This Labyrinthine Calling

In 1982, six months after my college graduation, with no idea where it would lead and without any clear sense of being “called” to a particular ministry, I boarded a Delta jet in Orlando, bound for San Francisco. Tucked inside my carry-on bag was a leather Bible, a homemade journal covered in bright-yellow gingham, and an acceptance letter from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. I’ll repeat: my vocational discernment process was uninspiring. But in hindsight, that experience taught me that God can take half-baked motives, convoluted theology, and a general lack of maturity and craft from these a surprising recipe for a call.

When I think of those days, I want to remember myself as an independent young woman who swash-buckled her way into a new life on the West Coast. In truth, by the end of my first week in seminary I was pummeled by waves of doubt and anxiety and cried myself into a three-day migraine. I didn’t have words for it then, but I believe my angst was tied to assumptions I carried about God.

A Catholic priest and friend, Phil, once observed to me how important it is, especially when we are in the throes of discernment, to ask, “Who is the God I pray to? Am I praying to the God out there? The God up there? The God I need to satisfy or placate? Or do I pray to the God in here, who dwells in me in love?” At the time I entered seminary, I hadn’t yet met that latter God.

I arrived at Golden Gate as thoroughly Southern Baptist as I could be. As a young woman steeped in fundamentalism, I was certain I wasn’t called to lead a church. Every morning during that first semester I got up an hour early and headed to the little prayer room in my dormitory where I fell on my knees and prayed for all the confused, misguided women in my classes who thought God was calling them to be pastors. The theological systems I’d been swimming in since childhood had left me with an acute case of spiritual pride coupled with deep feelings of shame and unworthiness.

But during my years at Golden Gate, God slowly peeled back the roof of my life and ushered in fresh light. Layers of fear-based, fundamentalist dogma began to give way to new understandings and intuitions about God and myself that were broader and freer, more generous and hopeful than I’d ever experienced before.

My experience of call is that it rarely comes with trumpets and bright lights but almost always dawns on me by inches and hunches and best guesses. Following the Spirit has felt less like cruising down a wide, well-lighted freeway and more like walking a labyrinth in the middle of the night, holding a birthday candle.

When we think of calling, I think we most often imagine a call to something. But sometimes the Divine calls us away. In my experience, this call is harder to discern because the human mind has endless avenues for second-guessing itself. Fortunately, the Creator has placed within each of us a resource deeper than the analytical mind: our “knowing” heart. Especially when we become still and silent for a time, in the deep places of ourselves something will begin to stir. We may have no words yet for this stirring. No matter. Eventually, the way forward will come and lay a hand on our shoulder. My “hand” came in the form of dreams. In one memorable dream, I was at work, but not in my study at church. I was in an underground room, a claustrophobic space with one naked light bulb overhead. In my dream I was fiddling with wires, switches, tubes—basically the things I’m no good at—while trapped in the most uninspiring environment imaginable. When I told my spiritual director about the dream she said, “Yes, this space you’re in feels claustrophobic spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically.” Then she gave me a compassionate smile and said, “Julie, you can only operate so long from grim determination.” I knew she was right, but how does a pastor walk away from her church?

In 2006, the Canadian advertising agency Ogilvy Mather created an award-winning commercial in which two executives are riding a tall escalator in a spacious, lovely, multi-story atrium. When the moving stairway unexpectedly stops, the two executives begin to show signs of panic. Neither has a phone, so they begin hollering for help—from the middle of an escalator. Eventually a mechanic comes to their aid, riding a separate escalator from the floor below, but his escalator lurches to a stop as well. The commercial ends with all three, the two executives and the mechanic, huddled on their separate, stalled escalator steps, awaiting rescue. The fifteen-second commercial went viral, doubtless because it connected with this paralyzing illusion people carry inside of being stuck, when all we need to do is take a step, then another.

My discernment process in 2015 included my dear husband, listening friends, a week-long retreat at a mountain cabin, and long conversations with trusted mentors and my discerning spiritual director, Tavye. It was in Tavye’s office the Monday after Easter that I said the words aloud for the first time: “I have to go.” It was time to walk off the escalator. Once I arrived at that conclusion, the process unfolded quickly. I shared my decision with the church’s compassionate deacon chair the next day and notified my church several weeks later, making every effort to bless and encourage the people on my way out.

I spent nearly half a year pondering my call. I allowed myself the freedom to put church ministry aside for a while. I wasn’t sure I had the heart to return. I took some trips, led some retreats, hiked Stone Mountain, joined a writing group, worshiped (though not every Sunday) with a diversity of congregations, and essentially let myself dwell in a liminal space for a while, resisting the temptation to obsess about the path forward. As Gregg Levoy put it, thinking too much about a calling is like leaving a hot iron too long in one place while trying to smooth the wrinkles out of your shirt. I put the iron down and let the wrinkles stay wrinkly.

Finally it was time to reengage the questions, though it’s not like there is a definitive checklist. I was back in the labyrinth at night with the birthday candle. I did conduct a kind of SWOT analysis of myself—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats—but mostly I paid attention to my intuition and my body, both of which are usually way ahead of the rational, analytical mind.

Over the course of that extended period of discernment in 2015, a quiet awareness tucked itself inside the folds of my heart: I love congregational ministry. I cherish the honor of being invited into people’s innermost, vulnerable spaces. What’s more, I have experienced firsthand the strength and joy that flow through people’s lives when their church is a mostly healthy community, and I enjoy helping broken congregational systems become more whole, less burdensome. And I do treasure the preaching life, especially among people who are skeptical of the Divine. Whether I am doing these things well, or clumsily, or miserably, for nearly forty years now they have answered a desire in me deeper than words can express.

God’s labyrinthine call upon my life has brought me now to what I would describe as the sweetest season so far. The seventeenth-century Jesuit priest Jean Pierre de Caussade said that when a person is fully present with God, the soul is light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, and easily moved as a ball by every inspiration of grace—to which my grateful soul would offer a hearty amen. These days find me endeavoring to tap into what the twentieth-century contemplative Gerald May called “the power of the slowing”—easing back the throttle and letting myself notice when the velocity at which I’m moving and thinking exceeds my ability to be fully present. In this rocket-speed age, I am taking intentional care with my horse-and-buggy soul while inviting my beloved church family to that beautiful venture as well.

As for the shape my calling may take in the future, I am entrusting the labyrinth to God. As the contemplative teacher Rose Mary Dougherty observed, “Here is the grace of it all, the hope for our spiritual lives. We may never clearly discern all the intricacies of our prayer; we may never be able to depend on our desire. But God’s prayer in us is constant, as is God’s love. And in God’s loving prayer our hearts can rest.”*

*Rose Mary Dougherty, Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment (Makati City, Metro Manila: St. Pauls, 1997), 30.

The post originally appeared in the Nineteenth Story in When God Whispered My Name: Stories of Journey Told by Baptist Women Called to Ministry.

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