A Letter to Steven about Vocation

December 16, 2019

Dear Steven,

Walking into the quiet winter morning, the red-pink in the East draws my eye to the rising sun. The sky is blue-gray and purple clouds are painted across the Northern sky. The West is behind Beech Mountain, although my residence is considered on the “backside” of the mountain.

Birdie and I walk in the warmish weather. Fifty degrees feels a bit like a heatwave after the wind, ice, and snow of the weekend. As we walk up Northridge road, the woods and shady places are still covered with snow. Though we did not get more than an inch in accumulation, it was cold enough through the day and night to remain. This morning the trees and porches beginning to melt, or at least the snow on the snow on the trees and the porches. It’s not a Salvador Dali type of morning, but more like a Monet painting.

As I listen to the silence and Birdie tracks some creature’s footprint, I wonder how I could ever leave this heaven? There’s no current plan to leave but there are those who wish I would move to Boone or Stanly County so I won’t have to be alone while also battling health issues. Yet, each time I go to a new place and my health wavers, in returning home to rest, I recover. There is healing in this place.

Rounding the upward curve of the road, a brown head turns on the hill above us to see who makes a sound. The yearling is snacking on what green remains on the hill behind our treehouse. Birdie sees the deer look at us but has learned not to bark and scare them away. Even this quiet morning seems sacred to her. Then I see two more spring-born deer who glance our way, return to grazing, and then flick their white tails as they mosey up the hill to the others.

In moments like this, I think of vocation and what does that mean for me at this place

Fawn in 2018

in my life. Not at the place on the mountain, for it is clear that this is the place to think, reflect, heal, and learn how to be present. But what does vocation mean for me at 58 as I finally learn to manage my disability with rest and quiet?

In the past few months, I have talked with my priests and also an Episcopal nun in a convent in New York. During more religious moments, I wonder if I should seek out the diaconate or return to the vocation of a pastor. When still in times of quiet contemplation, the urge to be part of a praying community like The Community of the Holy Spirit embraces me as an option. Then I remember a sentence spoken in my mind’s ear during one of my silent retreats.

You are an artist.

That simple sentence came to me as an answer to a prayer prayed for three days on vocation while I was still a pastor but seeking further discernment for vocation. At the time, I was certain that the answer would be something like a preacher, teacher, or musician. Though that sentence can certainly embrace all three of those options, it was one of those puzzles that the Holy Spirit gives us to ponder and consider.

It is only now, twenty-two years later, that I begin to see a way to live this path of vocation that is different than anticipated. Though I’ve mentioned that sentence and the need to understand its meaning for my life in these past years, it’s also been like I’ve tried to turn away from it. Why? Music, writing, painting has always brought me great peace. Yet, the reward of preaching, teaching, and being a musician was so much more rewarding. There. I’ve said it and now I see. At least, in this moment I can see the fear.

What fear you may ask? Fear of failure of course. Many artists work in oblivion during a lifetime. Some of their works fade into obscurity and others, like Emily Dickenson, become remembered for the art created in her life and created in silent obscurity. Early on it was clear to me that I did not want to be famous like those actors and musicians seeking the world’s accolades. Yet, somewhere in the past years I also realized that I didn’t want to be forgotten. What does it mean to trust G-d enough to be willing to be forgotten?

Having no human children means my pets, music, writing, and paintings are my children. There are memories I share with those around me and we all know that counts. Love always counts. Even in my divorce of recent years, it’s clear that LOVE ALWAYS COUNTS. Love finally showed that to me as I worked on healing and forgiveness. Though I lost my home and wife, the love we shared during those years changed me for the better and I will always have that beauty in my life even if I no longer have those people or that place.

In conclusion, this letter is not so much of one where I wonder where G-d is leading me because that continues to be clear. I only need to have enough faith to be obedient to G-d’s calling to be an artist no matter what else may call or distract me. My question is how can we see the Holy in each vocation? One of my favorite quotes from the theologian Frederick Buechner addresses the matter of vocation:

 

IT COMES FROM the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man [or woman] is called to by God.  

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.  

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work

(a) that you need most to do and

(b) that the world most needs to have done.

 

If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a),

but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. 

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. 

– Originally published in Wishful Thinking

That last line says it all, doesn’t it? The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. What I must ask myself is does the world hunger for writings on love and peace? Does the world hunger for music that lifts the Spirit and calls forth integrity? Does the world hunger for art that expresses one’s deepest heart and truest self? For me, the answer is yes. That should be enough. I pray to focus on that truth, and that I may have the grace and faith to see that love will be enough.

Anticipated release of 1/6/2020

 

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JRobin Whitley

Robin is an artist living in Western NC writing from the mountains. She lives with her little black dog, Birdie. Life is amazing! Robin received her undergraduate degree in music from Pfeiffer Univeristy and her Masters of Divinity from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. She plays guitar, mandolin, and piano.

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