questions on the pilgrimage of vocation...

Today and tomorrow look to be days filled with sweet church commitments:  collecting funds for our October 18th CROP Walk to Fight World Hunger, an all-church potluck to share stories about our Montreal sabbatical, Sunday worship (and choir practice) followed by a rehearsal for our November 22 performance of Paul Winter's Missa Gaia. I LOVE these experiences of church: they are real, tender, dedicated to God and others and are saturated in prayer and beauty.

My love of these (and many other) aspects of church life often baffles those who have heard or

read about how deeply I feel constricted by the public role as pastor. Apparently shades of grey - or at least nuanced reflection - are in short supply these days. Certainly that is true within the body politic where quotes and deeds are taken out of context and used in the most simplistic but vicious forms of character assassination. I know that embracing paradox - what Richard Rohr calls non-dualistic thought - remains a minority report throughout the Body of Christ. So I shouldn't be surprised when my love of service, worship, liturgy, hymns, prayer, beauty and mission evokes a puzzled reaction. With the risk of oversimplifying, let me put it like this: just because I don't want to be squeezed into someone else's mold of what they think a pastor should look like, say or do, doesn't mean I have forsaken the discrete tasks of caring for the church. 

This takes a bit of sensitivity and creativity, I grant you, for it is not a sound bite.  Rather, I am wrestling with the complex notion of call and vocation.  Mostly it is an inward journey, but I also regularly write about aspects of this pilgrimage towards clarity, too. Parker Palmer in his little gem of a book, Listening to Your Life, makes this valuable insight:

The (old) concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be "selfish" unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap. Today I understand vocation (and call) quite differently -- not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach, but accepting the treasure of true self I already posses. Vocation does not come for a voice "out there" calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice "in here" calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

That rings true to me today - and has been true for me since I was 15 years old and "heard" the voice of Christ whispering to me during a creative arts liturgy at the Potter's House in DC: "You could do this, too."  What could I do? I could be connected to Christian community and blend the care of the soul with artistic creativity. I could help minimize the false dichotomy between the sacred and the so-called secular. I could live into a life of prayer, service, worship and acts of compassion in the Spirit of Christ without compromising my God-given identity. I could, if I was willing, take St. Paul up on his challenge in Romans 12 and NOT be squeezed into the conformity of my culture but live into the renewal of my mind.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual  worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (mature.)

From the confines of his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question about the intersection of his faith, his soul and his calling in a poem that was published posthumously:

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Palmer continues saying: "Sometimes I have responded to the demand (of my vocation) by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or squandering it - and I think I am not alone. There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one's self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?'" 

At this juncture in my journey, the accumulated cultural, theological and practical baggage associated with the word "pastor" strikes me as both worn-out and burdensome. Now please notice that I said "in MY journey." Not yours. Not all pastors.  Not even most. Just mine, ok? To borrow a phrase from Barbara Brown Taylor  that has helped me during my sabbatical: I can no longer live under the weight of being treated like the holiest person in the room. It is suffocating. Stifling. Boring. And fundamentally untrue. Does that make me any less a servant of God who lives within community and shares the grace of our Lord as best as I am able? I think not. It simply means I continue to become my full self: writer, musician, father, lover, grandfather, friend, almost senior citizen, dog owner, straight white male as well as clergy person.

Both Richard Rohr and Parker Palmer has written about an important lesson those of us in the second half of our lives discover:

We are disabused of our original gifts (from God) in the first half of our lives. Then - if we are awake, aware and able to admit our loss - we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gifts we once possessed.

And so the day - and life - unfolds, yes? There is darkness and there is light. There is joy and sorrow alongside both celebration and despair. Holding the paradox of becoming fully alive while living in community is a challenge. It is one I continue to explore - and honor - and question, too. But that is who I have been since my first call 48 years ago and I pray that is who I shall continue to be until my last breath. When I was young I used to listen to this song over and over. It is a young man's song - and these day's I find myself resonating more with St. Dietrich than St. Country Joe.


ddl said…
Thank you for the post...and for the poem and song juxtaposed with your reflection on journey.
RJ said…
You bet - and thanks for reading and sharing.

Popular Posts