The Calling of Pain

For more than ten years I’ve worked with young adults – as a Sunday School teacher, as a pastor and as a retreat leader invited to help them make connections between faith and service.

Although the technology that houses their screens has changed plenty, one thing that hasn’t is the way these conversations always turn to vocation. Whether we are talking beneath a steeple, in a circle around a campfire or over a cup of coffee, these emerging adults want to know about how the faith they talk about on Sunday mornings connects with what they do the other six days of the week.

They often don’t locate the question within the deep tradition of vocation. But even if they don’t know the word, many of them, especially the ones who have been turning it over in the hearts and living with it for a while, know well the call of Frederick Buechner. They know it so well they can give it to you from their hearts:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The quote, which comes from his book, Wishful Thinking, has become a popular touchstone for people trying to discover just what they are supposed to do with their lives. You will find it’s text set next to pictures of open roads on the internet, taped onto mirrors, tacked onto walls and flowing out of the mouths of mentors like me when people ask how they should invest the most precious resource they have – their time.

The answer, at least according to Buechner, comes at the intersection of personal joy and human need.

In wrestling with my own call – a statement that doesn’t involve the past tense – I have discovered that it isn’t difficult to take seriously either of the sentence’s two phrases. However, binding the two together is a harrowing and holy endeavor.

It is, Buechner wants us to know, about more than finding your joy, because responding to God’s call has something to do with the world which God loves so much. But it is also about more than simply doing something that needs to be done, because that work, while admirable, might not be work assigned to you.

Discernment, then, is found when the place the two come together is revealed in a connection between what sparks joy within you and what helps heal the creation.

 

Aly Raisman’s Heavy Burden

But what if there is more to calling than the intersection between joy and healing? What if pain, and the wounds that have pierced us, aren’t separate to the calling of God but are instead integral to it? What if calling is discovered not where two paths come together but three? Not to argue with Buechner, but it might be that who we are to be and what we are to do are linked to the scars that tell our pain and bear witness to our healing.

That’s one of the implications of Mina Kimes’ stunning profile of Olympian Aly Raisman in ESPN The Magazine’s July edition. Raisman is familiar to many as a member of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team and as a gold medal winner in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

But she has recently returned to our consciousness as one of the hundreds of victims of sexual assault by a former team doctor, Larry Nassar, and demands our attention as a fierce advocate for change in the hopes of ensuring future generations of athletes won’t ensure the trauma and suffering that she has.

As she reflects in the article on the path her life has taken – a road that diverged from her plan with a powerful and staggering victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing – Raisman does so in the language of calling.

This wasn’t the work she set out to do or the way she had planned to invest her life. It is work that flows out of tragedy and trauma that no one should ever have to endure. That work comes in response to a call she is committed to answering – for herself and for others.

“There are so many people out there that are survivors, but there are few that have a voice,” Raisman told Kimes. “I know that I’m one of the few being heard, so I just want to do right by people. I felt when I was younger that I was going to go to the Olympics. And now I feel that I’m going to help fix this.”

For some, calling is discovered at the intersection of personal fulfillment and making a difference. But Raisman’s story reminds us that for others, that intersection is a luxury they will never know. Their life’s work is forged out of their own tragic pain, and their survival, healing and witness summon them to a call they did not choose but somehow find the strength to embrace.

 

Pain Shows The Way

The tradition is filled with stories of people of all ages who listened and responded to God’s call.  I’ve often been drawn to the way John’s Gospel describes the calling of the first disciples.

It’s a simple pitch: “Come and see.” You don’t have to know everything today, Jesus promises. Just stay close and see if you are compelled to keep coming back. What he knows, of course is that, in the language of fishermen, they are already hooked.

But there’s another story that is instructive. It comes not at the Gospel’s beginning but at it’s end. It is the story of Jesus and Thomas and how Thomas only finds his way after Jesus lets him see and touch his wounds.

By his stripes, we are healed. By his wounds, we are freed. By his pain, we discover our way.

When someone wants to talk with me about vocation – or what they should be when they grow up – what I want to tell them is to breathe and find a way to release the pressure. Once you think you know, I reflect when considering my own experiences, it will probably change anyway.

I want to tell them that their life’s work will emerge from their experiences; that this isn’t a riddle they have to solve but instead is a gift to be observed. I want to tell them that I hope they will find the place of meeting between personal gladness and healing the world.

