Braving My Lenten Wilderness

If your church follows the lectionary, you would have heard Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ baptism, how the Spirit descended like a dove, the Father spoke affirming words, and how the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:9-15).  Mark is the most economic in his description of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, but we know from reading his account: (1) Jesus was there 40 days, (2) he was tempted by Satan, (3) he was with the wild animals, and (4) he was waited on by angels. At the end of his desert days, John, his cousin, was arrested and Jesus went to Galilee preaching, “It’s time! God’s reign has come close! Change your heart and trust the good news!”

The forty days of Lent—Ash Wednesday to Easter minus Sundays in the western Church calendar—correspond to the 40 days of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. To practice Lent is to self-consciously follow Jesus into the wilderness. There we will be tempted, we will grow hungry, we will see ways we are in danger. But like Jesus, who was ministered to by the angels. We will sense ourselves as being held in God’s care, and have God’s presence mediated to us.

Going to the wilderness is the hardest part of practicing Lent for me because I feel like I’ve already spent too much time there. Jesus took forty days and clarified his call before going about the countryside preaching, teaching, casting out the Powers and healing the sick. But wilderness haunts my story and still feel perpetually, vocationally frustrated. I graduated from seminary in 2010 with a mountain of student debt. Unable to find a way into pastoral ministry and needing a job, I worked at a hardware store in Blaine, Washington. I call that season of my life, ‘Waylaid in Blaine,’ and while there were gifts and blessings and the angels of God ministered to me and my family, it was a desert place for me.  I was eager to move into the land of promise.

A few years later I got the opportunity. I uprooted. My family and I moved across country where I took up the role of lead pastor of a small congregation. I was 40. Our fourth kid was born there. We named our son Benedict Asher (meaning blessing and happiness) because I mused. “After 40 years in the wilderness, we are now in the promised land, doing the things God has called us to do.”

My son is indeed a blessing, but a year after coming to Florida, the church and I parted ways. They were a small congregation with big bills feeling the weight of scarcity and they needed a leader who would turn things around for them. I didn’t deliver on their hopes (e.g. grow the church, bring in money, invigorate them with spiritual vitality). But it wasn’t just them. I failed to deliver on the things I feel called to.  I mishandled important relationships and I failed in my attempts to get the church to partner with the wider community. I think it was an impossible situation and I was a bad fit for them, but I still feel the ways and places I didn’t measure up, and I grieve the broken relationships.

But for the next eight months, I lived in that community, seven blocks from my old church. I dreaded running into former congregants because when I saw them, I felt like a failure. Some members reached out and were kind, but most severed all contact. My kids would cry because we couldn’t go to that church anymore. Me too. And while I had worked at building community connections and relationships, I suddenly felt like any investment I had in the neighborhood would be perceived as competing with my former church. Every interaction became difficult for me (I’m normally gregariously extroverted). And it hurt. A lot. I don’t think I ever felt so isolated.  We were in the wilderness again, unsure of next steps and feeling isolated.

So we uprooted again, heading back to the Northwest and ended up in the city of  Medford, Oregon. We ended up in a new city but carrying the self-doubt, disillusionment, and disconnection. We started attending a local Methodist church and slowly building a life here. We subsist, ministered to by the angels, but in lots of ways I’m still in a wilderness place. I have had opportunities to preach and have healed somewhat, but I feel gripped with fear and haven’t done much to pursue the things I feel like I’m called to.

So entering the Lenten Wilderness is just a decision, for me, to recognize my own spiritual locale. Here I am. Where are you? Is your life the land of promise? Or are there ways you feel, as I do, vocationally and relationally frustrated? Perhaps you carry wounds that keep you from giving and receiving love in a community? The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness, but as we listen to the Spirit’s whisper, perhaps we recognize the ways we are already there.

This past weekend I drove up to Portland for a conference. On the way up, I listened to the Audiobook version of Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness (. She describes her own longing for connection and true belonging and what it means to “brave the wilderness.” She offers up the acronym BRAVING to those of us who find ourselves in the wilderness (Lenten or otherwise):

  • Boundaries – being clear about our own boundaries and the boundaries of others
  • Reliability – the decision to trust others to do what they say they are going to do, and doing the same.
  • Accountability – trusting others who apologize and make amends for their mistakes, and doing the same ourselves.
  • Vault- holding in confidence what is shared with you and not sharing stories that are not ours to tell.
  • Integrity – choosing courage over comfort and practicing what we say we believe.
  • Nonjudgement – Nonjudgment of others in relationship, non-judgment for ourselves. We can fall apart, we can ask for help. We can be needy.
  • Generosity – Choosing to be generous in our assumptions about what people do to us and why.

