3 February 2013
The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany
In the night, I had the image of having started across a broad desert, following a dream. Game was scarce on the way. I trusted, but did not know whether there would be plenty of game on the other side of the desert. Now I am far out into the desert. I continue on, hoping that going forward will be quicker and better than giving up and turning back and returning to the unsatisfying place from which I came. Nor do I ever want to go back, even though food was plentiful and varied there. But I have considered returning from time to time.
Years pass, for the desert is far larger than I had imagined. But rain showers come occasionally and sometimes the desert blooms. Small game is getting much more plentiful, although big game remains elusive. It takes extra effort to chase down the quantities of small game needed, but any game is far better than none. In the desert, one eats whatever is available, with gratitude.
Before I started into the desert, I used to say in a rather smart-alecky way that I was “called to eat.” By which I meant I was not willing to give up my livelihood even while dreaming about Call and what might be available if I followed Call into the desert. But then I began my journey, a long time ago.
I find that signing up for a sermon – like Samuel Johnson reputedly said about the prospect of being hanged – concentrates the mind wonderfully. This sermon is about figuring out my life in the context of Call as we define it at Seekers. It’s about articulating a coherent explanation for why I am living my life as I am. In many ways this is a harder sermon to share than my last one, as self-revealing as that one was. And despite the challenges, I fundamentally see this as a story of hope.
This sermon is long in coming. A couple of years ago Kevin suggested that I talk about the shift in my legal practice and my journey following Call. When I responded that I wasn’t to the other side of the desert yet, he suggested that it would be good to share my pain and shame – if that was what was there. That opened me to the realization that I had collected a great pool of pain. I have done my best to ignore and cover it over, but it is large. And there is shame as well. To say it plainly, I often have felt shame about what seems a lack of success and thus what (at least looking back) seems naïve judgment in choosing the course I did.
I intend to be as honest and direct as I can here, to share my reality as it appears to me, even though some of it seems rather whiney even to my ears in comparison to the challenges others face – not least the Bokamoso youth who were with us last week. And some of it may seem inconsistent, such as being concerned about finances while continuing with an annual trip to Mexico. But, despite revealing my quirks and imperfections, I chose to share this with you openly, including my doubts and fears, for you are my Seekers family and this is the central issue of my life. This is vitally important to me, for framing my story badly results in despair and shame. Carrying my story properly may help me to stand strong and keep contributing and growing.
As most of you know, I made dramatic shifts in my legal career over the last dozen years in an effort to pursue what I believed was my Call, by focusing on mediation and dispute resolution. My plan was pretty straightforward and easy to get my mind around. I was going to follow Call, bring peace to people in conflict, be respected and sought out professionally while making decent money, be my own boss, escape the rat race, and work a lot less in order to have more time for other meaningful things in my life. What’s not to like about that?
There have been many positives, but it’s not turned out to be an easy path. To add another metaphor, I escaped the burdensome life of a hard-working plow horse for the more expansive life of a wild horse. But up close the life of a wild horse is not all freedom and adventure, as it takes constant effort to survive. Without the bridle and bit there are not regular oats in the feed trough.
Unfortunately, this has been even harder on Brenda than on me. She had counted on me to provide the steady foundation and health insurance, as her practice has always been feast or famine. But since I went part-time at MCI in 2001, we’ve had to cover all our own insurance out of pocket, and when I let go of my salary altogether in 2003, she felt added pressure.
I was confident that I would soon be across the desert and things would be easier. But the desert turned out to be bigger and more barren than I had expected. When Brenda is between cases, as she was for most of last year, every month requires borrowing more against our house to pay our bills. Month after month after month.
I have tried hard. I have worked hard to come at things in various ways. In addition to doing regular mediations, I stretched into offering dispute resolution training when that avenue opened, I created a mediation newsletter that now goes out to about 20,000 people and generates decent income, I began teaching a law school course, and more. Of course, these things all took more time, as my straightforward business plan became increasingly complex. And the most visible thing about me heading deeper into the desert was not my saving the world or being more available, but simply not getting paid.
