A Response to Joe Carter’s TGC blog “The FAQ’s: What Christians Should Know About The Enneagram.”

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter has written a thoughtful and measured blog on The Enneagram. I’d encourage you to read it.

With Joe, I’ve seen the shortcomings of this tool in my 15+ years of using it. I’m seeing it become an evangelical fad, of sorts. I had a whole chapter on it in my 2014 book Toughest People to Love (reviewed here at TGC) , but the publisher nixed it with the rationale that evangelicals were not ready for it. Apparently they are, as I wrote about in a short piece on The Twelve called The Year of the Enneagram in which I share some reflections, positive and challenging.

I’m mindful that with the rise in popularity of the Enneagram comes needed critique. I’m quite saddened that my seminary alma mater, RTS Orlando, has banned the teaching and use of this tool. I introduced it in a vocational counseling course I taught in the mid-2000’s when I was regularly teaching there, and found it extraordinarily helpful in that context. Measured critique, like Joe’s demonstrates, is important. That said, I do have some thoughts.

Joe’s piece got me thinking about fear. My gut-level experience of reading his piece was that skeptics of the Enneagram would be immediately reinforced in their skepticism, and that concerns me. Not once in his piece, by my reading, does Joe describe the enormous significance of the Enneagram as a way of understanding sin and the deeper motivations which drive us to disordered desires. But while you won’t find the word sin in his piece, you’ll find some form of the word “occult” 7 times. That’s concerning to me.

In Joe’s first section “Where Did The Enneagram Come From?”, Joe’s treatment is all-too-brief. While he is correct that the origins story is murky, I’d remind us all that we can’t read Scripture without recognizing that major aspects of our primary stories, genres and forms, and even some of the Psalms we treasure were highly dependent on or lifted from their pagan cultures of origin. Whoever composed Psalm 29 wasn’t at all hesitant about re-appropriating a Baal song for Yahweh’s purposes. Our origins story and flood story, among others, were common pagan myths re-narrated for a new and better story. Moreover, who of us can read Augustine without the shadow of Plotinus looming, or Aquinas without Aristotle? A more generous origins story of the Enneagram would do a deep dive into the writings of Evagrius, Cassian and Gregory, showing how this modern-day tool is deeply reliant on a Christian theological tradition which viewed sin with a deadly seriousness and refused to settle for moralistic, sin-management techniques.

Katie Jo Ramsey has done an excellent job showing how this tool, although imperfect, is an important contemporary lens for understanding sin and sanctification. As I teach it through the lens of Augustine, Evagrius, Cassian and others, it reveals our sin as deadly passions, to use the ancient word. Theologian Wendy Farley writes,

The “passions” is an ancient name for some of the ways in which our own psyche helps to trap us in patterns of living that block us from our deepest joy. Passions have the connotation of bondage and uneasiness. They exemplify the way the soul can become twisted and turned in on itself (homo incurvatus en se) and alienated from the world around it. Anger and so on are passions when they move beyond passing emotions and take deep root in the soul, distorting mind, spirit, freedom, embodiment, agency, and, most of all, love. The passions muffle and distort holy desire. 

The Enneagram helps identify our passions as false self (or selves), a pseudo-identity which keeps us at a distance from our core identity (our true self) in Christ. While the Enneagram’s origins story doesn’t trace a clear line from this ancient wisdom to its contemporary form, Christians are no strangers to adopting forms and re-purposing them in service of Jesus. The Enneagram is clearly dependent on this orthodox spiritual tradition. Let’s not let fear keep us from using this one wisely.

A second reflection on Joe’s piece is the “why” of the Enneagram. The skeptic in me is sometimes hesitant to share the Enneagram with my students these days, knowing that it’s a wisdom tool, not a personality assessment. Sometimes my students are quick to adopt labels (“You’re a 3 because you’re such an Achiever” or “You’re an 8 because you’re angry”). This is unhelpful. Joe shares some helpful insights on the ‘why’ – the need for a classification tool, a MBTI replacement, a need for personality awareness. My addition would be a need for “story awareness.” As Katie Jo shows in her piece, a proper and wise use of the Enneagram opens us up to a larger conversation about how our family-of-origin, our relational and cultural contexts, and more contribute to ways of coping, often sinfully and maladaptively, in a broken world. In a time of identity politics, it probably feels like the last thing we need is another label-maker. But the Enneagram isn’t about telling you your personality or labeling you. It’s about raising questions related to your personality (your persona!), your ego, your style of relating, how you sin against yourself and neighbor. It raises the stakes in our conversations about how we hurt ourselves and each other. It gives us a lens through which we can see all the ways we’re living in exile from our true home in Christ.

