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My dad and I talk to each other on the phone once a week during my noon dog-walk. He updates me on the joys of newly married life and the woes of living in a 73 year-old body. I update him on the brutiful dramas of parenting three teen girls and the various tributaries of my vocational journey. He listens so well—reflecting my fears and hopes, asking good questions, and then delivering his best Dad-lines (with a tremor in his voice and with all of the glorious gravitas of saying The Most Important Things):

Heidi: God is not finished with you yet.

Heidi: You are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

Heidi: Your calling is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

And even though I’ve heard him say these things dozens of times, they meet me like a familiar liturgy – right in my core.

That last line – about me and the world, and gladness and need – comes from the late Frederick Buechner. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he tells us that 

the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. 

I love this. I’ve pastored and coached people with this Venn diagram for years.

But, Frederick… But, Dad… What if I’m not feeling very glad right now? What if I’m feeling angry and resentful? What if I’m second-guessing myself half the time, and over-explaining myself the other half the time? What if I feel kind of like an imposter every day, trying on three new jobs after having done one job for 14 years? What if I’m grieving? … Grieving the loss of my mom, my denomination and congregation, and maybe the dream I had of growing old with my sister? What if I can’t quite access my deep gladness?

Well, one of my book-companion’s right now is Susan Cain’s Bittersweet. Cain traces a thread between loss and vocation. I taught that thread right alongside gladness and hunger all throughout my ministry, but it means more to me now than it did five years ago. Cain unspools this thread with a series of questions. She asks:

What are you separated from, what or whom have you lost? … Where is your particular pain of separation pointing you? What matters most deeply to you? And how can you bring it into being? (p. 96)

This thread lights up in the stories of people who enter helping professions in order to care well for those experiencing the pain that they themselves experienced. Abuse survivors become social workers, bereaved parents create foundations to raise money for childhood cancer research. My daughter – a cancer survivor herself – wants to study medicine. I became a restorative practitioner because of church conflict I’d experienced and participated in.

And artists create masterpieces out of their places of pain. Cain traces the story and work of Leonard Cohen, whose cold and broken hallelujahs came more often from places of darkness than of light. “Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, [Cohen] seemed to say, make it your creative offering” (58).

We see this thread between loss and vocation in the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff and the gift he gave the world when he wrote Lament for a Son from inside of his grief. In Wolterstorff’s new memoir, he tells us about how he started writing his Lament in the Luxembourg airport on his way to retrieve his dead son’s body:

Why did I write? Out of helplessness. I had brought along some reading material from home, but I could not read. I could only think of Eric’s death. What else was there to do but write?*

His pain became his offering.

As one who has written through my grief, I get this.

And Frederick Buechner gets this, too. Buechner was no stranger to pain and loss. He grew up during the Great Depression with an alcoholic father who died by suicide when Frederick was only ten years old. In this beautiful reflection, Frederick talks about being good stewards of our pain. Poor stewardship of pain looks like ignoring it (to our detriment), using it as a sob story to gain attention or to make excuses for one’s failures, or letting pain embitter and imprison us. But good stewardship of pain grows us – connects us with ourselves and with God. And when we steward our pain well, we may become catalysts for healing in the lives of others. (You can read about this way of being in Jeff Munroe’s book about Buechner, and in Reformed Journal essays here and here and here!)

Wolterstorff stewarded his pain in the immediate wake of his son’s death, and he committed to stewarding it throughout his life: “I shall try to keep the wound from healing,” he wrote in Lament for a Son, “in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench” (p. 63).

Buechner said God calls us to the place where our gladness meets the world’s hunger. But just before those famous words, he said it a little differently. God usually calls us to the “work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.” Sometimes the work we need most to do is the work of stewarding our pain and transforming it into an offering to feed the hunger of the world.

I suppose there is something about the stewarding, the transformation and the offering that is a kind of deep gladness.

So, my friends, Where is your particular pain of separation pointing you? What matters most deeply to you? And how can you bring it into being? These are the questions I’m living and stewarding right now. Perhaps you are, too.

* Philip Yancey engages Nicholas Wolterstorff’s memoir in this recent post.

Header Photo by Lucas Kapla on Unsplash

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lives in Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, three children, and a dog.


  • Don tamminga says:

    I resonate w what you write. Thanks.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    A similar version of Buechner’s statement on calling (“deep gladness, deep hunger”) is the Japanese concept of Ikigai, or “reason for being.” It uses 4 circles in a Venn-like diagram, intersecting what you love, what the world needs, what you are good at, and (relief for parents of college students everywhere) what you can be paid for (!). Points of intersection highlight as passion, mission, profession, vocation, with the caveat that they must all be in balance, as Buechner also states. I have used Buechner’s passage, paired with the Ikigai diagram, in working with community college students in their “College 101” course (everything you need to know about college–outside of the classroom–that the admissions counselors/academic advisors couldn’t tell you at orientation sessions). Many students have responded positively to both, inspired a bit I hope, in the thought that life isn’t all about making money.
    Thanks for adding the dimension of healing–of self, of others–as a real and spiritual component compassing over all the academic neatness of the diagram. I may add your essay the next time I teach this course.

  • Stan E Seagren says:

    Amen, Heidi. Thank you.

  • Phil says:

    I appreciate this post a lot, Heidi. To add to the conversation, below is something I posted a couple of months ago on my LinkedIn account that also references Buechner and is similar but different to your piece. 🙂

    On one of my playlists is Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner,” a song that came out 50 years ago. I’ve listened to it a few times in the last few weeks, and it has some profound things to say about work. The song’s subject, Mr. Tanner, runs a dry cleaning business, and Chapin says “… of all the cleaning shops around he’d made his the best.” But Tanner also sings. “He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.”

    He’s good, but it’s his hobby. Cleaning is his work. Still, his friends encourage him to give up cleaning and take up singing as his profession, despite, as Chapin says, that “music was his life, it was not his livelihood.”

    But his friends persist, and Mr. Tanner goes to New York to sing. Pays lots of money to do so. The critics pan his performance, and he never sings again.

    Except, the song ends, very late at night when the shop is dark and closed. Then he sings softly to himself as he sorts through the clothes. Chapin says Mr. Tanner “sang from his heart and he sang from his soul, and he did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole.”

    Not quite “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” is it?

    Does Mr. Tanner love cleaning? Chapin doesn’t believe so. Yet, Mr. Tanner has made his cleaning shop the best. He gives cleaning his all, despite the fact that singing is what he loves. He has his work, and he has his life away from work. But when he tries to turn his love into his livelihood, he fails, at least in the eyes of the critics.

    Frederick Buechner said vocation (work) is “where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”

    I used to like that quote, but as I near the homestretch of what will end up being a 45-year career in communication, I am starting to think I like Chapin’s approach better.

    Maybe the loves in our lives don’t need to also be what pays the bills.

    I’m not advocating for jobs and careers we hate, but I sometimes wonder if we’ve gone too far in the other direction, gone the route of Mr. Tanner’s friends, believing that that which we love must also be our livelihood.

    Maybe it’s enough to just be faithful to the work you’ve been given, whatever that might be, to work to make your “cleaning shop” the best it can be, to take care of your customers on your good days and on your bad days and to aim for excellence even when you don’t feel excellent.

  • RONALD NYDAM says:

    hello Heidi,
    You write as a woman without a country. sharing both your pain and your anger. Interesting that Jesus himself managed both for us to see. to witness and then committing to Not seeking to heal from the wound, but instead to steward the pain toward some form of blessing for yourself and others. Keep writing, Heidi. You become the Christ to all of us as we take turns suffering.

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