A few years ago, I worked hard to develop and open the U.S. office of a Canadian dispute resolution group, Certus. It was an exciting time and my partner Steve and I had some huge U.S. projects, but we were never successful in getting off the ground like we had expected. I’d hoped Certus would be the solution, but it ended last year. The Canadian home office merged into a larger consulting practice, and after a year without any joint work with Steve, it was clear that there was no point in continuing to pay my share of a nice traditional office in Rockville that I must then commute to. I moved back to my home office last May, which I always liked even though it doesn’t have the floor to ceiling wall of windows of my Rockville office.
There is always the voice of doubt both from within and without that maybe if I was just more skilled or gifted, or more able to articulate things in just the right way in marketing and in mediation, then all would be well. In short, am I competent at what still feels like my Call? As our reading today from Jeremiah says, I need the Lord to reach out and touch my mouth.
And, as time passed, new pain and new doubt arose about whether the desert will ever end, or whether I’ve wasted my life and my potential by seeking to follow Call.
It is so easy for me to view my life and career from the “normal” perspective of the world and to feel real horror that I’ve wasted my potential and the remarkable opportunities that I had from being a senior staffer in the U.S. Senate. Those have been my night terrors, when I’m not able to talk myself down and keep my fears under control. I compare myself to peers who are doing so well on this scale: my good friend Beryl, now Judge H., who has a lifetime appointment as a federal judge in one of the most prestigious courts in the country; or my friend Jon L. who is the head of the Federal Trade Commission and about whom long articles were written in the papers on Friday announcing his retirement from the Commission and discussing all his accomplishments for consumers over the last eight years; or even the young lawyer who came after me in the Senate who went from there to become a federal immigration judge years ago. I could go on. I could make myself crazy.
I’ve certainly thought of trying to shift back to a base of legal work and just doing mediation around the edges. With outside encouragement, I’ve thought of going back to a traditional legal job and even applied for a position at the Federal Trade Commission for which it seemed I might be a unique fit. But I heard they received several hundred applications and I hadn’t played the inside cards that I might have. Last summer I got close to being selected as the first in-house mediator at the International Monetary Fund, a prestigious and lucrative position I would have taken even though I was not sure it was the right path for me. I have a huge desire to be useful in the world and sometimes wonder if I chose the right path.
On the other hand, the desert can be beautiful, especially after a little rain when amazing flowers pop up. And small game is becoming more plentiful.
I have very much appreciated many aspects of my life as I have been in the desert. I have had much more control and balance in my life in many ways. I have had unexpected adventures at every step. Looking further back, I had more time with Marian and Lauren in their last years before leaving for college. And I took the time to lead the reconstruction project for this building, which is something I expect to be proud of my whole life.
Professionally, I do treasure the help that I am able to bring to people in conflict. I am often very moved by the magnitude of the pain that people carry around in their lives that others never know about. I feel honored to be trusted with their confidences; I find joy in being able to help people through their conflict and pain. While I’d hoped that my assistance to the world would be more dramatic and more frequent, I appreciate what Is. And my experience and skills continue to develop. My professional life feels meaningful and interesting; I am glad to be following this Call.
A week ago I conducted a touching mediation (with 14 people) in the DC Jail in the DC special education mediation program in which I am one of a handful of mediators. I am dealing with more workplace conflict than anything else and am appreciated for empathic listening in addition to mediation itself. Other cases that come to me from the courts often purport to be about money, but involve so much more, such as the widow of a doctor who is blaming his medical partners for causing him to commit suicide.
As I let go of Certus and moved back to my home office last summer, wisdom from Brenda was very important to me. She helped me clarify and re-double my efforts in dispute resolution. She said very clearly that if I returned to my regular mediation practice I should do it consciously, without expecting it to be different than it is, and not being frustrated if it is not all I would wish for. That has been key to doubling down on mediation as my Call, rather than putting everything through a filter of whether it contributes financially. I’ve returned to focusing on being of service to those I come into contact with as my priority. In that vein, I am interested in bringing more dispute resolution within Seekers to the extent that would be helpful.
One of the things I was recently reminded by my spiritual director is that there are often risks either way one goes. Heading into the desert presents obvious risks, but not going into the desert has risks as well. It is easy for me to feel chagrin and upset for what has not worked out as I had intended on my path. But the flip side is that if I had continued on a more traditional legal path, the bridle and bit bring their own pain and forgone opportunities.