So here I am, in the wilderness, longing for connection. Wanting to step with courage into calling, but still feeling wounded and afraid. I want so badly to be on the other side of the desert, speaking Good news of God’s closeness and welcome. But here I am. And I must brave this place and learn to find my voice again.


Parabolic Professions: a book review

Each career has something to teach us. When people do the type of things, they were made to do, they image God for the rest of us.
978-1-63146-548-2So says John Van Sloten, Calgary pastor and preacher teacher at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta. Van Sloten previously wrote The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything, a book that explored God’s presence in pop-culture. In Every Job a ParableVan Sloten trains his eye on careers around him, and how God is revealed in our vocation.

In Part I, describes how people in their job, image God. Van Sloten talks with a Walmart Greeter, a flyer delivery person in his neighbourhood, a forensic psychologist, tradespeople and auto mechanics, doctors and florists, and scientists, exploring how our work puts us in touch with the character of God, and his imprint on our world and work.  He continues to probe various vocations throughout the book.

In Part II, Van Sloten explores what parables are and how our work is a parable. He explores the ways workers image God’s presence and how someone’s vocation(calling) is an icon of God. In Part III, he explores what our work reveals about God. Different jobs reveal God’s ongoing creation (e.g., Geophysicists), crooked lawyers and immoral politicians show how sin distorts things, how first responders and medical professionals reveal ways God works to redeem all things, and how activists point us to God’s work of new creation.

Part IV forms an invitation for us to live more effectively and consistently the image of God we are called to through our work. Van Solten suggests learning discernment, gratitude, rhythms of rest, a mystical full-sense-engagement in our vocational life, and trust that God will use our work.

Van Sloten’s perspective on vocation helps us see the sacredness of work. Too often, our work feels small and mundane, and seems the chunk of our day that takes us away from our life. Van Sloten argues, instead that what we do at work is formational and iconic, allowing our work to call us to Christlikeness and imaging God.

While the book assumes the sacredness of every vocation, Van Sloten does address where sin distorts our sense of call. Lawyers may lie, federal politicians may be immoral, accountants may be . . . creative. But Van Sloten’s negative examples all assume that each of these are a peculiar vocation gone amiss. He does not treat, in this volume, jobs that are illegal (mob boss, pimp, prostitute), immoral (pornographer) or  ambiguous (a card dealer at a Casino, bar tender, etc). Presumably, these can fit the ‘Every job a parable’ motif, even if these jobs don’t ‘image God.’ They still may have things to teach us.

Van Sloten, is Reformed, and many of the theological voices he draws on are within the Christian Reformed Stream: Cornelius Plantinga, Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavnick. Though CS Lewis, Eastern Orthodox theology through the lens of Rublev’s Trinity and Gabriel Bunge are also significant.

This was a pretty enjoyable read and I like the way Van Sloten valued the professions he highlighted here.  On a personal note, feeling somewhat vocationally muddled as of late, I appreciate Van Sloten’s call to examine where God is revealed in my day job. I give this four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the Tyndale Blog Network, in exchange for my honest review.


Called To Be Who We Are: a book review

Here is a book I’ve read cover-to-cover but am not done with yet: Your Vocational Credo by Deborah Koehn Loyd. In the past couple of weeks I resigned from a position I held for just short of a year and I am taking the time to reflect on my shape and life purpose as I discern next steps. Loyd’s book has been useful as I try to find a new place to serve in my passion. Loyd, is a church planter, pastor, teacher and professor at George Fox  and wrote Vocational Credo to help others distill their calling by composing a ‘vocational credo.’ A Vocational Credo is a short statement which describes what what we were put on earth to do.

Loyd wants to enlarge our idea of vocation from thinking of it as a call to particular location, what we get paid to do, a super spiritual breath of God type experience or a non-specific generic view(39-40). Instead she argues, “Vocation is speaking or living from the truest form of self. Vocation doesn’t merely happen to us from the outside in a blinding light from heaven or an official ‘call’ from God. That sweet spot of significance suited only to you must be discovered from the inside as well.  A thorough inner exploration is necessary because it will allow you to bring your most energized and creative self into the future. It will ignite passion in your soul that is specific to you. When passion collides with God-given opportunity, you have the elements of vocation and the power to change the world” (18-19).

So Vocational Credo involves inner work, so that we can serve God as our true selves. Loyd shares her own discovery of her calling as she probed the depths of past painful experience, her values, and how her passion, anger, joy revealed the particular way God called her to bring healing in the world. She invites us to take a similar sort of journey by creating a personal ‘vocational triangle’ reflecting on how our ‘first wound’ sets the trajectory of our calling, our personal values (which may be revealed to us through a favorite book or quote) and the way our shape allows us to respond to the needs of the world around us. By paying attention we can craft our credo: God created me to _________________ so that __________________.

