Listen To Article
In my previous post here on the RJ blog, I wrote about my decision to quit a masters in clinical mental health counseling program, even though it meant losing all the time and resources I had invested.
I mentioned that there was a confluence of factors that led to my decision, chief among them a thought-provoking book by Annie Duke titled, Quit: The Power of Walking Away. Duke challenged my mental model of quitting as “failure” and that resilient people never give up. She helped me see that there is wisdom in knowing what and when to quit so that you can invest more fully in what matters most.
But Duke’s book wasn’t the only factor in my decision to quit the counseling program. Another factor, even more significant, was a renewed sense of call to be a pastor.
I entered the counseling program, in part, because I wanted to gain knowledge and skills to deepen my current ministry. The other motive, however, was a bit more hidden: this would also give me an escape hatch down the road should I ever decide to leave parish ministry.
But as I moved through the program and began to imagine myself in the role of a therapist, something was, I don’t know…off. Maybe I was scared. Maybe I felt guilty for considering the possibility of “abandoning” my call.
But as I got present to my internal restlessness, I sensed something more was going on. The point of clarity came when I was out at Flathead Lake, Montana, on retreat with a handful of other pastors at the home of the late Eugene and Janice Peterson.
Eugene has long been a primary voice that has shaped my pastoral imagination. His pastoral books have sustained me over the years and provided a compass, a kind of “true north,” in times of confusion and peril.
So to spend time in the Peterson home, to stand in the kitchen where Eugene did his famous interview with Bono from U2, to walk through the living room, up the winding stairs to his study lined with books and a big open window overlooking Flathead Lake, was surreal. I sat down in his chair at his desk, imagining him studying and writing and praying.
The critical moment came for me on the third day of the retreat. I got up early and sat in a chair in the living room with a huge picture window overlooking Flathead. The lake was perfectly still, like glass, and the mountain range in the distance was backlit by the magnificent pink and gold hues of dawn.
Nearby the chair was a small bookcase with all of Peterson’s works. I picked up a copy of The Message, along with his book Subversive Spirituality. As the sunrise reflected off the lake’s surface, I read several of the Psalms aloud, finding myself pulled into the immense beauty of God’s presence.
Then I turned to one of my favorite essays by Eugene, “Teach Us to Care and Not to Care,” in Subversive Spirituality. I read it slowly. I came to the part where Eugene tells a story about calling on a parishioner named Brenda who had been hospitalized. Brenda was a social worker, a wife and mother, and a faithful member of his church. The doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong, so they recommended she see a psychiatrist.
Peterson reflects on how, as he sat with Brenda in the hospital that day, he should have gone into counseling mode, exploring with her all the complexity of her emotions in that moment. But he admitted he was just too tired. Instead, he prayed with her.
He left her presence feeling guilty, like he shirked his job and didn’t help her fix her problems. After a couple weeks, he called Brenda up to check in and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” After a long pause, she said something that surprised him.
“Yes, there is.” She said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Would you teach me to pray?”
Reflecting on Brenda’s question and that whole experience, Peterson writes,
“Brenda’s request, ‘Would you teach me to pray?’, returned me to the country of my origins; God-oriented, mystery-attentive, obedience-ready. My central task among these people was not to help them solve their problems, but to help them to see how their problems could help solve them, serve as a stimulus and goad to embrace the mystery of who they were as human beings, and then offer to be a companion to them and teach them the language of this world in which we are God-created, Christ-invaded, Spirit-moved, the language of prayer.” (p.162)
Peterson goes on,
“There is so much that is wrong in the world and in the people around us, but there is far more that is right. Everything wrong takes place in an environment that is incredibly, dazzlingly alive, stunningly beautiful. The primary act of the Christian in all of this is to worship….The most important thing going on right now is what God is doing. We get in the way, we talk too much. The most important thing being said right now is something God is saying, marvelous things are being done and said right now. Look. Listen.” (pp.163-4)
Peterson’s words were a wake-up call for me that morning. I heard God speak so clearly, so gently and powerfully. I’m a pastor. This is my calling. And the gift of this vocation is that my primary task, in both the wasteland and in the rosebushes of human existence, is to name “God.” To look and listen. To help others look and listen. To live God-attentive lives. Lives ushered into something so much bigger than ourselves—the marvelous reality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying therapy is bad and if people just prayed more and read their Bibles all of their problems would go away. As human beings, we are much more complex than this. I’m a strong advocate of good therapy. I see my own therapist regularly (he is outstanding). Nor am I saying that the vocation of pastor is the only vocation that can lead people into the more expansive reality of God’s kingdom. The waters of baptism remind us that we are all called to this, as Christ-followers, no matter what our vocation.
I’m just telling you my own vocational journey these past several months. As a friend of mine says, one of the reasons we write is to sort ourselves out. So I guess I’m doing some of that here. We also write and tell our stories as an act of faithfulness. To bear witness. For this is part of my own prayer and worship.
So I invite you, even now, to pause.
Let’s look and listen together.
And may we find ourselves, wherever we are, caught up in the wondrous mystery of the triune God—dazzingly alive, stunning beautiful, world without end. Amen.