“This is a safe place,” he told me.
I thought, “That’s great because I’m dying on the inside.”
I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to cram 4 years of seminary into 3, but I was in the middle of my third year and battling burnout in the worst way.
Fueled by Starbucks Iced Coffee and Rock Star Energy Drinks, I was pumping out papers, reading chapters of the Bible, and translating Hebrew sentences. At my local church, I was preaching sermons, leading volunteers, and facilitating groups. But there was just one big problem.
I was empty. Just going through the motions.
I Had Become a Professional Christian
Later, I remember telling someone that I felt like I had shifted from having a personal relationship with Jesus to having a professional one. I was doing good things – but it was all for others, not for myself. It didn’t help that I was in my first year of marriage, discovering just how self-absorbed I was and learning what it looked like to put someone’s else desires above my own. Add to that frustrations with an unhealthy season in our church where we were avoiding elephants in the room and barely managing dysfunction…and I was spent!
So, sitting in that seminary class, I was naive enough to think the professor was telling the truth when he said each week, “this is a safe space.” I took him at his word and began to verbally process the storm within my soul. As I shared vulnerably about all that I’ve shared above (and more), I’ll never forget the looks on my professor and classmates faces.
They Didn’t Get It
It was as if their brains were unable to compute what I was sharing – like my computer when I have too many apps open on my MacBook and I get the spinning beach ball (or for you poor PC people, the spinning hour glass). They couldn’t comprehend what I was saying.
My professor spent the new few minutes trying to convince me my personal account was incorrect.
“Aren’t your sermons helping? Isn’t the prep feeding you?”
“Nope, I’m just pumping them out because I have to.”
“Are you reading your Bible every day?”
“Yeah, and I’m tracking it for class. I want to get a good grade in that class.”
“What about prayer?”
“Sure, I pray when I meet with people for counseling and in services I lead. But I have no desire to pray on my own. And when I do, it feels hollow.”
After we bantered back and forth for a while, I can remember the professor giving up his attempts to dissuade me from my self-assessment. And his resignation soon shifted into a look I’ll never forget.
Our class discussion moved on shortly after as I shut down.
Marked By One Night
That night was a turning point in my seminary experience. It was the last time I was truly honest in a large group. No, I didn’t outright lie or intentionally deceive anyone. But, I certainly was done being transparent and vulnerable.
I made myself a promise that night. Wherever I had leadership, influence, and authority, I would do all I could to create a space where authenticity was normal, vulnerability was welcome, and people who were transparent received love, not judgment.
While I wouldn’t wish that class experience on anyone, I now realize it was a gift. It birthed my calling.
This article is the first in a series of five articles on calling. If you’d like to receive future articles in this series and other posts to empower you with a new perspective, please enter your email address below.
A Calling Birthed From Pain
Nearly all of us could share an experience like I just did. We’ve all been wounded, disappointed, betrayed, disillusioned, and failed. We carry around the scabs and scars from these experience today.
But for some of us, the wound wasn’t the end; it was actually a beginning. The wound birthed something brand-new. Some of us describe it a burden, others of us refer it as a calling. The pain clarified what we value and the story fuels our desire to connect the value to an action or lifestyle.
While many of us would (given the choice) avoid these moments of pain, loss, grief, and distress, it’s impossible to separate them from the clarity we now live with every day. We know what matters to us and what we’re working to create because of our survival and scars. We may have hated the moment, but the gift it gave is now priceless.
How War, Loss, and Disillusionment Led to One Man’s Calling
This is Nathaniel Pryor’s story. Pryor was serving in Afghanistan with his infantry unit. A fellow squad took a mission originally slated for Nathaniel’s squad. He describes what happened next.
“My best friend stepped on an IED and lost his life, along with the lives of 2 of our other platoon mates.
That day caused a fundamental change in my thinking and purpose on this earth. I realized that I needed to do something greater with my life — something that wouldn’t allow the deaths of my brothers to be in vain.
It wasn’t until we returned from Afghanistan that I figured out what that higher purpose was; I entered the medical retirement program with a fellow soldier from my company, who had an above-knee amputation sustained from stepping on an IED. It was there that I witnessed a lack of care and meaningful treatment. I was repulsed. It was after seeing this that a light bulb went off and I finally realized what my life mission was.
This newly found insight led me to make the decision to become a physical therapist.
This was a profession that would allow me to still serve ‘with’ my fellow brothers and sisters, all while providing a level of treatment and understanding they aren’t receiving on a consistent basis.”
I read Pryor’s story on the American Physical Therapy Association blog. It appears Nathan is nearing the completion of his undergraduate program at Regis University and enjoying serving other veterans with his developing skills and abilities.
Pain Lights the Fire
The most hopeful, driven people I know return to their stories like I return to my seminary experience. They tell and retell their stories as a source of fuel to propel them to continue moving forward. When they share their dream or vision, it is inexplicably linked to a moment of pain, loss, or discouragement. Their ability to remember that feeling gives them empathy and compassion for those they’re trying to reach.
I sat at the bedside of a man last month who had just survived a heart attack. His carotid artery (known as the widow maker artery) had a major blockage and he shouldn’t have survived. We talked about the perfect storm of lifestyle choices, dietary habits, lack of personal fitness, and family history, which nearly cost him his life.
As we prayed together with his fiancee and a friend, I prayed that God would remind my friend that he is still alive for a reason. I prayed that God would show him the purpose for which he was still here. I asked God to give my a sense of gratitude and intention because each day he lives is a gift.
You’re alive for a purpose, too. And that purpose often emerges from unexpected sources. If your life didn’t have purpose, I don’t think you’d still be here.
It’s fascinating how the Apostle Paul described King David of Israel in Acts 13:36, when he said, “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.”
That’s how I want my life to go. I want to do all I can to make a difference, to fulfill my purpose. And then I’m out!
How About You?
I believe we each have a sense of calling or purpose for our lives. And that calling may emerge from one of our darkest seasons. But even the darkness can be redeemed when we allow it to fuel what we create for the good of others.
What have you endured which now drives your offer to others? How is your calling connected to frustration and disappointment?