Last week I had the opportunity to visit Yale Divinity School and share some thoughts on vocation with new friends there. Here’s a reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 that I offered in chapel while I was there.
I grew up on the island of Oahu in the state of Hawaii. Every summer when we’d pack our suitcases and get on an airplane for the long trip to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Chicago.
During our few weeks there every summer we’d do amazing things we’d never get to do at home, like traipse through the woods until we found a snake—just so we could see one in real life; go to the lake to water ski; stop at a roadside stand for fresh sweet corn; catch fireflies in a jar at dusk. One of the most fascinating things to me was climbing into the car and taking road trips—to an amusement park (a curiosity also unknown to Hawaiians), to visit family a few hours away, drive into the city…many of these road trips requiring my Grandpa to drive the car through a toll booth. Because an island is, well, surrounded by water, there are no such things as interstate highways or toll roads. They just don’t exist.
Toll booths, to me, were the ultimate curiosity. You pulled the car up to this cool little booth, never knew whom you were going to meet in the booth, turned over some money (and got change!), then went on your way. I remember thinking that when I grew up—for sure—I wanted to be a toll booth collector. Just think! You get to hang out in that booth that, to me, seemed sort of like an ultra-modern tree house; you get to meet all kinds of people who drive through your booth all day long; and you get to work the cash register, which always seemed to me to be a very cool looking (and also ultra-grown up) machine.
So that’s what I would always answer when asked that perpetual childhood question: what do you want to be when you grow up? And while I am quite sure the adults in my life were intending to be fully supportive and encouraging when they asked that question, the message that question always sent to me was: there is one thing that you are supposed to do with your life, and I sure hope you pick the right one. Somehow I think I got the message that choosing wrong would be disastrous, although nobody could ever tell me what disaster would ensue if I mis-stepped.
To add to this internal 8-10-year-old angst was the small detail that my family was a very devout evangelical Christian sort of family, you know, the kind of family that goes to church every Sunday morning and evening, plus Wednesday nights, says grace before every meal, and never leaves for school in the morning without family devotions courtesy of Oswald Chambers, or if we were lucky, the slightly shorter and easier to understand Our Daily Bread. And, you should know as well as I do, when you add God to any issue, things can get complicated. The pressure of meeting cultural norms gets ramped up when those cultural norms are layered with the expectation of the Divine, if you know what I mean.
Well, I don’t know about you, but these deep questions of vocation: not just what do I want to be when I grow up, but even deeper questions like: what is the meaning of my life? And for those of us who recognize a divine impulse in the word, how does my life share in God’s work of redemption in the world? These questions, they nip at my heels and settle deep in my heart, they are with me all the time. All the time.
And this wrestling, this internal wondering about deep and life-defining questions has come to frame for me, this Lent, the passage we heard read earlier in the service. It has been a curious perspective on the passage, because my default interpretation of this story is this: Jesus, still dripping from his dunking in the Jordan River, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And when he got to the wilderness he decided to do some deep thinking, some spiritual practice, you could call it. (Is that what happens when you don’t eat? I wouldn’t know.)
But then, when he was all holy and centered—like we want to be every Lent when we give up alcohol and chocolate—Satan showed up and tried to trick him out of his spiritual sweet spot. And the obvious application for all of us is, of course, that we shouldn’t give in to temptation, chocolate or otherwise, because: shortly after his temptation in the desert Jesus set the homiletical bar high by delivering the best sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, in which he said: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
But as I mentioned, I read the passage this year and thought about it a bit differently. When I picked up the text this year and it read like a memoir of vocation to me. It’s like Jesus living out my struggle: what is it like to ask those hard questions about who I am and what I’m meant to do with my life? How does it feel to discern vocation, meaning, purpose, direction? And, is that gut wrenching work of finding my way really as hard for everybody else as it feels for me?
Well, friends, if you read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a memoir of vocation, then all of the sudden reading this story becomes less like a pious judgment and more like a sigh of relief. Not only is this struggle to discern vocation really as hard for everybody else as it feels for me…it was as hard for Jesus, too.
And this felt kind of like a reclaiming of the story for me. I got to thinking there might be some things about the process of becoming (which we all are engaged in as long as we walk this planet) that we could remember as we watch Jesus struggle.
In other words, what could we learn if the story went down this way? Jesus, gets dunked in the Jordan River, probably caught up in what felt like a Billy Graham crusade—the crowd was excited, hopeful. The message was invigorating enough to pull the listener out of the stupor of complacency and toward a sort of wondering about life. Something inside stirred a little, and it was unfamiliar but…warming, and maybe even a little thrilling.
And so he knew, in that moment, enough to take the next step. He wasn’t sure, but when he had a sense, an inkling, that he should head to the desert, he must have struggled. Who wants to go into the desert, after all?
Which is where, for me, the first lesson of this vocational memoir arises for me: watch for the struggle.
