For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘vocation

Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher, Vintage Books, 2003, 216 pp.

Practicing ResurrectionI don’t remember where I first heard about Nora Gallagher, but I immediately resonated with what I heard and wanted to read more. I bought this book thinking it would be an inspiration for an Easter sermon on a similar theme, but I didn’t get around to starting it until nearly Pentecost. When I did, I discovered it was not only just the right book at the right time, it is a book on one of my favorite topics: vocation, discernment and call. I read everything I find on that topic, and I found this one without even knowing that was the subject.

Practicing Resurrection is a memoir about Nora Gallagher’s journey of discernment about her call to ministry. She is an active leader in an Episcopal church, and feels a tug to something more. The story begins with the death of her brother, walks through meetings of a discernment committee, processes her experiences as a student minister, and concludes with a clear call to ministry–though whether that involves ordination into the priesthood remains a mystery.

Gallagher’s prose is gorgeous, and it spoke straight to my soul. Her way of framing the stories of her journey in the language of Spirit and discernment alternatively gave voice and substance to my own thoughts and took me to new places. My copy of the book is full of highlights and passages to which I hope to returned (or have returned and quoted already).

Here is just a sampling of the many passages I want to go over again and again:

The life of faith was amorphous, ephemeral, a glimpse, a moment. Trusting it was like my early swimming lessons in learning how to float. (3)

“Often we are afraid to ask for what we want or desire,” said Carr Holland, “But the way of discernment is to lay out our desire and then come back to it with openness, seeking the wisdom of examination. Is this a need? Is there a deeper need? Is your reign foreshadowed here?” (4)

On discerning call, quoting her priest Mark: “It’s not usually something that is immediately known, as if you would have a vision or something and that would be the end of it. We are all becoming what we are called to be. … One thing: a priest must love herself.” (16)

The priest in liturgy should help point the community in the direction of God, and keep the liturgy alive rather than make it a museum piece. What gives it legitimacy is the trust relationship that is built with the community and what the community invests in it. Then, in some objective way, God, who is always present, becomes more and more transparent.” (20)

Part of this process, I assure you, will be the dismantling of that carefully constructed person. … The Holy Spirit, I began to see, was relentless, but she was not mean. … Discernment, I came to see, was about looking everywhere for traces of God. (96-97)

Gallagher has a gift for telling a good story, one that is unique and personal and specific, and then asking the question or naming the issue in such a way you realize that the story is in fact universal. I will be seeking out more of her writing, and I look forward to reading this one over again in the future.


Ears to Hear: Recognizing and Responding to God’s Call, Edward S. Little, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 2003, 154 pp.

Ears to HearAs I have written here before, I can’t resist a good looking book about God’s call. It’s one of those topics that I spend a lot of time contemplating, and I am always hungry for new perspectives. According to a note on the title page, I purchased this one back in 2006, and it has been resting on my “to-be-read” shelf until it called out to me just a few weeks ago. It was just what I needed right now.

Little’s approach to the topic of call is through a scriptural study of various call stories in the Hebrew Bible. I appreciated Little’s opening definition of call, which immediately expands not only beyond ordained ministry, but beyond individuals and beyond roles within the church.

God’s call is this: God’s sovereign invitation to individuals and communities in which he bids them to new life and service. (4)

How can I be holy in my workplace? How can I be holy in my neighborhood? How can I be holy in my home, where my spouse and children see me as I really am? Holiness is not a vague, unfocused “goodness.” It involves being Jesus’ person wherever we are. This is both a call and a challenge. (6)

The book contains sixteen chapters, each a case study of a biblical call story. Little covers the typical stories of Abraham, Moses, Samuel and Isaiah, but reaches far beyond them to more obscure figures like Hosea, Amos, Zerubbabel, and even Bezalel and Oholiab. From each, Little draws observations and conclusions about how God’s call works in different kinds of circumstances. While some of his bullet points were a bit too pithy for me, the analysis and perspective he reads into the various stories moved me.

I loved this passage from the chapter on Abraham, titled “Called to Insecurity.”

God called Abraham to move from security to insecurity, from the known to the unknown, from the predictable to the unpredictable, singling him out to be the model of obedient and costly faith. (14)

I was especially touched by the chapters on Joshua, Jeremiah and Zerubbabel, because they addressed “dry times,” burnout and “fade out,” which speak to the kind of renewal of call I am currently seeking. Reading this reflection on burnout through the story of Jeremiah, I found my heart saying, “yes, yes, yes!”

His question–and ours–isn’t How can I avoid burnout? We cannot! Rather, the question is, What does the Lord do to help me survive it and come through with my faith and obedience intact. (129)

The same thing applied to his naming of “fade out” in Zerubbabel’s story as “when the tyranny of immediate concerns places God’s call on the back burner.” (138) Those were exactly the concerns in my own spirit that prompted me to pull this one off the shelf, and his words were a gift. I can imagine other times in my life when I would respond more powerfully to other chapters and other stories.