Joe’s section “Why are some evangelicals opposed to the Enneagram?” was the least helpful to me. I’m not sure how he can say that evangelicals that oppose the Enneagram tend to be older and those who like it tend to be younger. Is this a research-based finding or an observation? It’s altogether inconsistent with my experience of it over 15+ years. In fact, those who are older are the great role models of how to use it wisely and well! And connecting people’s fear to the symbol of a Pentagram is, again, an observation Joe makes that is wholly inconsistent with what I’ve seen (I’ve maybe seen it once). Joe and I may run in different circles, but in my experience lay-evangelicals have been open and curious. I’ve found resistance among clergy and academics who are also resistant to psychology, who prefer Bible-only categories, and who haven’t spent significant time trying to understand it. This may simply be a difference in context.

Joe’s section on the accuracy or usefulness of the Enneagram offers helpful reflections, but I’d offer a few caveats. David Daniel’s work at Stanford is a rigorous, research-based work which seeks scientific validity and reliability for a tool that emerged outside of the sciences. Joe’s concerns about the Barnum effect are important, but if the tool is used wisely, effective coaches and spiritual directors will encourage people to take their process of self-understanding slowly, not trying to identify with a particular Enneagram type immediately, but engaging people who know them well and discerning their deeper motivations over time. What Joe doesn’t say is that the early practitioners did not want the Enneagram distributed widely for fear that it would be trivialized and over-simplified.

Over-simplication leads to quick typing. Wisdom leads to a slow process of self-discernment. Our deadly passions become so intertwined with our personalities that it is often hard to discern false self from true self. Again Farley writes:

At another level, passions become second nature and seem to he an essential part of our identity. The more they have entwined themselves with one’s self-identity, the more difficult they will be to dethrone. Passions blend with self-identity, though not in the sense that we conceive ourselves as terrified or enraged. These may be the last things we associate with ourselves. But we do incorporate the effects of these passions into our self-understanding.

Thus, the Enneagram, properly used, offers a slow process of self-examination meant to invite us to a larger conversation about our stories and our forms of self-sabotage, not a quick and convenient typing tool.

In the end, Joe leaves his readers to discern personally whether this tool can be a helpful pathway for self-knowledge. I appreciate that. I suspect Joe would agree that self-knowledge is of supreme important to the Christian. I remember slowly and reflectively paging through Richard Baxter’s massive tome On the Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance back when I was completing my MDiv and transitioning to a second degree in mental health counseling. I needed a strong anchor for this work. I am suspicious of quick and simplistic appropriations of psychology, and I hope that is evidenced in my books and other writings. Rightly used, I think the Enneagram is a gift to the church. In a time when we’re consumed by taking off and putting on our various identities like masks in a play, it invites us to name our illusions and rest in union with Christ.

If you are interested in a process that does this slow, wise work of self-knowledge, I commend to you a wise Christian and Enneagram coach Beth McCord. I lead Enneagram retreats and do coaching, as well, but Beth’s work is really impressive and thorough. My friend AJ Sherrill has written a book and leads retreats, and his connections to spiritual practices as well as his pastoral wisdom is significant.

Resist the gimmickification of the Enneagram (Yes, I made up that word). But don’t abandon it as a helpful way of knowing yourself.

Joe, if you read this, thanks for your measured piece. I hope this is received in the spirit of thoughtful and charitable dialogue among Christians.

Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. Image result for shame

Failure.

It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

“Just Become Yourself”: A Bad Line from a Disney Movie or the Wisest Counsel of All?

Become yourself.

