by Canon Martha Tatarnic
I have long considered myself to be a borderline extrovert. Although I am naturally quiet, I feel energized by my leadership in the church — crowded services, busy coffee hours, long conversations with a group Bible study. I can go into a Sunday morning service feeling tired and out of sorts from whatever kid or dog was up in the middle of the night that weekend, and I can come out of a Sunday morning service feeling rejuvenated.
COVID-19 is laying hidden truths bare. Our societal conversation has been opened during this pandemic to considering systemic injustice in our care homes and systemic racism across our society. We are asking tough and critical questions about how we are going to work together to accomplish concrete change. The pandemic has not just taught us change is necessary, it has taught us that change is possible.
COVID-19 has been laying bare some personal truths too. With in-person worship suspended, with the daily routine of physical person-to-person interaction moved to the qualitatively different experience of online Zoom gatherings, and with my home suddenly being my primary place of work, these enormous disruptions have allowed for a different perspective of what my actual gifts and personality traits are.
I’m not an extrovert at all. I am a raging introvert who craves alone time like I crave oxygen. I could very happily retreat to a couch with a pile of books or to a running route with the sanctuary of my ear buds blocking out the rest of the world. Not only that, but I have realized that I am not a natural born leader. It is not my default to be either in charge or in the limelight. The most comfortable and life-giving place for me to occupy is as a back-up singer in a band or a second soprano in a choir. All of my leadership and people skills are adaptations: I have been asked to do certain work, and I have been able to adapt and develop certain skill sets in order to be able to do that work.
These revelations do bring about questions of vocation. Interestingly, I think that I am one among many church leaders currently testing our vocations because of the pandemic. We have been stretched so far outside of our comfort zones, asked to figure out the same delivery of services, care, outreach, education and worship within a vastly altered, and mostly online, landscape. And we have had to cope with stranger and less obvious challenges in our communities—anxieties and dramas being stirred up in the most surprising ways in this suddenly fraught time.
I know I am not the only one wondering if I’m really cut out for this. I am not doubting that God has called me to this work. I am wondering whether God really means to keep calling me to it. In this COVID-19 shake-up, might there not now be a road ahead that could allow me to serve God on a more 9 to 5 schedule, for example? If the lesson is that change is possible, can’t God’s calling for me change too?
Knowing that you’re called to something and feeling good about it are two different things.
I got my answer in talking with my son. Gordon’s favourite topic of conversation when we’re out walking is to imagine all of the things he would do if he won $75 million. “Mommy,” he said to me, “I could let you retire! You wouldn’t have to work anymore!” I know that we were playing a game, I know that this wasn’t a serious alternative being presented, and yet I was surprised to find myself responding to this suggestion with sudden conviction. “That’s so nice of you sweetheart,” I said, “But I couldn’t.” I thought of a nice beach somewhere with an endless pile of books. I thought of my ear buds and my podcasts and the outside world comfortably held at bay. “God gives us certain gifts, and we have to use them to serve others. I have to be a priest of the church.”
A wise colleague phrased a similar revelation in an emotional meeting of our local priests. “I’m a priest,” he said. “That’s who I am. I can’t do anything else, even if I wanted to.”
Knowing that you’re called to something and feeling good about it are two different things. I was discussing this same question with my spiritual director Kevin not long ago, and he likened our priestly vocation to the story of Jonah and the whale. We might try to run away, but any thought of escape is accompanied by the sinking sensation that there is most likely an enormous fish waiting to swallow us up until we’re ready to be spit back onto the path we were asked to take all along.
Kevin then invited me to consider Jesus’ invitation: “Abide in me,” Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” What God wants for us, each of us and all of us, is no less than an intimate relationship of love with God, and that we may know joy in that relationship.
At first, Kevin’s offering of these two Biblical passages felt incongruous to me. Joy is a long way off from the belly of the whale. And it’s a long way off from what I have been feeling in ministry in the last few months. I have been feeling trapped. How can we know God’s joy if we’re not free?
I gained insight into God’s freedom in a roundabout way. I read the new psychological thriller Dark Matter, which describes the hero protagonist being kidnapped by another version of himself—a version that became a world-renowned scientist and figured out how to access the multiverse: the portals to all of the infinite number of versions of ourselves that simultaneously exist because of the choices that we did or didn’t make, and which then wildly alter our life’s course.
It was a great read, but it clarified for me the very different understanding of reality in which I believe.
For it was You who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
Psalm 139 is not a denial of human choice, but it is an affirmation of how God chooses us. Not just priests, but all of us. God claims us, lock, stock and barrel, for particular ways of serving this world God loves so much. I don’t create my own life. I don’t sustain my own life. I don’t, moment to moment, continue to inspire the breath of life in this collection of dust that is my body. I don’t even generate the gifts that are needed for me to do the work to which I am called. My basic nature is as an introvert and a back-up singer. This actually isn’t the discouraging realization I thought it to be.
This is freedom. This is the freedom of abiding, the freedom of that relationship of love.
If I don’t generate my own life or produce my own gifts or chart my own course, then of course I can only turn to God. I can only be held by God. I can only be blessed by God. I can only open my heart and receive what God has always wanted to give me. I can feel the burden of living by my own merit lifted from me, the tyranny of measuring my self-worth by my own accomplishments and my own failures dissolving.
I might not be cut out for this work, and also there is no multiverse of alternative versions of me about to open up.
But there is a path ahead that once again I know I do not walk alone. On that path, the path of companionship and provision, I am a priest. On that path is joy.