The Intersection of Calling & Closed Doors (Writes Ryan Pemberton)

The Intersection of Calling & Closed Doors (Writes Ryan Pemberton) April 16, 2019

Another Tuesday, another dollar …is that how the phrase goes? I’ve got an author I’d like you to meet: Ryan Pemberton is a local minister and friend, who also happens to have written a story-driven memoir about calling. Like Ryan, words give me life – but even if words are in our bones, there’s no guarantee that the rest of the world is going to resonate with the stories we tell (nor does it mean that publishers will pick up said words). Curious as to how calling intersects with failure? Check out this interlock and his book, Called

Tell us a bit about yourself, will you? Happy to. Probably the first thing you should know is that I’ve been with my wife for half my life (12 years of marriage, five years of dating). I met Jen all the way back in high school. We have two children: Emma Dawn (6) and Hudson James (3). So, life is full.

We’re a couple of small-town kids from the far corner of the Pacific Northwest (just across the Canadian border, in western Washington State), who lived in England and North Carolina, before returning to the West Coast. We live in the East Bay now, where I serve on staff at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, working to connect the life of the church to the life of the university, as Minister for University Engagement.

I’m the oldest of three (which tells you a lot), I’m an INFP, and, for folks who are into the Enneagram, I’m a 3-Wing-2 (am I saying that right? I’m not sure, but my students are really into it).

I’m a late-night cereal eater, all-the-time music listener, regular sharer of OnBeing episodes, and Frederick Buechner, C. S. Lewis, Lauren Winner, and, increasingly, Henri Nouwen, are all writers who mean very much to me.

Let’s talk about your book: what, in a nutshell, is your book about anyway? My book is a memoir on calling. It’s the story of what happened when Jen and I decided to leave our work and community to pursue what we believed God was calling us to: moving five thousand miles from home so that I could study theology in Oxford, England. We wound up experiencing a number of dream-come-true moments along the way (not least of which was living in C.S. Lewis’s home), as well as some deeply difficult challenges (running out of money half-way through my degree, a long series of rejections on my writing, etc.). It’s about the question of what happens when the door closes on what you thought God was calling you to, and coming out of all of those experiences with a very different understanding of what it means to be called.

Do tell, what was the inspiration behind it? I was actually working on another manuscript while we were living in England, working with an agent to get it published. That manuscript was never picked up. And so, while I began seriously doubting the call that I had previously been so confident in, I began to wonder if there was a book worth exploring here. I found myself frustrated, let down by a lot of the voices I was reading on the topic of calling—lots of calling as pursuing your dream sort of stuff—and that made me think that this might be worth writing into, that our experiences might be helpful for others wrestling with some of the same questions.

How do you hope readers will be changed by your words, and also, how have you been changed by writing the book? Since Called came out a few years back, I’ve been quietly trying to change the language we use when we talk about calling. I think language isn’t just descriptive, it shapes how we think and how we live. And I think we talk about calling in some harmful ways. I mentioned a second ago that what we often call a calling is little more than our dreams, and I think that can get dangerous, especially in Christian circles. Because somehow calling is elevated, it can be used as a trump card in conversation. “If God is calling you to that, then who am I to step in and disrupt that?” You know? So I think that’s one thing I’ve tried to change, inviting people to be honest about the difference between the two, while acknowledging that God sometimes uses what we might call “good dreams” to speak to us, to call us, but to be careful about not conflating the two. That’s where we could use some honesty, as well as some good community, friends and partners who are willing not just to support us, but to challenge us when we need to be challenged. Discerning calling is work best done in community, that’s something I learned along this journey.

Another takeaway I hope folks will take away from this work is the fact that I think calling is best understood as relational, as dynamic. One way I like to get at this is to point out that the word “calling” assumes a “caller.” That call comes from somewhere. In a secular sense, we may say that, ultimately, that call comes from me, or somewhere deep inside me. But as a Christian who’s trying to write and speak to other Christians, I like to invite folks to take seriously that the One who ultimately calls us is the living God. That’s a major claim, but I want to be honest about what we’re talking about. And if it’s the living God who calls us, then suddenly that call becomes much more dialogical in nature, not a static goal that you pursue and then tick off your box. For me, that’s both more exciting and also more scary. But I think it’s ultimately more valid, and it changes dramatically how we think and talk and ultimately live into this process of discerning and pursuing a call. It means I’m constantly stewarding the gifts that God has given me in relationship with God and with others, in response to the needs around me, in community, as God’s Spirit moves among us and directs. It’s dynamic, much harder to pin down. It means it looks more like a posture, less like a plan.

So those are some things I hope readers take away from Called, but you never know what folks will get out of something once you put it out there. Maybe a new or deeper appreciation for C. S. Lewis’s work, for those who haven’t read him, or who haven’t ventured out past Narnia. And I hope readers leave this story thinking, that guy has some great friends. And, those friends are necessary for this thing called calling.

We oftentimes talk about “coloring outside the lines” on this blog: so, how do you hope your book will help readers color outside the lines? Great question. Over the past few years, I’ve grown more and more aware of the fact that a lot of the voices shaping how we think and talk about calling are male. And if the primary voices shaping our understanding are male, we’re not only likely to miss some really important perspective on this complex topic, but we’re also going to hurt those whose experiences don’t fit the male perspective. For example, I don’t think I’m going to surprise too many women here when I say that women are too often asked to prioritize the calling of their male partners. Why is that? I think it has something to do with the question of who’s telling us what it means to be called. I am not so sure reading Called will bring folks to this point, unfortunately, but I’ve been trying to steer the conversation in this direction whenever I can. We need more women writing as women on calling (with a uniquely female voice and experience). If I can encourage any future work with this book, it would be that.

How and where can we find you on the Internet? I’d love to have folks connect with me: TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. My book website is CalledTheJourney.com, and every once in a while I post at handsnfeet.wordpress.com.

Well, there you have it friends! Ryan is the real deal and the way he weaves his story and history (see what I did there?) will quickly grab you. Leave a comment here if you’d like to win a copy of Called and check out Instagram in a couple of days for more chances to win! 

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