Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reflections on Calling: Learn to Swim!

As promised, here it is. My reflections on discerning my calling.

In elementary school I was taught to restate the question in my answer. The questions (according to Jenny Smith of UMC Young Clergy) are: What are the struggles, joys, surprises and outcomes? Who helped you along? Where are you now? What do you wish someone told you at the beginning of discernment?

I’m somewhat envious of those who have a specific, precise experience of calling and/or conversion a la St. Augustine. For those who share this type of experience, their certainty of their status before God and what they are supposed to do with their lives is unshakeable.

However, I believe that I am like most people, in that I have not had a singular moment of epiphany, and that my sense of calling has been worked out “with great fear and trembling”, as it were, through a lot of trial and error.

Specifically, God has shown me my calling in life by throwing me in the deep end and forcing me to learn to swim.

According to the most recent theories on parenting (I have a six month old daughter, and I’m, for better or worse, quite well read on such things), many of the “old school” parenting techniques we and our parents grew up with are now anathema and tantamount to child abuse.

I had swimming lessons as a child, but I know a lot of people whose fathers would throw them in the deep end of the pool so they would learn to swim, trusting that there is a fundamental human survival instinct that would lead the child to learn to swim.

So while I am not so presumptuous as to call God an "abusive" parent, I so see God as an “old school” parent who has repeatedly thrown me in the deep end and shouted “Learn to swim!” over my loud and persistent screaming.

When I was 18 years old, God blessed me with a youth pastor named Will who had more faith in me than I did. Will was also the church’s choir director, and one week at choir practice he told us that he wouldn’t be present on the following Sunday. “Who’s going to direct us?” one member asked. Will took one look at me and said, “Matt, get down here. You’re the choir director this Sunday.” I had never directed a choir before, but he walked me through it, and I ended up doing a passable job.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

A few months later I found myself in the summer between high school and college, working at a missions camp. A church from the town in which I would be attending college was at our camp one week, and decided I should come work with their youth. A few days later I got a call from the pastor, asking if I’d be willing not only to work with the youth, but direct the youth program. Remember, I’m only 18 years old.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

Fast forward a few years, and I’m straight out of seminary in my first solo appointment. Three weeks after I’ve begun this appointment, I’m starting to feel comfortable, and I even think I know what I’m doing. Then I get a phone call from an older member: “Matt, (church member)’s daughter was murdered last night. It’s all over the cable news stations!” Long story short, the circumstances of her death were rather sensational, and it led to a lot of media attention. The funeral is that Saturday, and we have to keep the information about services out of the papers, for fear of CNN trucks being outside the church. The next day, Sunday, I’ve already scheduled an infant baptism, so I’ve got a third of the congregation overjoyed at the baptism of a new baby, one third grief stricken over the death of this woman, and another third in between, not sure what to think. And I’ve got to preach one sermon to speak to all of them!

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

Two years later, I’ve settled in to my role as a Senior Pastor quite nicely. I’m in Costa Rica on a mission trip, and very early one morning my wife calls me (on the cell phone of the one group member who brought it for emergencies) to tell me our church building was hit by a bolt of lightning and burned to the ground. I spend the entire day getting back into the United States, out of communication, with very little idea as to what’s going on. When I do get back, I have less than 48 hours to plan a worship service from scratch, having to rely on favors from a half dozen other churches for chairs, hymnals, a keyboard, etc. Not to mention, of course, the media attention this draws and the hundreds of people grieving the loss of this beloved, historic building, now looking to their 28 year old pastor for guidance.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

To all the young adults reading this: please know that discerning your calling will likely not be an objective, completely certain thing. It will most likely be worked out through your experiences, with a lot of mistakes, and only having any kind of discernible form in hindsight.

I pray that God lets you wade in gradually, but don’t be surprised if you’re thrown into the deep end and told to learn how to swim. God is a good and loving parent who will let you struggle for your own good, but won’t let you drown.

My prayers are with each and every one of you on this journey. If I can ever be of any help whatsoever, don’t hesitate to contact me by email or through the blog.

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