Loyd also offers practical reflections and insights about  ‘toxic skills’ (things we can do well  or need to do but feel drained by), the gift of opportunity in chaos and change, how to discover our personal vocational preferences, and leaving a legacy as part of our calling.

This book proves to be a practical tool for leaning into everything God wants to do through you. My undone-ness with it  means it has alerted me to some inner-work I still need to do. For example, Loyd is poetic about the way pain sets the trajectory of  our calling and she shares vulnerably about how her childhood experience of abuse silenced her voice. As she worked through the trauma of those experiences, she saw ways that the things that broke her aroused anger toward injustice and suffering which offered clues to her discovering her true self. I have spent some time in reflecting on how pain has shaped my journey and can point to some hurtful moments, but I don’t have a clear sense of how my ‘first wound’ shapes my life passion and purpose. I agree it does, but I have more work to do.

So I’ve read and commend this book as a tool for self reflection and discernment but I haven’t composed my vocational credo (to my satisfaction) yet. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

On to the Land of Promise: Part 1

For three years I searched for a pastoral call to no avail. One of those years I was unemployed. Two years I worked at a hardware store–good honest work, but not the work I was made for. I had thought that my time at Regent College had prepared me for ministry. I have one of the best theological educations but God had other lessons for me to learn.

I have recently accepted a call to a church in Safety Harbor, Florida. And I eagerly await what God has in this next step of my journey. The past few weeks were a whirlwind. I wrapped up my hardware store job, packed up my belongings and family and went to the land that God has shown me.  My days in Blaine were wilderness years for me. I wrestled with self-doubt. I wondered did, “I really hear God’s call on my life?” “Am I really called to vocational ministry?”  I applied to churches, but didn’t  really find a place that ‘felt’ right.

And then I found this church and felt led to apply. They were prayerful and asked perceptive questions. When I learned more about what they were doing and their heart for the city, I became more and more enamored with them. And after a process of mutual discernment I accepted a call. The call was affirmed by a congregational vote and here I am.

I  am sad to leave good, supportive friends behind but am excited about all God has for us as we seek to follow Him in Florida. I know there are giants in the land, and issues we will need to face as a family. As a pastoral leader, I know I will need to build trust and lay a lot of ground for a good transition. But I don’t officially start for a few more days.  Mostly our time in Florida has been spent getting settled. I wanted to reflect on what God taught me in the waylaid in Blaine years:

  1. Wherever God places you, there you are–the power of place. When we got to Blaine, I had my feelers out at a couple of churches and had garnered some interest. I regarded Blaine as a temporary stop, on my way to the next-big-thing. Little did I know that I would spend over three years in that community. I didn’t leave until I made my peace with the place. I planted fruit trees. Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I have carried you into exile.”  It was only when I really enetered into that place and took a stake in the community that God released me for what’s next.
  2. Standing still in a world of hurry–the patience of a saint.  We live in a high speed society.  We drive fast and hate waiting in line. We want everything to happen for us right on time (or right before that). At least I do. I had to learn in my bones that my timing was not God’s timing.  I wanted good things, but God had better plans for our lives. These three years were not just a pause button on my future, it was God’s plan for our lives.
  3. Good things come to those who wait (on God): the practice of prayer.  The wilderness is a place of prayer. These past few years have been angsty and difficult. I have wondered if my education (which I’m still paying for) and vocational goals was a personal miscalculation. So I wrestled with God these years and prayed a lot. One major thing changed in me. I let go of  anxiety and the necessity to ‘prove myself.’ I learned to trust God with the outcome as I continued pursue his call on my life. It took these three whole years for me to learn to trust God and not rely on my gifts, talents and resources.

Sacred time and space. I am grateful for these years of waiting. I also was blessed to have a supportive church and friends who walked alongside me. And now the next big thing: Milk and honey here we come.

Vocation, the Chrysalis and Labors of Love

As I sit sipping my second cup of french press coffee I have some time to reflect on my life and the shape it has taken. Last year’s Labor day was not a day off for me, but one among many as I was unable to get a job. Today, I am home from work and have enjoyed the lazy morning. Later I will climb down the embankment in our backyard to see if I can forage enough blackberries for blackberry jam. But for the moment I sit enjoying my coffee in the midst of the chaos that three active children create.

This is not how I imagined life. I graduated seminary a couple of years ago and envisioned that when my wife finished up her degree we would step into pastoral ministry somewhere, in some context, hopefully urban. Frederick Buechner has written somewhere, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I feel most alive doing ministry: preaching, visitation, praying with and for people, communicating the gospel. And I see the need to pastor, to shepherd God’s people into deeper relationship with God and care for one another and their communities. But then I couldn’t find a job as a pastor and while I have had opportunity to preach occasionally, my present occupation does not even allow me to even worship regularly at my church. I work at a hardware store in a small town on the verge of Canada in Northwest Washington. I am not doing with my life what I feel I was made to do.

