Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D., is a writer, teacher, and activist who works independently on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. His work spans a wide range of institutions—colleges and universities, public schools, community organizations, religious institutions, corporations, and foundations. He serves as senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education, as senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute, and is the founder and senior advisor for the Center for Courage & Renewal. His publications include ten poems, some eighty essays, and several books, including The Promise of Paradox, The Company of Strangers, To Know As We Are Known, The Active Life, The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. His current work includes begin a senior advisor for the Center for Courage and Renewal at Bainbridge Island, Washington. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, Quaker, and lives in Wisconsin.
I first became familiar with Palmer when I purchased his book The Active Life – a Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring, back some years ago.
He is among a select faculty. Together with such distinguished names as Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen, Joan Chittister, Walter Brueggemann, and several others - they teach at the Johnny Jeffords spiritual academy in which, every time I open one of their books, I find that it is as if I’m in their company being gently guided, but genuinely prodded to explore my life in the face of the Sacred.
I come into this series with some assumptions framed from 20 years of pastoral experience. There is a commonality in any and every congregation I have or will serve. It’s a question asked by everyone in the room, clergy included, at some point or another.
That question is simply this - Am I doing and being with my life what God wants me to do and be?
This may be your question today – this very day. Maybe it’s not yet, but it will be. Or, maybe you’ve already wrestled with God like Jacob through the dark nights of your soul trying to resolve the question in your heart – and like Jacob, left with a limp.
The other assumption I come into this series with is this – this question is a timeless one. We revisit it as the seasons of our lives carry us from one time and place to the next, as our spirits rise and ebb as the tide. So, it matters not if you’re a child, or, a child at heart while your body has many more years on you than your frame of mind – you know the question and you’ve asked it many times.
It also doesn’t matter how successful or satisfied you are in your work at present, this question doesn’t come only for those who are out there, searching for some new path to take, those folks who never seem able to settle – and we usually think it’s only such people ask this question. No. it is ever present from the one of us who seems to have it most together, you know, the one who seems to be the “most Christian” to the rest of us who are, on are best day, “almost Christian.”
So, here we go –
When I was a boy, about 7, I think, my second grade class from Longfellow Elementary School, Mayfield Kentucky, traveled up old Highway 45 about 30 miles to the studios of WPSD-TV, Channel 6, in Paducah, to participate in the audience of the live broadcast of Capt. Dan’s Popeye the Sailor Man Cartoon Cavalcade. Now, what made Capt. Dan “Capt. Dan” and not the Dan you’d see on the evening news doing the weather, was that Captain’s hat he’d wear together with a US Navy looking top. He as Channel 6’s afternoon filler – and the kids loved him. You’ve seen those kind of things. If any of you were ever a part of Dick Williams’ Magicland here on TV5, you know what I’m talking about. Interspersed between cartoons of Popeye being beaten within an inch of his life, by Brutus, who had, by force, taken Popeye’s place in Olive Oyl’s life, until, Popeye gets his fill of canned spinach, and knocks Brutus into next week – and ends his episode with “I’m strong to the finich ‘cause I eats me spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man – toot, toot! Interspersed between an afternoon of that, Capt. Dan would put the microphone in front of the kids’, on camera, ask them their name, where they lived, where they went to school, how old they were, and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Doctor, Policeman, Fireman – stuff like that was usually the pat answer. And then, he came to me – and I swear this was my answer – “I want to either be an Astronaut or a Cowboy.”
To this day, I’m not really sure where that came from – the Astronaut thing I guess because the Apollo program was hot and heavy, but a Cowboy? Really? Me?
I call upon that story in my own life, because we’ve all been put in a place in life where we’ve had to determine “what we were going to do with our lives.” In college we get a couple of years to figure that our before declaring a major. And then, once graduating with a degree with that major, we ask, “what am I supposed to do with that?” Every field has a “fish or cut bait” moment, when, you have to pick a lane on the highway of life’s workforce, and stay there!
