One day, John knew, Heaven would come down and mend God’s broken world and make it our true, perfect home once again. And he knew, in some mysterious way that would be hard to explain, that everything was going to be wonderful for once having been so sad. – Revelation 21, 22 as told in The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones
Lent is an unusual time in the Christian year, a 40-day meditation on sin and death that Christians throughout centuries have intentionally set aside for grief and sacrifice, penance and charity. For six weeks Lent invites us to reflect on what it means to die — to ourselves, to our flesh, to our passions, to this world – in hope that it will rightly prepare us for the glory of Easter, the joy of resurrection that only comes from appreciating how very dark and dead death is. Starkly, unapologetically, Lent is stare-down season in the Church, and every year I find myself desperately wanting to blink.
I want to blink in a wincing way, to dodge and recoil from the pain that seems to press in on every side. I want to blink away the clear-eyed vision that draws my eye to every crevice, every imperfection, every crack in the lives and world around me, to blur and soften the view just a little bit. I want to blink to distract myself from my own relentless fallibility, my cruel petulance, my pitifully weak will. Mostly, I want to blink away tears.
Yet every winter I also find there is an odd sort of comfort to Lent. There is grace in understanding that things feel broken because they are broken. It reassures me there are real things and true things in this life even if they are hard realities and hard truths. It reminds me the brokenness I experience is not futile, that in a curious, counterintuitive way this pain and weakness we square up to in Lent is capable of proving a wellspring for hope, purpose, even beauty.
For me this paradox, this intrinsic tension that sits at the heart of the Christian life, has significant implications for how I think about my sense of calling in the world, in what I choose to do with my limited time, and finite abilities, and meager talents day by day. That while I tend to primarily think about my calling in terms of skills, and strengths, and abilities, there is perhaps a more sustaining vision of vocation that comes from giving primary attention instead to my disappointments, to weaknesses, and areas of deep hurt. Lent reminds us it is through Christ’s wounds we are healed. So as we image Christ, it seems natural that through our own wounds Christ brings healing to the world.
Over decades now I have taken all range of personality tests and skills assessments and gifts inventories, each in an effort to better understand how I might find or discover my calling, what it is I might do most skillfully and happily in this world. And, I can confidently say that they are almost all tremendously valuable tools. Each one has helped me know myself better and thus, as John Calvin observes in his Institutes, they have helped me know God better too, opening my eyes to the unique, tender, and winsome ways he has set his own pleasures and passions inside my heart for the sake of himself and his world.
Still, as I have taken up various roles, responsibilities, and commitments over several years now – in my home as a wife and mother; among friends as a neighbor and sister and companion and friend; in my community as a volunteer, a dutiful citizen, a church member; as a staff member working in various professional roles from admin to strategy; in my leisure hours as a student and a writer– I have come to understand how insufficient it is to think about my calling purely in terms of function alone.
The function of our work is valuable, of course. Our various skills and contributions are how we practically participate creatively and redemptively in God’s world. It is primarily through our daily occupations (quite literally understood as those things that occupy our time and attention) that we serve what the Reformers so wisely cemented in our theological vernacular as the “common good.” The simple, distinctively Christian idea that clean roads, safe bridges, reliable currency, healthy vegetables, and tidy haircuts make life more pleasant for everyone namely because it helps all people attain more of what it means to be fully human. And because God extends common grace, common good is something that touches and sustains all people, regardless of what they believe about themselves, God, and the world. The fact that we balance books or trim bangs or engineer structures or pick up garbage is a matter of goodness and grace more than anything. The function of our work, what it is that we do or perform or achieve day-by-day matters to God and his world.
Yet beyond our participatory and functional involvement in the common good—the skills, passions, or circumstances that engage us in the vegetable-growing, or plastic-bag-manufacturing, or advertising, or shelf-stocking, or truck-driving that allows people to eat dinner every night—there is also a motivational and formative aspect to our calling which is largely unconnected to what it is that we do. This aspect of our calling, I find, is almost always rooted in pain. It is the part of our vocation that is very little concerned about what we do and is instead expressive of how and why we take up our particular responsibilities and commitments the way we do.
I first recognized this in my own life several months ago when a friend asked me what it is about writing, in particular, that makes my heart sing. What is it about putting pen to paper, thought into expression that gives me delight? There are plenty of replies I could have given about how it helps me think out loud, how it disciplines me to read, how it helps me carve out time for rest and reflection, and all of those answers would be true. Yet what I recognized in her question was a question about what it is I am trying to do when I write? She wanted to know why I write.
I realized in answering her that I mostly write as an effort to make things cohere, to make things hold together, to make sense of things, to clarify things that feel confusing or oddly intuitive to me. And for the first time, I realized that I make time to write, I enjoy writing, because it heals me.
My childhood was not terribly traumatic, not a textbook case, but it was very often confusing, disorienting, unsettling, muddled. I grew up not quite knowing how to make sense of the world around me, how it fit together, what God made of it all, what was my place in it. Confusion and lack of clarity are wounds I carry with me. Writing is simply one way I address it, a tool God has handed me to tinker and chip away at the perplexity that seems to ever linger. It doesn’t have to be writing, there are countless ways I could seek to address this particular brand of brokenness, but because I am who I am, writing is the way.
What is more, once I had eyes to see it and language to describe it, I realized that nearly everything I do in my life — how I engage my marriage, how I seek to mother my children, how I try and build an organization — all of these various functions have a thread of this deep desire for clarity, for transparency, for coherence, for order. That while all of these jobs or functions have a generally redemptive effect as they contribute to the common good, when I am willing to pay attention to the wound at the root of my motivation, when I consecrate it rather than avoid or pass over it, I can also begin to see the wondrous dimensionality of our God. My efforts are not just redemptive, but dually redemptive. My work heals me even as it heals the world.
A few weeks ago I was reading to my children from the re-telling of Revelation 21 & 22 in The Jesus Storybook Bible and I read this:
One day, John knew, Heaven would come down and mend God’s broken world and make it our true, perfect home once again. And he knew, in some mysterious way that would be hard to explain, that everything was going to be wonderful for once having been so sad.
“In some mysterious way that would be hard to explain,” indeed! It is a brain-stretching exercise, a faith-reaching effort to believe that our wounds and our sadness have power to heal, perhaps even more so to believe they are at the center of how God desires to work in us and through us to heal his broken world. We may be willing to acknowledge how our callings matter to God, how the vast spectrum of our responsibilities and relationships and commitments and efforts create and redeem a new heavens and a new earth, but it is another thing altogether to insist that I am formed and redeemed so profoundly in the midst of my calling. To begin considering that my calling itself is grace.
Lent forces our gaze to the cross, to the suffering servant, to the wounded healer. It insists that we understand and engage what Isaiah means when he writes “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” It asks us to consider what our wounds mean for us, and what it means to submit to a God who chooses to work through them. It may not be ever and always true that brokenness is our primary motivation, that hurt is our unknown, unacknowledged catalyst, but it will never be wholly avoided. At some point, even the most graced, the most blessed, the most capable, must contend with frailty. But we must trust this frailty can be made new by his grace. Our callings are our response to God’s call, to his voice, and he calls us to love what he loves, he tells us and shows us what matters most. He loves to heal, he loves to redeem, he loves to make new, and at the heart of our lives of faith we ought to desire the same, beginning even with ourselves.
Kate Harris is Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. She is wife to a very good man and mother to their three young children. She resides just outside Washington, DC in Falls Church, VA.