I hope, of course, that they all experience the world as liberating and freeing. But I know that likely won’t be the case. There will be pain and loss and grief and wounds.

And so, I’ll pray that they can discover what they need to find healing and peace – and then strength and courage. To keep going and to answer the call – to live with purpose for themselves, to show others the way out of darkness and to bring healing to a broken world.

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Finding Home: Beauty and Wisdom in Louise Penny’s Three Pines

At or near the top of the list of things saving my life these days is Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series.

I don’t know how I discovered the books – I suspect it came as recommended reading from Sarah Bessey’s blog. But I do know this, I have since become an evangelist for all things Three Pines. These are books to be read and books to be savored.

There are thirteen books in this series, with a fourteenth due in November. The books center on the investigative work of Armande Gamache, the head of homicide for the Surete de Quebec, the second largest police force in Canada. The mysteries unfold in an out-of-the-way hamlet called Three Pines – a community you won’t find on a map but one with a penchant for discovering murders.

These stories, however, are more than compelling whodunits. In these tales Louise Penny reminds us of wisdom too easily forgotten. We remember how truth emerges not from speaking but listening. Her characters teach us, much like Ignatius, that discovery comes by attending to feeling and emotion. In a world fueled by quick-tempered rage and snap judgments, Three Pines reminds us how failure isn’t the end of the story but often is only the beginning of a surprising new journey.

There is much more going on than simply chasing a murderer. Louise Penny narrates the life of a community formed for refuge seekers. Three Pines isn’t a place you stumble upon. When you show up, you do so for a reason. And often that reason is that you are looking to start over.

There’s Ruth, the crotchety poet laureate with the mouth of a sailor who people have come to love even though she never makes it easy. There’s Olivier, an antique collector who still has a place in his neighbors’ hearts despite ripping off half the town. There’s Clara, the clumsy artist whose paintings showcase her true gift – the ability to see and render the hearts of her friends and neighbors.

There’s Myrna, a psychologist who left a thriving practice behind after realizing the pain of others was destroying her. She came to Three Pines and opened a book store in an out of the way town where people more often borrow the books than pay for them. And finally, there’s Armande Gamache – who after enduring a lifetime of heartbreak and grief made his way to Three Pines in search of the healing he couldn’t find anywhere else.

The village is a haven for people longing to be found after they’ve lost their way. It’s a place where people can find rest after they hustled and hurried only to arrive at a damning dead end. It’s a place for people who zigged when everyone else said they should have zagged. It is a home for people who have deep wounds that need binding.

Truth isn’t only found in works classified as non-fiction. One of life’s certainties is that there will come a time when circumstances demand a change of direction when things have not gone as planned. For many of us that will involve the realization that those who said, “I told you so”, may have had a point. Those who never fail never learn, but the lessons that come from failure often come screaming with a question that does not abide easy answers: Stay where you are or cross the bridge into somewhere new?

There is, Louise Penny wants us to know, a way back from that which you thought ensured your destruction. What seemed like a dead end could be the beginning of a new path. The mistakes that haunt you don’t have to foreclose your future. Decisions you made at 25 don’t have to set the course for your life at 40, 60, 80 or even beyond. Life isn’t found and it certainly isn’t lived, she reminds us, by stubbornly persisting in who you used to be or who people have decided you are.

You can find your way home, even as you discover that home has a surprising address. You can even find it with misfits in a community beyond the pines and a place off the map.

 

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Her Fault

I left town earlier this week to attend a writer’s conference in North Carolina. When I called home to catch up on the day’s events in Knoxville, my wife shared a telling story from daycare.

Our daughter had recently graduated into the next age group at school, leaving behind some of her friends.  On this particular day one of her former partners in crime had graduated to the new class – a reunion accompanied by much rejoicing.

Their former teacher peaked into the new room and immediately started composing a text message to send to my wife. Away from the frenetic activity, a safe distance from the shouts of “Mine” and “No”, my daughter and her friend had escaped to the corner of  the room with the only friends they needed – piles and piles of books.

File one in the win column for nurture. This was a development that surprised no one in our families.

There’s a story my in-laws like to tell on my wife – about the time, in a fit of rage at a baby-sitter she deemed immature, she stormed off with a charge that still echoes: “I don’t like you. I’m going to my room to read.”