This doesn’t mean I hate my job. Stocking shelves is physical work and certainly feels cathartic. It feels good to do something productive with my time. I also like helping people find what they need. I guide customers to the mystical land of nuts and bolts and other odd fasteners, scan the shelves quickly and then dig my hand into a drawer and pull out a jam nut or a cap screw and say, “Here, this should do it.” Of course I feel far less confident when people ask me questions about their plumbing or why their jerry-rigged solutions to what-have-you don’t work. But I like being invited to brainstorm creative solutions for people.

A friend asked me recently how it feels living where I am and doing what I am doing. I had a one word answer: stuck. This is an in-between-time and as an old prof of mine put it, “I feel muddled in the middle.” I am a caterpillar who has spun a chrysalis (called Blaine, WA) and I wait, unable to move and immersed in utter darkness (the sun is shining but this is the NW, the darkness cometh). I wait and wonder, when will I emerge? What will I become? Or will I ever become?

I admit, some of my stuckness is my fear and inaction. I have applied to churches, been weighed and found wanting (I didn’t get the job). I know if I am to move on from here, it requires risk and my life has become too safe. I likely will find a place where I can do what I was made for, but the road to get there will mean more rejection, more failure, more occasions for self-doubt. But I am feeling a little thin-skinned and fragile at the moment. this is part of life in a chrysalis.

So I wait and enjoy the time I have, watching my children grow and take on new challenges (my oldest daughter starts Kindergarten this week!!! OMG!!!). I savor the sweetness of late summer blackberries and the yield from my garden plot. I struggle to love my wife as we both wait and long for the what next. In the chrysalis we grow, learning patience, humbleness and how to be gentle with ourselves. One day we will soar. Until then we labor quietly here with love.

The Misdirection of God: Discerning God’s Will When You Don’t Have a Clue.

So as you know, I am perpetually hunting for a good ministry job. A place where I fit well, I am doing something significant and I am thriving in my gifting and passions. In the past year I have interviewed at a couple of churches but didn’t get a job. I have also gone from the short list for a couple pastoral positions to the scrap heap without so much as a conversation. Its been really frustrating and disconcerting and I have struggled to maintain my self worth while wondering what makes me so unemployable. I have also looked for work in the area, including with Logos Bible Software. Despite knowing a number of people in Bellingham getting hired there, the only position they interviewed me for was a little past my expertise and the countless other positions they have which I think I could have done and done well, they didn’t even considered me for. I’ve applied for other positions which were well within my expertise and I haven’t even heard from my potential employers. It’s been really frustrating.

 But hey,  I needed a job and got one with a local farmer’s co-op! So this week I have had some training on using a forklift, filling propane and the features and benefits of various animal feeds (horse and chicken, I’ll get more training later on other types). Today I get to spend actual time in the store. This is a job that I feel I could do reasonably well, but it is not the sort of job I thought I would be doing.  I mean, I’m a city boy who has worked for urban ministry para-church organizations with homeless and senior citizens, and at-risk youth. I’ve done ministry with college students and am kind of a theology nerd.  I’ve drafted and worked retail jobs, but nothing like this. I have a masters of divinity and I can’t get the satisfying ministry job I long for (My hunt is on hiatus), but I can get a job selling animal feed and fencing. Which brings me to my question, “God, What are you doing?”

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer reflects on his own vocational wanderings before he found his life call. He writes: 

If we are to live our lives fully and well we must learn to embrace the opposites, to live in a creative tension between our limits and our potentials. We must honor our limitations in ways that do not distort our nature, and we must trust and use our gifts in ways that fulfill the potentials God gave us. We must take the no of the way that closes and find the guidance it has to offer–and take the yes of the way that opens and respond with the yes of our lives. (55)

These are challenging words because the story I find myself in, is not the story I would have written. As I  my life, I wonder what God might be up to. Is this simply an opportunity for me to connect with friends and neighbors in our community (something I’ve been praying for)? Is this something that ’rounds me out’ so that I can relate better with people in a more rural context making me more appealing to rural and suburban churches? Is this just something I do now to feed my family while I bide my time for something better (with my pay check, not with animal feed)? 

I feel confident that I will one day look back and be thankful for this season and all that God has been doing inside my heart. Certainly I’ve been able to explore pieces of myself that I may not otherwise have time for. One day it will all make sense. Right now I haven’t got a clue about what God is doing, where he is leading and where I will end up. But that is an adventure worth pressing into.