It might sound like a bad line from a Disney movie. Or a trite piece of advice from a self-help guru.

I was working with a client in the first years I practiced as a therapist. After six weeks of work, she spontaneously uttered, “I think I’m done with counseling. I’ve found myself!” To which I uttered kiddingly, “Wow, I’m really good at this.”

Her revelation was real and deeply felt. In week 5 of counseling, she’d left a manipulative abuser. We celebrated her courage! In her first five days of freedom, she cut her hair (he insisted she keep it long), she burned a photo album, and she bought two new outfits she’d wanted for months. She came in to our session beaming, convinced of her lasting freedom and blessed autonomy.

While I celebrated her very real experience of life and vitality, I (perhaps for the first time) used a story I’d later draw upon in my first book. I said, “I imagine you feel a lit bit like the Israelites felt on that first day out of slavery, released from their oppressors and overwhelmed by the promise of freedom. But, I suspect for you, just like them, the wilderness lies ahead. And that’s where we’ll do the real work together. That’s where the real freedom is found.”

I like inviting men and women to become themselves, and I’ve retitled my blog in this season because I want to reclaim this invitation, allowing it to be enriched by a larger story, a better promise, a rich spirituality of becoming. Becoming oneself is not like flipping a psychological light-switch within. It’s not about finding your autonomy. It’s not about becoming an individual, but a person, not about finding independence, but a surrendered dependence. Aleksandr Kutakh walking 1

Listen to Thomas Merton’s depiction of this journey:

“Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive uncontrollable dynamic of fabrication designed to protect mere fictitious identities – ‘selves,’ that is to say, regarded as objects. … Such is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fill.” (from Raids on the Unspeakable) 

My tradition says it this way:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ

I’m convinced that becoming oneself is the work of a lifetime, as each and every one of our clenched fists of control relaxes as we discover that we’re unfathomably held and loved. I’m convinced that becoming oneself happens as we identify and remove every mask we’ve hid behind in our effort to make ourselves, and as we discover the beauty of those fatherly words from Luke 15: Everything I have is yours. 

Isn’t this what we long for – to be held, to be known, to discover infinite worth and delight?

And so…

Our becoming is a part of a larger story.

Our becoming is a lifelong journey.

Our becoming leads us into a relationship of surrendered dependence.

Our becoming requires many little deaths along the way.

Our becoming awakens us to a life not of hiding, but of hiddenness – “hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3).

Disney tells a pretty good story. This one is just a whole lot better.

 

the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (part 2)

In the last post, I addressed the emotional and spiritual health of a pastor from the perspective of church history.  From that, I hope you gained some insight on the importance on pastoral soul care for Baxter and Spurgeon, Rutherford and Calvin.

But we live in different times, now.  In this post, I intend to be descriptive, and in the next I’ll be a bit more prescriptive.  For some, you’ll notice yourself in some of these descriptions.  If so, stay tuned for the next post.

Researchers on pastoral health and well-being note the significant cultural shifts that impact pastors.  And these shifts make it more difficult, I believe, for pastors to self-reflect, and to honestly answer that important question: How are you?

Let’s look at just two of these developments (and there are many, many others):

1. The professionalization of the pastoral office – notions of “success” and “performance” are quite different today.  Now I’m, by no means, fearful of well-motivated striving for success, but most pastors will never perceive themselves as a success…which may be the bigger issue. Most young pastors will leave the ministry within 5 years, in large part, because they’re exhausted, feel incompetent, or lack the support, resources, or proper training to succeed.  (As an aside, this is why Scot Sherman and I started Newbigin House).  Success is not the problem, but couched within consumer culture, pastors are inclined to believe (as most of us do) that success is graphed “up and to the right.”  In fact, I think pastors in previous generations knew well that the pastoral road was long and winding, with high high’s and low low’s, wrought with failures along the way.  Or, as a favorite writer of mine might say, it is a journey of “falling upward.”

