Whose Voice Are You Listening To? Reflections on John 18:33-37
November 25, 2012
Parker Palmer, Quaker author, educator, and activist, in his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, tells of realizing in his early thirties that the life he was living was not the same as the life that wanted to live in him. At moments he would catch a glimpse of his true life, a life hidden like a river beneath the ice. He began to wake up to questions about his vocation.
Says Palmer, "Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one's own. Fearful that I was doing just that . . . I ran across the old Quaker saying, 'Let your life speak.'"
He says that gradually he came to understand that for him that meant, "Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent."
Palmer's insights ring true for me. I often encounter people who allow themselves to be almost totally defined by others. The voices of others tend to drown out their own. They allow their identity to be almost completely conformed to the needs and expectations of others. I recognize them, because I have been them and still struggle with being them. If my adult children are doing well in their jobs and relationships, that must mean I've been a good mother. If I get a glowing thank-you note from the pastor of the church where I was recently a guest speaker, I can feel like I did a great job. If it is a routine thank-you note, that must mean I did just an adequate job. If I'm asked to take on a task for which I do not have the gifts and graces but which someone else needs done, then I must say yes, putting existing goals on hold until I meet another's needs.
This message of allowing one's inner life to speak could come across as quite naïve. Of course, our lives aren't entirely our own. Of course, we all have things we must do because they just need to be done. There is no point in sitting around musing about whether emptying the trash and disinfecting the plastic container before you put the new Hefty bag in it or filling out required paperwork aligns with my true vocation.
The message of allowing one's inner life to speak could come across as an elitist message for people who have the choice to seek power and wealth rather than service and modest means. Many people live with the harsh reality that their lives are almost completely at the mercy of others. They include refugees displaced by war, children at the mercy of cruel and negligent adults, people trapped by poverty in work and living situations that stifle the spirit and harm their own physical health and that of their family.
The sense in which the advice "Listen to your inner vocational voice" is not naïve, and not elitist, is when that inner voice we listen for is Jesus' voice.
In all four gospels Jesus is portrayed as persistently resisting the efforts of others to define him, to tell him who he has to be, to force him into existing categories. "Who do people say that I am?" he asks Peter in Mark 8:27. But his purpose in asking was not so that he could conform himself to their expectations. Quite the opposite.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.