In Herman Melville’s book, Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of Moby Dick, the great, white whale. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is relaxed in the craziness and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. His job is to patiently wait for the right moment. Melville explains his stillness writing: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, not out of toil.”
Can you imagine what would have happened if the harpooner had been helping with the sails or running tools from one end of the ship to another? When the whale was sighted, how would he have responded? What kind of shot would he have been able to fire with trembling, tense muscles instead of being relaxed and stress-free when the moment came? The answer, of course, is that he would have a very difficult task trying to aim well and shoot accurately if he was tired or stressed. He needs to be completely focused and ready his task, his purpose.
A little more than a year ago, in the midst of my sabbatical, I was wondering who God had called me to be. In my life and ministry I had so many things I was doing, I didn’t feel I did any of them very well. I wondered which was the real me. Which was the one thing I was supposed to be doing – my harpoon if you will – and which were distractions. Was I still called to be a pastor? Was I called to do something else? What did God want for me during this season of life? In the midst of praying and wondering and listening and waiting, my spiritual director said, “Rick, I’m going to ask you a question. I don’t want you to think about it. Just tell me the first thing that comes to your heart when you hear it. What do you want to do?”
It was a great question. Eric Lidell in the movie Chariots of Fire (based on a true story) says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” I have always believed God had made me for a purpose (I still do), but I had begun doubting what that purpose was…I was wondering if that purpose might have changed. Entering a new season of life, perhaps called for a new direction or purpose.
Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak, talks about how his life was on a trajectory that would lead him to become a university president. But he went through a time of severe depression. During that time, he began to understand that the lofty altitude he was on track to attain was unsafe territory. It was not where he belonged! The path he was on was driven by ego and a sense of what he and others thought he ought to do. His path was not one that came out of who he really was. He writes, “For a long time, the “oughts” had been the driving force in my life – and when I failed to live “up to those oughts, I saw myself as a weak and faithless person. I never stopped to ask, “How does such-and-such fit my God-given nature?” or “Is such-and-such truly my gift and call?” As a result, important parts of the life I was living were not mine to live and thus were doomed to fail.”
Palmer believes that during that time, what was calling to him from deep within was his true self. “True self is true friend. One ignores or rejects such friendship only at one’s peril.” As I read Palmer’s words, I was struck deeply. I wrote in my journal, “Have I been living from the “oughts”? Are they or have they been the driving force in my life?” I wondered who my true self was and was I living a life that was not mine to live.
When Wil asked me that question, “What do you want to do?” I was surprised by what rose up in my heart. It wasn’t something new. It wasn’t something different. I realized that I wanted to pastor. This is who God made me to be. This is what I love to do. When I am loving people and helping them to discover who God has made them to be; when I am walking alongside them in the joys and challenges of life and helping them to see where God is in the mess; when I am preaching and teaching God’s Word; when I am pastoring…I feel God’s pleasure.
One of the things God used to minister to me as I was seeking his direction was Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. In the book, she asks several questions I spent time pondering. As I close, I invite you to ponder them too. You may be confident you’re right where God wants you to be or it may be that these questions will spark something in your heart as they did in mine.
“What is God saying to me these days about my calling? As I settle into myself more fully, what am I learning about my calling? Is there any place where I am resisting who I am or have lost touch with who I am? Where am I still wrestling with God and needing assurance of his presence with me? Am I willing to say yes again?”