“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.”


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.