Years later, there’s not a room in our house where you couldn’t do that, because every one of them is filled with books. Most of them are mine.

They say confession is good for the soul. But I do have a defense. When it comes to my guilt in the passing on of this genetic obsession, it’s clearly my mother’s fault.

While our house is a minefield of books and toddler toys, there’s no such competition for space in my parents’ house. Words fill the house at the top of the driveway – books, magazines, newspapers, cookbooks – there isn’t a room that doesn’t bear witness to our need to turn letters into words and to group words into sentences. I suggested to my father that we buy my mom a Kindle for Mother’s Day a few years ago, an invitation he quickly accepted: “Anything to keep any more books out of this house.”

My first memory of yelling “Read!” to my mom was for more Cat in the Hat. She later badgered me into picking up Run With the Horsemen and even introduced me to John Irving, the gift that will never stop giving.

There was the time she told me I had to read this book on my high school summer reading list. It was so good, she told me. It had changed her life. Apparently this life change wasn’t as accessible to high school boys, because when it came time to discuss the book in September, I was the only guy in the room.

When I was trying to figure out what to do with my life in college, she wouldn’t shut it up about it – “Why don’t you go write for the campus newspaper?  You love to read.”

I put her off as long as I could. You go to college to get away from your parents telling you what to do – not the other way around. But it was like she knew. I didn’t hate it. I loved it. I loved it maybe like I hadn’t loved anything else.

The truth is that I exited the womb with the cynicism of a curmudgeon and the mouth of a sailor – which is to say that when it came to newspapers I was a natural. Before long I wasn’t just a reporter but an editor. The office on the top floor of the student center became a second home, reading and writing, cutting and fixing, all in anticipation of the feel of the fresh copy in my hands when I was one of the first to liberate it from the rack.

It wasn’t long before my Tuesday and Friday nights were spoken for and I was off working for the local newspaper. You can actually get paid to chronicle high school sports and write about the exploits and heartaches of small town heroes.

Eventually I left the newspaper and ended up in seminary, where I read a lot and wrote even more. I started writing and preaching sermons and one day I started researching what some people told me were called blogs.

I started one – and after I posted a few times I began to hear it again. She was relentless. I guess that’s the way moms are. At least mine is.

“You have a gift. You have to keep doing this.”

That’s how I ended up this week on the front pew of a church in North Carolina, pen in one hand and notebook in the other, writing and scribbling as fast as I could. In a sanctuary full of writers, I was just like everyone else, a hungry pilgrim searching for inspiration to form the letters and make the words sing.

What brought us together was more than those letters and words, however. This was a journey to rest in the presence of the Spirit.

As I walked out the door of that thin place where I glimpsed the work of God, I imagined my wife and daughter a few hundred miles away, reading together. I thought about the computer in my bag that was was going to birth some new stories. And I gave thanks for the books that had been hoisted upon me and the vocation that someone wouldn’t let me escape.

It’s her fault.

Thanks Mom.

 

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Understanding Easter

I didn’t get Easter for a long time.

Sure, I spent plenty of Easter mornings at the church as a kid and even went once to the Sunrise Service over my parents’ sleep-deprived wishes. The Youth Director told me she needed me there and when she said you needed to be somewhere, it really wasn’t a request.

But I don’t think I ever really got it until seminary. It wasn’t because I had learned some new theology that straightened out all the questions Resurrection demands. It was something more basic. When it came to the promise of new life, it was there I found myself in need of one.

It had been one of those weeks, actually this week had been a few weeks coming. Holy Week – the first one and every one since – exposes things, and in my experience, it exposes people, too.

The light of this Holy Week’s dark exposure was brighter than I could handle. It was showing me, maybe for the first time, what I didn’t want to face. And what I was facing was what other people, friends who cared for me and loved me even though they hadn’t known me that long, had been trying to tell me for some time.

My life had become uprooted, I was barely holding it together and I was a long way away from living a life any preacher would call abundant.

For The People

And so, the alarm went off on Easter morning and I made my way to the chapel, hoping that some how or some way, the Easter Gospel could find its way in and begin to clean up the mess I had made.  In all honesty, I probably chose to worship there because of the guest preacher. But, to my credit, if you are in search of Resurrection, there are few preachers with a better chance of helping you find it than Barbara Brown Taylor.

