“Is the life you are living the life-in-you that wants to be lived?”
With words something like that, Parker Palmer stopped me dead in my tracks. Some twenty years later his book, Let Your Life Speak remains one of the most significant books of my 63 years. Palmer disarmingly recounts the consequences of living out-of-sync with his core-self, telling of his consequent struggles with depression, troubled relationships, spiritual malaise and professional wandering. As he goes on to explain, “Way opened.” Parker Palmer and we are all the better for it!
Don’t we all wrestle again and again with the life-in-us that struggles for fuller expression? Such yearnings led me to end my secure career as a major gifts development officer to pursue a 12-month hospital chaplain residency. Still, I completed this focused period of reflection with no ultimate conclusions. Only one conviction became clear: I just didn’t have it in me to go back to a 40 hr/wk, nose to the grindstone type of job anymore. Life-in-me needs to be lived differently – new wine needs new wine skins! But, what? …how?
The Gospel for this Sunday (Mt 4:12-23) is the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John – a call to “Follow me!” I freely admit that vocational calls in Scripture send a shiver through me. I left ordained ministry in 2002 and the Jesuits after 23 years. Did I say “No!” to God? Is Jesus disappointed in me for no longer following? Yes, I admit struggling with flashes of remorse and guilt at times. But, my easily inflated ego aside, it’s NOT really all about me! Jesus did not come to instruct, or even admonish, Richard on his career path. No, Jesus’ call is much broader and directed to all: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s not essentially about you, me or any one of us! Steeped in American cultural individualism as we are this may be hard – even disappointing – for us to hear. Sorry, Jesus didn’t come to provide personal therapy or individual career counseling. Jesus came to proclaim the Reign of God! No looking back — let’s get on with it!
Yes, Jesus’ call comes to us personally, particularly, sometimes even intimately. And in this regard, our Sunday Gospel may be ultimately more useful than the flashy pageantry we just left in the Christmas story. No choirs of angels for Peter and Andrew! No star leading James and John through their hesitation and doubts. Nope! Like each of us, just a stark direct invitation: “Follow me.” There are so many voices competing for our attention and commitment these days. None comes as unadorned as Jesus’ call to discipleship.
What’s the pay-off in this amorphous Kingdom of Heaven? Well, one thing it is not – it is most certainly not a ticket for early or easy transport to heaven. As Anglican bishop N.T. Wright explains about Matthew’s use of “Kingdom of Heaven” here and throughout his Gospel, this repent-and-follow talk is not “about our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.” To further make the point, we should not be surprised that the Beatitudes are in the very next chapter and what the lectionary gives us for next Sunday.
The only thing I know from my meager, and sometimes noble, efforts to “follow” is that Jesus’ summons disturbs us, confounds us, knocks us off-center (cf., Paul’s proverbial horse?) and requires conversion that comes with a price! Again, what’s our pay-off? What does Jesus promise? “I will make you fishers of people. I will take you where you are. But I will take your specific talents, unique skills, professional gifts and transform them into something greater. Your catch, harvest, yield, ROI will far exceed what even you imagine possible. Follow me!” Palmer’s paraphrase merely gives it a fresh spin: Is the life you are living the life-in-you that wants to be lived?
I have reread Let Your Life Speak at least four times over the past twenty years. Phrases and its very cadence are now familiar. But it remains always fresh. I know the text well. But upon rereading it’s as if I am hearing something for the first time. In that, it is like the Gospel – Living Word. Our lives evolve, morph and shift – usually subtly, sometimes suddenly, evenly tragically at times. Jesus does not so much snatch us out of life’s realities or elicit a cognitive assent to disembodied truths. Rather, the persistent call of Christ is a summons to personally follow with others in companionship, living life on life’s terms.
The directive Jesus would seem to give to Palmer’s putting of our ultimate human quest: Do what you do best for those who need it most. This is the Way, Truth and Life.
Source cited: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York, HarperOne, 2008), p18.