Early in my first pastorate I remember sitting across the table at Starbucks with a new colleague. He’d been doing this pastor gig for over 20 years when I was just starting, and I recall tearing up and asking him: why didn’t anybody tell me it was going to be like this? He said something I have never forgotten: “True vocation is something you can’t NOT do.”
I like to think maybe that’s why Jesus embraced the wilderness. He certainly knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, right? But somehow, whether it was that whole son of God thing or whether he had the same sense of being unable to NOT face the struggle, he went. And I’m not sure exactly what that all means, but I suspect it’s an indication that when we step into the unknown, uncomfortable, or even terrifying because we just can’t not, something transformative is going to happen there.
I read that it happened to Jesus; I know that it happens to me.
Perhaps another expression of Jesus’ vocational story that rings true with me are the mixed messages that we hear when we’re struggling to find our way. The way Matthew tells it, there’s only one voice and it belongs to Satan, but I’m going to take some liberties with the narrative and posit that whether it was a voice coming from one source or many, a critical and foundational experience of vocational discernment, perhaps a second quality of this kind of work, comes in recognizing and sorting the voices.
I understand this sounds suspiciously like a condition that might require psychotropic medication, but let’s be real: you’re not telling the truth if you haven’t struggled with the messages bombarding you from every direction.
I guess the possibility exists that there is someone out there who heard a voice—just one—loud and clear, followed the direction of that voice to the letter, and ended up smooth sailing to a blissful expression of their full and joyous human existence.
(I hope I never meet that person, but that’s another sermon).
For me this journey has been more like sitting at a big conference table surrounded by a whole host of voices competing for attention. Some of voices I like to hear, comforting, encouraging voices. Some challenge me, push me a bit out of my comfort zone. Some taunt with messages of insufficiency and incompetence. Some invite me to tantalizing opportunities. Some tell hard truths.
The work of vocational discernment—answering those questions about who we are and what our lives mean—often expresses itself in the sorting of the voices and the determination of which ones get to speak the loudest in our lives.
I like to think of Jesus’ conversations with Satan in the desert as something like that. I think Jesus was sorting the messages, too, slogging through the all of the comforting, appealing, painful voices he was hearing, and summoning all the courage he could muster to discern which messages were life giving and which were not.
In fact, I know that to be true, because every temptation Satan offered Jesus could, in some expression, have been used to live out a calling for the good.
It must be that there’s something built into the work of vocation that asks us to listen and think, to sort through conflicting and confusing messages, and to choose the ones we listen to. I read here that it happened to Jesus; I know that it happens to me.
Finally, one more lesson in what is, I’m claiming this year, a memoir of vocation. I find it in the very last phrase of Matthew’s account, a word of hope and promise: “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
While everything I said about embracing the struggle and sorting the voices may be true, there’s no doubt that any process of authentic vocational discernment is wearying work. It’s wearying because, by its very nature it calls us out of complacency toward change—that ever-constant, totally terrifying human reality.
You know, I strongly suspect (and my spiritual director would nod and try to look thoughtful while we all know she’s thinking in her head—DUH!) that these thoughts around this interpretation of this Lenten passage are informed by my own experience of this last year.
Beginning in late 2013, when I first heard from the search committee at The Riverside Church, I began a deep process of discernment. Some of that discernment included speaking with colleagues, seeking out mentors, working with a spiritual director. I talked with people who had been my pastors, with my kids, girlfriends, parents, sisters, professors, coworkers, former coworkers, and called together a Quaker Clearness Committee.
At the end of all of that I felt so very deeply that I had done some of the hardest, most breath-taking work of my life. And I was (and am) exhausted. Vocational discernment totally unmoors us. It turns us around, sets us off course, rattles our comfortable cages. Thinking about what we’re called to do and who we’re called to be in the large picture of God’s work in the world does have the potential to call us to greatness…and it has the potential to destroy us.
To walk safely through this process of discerning our lives, we need angels. I mean, Jesus needed angels, so I’m going to say it’s pretty safe to assume that we do, too.
All of those people I listed? Friends, colleagues, kids, pastors…to me they were and are like angels, attendants to walk alongside while you struggle, companions to hold out a hand to steady you, or wipe your brow, or hand you a Kleenex, or even bring you some chocolate. Angels. And right here is the third message of Jesus’ vocational memoir: we don’t do this work alone.
If we have the courage to step out into the unknown, to wrestle with all that we are and all that we are called to become, we are attended, all around, by witnesses of God’s grace, those who can hold truths for us, keep us going, walk alongside us. It happened to Jesus, and I know that it happens to me.
And so, here we are at the beginning of Lent, considering yet again the story of Jesus’ temptation. I want to look at it differently this year, a memoir of vocation if you will. Because human life is a messy struggle to find our way in the darkness, to forge a path through unknown territory, to discover where my life intersects the work of God in this world, to learn over and over again who I was created to be. Did you hear the story? This very struggle happened to Jesus…and I know that it happens to me.
How about you?