Palmer begins his book with a poem titled “Ask Me” by William Stafford. There’s one line of that poem that opens the door for all that follows. “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” To which he found himself being reminded of moments of his own life when it “was clear – that the life [he was] living [was] not the same as the life that want[ed] to live in [him].”
More than a psycho-spiritual riddle, there is something deeply of God in the question. The writer of Genesis, in the great creation story, tells us that humanity was made in God’s image – imago dei – not merely having the resemblance of God, as our children or relatives do in a family line – but the image as in the creative capacity to live in ways that reflect the truest nature – the essence of the Divine.
The temptation, because of pressures and expectations of family, of what we place on ourselves, of others, we find that we create a reality with values and expectations that are not ours discovered by our own discernment, but handed to us, and maybe force fed us by the predominant voices of our upbringing. Our religious affiliations, our particular work, our political leanings – how much of any of that is a direct reflection of what we’ve lived, seen and heard, or an opposite reaction to what we’ve lived. But are they the result of listening to God’s voice speaking to us, through us?
Let Your Life Speak, more than the title of Palmer’s book, comes from an old Quaker saying.
It’s not unfamiliar to us – is it? “You are the only Bible some people will ever read,” must be considered a variation on that theme.
But how do we do that? And for the weeks to come, where the heck are we going with this? We’re not all going to the same place in this journey – but we’re all on the journey together. But the first thing we come to today is that we cannot let our lives speak until we’ve listened to what our lives are saying.
As you consider the question of your life, its direction and the implication of choices you’ve made – what of your life’s direction is the result of the force of your own will and how much is of true “vocation?”
As reflected in the excerpt in the bulletin, vocation is not a matter of will; it is, quite literally, “the calling I hear.”
Hmmm. Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house. There was work to be done. Hospitality, after all, requires work. The expectations of the moment moved Martha into the kitchen. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, don’t you know.
But Mary heard something else, and the expectations of the moment moved her to Jesus’ feet to listen – to hear who she was and what she was to become – to hear her calling, her vocation. It’s always curious to me that Jesus tells the one who was busy “doing” that the one who was busy “being” was the one who chose the better portion.
The beginning of this journey – your journey, comes from listening well to your life to get the cues of what life you are to live – and then to discern what such cues mean. So, how do we do that? How do we listen to our lives? Palmer says:
[Our lives] speak in actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being, perhaps more profoundly than through our words. We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experiences – a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth – we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.
It seems so basic, doesn’t it? Yet why are we so poor at doing it? Because as it is with so many other things in life, we only hear what we want to hear, and are expert at dismissing, discrediting, or out right ignoring anything we don’t. It’s easy to look at the grand stage of government at all levels – and in this day and time, from D.C. to Memphis City Hall, and see that maxim in play daily – but let’s be clear – it resides in each of us and is operative.
We hear what we want to hear – we speak to keep from listening – we want to be in control – of all things at all times – even and especially what we are to do with our lives.
Listening honestly to ourselves has to mean that we open to those things we don’t want to hear. Our sisters and brothers who live with 12-step programs get this point better than most. By quite literally taking a moral inventory they cannot avoid their truth. It is not easy, nor pleasurable. But ask any one who’s done it, and they’ll tell you that there is no healing – no sobriety – without it.
Neither can there be a full embrace of living the life God has for us without honestly acknowledging what keeps us from listening to God in the first place.
You’ve known people who’ve done that. I know I have. You’ve known those who’ve listened well to what their lives have to say to them, what God has called them to – callings they have heard and followed.
It’s a powerful thing. Sometimes such examples intimidate us and move us to envy because someone has found their answer and we’ve not yet found ours. But what we don’t take time to consider is that none of those who’ve lived their lives well have done so without first listening. Maybe then, such examples prove to us that not only it can be done, but is being done.
Listen to your life. Honestly accept what it tells you. And know this – those spiritual tugs pushing and pulling are holy. Even if it’s not what you want to hear, maybe especially if you don’t want to hear it. They are of God.