“gladness” & “need” – a Labor Day weekend reflection

Labor DayThis coming Monday, September 7, is Labor Day. Since 1882, America’s annual recognition of workers. I think of Jesus. Not as prophet, teacher, miracle worker, or even Messiah, but as a carpenter. That Jesus was a laborer is a mark of identification with humankind as true and universal as any. I also think of you and me and our vocations.

As a practical and spiritual exercise, I’ve been reflecting on the ordained ministry to which I gave nearly 40 years of my active working life and (though retired, believing that as long as I have breath and strength, there is work to do) through which I continue to serve. Thinking of Frederick Buechner’s notion of calling as “the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,”[1] I’ve asked myself: What’s my gladness and what’s the world’s need I seek to address?

Looking back on my life of ministry, I believed God called me through a dream…

Fall 1970, I entered college as a political science major; a prelude to law school. Early on, despite the advances of the civil rights era, I experienced acts of racism, both individual and institutional. This deepened my angst and heightened my awareness of the tribulations of others, historically and contemporarily. During my sophomore year, deeply depressed, I struggled between faith and non-belief, praying, asking, demanding: Where is the omnipotent and benevolent God in whom I believed? I adopted as my mantra the words of one of Archibald MacLeish’s characters in his play-within-a-play, J.B.: “If God is God, God is not good and if God is good, God is not God.” If an all-powerful God didn’t bring an end to injustice, then God must not be kind and if God is kind, desiring to end injustice, then God must not be powerful enough to do it.

As Spirit-breath blowing through the mists of my misery, the Reverend Bill Huntley, the college chaplain, invited me to join him for weekly wide-ranging conversations about absolutely anything. Without judgment, he encouraged me to follow my thoughts to their logical and illogical conclusions. To wrestle to find words to express what I thought and felt. To make outlandish pronouncements about how things should be. To cry in anguish without shame. To curse without guilt. To pray in my own language, not relying on words from a book.

At semester’s end, Bill asked, “Paul, have you ever considered ordained ministry?” “Yes,” I replied, “but not seriously.” “Think about it,” he said. I did. This, two years later, led to my senior year vocational paralysis, uncertain whether to attend law school or seminary. Finally, I made a decision to make no decision. I would complete all the applications and whatever institution gave me the most scholarship money would represent the life’s path I would follow!

Then came the dream: I stood behind myself (truly, an out-of-body experience!) at the edge of a precipice gazing into the horizon blanketed by a cloud from which thundered a voice, “You shall go to seminary.”

clouds

Awakening with a peace I hadn’t given (and couldn’t give) myself, I reflected on the biblical stories of the God who speaks through dreams and whose shekinah or presence appears as a cloud. This counterbalanced my skepticism that I merely might have heard my unconscious self. Believing it to be God’s voice, I tossed the law school applications. The rest, as it’s oft said, is history.

In the course of that history, I’ve discerned many reasons why I became a priest…

The reality of God, even the mere idea of God inspires me. And the notion of a connection between humankind and all creation with transcendent, yet immanent mystery, which although truly nameless is nonetheless knowable, delights and confounds me. And I want to be with people in the depths of their pains and at the heights of their joys. And I love people. And I love to listen and talk. What better profession could I have pursued than that of pastor and preacher?

This is my Labor Day story. What’s yours? What’s your gladness and what’s the world’s need you seek to address?

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, page 119.

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5 thoughts on ““gladness” & “need” – a Labor Day weekend reflection

  1. Paul,

    You had a career in ministry that many could only dream about. It defies description in terms of its success, despite challenges along the way. I feel fortunate to have experienced a few years of your ministry. It’s amazing how you received your vocation in a dream. I love that story and your Labor Day reflection.

    I’m not at all sure that I am fulfilling what I was supposed to do with my life. I didn’t achieve my dream of being an FBI agent due to poor eyesight,(even when corrected). I had thought about law school too, but didn’t get enough scholarship money to go. I was passionate about forensics so double majored in forensic science and criminal justice in grad school. Though it would have been cool to work in a CSI-type lab, my math and chemistry grades weren’t good enough to achieve that.

    So I started in security and actually achieved a great deal that I’m most proud of. After year ten, I took my work knowledge and began teaching and training, eventually starting my own business. Like you, I love people and talking and listening so I’ve been able to reach a lot of people, and had an impact on their lives and careers.

    As I begin to think about retirement from the security field, I believe I’m already doing my re-hirement” work (to borrow your word). My book and tour has given me an opportunity to reach people I never would have met. It’s an emotional subject and impacts me greatly. Thankfully I’ve used my love of LEGO bricks to keep me balanced and fully engaged with my feelings so that I can continue to carry on. I believe that God would be pleased with my service to others, and on Labor Day, I’ll smile about that. Thanks for asking us to share our stories.

    Happy Labor Day Paul to you and Pontheolla!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Loretta. Your reply to my closing question is precisely how I want readers to respond. I relish reading your recount of your vocational path(s). Though I know the outlines of your working history, you, as the shaper of the destiny that God, the Eternal Author, has scripted for you, in your reflection give your story so grand a color and texture. Again, you’ve responded precisely as – verily, even better than – I desired.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad I exceeded your expectations! I wanted to do your question justice Paul. But I have to say it was hard to write some of that down – being honest about not having achieved my dream. Today was a day of building and reflecting, and because I was alone when I read your post, I had time to really think about it. Everyone always talks about how I work night and day so I really wanted to examine what I do and why I do it. Hadn’t planned on reflecting to that degree that I did, but it was a great exercise, especially in honor of Labor Day!! Thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks again, Loretta. Now, I will say that from where I stand looking at you and your labkrs of love, rather than your not having fulfilled your dream (as you first perceived and defined it) your dream changed and you followed that new path, indeed, those new paths. You are blessed in this with the gifts and graces of adaptability, flexibility, and perseverance. Sounds like a dream come true to me!

    Liked by 1 person

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