A very wonderful colleague and friend named Claire here at my church in Charlotte recently lent me Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. It is a must-read, new clergy. I can say without a doubt that it is absolutely brilliant, and I’m only on page 8.
It’s like reading a printout of those thoughts that pool at the base of your brain, those thoughts that you can never quite congeal in a digestible way but that you know are there…. Thoughts about your expectations for ministry, thoughts about your ability level and performance, thoughts about your capabilities, desires, and energy reserves.
Forgive me, new clergy, for outing you, but we are mostly a mix of anxiety, bewilderment, giddy excitement, and utter blankness.
This blankness is what concerns me the most. The anxiety, bewilderment, and excitement make sense to me– we are in a foreign land. Oh it’s a beautiful land, don’t hear me wrong; there is milk and honey aplenty. But it’s foreign nonetheless. I don’t believe the Israelites knew instantly how to cultivate the promised land, how to settle it in a prudent fashion, or how to establish their manner of living right off the bat.
But the blankness is something I’ve been struggling to find a Biblical basis for.
What do I mean by blankness?
I think I mean this wide-eyed, furrow-browed sense of wandering through the days that I share with some of my fellow new clergy.
We have a deep, abiding desire to be graded as we were in seminary, but this is not going to happen (and if it does, the most vocal graders will be those who are trying to fail you!).
So we are left holding empty internal report cards, unable to fit our performance into a category we can understand.
We have a deeper, abiding desire to succeed and do very, very well– not for our sake, but for the sake of God, the Church, our parishioners. But there is always more to do, there is always something left undone– a longer visit with the widow in the hospital, a few more hours preparing that presentation to make it flow more smoothly, another phone call, email, or meeting with so very many people.
And we’re left with un-crossed-off to-do lists and the deep, resounding fear booming through our chests that there were about three dozen things we never even thought to put on the to-do list in the first place.
We have a yet even deeper, abiding desire to be in deep, meaningful communion with God, with friends, with discipleship partners. But it is often very hard to find the time or the people to make these things happen, so we are left lulling ourselves to sleep with a quick prayer and the little voice rationalizing that “You need to sleep, God and your friends understand; maybe it’s even a form of worship, the fact that you’re taking care of God’s creation by letting your body sleep.”
And we wake up with deep chasms of guilt and great holes in our soul that leave us wondering if they can ever be repaired.
How can we fill God’s people when we’re not sure we can even fill ourselves?
How can we enrich God’s people when our own hearts and minds feel so funnily fuzzy and blank?
Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on Matthew 10:39 in which Jesus utters that enigma that haunts both the living and the blank: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it.”
In Greek the word is psyche, meaning not only ‘life’ but also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live. (Leaving Church, xiii)
This, I think, is what the blankness is. It’s lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart… not lying prostrate, because who has that kind of intentionality or energy? Lying flat because you are exhausted, because your mind is blank, because you have no idea where to go next or how to get there, or even how to stand.
I and many of my new clergy friends spend much time belittling ourselves for the blankness that we feel. We moan to one another in the most desperate of ways, “Why don’t I have the energy to read the Bible anymore?” “I just never know if I’m doing anything right,” and “I feel like a failure,” “Maybe I misheard my calling,” “Can this really be my life?”
What Barbara and Jesus seem to be saying is that this is all part of the process. “Finding life, losing life, and finding life again.”
Jesus rejoices, in the Gospels, over those who lose their lives for His sake. He says that this kind of loss of life is what leads to real life.
The dark night of the soul, the dirt from the basement floor shuffling up your nostrils and the inability to raise your head to see the angel of the Lord passing by… it’s not a bad thing. It’s not wrong. It in no way means that your calling has been revoked, or that you are not doing this thing called ministry right, or that God has turned, eyes rolling, away from you.
It means that you are right where you were meant to be. Because Jesus is on the basement floor just as presently as He’s on the mountaintops, perhaps even more so. Because she who loses herself for His sake will find herself in Him. She who wanders blankly will find the holes filled– not patched, but filled- by His Spirit. She who loses track of who she is, or who she thought she was supposed to be, Jesus says, will live.