Friends, as promised, I’m back with author Ryan J. Pemberton, whose book, Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, has found a place on my forever shelf. I dare you to read his story and not be changed. In case you missed it, you can read my thoughts on his book here. But today I’m delighted to welcome Ryan himself. Oh, and did I mention a book giveaway? Details below, so read on…
Ryan, so pleased to have you here on Story Matters. In the short video introducing your book you say, “No one ever told me that being called feels so much like being afraid. It’s exciting and scary, all at the same time.” So glad you said that! It’s exactly what I have felt as I have, by faith, pursued my own calling (also to write). Indeed, I felt some fear all over again as I began reading your book, imagining that God might use your story to speak to me in a fresh way. Why is it that fear is a nearly universal response to calling?
I think it has to do with the fact that following a calling almost always involves a step out in faith (as you point out in your own journey). That step is usually toward the unknown, either a new line of work or a new place, and the unknown scares us. The unknown can be exciting, sure, but it’s also deeply scary. Often times it’s both.
At this point, I should take a quick step back to clarify: what exactly do you mean by called?
I wish I had a simple response to this question, as much as I’m asked. Something nice and clean and to the point. I apologize up front that I do not. But I think one thing people often miss on this topic is that the word “calling” assumes a caller. However you think of calling, that call is coming from somewhere. For the Christian (and for most of my conversations on this topic), that Caller is the Living God who says, “Follow me.” Calling in this sense involves following the One who calls, rather than a life plan or a system that helps me identify my dreams and skill sets.
In this way, calling is not something that simply comes from looking inward and identifying who I am. Calling will likely involve those things that make up who I am, but I don’t think it comes from merely looking at our talents or passions and expecting them to show us the way. Those things need direction; they’re not a direction in and of themselves. So for the Christian, it’s the Living Lord who calls out to us anew each day, Who directs that complex combination of gifts and passions that is ourselves, directs us in ways we could not have expected or planned, toward the needs of the moment. So when I talk about discerning a call, it looks more like a posture (of receptivity) than a plan. It requires patience and stillness and prayer and community, unfortunately the kind of things that are not given much value in our culture.
Like I said, I need a simple response. But that’s what I typically mean by calling—daily surrendering all we have, all our plans, and using all we’ve been given as we follow the One who calls, “Follow me.”
I find that you and I have much in common, from our distaste for small talk to reluctance to speak of our writing dreams with acquaintances. At one point you say that when you shared your calling with someone you’d just met, he reacted as if you’d told a bad joke. Yet despite this resistance, you found yourself more and more willing to go there with others. What enabled this change?
For a long time it was really scary to admit that I felt called to be a writer. I was afraid that people would laugh at me. But there were a couple of things that helped me. The more I actually shared my writing with folks, the more confirmation I received that this was something worth spending my time on. And the more they did—especially those people I trusted to be straight with me—the more I was able to begin to live into and own my writing. That was the second thing that helped me. When I began to confess this call to others (which took a long time), I realized how much I liked how it felt. How it fit. I had already had a career in business, in marketing and PR, for years before this, and I knew how that felt. I knew it didn’t feel like this. It was a bit like trying on pair after pair of new jeans, none of which seem to fit, and then you try on this pair and you think, These were made for me. And after you feel how amazing they fit, you think, I can’t imagine going back to anything else. Confessing this call was a bit like that for me.
I have to pull your wife into our discussion. If you were the main character in this story, she was the main secondary. She sounds lovely. In fact, I think she’s someone I need to know. Her role in your story was a supportive one. It’s one thing to step out in faith to follow your own calling, quite another to do so for someone else. Indeed, you make a point of saying that in order for you to chase your dreams, your wife had to sacrifice—or at least delay—hers. What encouragement, or advice, would she offer others in similar situations? (If she cares to speak for herself here, she’s most welcome to!)
I really appreciate this question. Called is dedicated to Jen because, as I note, without her these words simply would not be. In fact, I almost pointed out in the dedication that Jen was the real hero in my story. Anyone who reads Called will know why. I’ll let Jen take it from here.