This book is well-designed for a small group study, although 16 sessions is a lot to arrange. There are discussion questions at the end of each chapter for that purpose. I can imagine returning to this book as a resource when I teach or preach another series on God’s call, or when I again need some spiritual uplift about my own call from God, as I often do (which is why I keep buying and reading books on this topic.)

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene H. Peterson, Eerdmans, 1992, 197 pp.

Under-the-unpredictable-plant1This book was just what I needed at this moment in my personal and professional spiritual life. Eugene Peterson always challenges me as a pastor and a person, even though I do not always agree with his assessments. Under the Unpredictable Plant posed just the questions I have been asking about my own vocation in ministry, and offered a rich depth of responses. Many of the ideas reappear in The Pastor, but this is a different arc on the theme.

The structure of the book follows the book of Jonah, and the image of the prophet who declines to follow God’s command, then finds himself confined in the belly of the fish, then makes his way reluctantly to Ninevah, only to find himself upset by both success and failure. Peterson begins in the introduction to discuss the gap between “personal faith and pastoral vocation.” It is a chasm I know as well–when it seems like following God will upset “successful” ministry, or when “successful” ministry seems to cost personal spirituality. I awakened to it most dramatically during my sabbatical last year, when I again found the time and space to be a Christian first, pastor second. However, the truth remains that my spiritual relationship with God is always lived out in my pastoral vocation.

I always appreciate his wisdom on the mundane nature of most pastoral tasks, and the beauty that lies therein.

The pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation… Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds… There is much that is glorious on pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Ninevah-like place: a place for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin. (16)

Peterson offers a scathing critique of contemporary pastoral ministry, especially its emphasis on programs, numbers, and efficiency. He gives a graceful description of what the pastoral vocation should instead be: the task of bearing witness to Christ in the daily tasks of people’s lives:

We are there in our congregation to say God in a grammar of direct address. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray (the two primary modes of our address). … We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is already there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (86-87)

While I found his critique true in many ways, and I want to honor that central pastoral task, I question whether the vocation he describes is possible in today’s congregations. While his interpretation of the pastor is spiritually and biblically sound, it is not necessarily financially sound in today’s shrinking ecclesiastical reality. Or, while we probably should be spending all our time and energy in biblical reflection and spiritual direction, we will not likely be able to earn a full-time salary doing so. Which may or may not be a positive thing–because the biblical prophets and pastors were fairly bi-vocational themselves, rarely paid for doing the Lord’s work, and never expected to run programs, grow churches or “service” a congregation. Perhaps a return to what really matters in this pastoral work–preaching and prayer–will not fund our pensions, but will revive the meaning of the vocation. Yet that is a tough choice for those of us already enmeshed in full-time ministerial work.

I imagine I will return to Peterson’s work again in the future, as a reminder of the struggles and purpose of my vocation. It is too easy to lose my way, and Peterson helps me find it again.

The first stop on my sabbatical journey was my hometown, Virginia Beach, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, where my parents and J’s mother and our closest friends still reside. My sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmother are all close by as well. As a child, we always gathered for big family celebrations at every holiday.

Since I became a pastor, I’ve missed all the holidays, and all those gatherings. Christmas and Easter (and the school breaks that accompany them) are the busiest times of my year, and the times that my presence here at church is most important. Sometimes it’s possible to slip away for Thanksgiving, but only if we’re back on Saturday—and Virginia Beach is more than 650 miles away, too far to go for just a two-day trip.

Once or twice, before B was born, J and I tried to travel home on Christmas Day, after Christmas Eve duties were done. The last time we tried it was  nine years ago, when we both scheduled 6:00 a.m. flights on Christmas Day (from separate cities across the country, but that’s another story). I made it to Virginia by noon, having slept for two hours in my office between the end of the midnight service and a 4:00 a.m. trip to the airport.  J’s flight hit a computer glitch, and he arrived at 1:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, having spent all of Christmas Day alone in the Cincinnati airport. We were both exhausted and miserable, and it took days to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t ever want to go through that  again, much less risk putting a child through it, so we haven’t been home for a holiday since.

This year, however, my sabbatical made all the difference, and we decided to give it a try. Christmas Day was a Sunday, so there was no talk of departing for the two-day drive any sooner than December 26. We had hoped to make it out before dawn, but J was sick and I was too exhausted from all the Christmas services. We straggled into his mother’s house on the evening of the 27th. After dinner, I felt this strange compulsion. I couldn’t wait any longer—I just wanted to get home, to my parent’s house, the house where I was raised and celebrated every Christmas until I was 23 and left for seminary. Even after a two-day, 13-hour drive, even through a raging storm of wind and hail, I piled B into the car and headed five more miles across town.

Baby Jesus in a Walnut Shell

I felt the tears creeping into the corners of my eyes as soon as I walked in the door, but it was the Christmas tree that really brought on the  joy at being home, and the sense of loss after years of absence. The tree is covered with memories: the angel my best friend gave me in seventh grade; the Brillo-pad bird’s nest I made in art class when I was eight; the baby Jesus in a walnut shell from fifth grade Sunday School; the pair of little girl carolers representing my sister and I; the Snoopy with reindeer antlers that has hung on the bottom branches of my parents’ tree since before I was born.

