Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jobs, Careers, and Vocations

My spiritual director Charles once told me, “Don’t confuse your career with your vocation.”  I had been a priest for just a few years. Until that moment my assumption had been that serving as a priest was my vocation.
Charles did not mean to say that I shouldn’t be a priest or that God had not coaxed and nagged me into holy orders. Instead, his point was that the priesthood—and he would now say the episcopate—is the path by which I am working out God’s calling.
The priesthood—and the diaconate and the episcopate—are good and noble careers. And yet our vocation is something deeper, and those good and noble careers become holy missions when we engage them as the path on which we work out our deep calling.
George Sekoto's "The Jazz Band"

Conversely, even work devoted to worship, charity, peace, and justice can be nothing more than self-serving career tracks when they serve our desire for status, security, and influence.
That was Jesus’ first lesson to his disciples. He called them away from being fishermen and told them that he would make them fishers of people as they followed him.
As I often do, I’ve gotten ahead myself. Let’s take a step back and get clear about how jobs, careers, and vocations differ and how they can overlap.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


We didn’t have much of a plan. In early August of 1983, Joy and I stepped off the plane in Frankfurt, strapped on our backpacks, and started wandering around Germany.
Less than four months earlier we had gotten married in Atlanta. Before tying the knot, we had known each other for less than a year.
We were drawn together by the stuff that makes coyotes howl and mockingbirds sing.
Joy fascinated me, thrilled me, made me laugh, and occasionally utterly confused me. All in the same moment I wanted to embrace her, joke with her, stare at her, and sing with her. When I was away from her I couldn’t get her off my mind. When we were together, hours sped by like minutes.
Vincent van Gogh's "Two Lovers, Arles (fragment)"

In late September we would begin studying at the Ruhr University in Bochum. Until then, we wandered from place to place, hopping trains or boats or hiking hilly trails to places suggested by our guide book or by people we met along the way.
For a while at least we were not straining to reach a well-defined destination. And yet, our travels were far from aimless. Our wandering was drawing us closer to each other. Our journey was measured more in time together and the bond we were forming than in miles covered and places visited.
During that month, and for the rest of that academic year, Joy and I came to know each other more intimately and to know the new selves that we were becoming by walking along together.
That’s the nature of wandering.
Jesus wants us to wander with him. To roam through life with him. That’s hard for us to get our minds around. We spend much of our time treating our lives like a goal-driven march. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Life After Drowning

To graduate, everyone at Oxford College of Emory University had to take drown-proofing. And most everyone dreaded it.
I learned to swim before I could walk. The water doesn’t bother me. In fact, most everybody in my class was at least an adequate swimmer. Spending time at the pool was not the problem as such. It was the final three tests of the class that gave it such a dreadful reputation.
This course was meant to help you survive no matter what. We learned to tread water for extended periods, swim a mile fully clothed, and even make a flotation device out of our pants.
All of this was tedious, but no one was shaken by it. But we all realized that this was just the buildup to the grand finale.
You see, when we say drown proofing, we really mean drown proofing. So we had to learn to survive in the water even in the event of an injury to our limbs.
Norman Rockwell's "The Swimming Hole"

First, we had to jump into the pool and swim some distance with our feet tied. For me, that was a piece of cake.
At the next class session, the teacher left our feet free and tied our hands behind our back. Strictly speaking, this wouldn’t be a problem at all if you didn’t need to breathe. But of course, to swim any distance at all you need air. We had to learn techniques for catching a breath without the use of our arms.
This was the first time when getting enough air was real work. Most of us experienced the beginning of the panic you get when it occurs to you that maybe, just maybe, you’re not going to be able to breathe.
You’ve probably already guessed what the last test was. With both hands and feet tied, we had to jump into the pool and swim to the other side. Mercifully, you could opt out of this test. Since I already had an A, I said no thanks.
We all attended that last class session just to see if anyone would actually take this test. One brave soul did, and we all cheered and clapped as he dolphin-kicked his way to the far side of the pool. 
Nobody wants to drown. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Lights, a Junkyard, and the Manger

My eyelids sprang open at three in the morning. Christmas morning. I was seven years old. My half brother Joel—already twelve and too cool for kid stuff—lay sleeping soundly next to me on a makeshift cot in the dining room.
Fueled by the anticipation of Santa’s arrival and a record-shattering blood sugar level, my whole body had been vibrating with excitement all night. Around nine o’clock my parents had turned out all the lights in a vain attempt to get me to sleep. In the pitch dark I lay counting the minutes impatiently until sometime around midnight the sugar bender I was on finally came to a crashing halt.
But now I was fully alert. A glow seeped out of the living room behind us and poured itself thinly across the dining room floor. A faint, warm light coaxed recognizable shapes out of the darkness: the dining room table, the window frame, the doorway leading out toward the kitchen.
Gertrude Kasebier's "The Manger"

“Santa’s come,” I whispered to Joel.
No response.
I shook his shoulder and said directly in his ear, “Santa’s come.”
“Go back to sleep,” he said. “It’s three o’clock in the morning. You can’t wake them up this early.”
“But Santa’s come! He turned on the Christmas tree lights.” 
This was back in the day before LED lights. Christmas tree bulbs burned hot, so you had to turn off the lights at night for fear of the tree catching fire and the house burning down. If the lights were on, I knew that only Santa could have turned them on to let us know that he had been there.
“Alright,” said Joel. “Look, you can’t wake them up. But I’ll let you tip toe to the door and peek in. Then you have to get back in bed and wait until at least 5 o’clock.”
I slipped out from under the covers and crept to the living room doorway. Stepping across the threshold I caught my breath. The gold foil wrapping the gifts captured the tree’s light and then cast it  into the air like glimmering fairy dust.
Now you might think that I was excited about the gifts. But that wasn’t it. I was transfixed by the light and by what that light was doing to the room. I couldn’t have told you at the time. But it wasn’t just the light that took my breath away. It was what the light conveyed. It announced a presence. A presence that was transforming everything from the inside out.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Life Is Not About Trying Harder

My late father Sam had three sons: Joel, Joseph, and me. Born of my father’s first wife, Joel is my half brother and five years my senior. Joseph and I share the same mother. Born three years before me, Joseph died before I came on the scene.
My father also had two daughters. Marsha is his oldest child, ten years older than me and daughter of his first wife. My mother bore Marie when I was three, and Marie died soon thereafter. They are an important part of my larger story, too, but they do not figure as the main characters in the portion of the story that I want to share with you right now.
Gerard Sekoto's "Three Men at a Railway Station"

Instead, I want to focus on how I responded to being Joel’s half brother. Without realizing it until many years later, I responded to my place in this family matrix by gradually adopting a spirituality whose motto could be summarized in two words. Try harder. In other words, I was a misguided Christian for many years.