Jen Pemberton: When we first left home, I knew that God gifted my husband with words, the ability to take hard concepts and communicate them in a way that helps others understand. I wanted him to get this schooling because I knew he was going to do great things and touch a lot of people. The hard part in all of this was that I didn’t realize how much my life would be put on hold, how much I would sacrifice and how lonely I would feel at times. The thing that helped me during all of this was remembering that God is right alongside of me, with his hand outstretched, wanting to take this journey with me. Isaiah 41:13—“For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you’.”
My advice for anyone else with a spouse who feels called in a different direction that means sacrificing your own dreams is to have hope, trust in the Lord, communicate with your spouse what your desires are, and talk about how they can help you achieve those desires. I know that God hasn’t forgotten about me as I’ve focused on my husband during this season. My prayer is that God would work through all of this so that it will be reciprocated.
Oxford exams…just reading about them made my toes curl. Surely only the most determined individuals come out on the other side with sanity intact. Had you known how grueling the experience would be, would you still have chased this dream? Or was it one of those instances of grace, where ignorance is a blessing? And what’s your takeaway from that experience?
I’ve actually wondered about this myself: whether I’d do it all over again—leave a stable career, home, and community and move to Oxford to study theology and pursue this a calling to write—if I knew how much it would cost. The thing is, there’s no way I could have known how difficult this whole process would be without actually experiencing it myself. So yeah, I think in that way not knowing enabled me, enabled us, to pursue this journey.
As far as a takeaway, I think this is just one more reminder that plans can only get you so far. There’s no way we could have planned this. This journey had to unfold day by day, week by week, and we had to follow one step at a time. I think that’s true for most of life, really. Do you think those young couples saying “I do” have any idea what they’re getting themselves into? Do you think they’d say “I do” if they did? But ask them 20, 30, 40 years later if they’d do it all over again, and many if not most of those who stuck it out will tell you they cannot imagine doing life without that person. I think the same is true of our own journey. We couldn’t have imagined how incredibly challenging it would be when we first left home. Nor could we have imagined the incredible peaks we’d experience. It’s interesting how often our greatest joys are tied to our greatest trials.
I appreciated your reference to memoirist Frederick Buechner, who once wrote that to lose track of our stories is to be deeply impoverished. It is to be bankrupt and causes us to lose sight of who we are. And then we need someone to remind us. If we find ourselves losing our stories, what might “someone reminding us” look like?
Great question. I love this Buechner quote. I also appreciate how he recognizes the important role stories play for directing and navigating life. Losing track of our stories happens all too easily, and so we need the kind of community who knows us deeply and who can speak honestly into our life. We need the kind of people who know the stories of our life that most reflect who we are and where we’re trying to go.
I think of my grandfather who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years ago. His memory is now fading and he struggles with all the things he can no longer do. His days are difficult. His body and his mind are both failing him. In many ways, he struggles to remember his story. So when we get together, for dinner at a local restaurant or from his living room with TBN playing loudly on his television, I like to remind him of the stories I appreciate most about growing up as his grandson: learning the difference between a Philips and a flat-head screwdriver while working on his boat together in the summer; learning how to do a deadman’s float in the pool in his backyard, just in case I ever needed to; or delivering hot meals to older folks who could no longer get out of their house. Those stories have something to say not just about the man my grandfather was, way back then, but about who he still is. To lose sight of those stories because his days now look much different would be devastating. There’s an important scene in Called where someone did this for me at a time when I needed to be reminded of the story I was trying to tell. I think that’s something of what Buechner means about the life-giving work of reminding one another of our stories. It means we need those who know us most deeply, who can come alongside us in our deepest, darkest valleys, and say, “Hey, do you remember when?…”
Stories are life giving. That’s a lesson I think we can all benefit from.
Thank you, Ryan! I have been blessed by your story.
* Photos courtesy of Ryan J. Pemberton. More here.
After words: How about you, friends? Has there been a time when you were called upon to remind someone of his story? Or when you needed reminding of your own? Something to think about…
And while you do, don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Ryan’s book. Enter here: a Rafflecopter giveaway