As We Are Called

The suitcase is in the living room again and I am once more packing for travel to Chicago. We’ve had a good long stretch of uneventful weather, but are forecast for another storm on Saturday when I’m scheduled to fly out, so I am praying for the bad weather to be some other time and some other place than when and where I need to be on an airplane. Such is modern life: we have the expectation that somehow our lives will continue, full pace, unaffected by petty circumstances such as winter weather. What would it look like if we lived in ways that were integrated with our environment?

Well, I would probably not be traveling to Chicago all the time, for one thing. It is a minor miracle – or defiant human ingenuity – that I can bop halfway across the continent in a few hours’ time (weather permitting.) It is another miracle of human ingenuity that I did not have to move there to go to seminary there; that I have this magic box with keys on which I can type these words and send them out into a place which is not a place, a world parallel to the physical world, where any of you who are so inclined can reach out and pull them down into your magic box and read them, wherever you are. Is this not wow? We live in the future. Really.

I have been spending a lot of time making art lately, which sounds a lot less pretentious than “I have been making a lot of art,” which is also somewhat true. I will be leaving a number of unfinished things here in Maine when I head to school, and that makes me itchy. But I have finished more pieces this winter than I did in all of 2014, so I will call that a qualified success – qualified because I have more ideas than I have time or skill to realize, and qualified also because I have more stuff than I have space to store or work with. First world problems, indeed.

I find it delightful and amusing and maybe a bit ironic that seminary and the formation process have for me the side effect of art squishing out of my life all over the place. If working on my MDiv is making me a more prolific (and arguably better) artist, will I need to do a MFA degree to become an effective minister? I hope not! One graduate degree at a time.

That was my joke of the day for yesterday, at least. But like any joke it has a thread of uncomfortable truth woven in; that’s what makes things funny.

Over the last several months I have repeatedly questioned my call, to seminary, to the ministry. Why am I doing this? What am I here for? What does my call in the world look like? There is nothing wrong with asking these questions – I am told that almost everyone who follows a call does ask them, and the folks who never question their call are the ones you should worry about. To be called to this, or that, is something of a dialog with the Universe – with God, if you like, or the Muse, or the higher self: Who am I? Whose am I? From what source and by what means and to what end? Sometimes we get clear answers. More often, we don’t, and like a dolphin or a bat navigating by echolocation, we fling questions out into the Mystery and get, from time to time, a ping in response.

Yes, this.

No, don’t go there.

Wait.

I have been in turbulent waters this past year and sending out a lot of signals into the deep. I wish I could tell you that I am all clear on everything now, but what I am becoming clear on is that I don’t actually expect to become clear on everything, ever. I have lately been reminded of the story told by Parker Palmer about the Quaker lady and the guiding effect of “way closing behind,” – it’s in his book, Let Your Life Speak, beginning of Chapter Three, if you aren’t familiar with it.

I have felt way closing behind me these last few weeks – particularly around my former occupation in accounting. I still have the skills, or some of them, but whatever happens going forward, it is clear to me that I can’t honestly go back to that line of work.

This is not exactly a relief. I was keeping that in my back pocket for “If this doesn’t work, I can always make a living at…” Maybe I could make a living at it, but to do so now would be at the expense of making a life. Maybe it always was.

It is daunting. It is possibly even more precarious to try and make a living at art than it is at ministry. And for me, I am wholly uncertain that they are separate things. I suspect they are not – which complicates matters further in our compartmentalized, secularized world.

Part of what prompted this blog post in the first place was the following scrap I found while rummaging around my hard drive looking for something else entirely. It is the Artist’s Statement I wrote back in 2009, when I joined the local Art Association (a membership that I let lapse, and really ought to renew soon.)

I have been making things since I stopped listening to people who told me to behave.

I believe in diving right in, head first, tail flapping in the breeze, and figuring it out as I go along. In absence of any formal art training whatsoever, I explore my materials and follow where they lead me – I paint with acrylics but also admit to digital photography, storytelling, music, and textile crafts.

I believe that true reverence does not take things too seriously. I draw inspiration from the natural world, from broad and deep and diverse religious traditions, and from the simplicity of ordinary things.

I believe that creativity and art should be openly available to everyone, woven into the fabric of daily life as well as being framed and held up. There is wonder and magic in the world; the artist’s function is to make strange and wondrous the commonplace and familiar, and to make commonplace and familiar the wondrous and strange.

I have a bachelor’s degree in math, a day job that pays most of the bills most of the time, a wonderful husband who puts up with my unpredictability, and two demanding cats who shed in the studio.

It’s enough. Life is good.

I wrote that about art, five years ago, more than two years before I felt the call to ordained ministry, and those forgotten words seem equally true about the latter. It is all of a piece, this life: manipulating paint and canvas, or wire and glass, or textile or clay to bring into physical form something beautiful or intriguing that is not yet; arranging words to manifest some idea that is knocking on the world waiting to come in, or to lift one up that is lurking unnoticed in a dusty corner; using my body and my voice as the medium for that which is to express itself through me, here and now.

I apparently can’t not do whatever this is.

But is it ministry?

I wrestle with words. Ideas, too – I am not a passive student; I may read a book or listen to a lecture, but the learning for me comes from chewing on things, digesting them, fighting with them until I know their strengths and weaknesses compared to my own. Graduate study is kicking my butt, because I want to go deep with so many things I meet, and I never seem to have enough time or energy or ability to focus to go deep into all these things at once, let alone engage my studies at that level and ALSO have clean laundry and adequate sleep and exercise and all the other demands of living in a body in a human context. I don’t do superficial very well.

And so, because there is not enough of me or time to let me really, deeply understand the question of what ministry is, I turn to others for answers. I don’t know, in my head, whether this thing I do fits into the box labeled ministry, or if it is something else entirely, or if it has no name. But perhaps there is a consensus. Or perhaps there isn’t, and I will just need to keep doing this thing I do, whatever it is called.

In the end, I may be no different from anyone else in this respect: I hope, in my bones, that there is a place in this world where I am the missing piece that completes the jigsaw picture – just as I am, where my bumps and angles fit exactly. It seems to be a very complex jigsaw, and I am not entirely sure that where I am now is where I will ultimately fit, but at least for the moment the pattern matches well enough.

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  1. Pingback: Break the ropes, Selma is now, contrary voices, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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