I was a pastor a month ago.
My wife and I just moved to Sydney, Australia. We landed 10 days ago as I am writing this. We spent the last seven years in Chicago where I served as a Pastor of a wonderful congregation I was sad to leave. We didn’t move to escape America as some have speculated. Nor did we leave Chicago for sunnier skies. Like every move, it was a confluence of factors. Here, though, I am not a pastor. At least, no one is paying me to be one.
At the park with my five and one year old, a kind woman introduces herself to me. My Midwest accent gives me away and she asks if I am visiting. I tell her that my wife and I are moving here from Chicago. She is excited to welcome us. Everyone we’ve met has been excited to welcome us.
You cannot move to Australia without a work visa, so the follow up question is always whether we moved for my or my wife’s work. The answer seems obvious since it is a Monday at 1pm and I am at the park pretending to be Robin Hood with my daughter.
“My wife’s work,” I concede. “I get to play with the kids.”
“Were you working back in the states?” she asks.
“Yeah, I was a pastor, actually,” I say.
“Oh really?” she says with some interest.
“Yeah, so we’ll see what happens,” I say, ending the conversation. We’ll see what happens, I repeat in my head. What on earth do I mean by that?
I was a pastor a month ago, and now I am living in the vacuum created by leaving that role. A vacuum is, by definition, a space devoid of matter. I remember my physics teacher creating a semi-vacuum with a plastic tube to demonstrate how a feather and ball bearing both fall at the same rate when air resistance is removed. A vacuum creates honest conditions for the feather and ball bearing. In the vacuum of my previous work, I feel exposed by the honest conditions. Who am I in this space devoid of work?
I came across Parker Palmer’s book on vocation at my parent’s house before we moved. He writes, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…the soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.” These are the conditions created by the vacuum of transition. But before I accept them as the conditions for the trustworthy voice of God, they are conditions that create anxiety in me. My impulse is to fill the vacuum with whatever work happens to come my way.
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…”Parker Palmer
Christians don’t just believe in work, we believe in vocation. It’s a word you’ll hear in secular environments, but it’s a theological word. It comes from Latin, vocare, which is the verb form of “to call.” It is a part of our lexicon because Christians believe that God’s voice calls us to particular work. I retired vocation and calling from my vocabulary during seminary because people used those words so often they became like bald tires. In this season of vacancy and transition, however, it was a helpful reminder that the work of finding a vocation is not the work of filling a void or surfing search engines incessantly. Vocation is the work of listening.
The mere idea of a period of time in which I wasn’t working, wasn’t pastoring, wasn’t producing something felt offensive to my ego. The idea of not having the anchors of pastoral work made my palms sweaty. What would my faith feel like apart from my work as a pastor? What would my relationship with scripture be like without any weekly commitment to preach or lead Bible study? My friends knew me as a pastor. I knew myself as a pastor. My daughter knew me as a pastor. In Sydney, she told me that I should be a nurse. “But I’m not sure you know how to do that,” she admitted. She was certainly right. Honestly, though, I’m not sure how to simply be a human being.
“When I slowed down to pray, I found God inviting me to simply exist in the empty space.”
It is good, of course, to plan ahead and dream about what might come next in any move. The book of church order doesn’t have a section on husbands following their wife’s career, so I spent time praying and looking into what opportunities might present themselves. But I found myself pressing and convincing myself that I could fill the vacuum. When I slowed down to pray, I found God inviting me to simply exist in the empty space. I found God asking me to trust him while I learned how to be a dad, a son, a human being.
Life’s disruptions can create honest conditions for us to truly see ourselves and, if we are quiet long enough, they can help us listen to God’s voice in the midst of those disruptions. I was a pastor a month ago. And by God’s grace, perhaps I will be a pastor again. For now, I’m sitting in the empty space listening and pretending to be Robin Hood.
Caleb…thank you for this! I am home on medical leave from my position at a university. The days alone have provided lots of quiet and time for prayer and study that I have been longing for amidst a season discontent and wondering.
Thanks for sharing this. I was looking for blogs in my niche and I came across your blog. I don’t know what I would do if I was in your shoes. I can slightly imagine how you feel though. I would be losing my mind if I couldn’t share the gospel in the capicity that I do now. Its crazy how different seasons in our lives puts us in a new place with God. In thinking of this, it forces you to see God and yourself in a new light. I would say enjoy the adventure and see what new things He leds you to. Thanks for sharing this, something I will meditate on today as it relates to my life. Enjoy Austrila, just moving there alone is insane, but so many new oppurtunities await. God bless!