Mark’s Gospel, she announced, ends suddenly. The Gospel has two endings – and the short one ends with a messenger telling the women to go back to the disciples. Go back, he tells them, and tell the disciples to head to Galilee and wait for Jesus.

Wait for him there. On Easter morning, God’s messenger tells the first witnesses to go back into the world because that is where Jesus is headed. Resurrection isn’t over and done with at the empty tomb. No, Resurrection will be experienced and realized in the world, the world God loves and with the people who need it the most.

Just Getting Started

Easter is both a declaration and an anticipation of life. That’s what I learned that Sunday. The empty tomb declares that life is stronger than death and it anticipates love heading back into the world to give life to people who know all too well the power of death. The Easter witness of “I have seen the Lord” is the confident declaration of those who know that God’s redemption is on the way.

That confidence comes from knowing that Resurrection is the guarantee of the promise God made in a covenant with Abraham. It’s the joy that comes from learning to trust the word of the God who promises that nothing can separate us from Love – not even death. The liberation of Easter comes from a God who led a captive people through the water in the Exodus and has promised to rescue all of us us from the people and the systems that hold us captive.

And so, the good news of Easter isn’t just about a party in a graveyard. It is found in the promise of a God who is coming again for those who desperately need to find salvation – or for salvation to find them.

It is good news for the family on the edge of breaking apart because the God of Easter is the God who heals what is broken. And it is good news for the victims of repeated racism and systemic sexism because the God who made the empty tomb possible is the God of the oppressed.  Easter is good news for those who have been beaten down because the God of the Resurrection is the God who inspired Mary to sing praise to the One who lifts up the lowly and smashes the thrones of the arrogant.

If you had a hard time celebrating on Sunday, don’t worry. You aren’t alone and you didn’t miss it.

You just might be waiting for Resurrection to appear where you live. But Jesus is coming to Galilee, and according to the Gospel of Resurrection, that’s where we all live.

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Our Kind Of Story

I found myself talking with someone last week about stories, good stories, the kind we want to tell, and more importantly, the kind we want to live.

That’s the thing about stories – all of us have one, all of us are part of one, and stories, whether we like it or not, actually run our lives.

Today, we return again to the most intense part of the story we tell and try to live by. We call this part of the story Holy Week, and one way to tell it is as a story bookended by two crowds; two mobs with things to say and demands to make. But this story isn’t really about those crowds, because the wisdom we are looking for can’t be found in a crowd.

And so here we are, once again heeding Jesus’ instructions and preparing to make our way to a room to eat a meal and hear again what it is he would have us do. We are here once again, because even if we can’t remember all the details, we know a bit about trying to live out our faith in a new way and in the process getting a whole lot more wrong than right.

And that’s why we keep coming back to this story, because it is a story that is true in more ways than one. In it we discover what God is really like and in it we remember that we are a whole lot more than the dark details of our worst failures.

We follow the disciples to a table because we too know what it is like to misunderstand who Jesus is and what he is all about. We listen to Jesus teach about love because we know what it is to be in desperate need of it.

We walk behind Jesus on the road because we know what it is like to have tried to follow him and failed spectacularly. We stand outside by the fire with Peter because we know what it is like to disappoint those we care about most.

We follow Jesus up the hill because we know what it is like to stumble underneath the weight of carrying our own cross. We follow him all the way there and see it all again for ourselves because we know, that in the end, all of this is for us.

We are drawn to this story because it has become our story.

It reminds us that all of this is about God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It reminds us that God is willing to help us – even us. It reminds us that the road to our freedom is a road of suffering that we cannot walk for ourselves, but it is a road that Jesus walks for us.

That’s what Love does, it does the things we need that we can’t do for ourselves.

And so, this story is for those who know what it is like to be called a loser while the winners celebrate.

This story is for those who desperately want to fix a broken relationship but who haven’t yet found the path to healing.

This story is for those who know all too well what it is like to find yourself on the outside and away from Jesus.

This story is for all of us who know that something is broken but that the healing is going to have to come from someone else.

That’s why if you find yourself at church this weekend you are likely to see something interesting.

Because the people who are there aren’t there because they have it all figured out. And they aren’t there because they know every part of it beyond a reasonable doubt. They are there for the same reason you are – they know what it is like to need help and they know this is a story about One who gives it.

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