cultural cliches (affairs, sports car, etc.) that we mistake the caricature for what many other cultures have recognized as a seminal moment in the ongoing development of a person's life journey. Western culture has brutalized rites of passage that narrate and infuse transitional times in people's lives with meaning and ritual. Further, while most people recognize that children navigate a series of developmental stages beginning at birth and continuing through adolescence, there is a functional belief that once the average person reaches 21 years of age, they are now adults and no further stages of development remain to be negotiated. What a tragedy. Adults have several more critical developmental tasks to work through and I believe that these liminal (i.e., "threshold") stages are means God uses to break us out of deathly patterns so that we can once again respond to his calling to be truly human. Without such rites, we struggle along, doing the best we can, blindly groping for the next thing that will help make sense of - and give us relief from - our confusion and pain. No wonder so many men make so many poor decisions. We are meant to have guides, but too often we are on our own.
Fortunately, I was reading a book by Richard Rohr around the time I was groping to make sense of my confusion and pain. Quest for the Grail helped me to understand not only the many conflicting impulses I was experiencing but also addressed issues related to these developmental stages. Along with a good friend named Ron Martoia, Rohr acted as a sort of guide for me during this time through this book and a couple others he has written. Each marked out steps I needed to take to continue to walk the journey I was on with integrity.
Citing 19th-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, Rohr writes that the West constantly produces tragic heroes of conformity, most-often men trapped in cultural conventions that promote the progress myths of success through money and power (or growing ministries). Kierkegaard wrote that men between the ages of 20 and 35 are especially trapped in this syndrome, though I think the range in our day is 25 to 45. Kierkegaard contrasts the tragic hero of conformity with the Old Testament figure Abraham, whom he calls "the true knight of faith." Rohr says:
"Abraham responded to a deeper truth, a subversive voice, as opposed to the conventional external wisdom that everyone else followed. He refused to ask any of the practical questions. "Leave it all for a new land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). There is not one pragmatic sound to God's voice. There is in Abraham's call not one sound that would make sense to a Western person. [Abraham] is the symbol, in one mythic story, for what faith means. He moved from security to insecurity, from having all the answers to having no answers. He left all, as the voice taught, and heard that he would be given sons as numerous as the sands by the sea. He died not seeing the promise fulfilled, but putting his hope and identity in a different kind of success…"
Young men spend all their energy trying to ascend. This continues until they hit a crisis of limitation. While most avoid the lessons this crisis has to teach, it is nothing less than a divine intervention orchestrated to usher us into a time and space where our identity may be renegotiated so that we can set out on a different kind of journey - a wisdom journey - in response to the continued call to follow Christ. Rohr concludes:
"Mid-life is the usual final chance to choose for the true knight of faith. Normally, if we have not made any serious choices for freedom or truth, if we have not taken any great risks by the time we are fifty, we are too entrenched to make any more radical decisions…To sell out now is scarcely possible. Few new questions are possible. The questions we ask and answer are the old ones. We are trapped. But God can do it. I think that's why we must have a mid-life crisis - it is God shaking the tree one more time, and challenging: Will you give up the illusion? Will you stop just being what you think you are supposed to be? Who are you anyway?"
Those are the questions. Are you living an illusion? Who are you anyway? And perhaps most importantly, what's it going to take to find out?