2.  Shifts in models of training – Today, many young pastors are forfeiting seminary training for experience, often alongside another more experienced pastor.  I get it.  Many seminaries appear irrelevant.  Many seminary professors lack real church experience.  Many programs lack a vision for formation and mission while firmly rooted in theological convictions.  (I’d argue this one – among others – doesn’t).  In many seminaries (which lack adequate funding), everyone gets admitted.  Few have a definite call and a sending church.  And the coursework privileges facts over formation.  In my own research, seminary graduates felt like they were prepared to pass an ordination exam, but under-prepared in both context and character.  I often see two kinds of pastors today – those who didn’t get seminary training but have some natural leadership and ministry skills, but without theological training fall victim to pragmatic, technique-driven pastoring.   Or, those with seminary training who lack the requisite contextual and personal shaping which comes from being in the trenches.  (And both tend to be cynical of the other).  Yet, the research shows that both don’t have a great chance for longevity in ministry.

Now, you’ve heard the statistics, I’m sure.

* 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week. (Most pastors don’t feel compensated adequately for the work they put in).

* 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.

* 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

* 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.

* 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.

* 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

* 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

* 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.

* 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.

* 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church .

* 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last months.

* 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

* 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

And then there are the physical and emotional symptoms researchers find:

* Unusual mood swings that may include weeping without just cause, anger, or depression

* Exhaustion

* Feelings of incompetence and powerlessness

* Panic and feeling totally overwhelmed

* Avoidance strategies (addictions, fantastizing, lying, comfort foods, drinking too much, hiding in books and work)

* Fight-or-flight cycles where you rise up to intimidate and conquer others or run away from difficulties just to avoid them

* Insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, which can lead to a reliance on sleeping pills

* Stomach and bowel issues

_____________________________________

My own dissertation research confirmed this.  In fact, my own story confirms it.  Despite getting counseling, being trained as a therapist, and having good mentors, my own ministry career is one filled with up’s and down’s.  I’ve had many successes in pastoral ministry, as a therapist, and as a seminary professor.  But when I don’t look after my own soul, watch out.  I’ve found myself at various times depressed, and at others angry and reactive.  I can become shamelessly judgmental.  Or, I can take my feelings underground in an array of addictive ways.

Like you, I’d like to define myself by my achievements.  I’d like to edit out the shameful parts.  But as we’ll see in the next post, it’s precisely when we befriend that often dark and shameful ‘other side’ of ourselves that we find grace and rest.  This, in fact, is exactly why Calvin began his Institutes by hailing self-knowledge.  Our humiliation is, in fact, the pathway to exaltation.

Sound familiar?

(Stats from Barna and Pastoral Care, Inc)

no kingdom without a cross

There is no rescue without suffering, no transformation without a wilderness, no kingdom without a cross.

This difficult message, more often than not, is rejected by Christians, not by skeptics.  Skeptics, in fact, are strangely attracted to the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus draped in the American flag or the Jesus whose message apparently sells self-help, victorious-Christian-life books.  No, skeptics are suspicious of this Jesus, and rightly so.  Rather, it is us – Christians – who are more apt to embrace a kingdom without a cross.

Somehow, we’ve come to believe that since Jesus ventured into the wilderness and suffered, even to the point of death, that we don’t have to.  Many of us live with a sense of entitlement – religious entitlement (if I live by faith, my life should be successful), economic entitlement (want to offend someone? – tell them their taxes are being raised!), political entitlement (supposing the world is going to hell in a handbasket if supposed ‘Christian’ policies on the left or right are not embraced), social entitlement (our desperately codependent need to be connected all the time), and psychological entitlement (my parents shouldn’t have failed me).

I saw so much of this on display over the past week during the healthcare debate, which seemed to draw out every angry, embittered, idealistic emotion our culture corporately carries.  On the one side, evangelical friends were outraged that they’d be forced to be inconvenienced (taxed!) for the sake of others, or at least this was my take.  On the other, those on left seemed, once again, convinced that real community and care could be somehow mandated by law.  I struggled to see the Gospel in any of it, in the sense that I didn’t see an honest wrestling with what it looks like, as a society, to come together wisely to care for the least of these – bringing in the kingdom through the cross of personal suffering and inconvenience for the sake of the other.  Let me assure you – sprinkling a little Jesus on Ayn Rand or Karl Marx does not make for a cruciform kingdom…