The traditional legal route kept me so busy that there was rarely time to breathe, much less do anything else. Beyond that, I sometimes had serious physical manifestations of stress. At times my throat would clench so tightly I could not swallow when working through lunch at my desk (as I almost always did). I sometimes had such severe problems with my vision that I was not sure I could see adequately to be able to catch a taxi to get home.
It is now very clear to me that I have a life. And I want to be even more intentional in following the other calls and opportunities in my life – through photography, love of nature and naturism, and deep engagement with the world. My life is risky and it is an adventure; I want to deeply experience it in all its richness now, for it is pouring out.
I’m also clear that I am not holding my breath waiting to live my life later. I am not waiting to get to the other side of the desert. I intend to be as fully engaged and as fully alive as I can be now, regardless of any future changes or developments that may happen along. And while being fully committed, I want to let go of outcomes. Attachment does lead to suffering, just as the Buddhists say. I know, because I’ve tried it – a lot. I do not want to be out of alignment with what Is and suffer the pain of disagreeing with reality. I accept what is, while doing my piece to improve it.
We talk about pouring out our lives for some good cause as though it is something remarkable, but the truth is that our lives are pouring out whether we do anything special with them or not. I am glad that I followed Call. Our days are indeed finite, and could be unexpectedly so, as we know too well from our loss of Kate Cudlipp. As Sandra’s signature block now advises: “Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble any second.”
On the other hand, that does leave a small issue – what about the money? That question is making me get more serious in thinking about this whole Tradition-of-the-Church-of-the-Saviour thing. It is freeing to be in a tradition where lack of wealth is not viewed as failure, but greater moral rectitude! I’m not sure that’s my view, but it is a good antidote to the wealth-as-blessing message of the dominant society and popular Christianity. As I’ve gotten closer to CofS through my involvement on the Ecumenical Council and through my year’s work at Dayspring, I’ve realized that much of CofS has a more radical economic focus than Seekers.
How do I want to live going forward? Do I believe in this CofS approach? Am I willing to buy all my clothes at thrift shops? Am I drawn to intentional penury?
I do believe living closer to the edge invites me to a more genuine and “real” existence. When everything works out easily, numbness can set in. The plow horse takes oats for granted in a way the wild horse never will. Empathy for others is at issue as well. If everything had been easy I would not have as much understanding of the challenges of paying one’s bills or caring for one’s family. How boring it might all be!
An important step is greater simplicity in my life. I’m increasingly drawn to simplicity of Being, which for me is most present in nature, when kayaking or camping, and every morning meditating in my hot tub. These have the benefit of not requiring any particular expense to engage in them, which makes them feel pure and more wholesome to me.
Then there is the dance through these issues with the Love of My Life who may not see these various issues in exactly the same way I do, and who is known to get bug bites just from thinking about going outdoors. Curiously, Brenda and I seem to have traded positions on our basic orientation on spending in the last year or two, where she is now the one who is hesitant to make certain expenditures and I’ve begun assuming that it will all work out. Life is interesting!
Life is also messy; it just is. I am learning that is not an indication of failure, just reality.
Call is important; it gives meaning to life. We treat Call as though it is always sensible and right, but I’m here to say that following dreams can be dangerous stuff. There is no guarantee that things will work out right just because we feel like we are called. It’s fine to talk about; but to actually step out can be scary, and it can get worse from there. I’ve been through much effort and struggle, trying hard to get to the other side of the desert and being criticized at each step by voices inside and out. My mission group – the Broken & Beloved Mission Group – has helped tremendously, singing my song to me when it seemed I had forgotten it. And I am confident that there is new life and new adventures ahead.
Because it is easy to be fearful, I need to articulate my story so that I’m not afraid. I hope my being here gives others courage, too. It’s not about having “the answer,” but catching glimpses of enough truth out of the corner of my eye to breathe deeply and take the next steps on the path ahead. For I choose to pour out my life in pursuing God’s Call as best I can determine it, for abundant life.
[POUR OUT CUP INTO OVERFLOWING CHALICE]