My son, celebrating his fifth Christmas, had never seen any of these things that meant so much to me, and it felt like such an gift to introduce him to the Christmas things from my childhood. B touched the various ornaments I made when I was not much older than he was, and it was as if he had a tactile, real connection to me as a child. He marveled to think that I made things in school and Sunday school just like he does. And Snoopy with reindeer antlers made him giggle with glee, just like I always do.

This is as close as I could find to my parents' Snoopy with antlers. Theirs is an ornament (not on a stick), and is soft instead of plastic. Still, the antlers, absence of ears and adorable little tongue are a perfect match.

The tree was also an aching reminder of how much I’d missed all these years. “Mom, you have a fake tree? You always have a real tree!” “We’ve had this one for five years, and we’re about ready to replace it.” “Dad, where is the cuckoo clock ornament? It always goes right here up top.” “Oh, that’s been gone for a long time—ten years or so. Probably broke or something.” I realized I am now a stranger to my family’s Christmas habits.

All over the house, my mother had carefully arranged nativity sets. When I was growing up, we never had a nativity set. I finally purchased one for my mother at an art show about 15 years ago. Now she has them all over the house, a dozen or more. She had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take B on a tour of each one. “Mom, when did you get all these? I’ve never seen these before.” “Ever since you gave me that first one, I loved it so much I began collecting a new one every year since.” “How did I not know this?” “Because you never come home.” 

Instead of the usual defensiveness—“You know I can’t come home. I’m a pastor. I have to work on Christmas.”—I was overcome by what I had missed. There was a moment of grief for all the holiday memories that we do not share, all the family gatherings that did not include me. Even this year, all the family gatherings had already passed by the time we arrived. There was a pain in my heart for the ways that B will never know those kind of big family celebrations, though we often have one set of grandparents or another visit us.

Even more, I felt a sadness and an appreciation for what my family has given up in order for me to live into my pastoral vocation. My parents (and J’s) will never have all their children and grandchildren at home for Christmas, to gather together around the tree of memories.

I love being a pastor. I love spending every Christmas and Easter so thoroughly immersed in the work of leading worship that I cannot get away. The sacrifice feels small when compared with the joy of my vocation—I am absent from my family to be present to the church. I wonder, though, about the rest of my family, who have the absence without the presence to something else.

Going home for Christmas felt bittersweet. It was such a blessing to have a rare chance to be with family for the holidays, and to introduce B to Christmas traditions from home. It was also a reminder of all that we miss every other year.

I am discovering that sabbatical itself is a glimpse of the road not taken. This time apart from pastoral responsibilities shows me what life might have been like without this unique vocation of pastoral ministry. I am glad of my chosen road, and I have no regrets or desire to change paths. Yet there is a painful poignancy to discovering another way of life, a different rhythm, a life not lived. There would be other sorrows and hardships on that road, too, but there would also have been other joys.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 2000, 117 pp.

This has been one of my favorite books on one of my favorite topics since I first discovered it and read it ten years ago. There are very few books that I reread over and over, and this is one of them. There are even fewer books that I refuse to lend out to anyone, because I always want to have them around for reference. This is also one of those books. I recently reread it again, cover-to-cover, in preparation for a retreat with other pastors forming a new long-term group for professional development in mid-career. As always, the book offered new insights and renewed depth to my thoughts on my own vocation.

Parker Palmer tells his own story through this book—his search for vocation, his successes that turned out to be failures and failures that were really successes, his battle with depression, and his connection to Quaker spiritual practice. The book’s title comes from an old Quaker saying: “let your life speak.” Palmer talks about his youthful misunderstanding that this meant he needed to create a meaningful life that would speak powerful as a witness to the world. Instead, the wisdom of the book is quite the opposite:

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent. (3)

Palmer speaks with great wisdom about the time it takes to become yourself (a phrase borrowed from a May Sarton poem); about how closing doors and missed opportunities shape our lives as much as possibilities and openings; about the fundamental “birthright gifts” each person has for vocation; and about setting limits and caring for self as stewardship of our gifts. He even has a chapter on leadership, where he talks about the importance of spiritual depth and introspection to leadership. His final chapter uses the metaphor of seasons to understand the cycles of vocation throughout our lives.

As I read this again this time around, I realized that this is a wonderful book about vocation at mid-life. This is a far cry from What Color Is Your Parachute? Instead of searching desperately for the person you should become, Palmer urges us to be still and discover the person that you already are. Therein lies the wisdom for understanding vocation.

I am tempted to start typing some of my favorite quotations from this book, but there are simply too many to choose. If you don’t know Let Your Life Speak, you should, and you should recommend it to anyone you know who is seeking their path and purpose in life. I have shared it with many people, and all have found it deeply insightful.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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