…which leads me to wonder – will we, Christians, need to suffer more to see that becoming followers of Jesus requires crucifixion?  Our confidence in changing and transforming the world politically – whether you’re on the left or the right – is false security.  It is an idol that will break in a thousand pieces.  And I say this no matter the method.  I tell my clients – those who think psychology will make it all better – that good psychology only leads you more deeply into the wilderness in order to meet God.  The idol of optimistic self-help will also explode.  Moreover, the confidence in the all-powerful, all-knowing Market may be our biggest idol.  Thomas Hobbes warned John Locke that the humanistic belief in well-intentioned, altruistic people was nonsense, and would come back to bite us.  His prophecy was too true.  What the market has produced is wealth for some, to be sure…and many cultural goods.  But it has also produced a thriving porn industry which degrades young women, the idolization of image, obsession with people’s tragic lives on reality television, the false belief in the 2000s that middle-class families could actually afford 2000 sq foot homes, psychological dependence on each new technology, the collective narcissistic false self of the American, a growing psychological sense that we deserve more and more, the militarization and economization of ‘security’, the church as “small business” in competition with others, the professionalization of the clergy, and the marginalization of those who don’t fit the collective narcissistic image of success.

I believe in the paschal mystery – the path of life through death patterned in Jesus – and this leads me to wonder, at times, if we might not need to face a cultural death in order to experience real life and revival.  We, Christians, may be most in need of this humiliation, and perhaps ought to pray for it.  We seem to excel in hard times.  I was reminded by a white South African friend again recently how black Christians in Africa led the call to forgiveness and reconciliation for those who systematically abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even raped them.  May we suffer so as to learn forgiveness like this.

As an election season heats up, we’d do well to extricate ourselves from the back-and-forth which is so enticing and addictive, as if a Supreme Court opinion or an election can save us from our desperately entitled, narcissistic selves.  This is my own spiritual discipline in this season – God help me.  I will be asking myself – what is the way of the Cross?  What false securities have I embraced?  But watch out what you pray for.  That which we hold to, cling to, attach our identity to may be taken from us – our business, our secure portfolio, our reputation, our idealism.

And may God’s peaceable kingdom emerge amidst the rubble in a way that skeptics might see Jesus in us, instead of despite us…

on self-compassion, inner critics, and becoming the beloved | 3

I heard an interview with a struggling baseball player the other day.  The radio personality interviewing him said, “It must be tough right now.”  The player said, “It’s always tough.  We work in a profession where succeeding 3 out of every 10 times is success.  We’ve got to learn to deal with frequent failure.”

The player was cut from his team a week later.

Former Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent once said, “Baseball teaches us… how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often — those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”

It’s the strange paradox of Christianity that we, at times, take ourselves so terribly seriously while believing ourselves to be so terribly sinful.  To be sure, we ought strive like athletes reaching toward the goal, as St. Paul often says.  Yet, we’ll often stumble and fall.  John Calvin, who took life and theology very seriously, reminds us this is so, saying that each of us strive to “the measure of his puny capacity,” not despairing at “the slightness of our success.”

Why are we Christians so obsessed with our successes?  It’s as if it’s all up to us, despite the fact that our theology tells us it isn’t so. Again, there’s no shame in trying.  However, sometimes we’ve got to get over ourselves before our trying and striving become redemptive and helpful.  Sometimes, our striving gets in the way of our own ‘salvation’, as the poet Mary Oliver writes.  We hear the many needy voices around us, and feel the world’s redemption is dependent on us.  “Mend our lives,” the voices around us cry.  The world shouts to us with its needs.  But sometimes we’re not healthy enough to help.  Sometimes, our helping is more a reflection of our deep distraction from God rather than our deep consecration in Him.

And, if we’re fortunate, we awake to this reality when we’re younger rather than older, when the damage we’ve done is less than it could have been, and when we realize that our successes are not so much a product of our expertise as much as God’s providence in using our “puny capacities,” as Calvin said, for something we couldn’t imagine.  And then, a poet like Mary Oliver bowls us over with her extraordinary truth, a truth gleaned from her observation of the theater of God’s glory and his people’s stumblings, as she writes

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, The Journey

And, we realize that we’re the ones drowning.  Enamored with our supposed successes, we’ve been the one in a slump, swinging and missing over and again in the game that really counts.  Perhaps, we’ve been selling posters and signing autographs.  But, we’ve used this as a distraction, too afraid to look at our own-the-field failures.

In this game, though, God doesn’t cut players.  It’s the only game in town where this is so.  You’ve been listening to other voices which are not your own, and he knows it.  And so he invites you to listen to the voice that you recognize as your own, the voice that will keep you company as you strive deeper and deeper into the world.  There is not retreat for the stumbling Christian.  Only redemption.  And so, he says walk on.  Play on.

And perhaps, in time, you’ll recognize that the “voice you recognize as your own” is, indeed, his voice, which speaks when you are most authentically you, his beloved child.

Knowing Your Calling

One of the most frequent questions I get in a city like San Francisco is this:  How do I understand my calling? San Francisco is filled with 20 and 30-something’s wrestling with call.  I like this question, because it gets beyond the typical question:  What kind of work should I do? Calling is about something larger.  But how do unique people discern their call?

There are three main components to discerning a call:  1) Understanding what God wants regarding the shape of our lives, 2) Understanding where you are, and 3) Understanding who you are.

Most people skip to the third component, ignoring the first two.  And it is an important one.  So, let’s begin with it.  Understanding who you are happens in a number of ways.  An important one is relational:  you need to ask the people who know you best.  Ask them about your gifts, your strengths and weaknesses, your relational style, your particular ways of contributing in contexts where they’ve seen you.  It’s also important to take it a step further and to understand your story.  Pick up Dan Allender’s To Be Told or Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. See a therapist.  Attempt to discern the ‘narrative shape’ of your life.  Finally, do some personality testing – an MBTI, a Campbell Skills Inventory, or another assessment that might help in the process of discernment.  Knowing yourself is an invaluable part of the process.

While understanding yourself is critical, two other components are equally as important.  You need to understand where you are.  Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  More often than not, we seek our own gladness without considering the world’s deep hunger.  This component has everything to do with context.  Where has God placed you?  Look around.  What compels you?  What stirs your passion?  What burdens your heart?

However, in the end, the text of your life coupled with your context must meet God and his text.  In other words, God’s narrative must be allowed to shape your own.  And this shape will always be cruciform. There is much written about ‘discovering your deepest desires.’  But desire discovered in a non-cruciform shape is disordered desire.

Consumer culture feeds on disordered desire, and (sadly) vocation takes a hit.  Consider the job fair.  It is a modern day job buffet.  We’re compelled by pay, by prestige, by position.  An anxiety grows:  “What can I do to attain the most?!”  But vocation opens up something deeper within us.  It satisfies, precisely because God joins your gladness with the world’s hunger.

I’d love to end with a story that paints a rosy picture of this.  But it’s complex.  We’re all so utterly unique.  And, we live in a broken world.  But consider a few scenarios.  I heard the story recently of a woman who stayed in a difficult job in an utterly corrupt industry, in part, because of an influence she had which gave her great satisfaction and looked a whole lot like following Jesus (cruciformity) in a difficult place. It was an improbable call, but nevertheless extraordinary.

I know a man who read a book on desire and the ‘wild’, and decided God must live in the mountains.  He moved he and his family to Colorado only to discover that God wasn’t there.  Upon returning, he told me that this ‘desire’ was more about him than about allowing God to shape him. He learned the lesson of vocation the hard way.

I know a pastor who left ministry to pursue his real calling – becoming a physician.  Later, I saw a man who was far happier – deep gladness, meeting the world’s hunger in a concrete way, and living a cross-shaped life.

All of this, I hope, points both to the complexity and beauty of calling.  In many respects, this process is harder than many of us would like it to be.  We’d love a quick vocational test, or neat-and-tidy program.  But I’d invite you to enter a process of discernment, where you ask hard questions about your life, your story, your context, and your place in God’s larger Story, all in the context of your community.  Let me know how it ‘takes shape.’