In the Hebrew Bible, God tells Abram: "Leave your country, your family and your father's home for a land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1).
There comes a time when each of us who accepts God's invitation to authentic life must leave home, comfort, familiarity and security to step out into an unknown land.
Recently I spoke with someone struggling with a decision over which of two job offers to take (yes, even in these times). One job would pretty much continue his current work and routine, but in a new setting with a little higher salary. The other would take him into a new area of his field and could be quite fulfilling, but it carried plenty of potential risks. Even so, he felt this riskier path reflected his heart's true desire. He couldn't shake the feeling that if he didn't take it, he would regret it for the rest of his life.
So what should he do, especially in this precarious economy? Take the safe path, or the more meaningful path to which the heart beckons?
All of us at some time or another are confronted by a calling to step out of our comfort zones into the unknown in order to thrive. To risk coming alive. As the great theologian Howard Thurman put it, "Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
What would happen if you honestly considered that?
For me, one of those moments came on Memorial Day weekend in 1976. On my way to spend the weekend with my folks on the James River in Virginia, having just graduated from college, I side-tripped through Richwood, in the eastern mountains of West Virginia, to touch base before being added to the payroll of The West Virginia Hillbilly, a weekly newspaper (now sadly defunct) that focused on state arts and culture, politics, history and humor, published by one of the state's most beloved eccentrics, Jim Comstock.
I discovered that Richwood was a postcard vision -- a beautiful little town that filled the Cherry River Valley, surrounded by lush wooded hills. My heart beat with nervous anticipation as I drove into the heart of the one-stoplight town.
I found the rickety, white frame Palotta Building smack in the middle of town, right next to a busy corner gas station. This modest, ancient structure was the Hillbilly World Headquarters. Downstairs was a shop crammed with books by, for and about West Virginians, some of them published by Comstock himself. Upstairs was a suite of offices, most of them filled completely, floor-to-ceiling, with books and papers. Stretching across the front of the building overlooking Main Street was Jim's ephemera-strewn office.
Jim spent maybe a half hour giving me the nickel tour of the building and chatting with me about my joining his tiny staff as assistant editor right after the holiday weekend. He graciously offered to let me live in an apartment right on the premises.
He took me up the creaky, junk-strewn stairs to show it to me. "This will be your room," he announced proudly. "You can live right here," he added, as though trying to convince me he was telling the truth.
What I saw stunned me. Books, boxes, papers and assorted odds and ends filled the tiny room. I did see a window behind some stacked boxes, but it only looked out on the wall of the building next door, a foot away. Just behind this 10-by-12-foot room was a bathroom. I could tell because I could see the claw feet of an old bathtub poking out from behind a mound of junk. The tub itself was filled-to-overflowing with more books and papers.
I smiled weakly. Sensing my chagrin, Comstock quickly assured me, "We're going to clean this out and paint it and get a couch in here for you to sleep on. It'll be ready by the time you get back on Monday."
This was Thursday. It would take a miracle to renovate this place into something habitable in less than four days.
I soon left, wondering what in the world I was getting myself into in this strange land. I tried to forget my doubts that weekend and enjoyed the time with my family. But my heart was filled with apprehension on the drive back that next Monday.
But sure enough, that little room had been transformed. It was clean, painted and nicely furnished. All the junk had been moved to other rooms in that ramshackle building. The new couch would make a comfortable bed. I was impressed.
That room would be my home for nearly a year. There was only one problem with it: It was right next to Comstock's office. He came in every morning at six, turned on the Today Show loud and started to work on his manual typewriter, which sounded like a machine gun.
This generally woke me up. So I'd take a bath in that classy old tub, dress and report for duty, with no idea where I might end up that night.
"Pete!" he'd bark in an energetic, high-pitched voice every morning, "Here's what I want you to do today."
And I'd be off on another adventure covering a coal miners march in Washington, D.C.; selling ad space to some very dubious businessmen; taking Jim's place as grand marshal in a small-town parade; giving a speech at a Pearl Buck Birthplace Chautauqua; covering the state legislature session; interviewing the just-elected Governor (now Senator, Jay Rockefeller) or the new and very colorful Secretary of State, A. James Manchin (the late uncle of Senator-elect Joe Manchin); investigating old railroad ghost towns; covering President Jimmy Carter's visit to the state capitol; touring flood ravaged areas in the southern part of the state; or chauffeuring Jim to a speaking engagement while he scribbled his lively "Comstock Load" editorials on a yellow legal pad
During that period of my life I frankly questioned what I -- and God -- was doing. They never taught me this stuff in journalism school. The job stretched me far beyond what I had ever expected. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Looking back now, I can see how much I learned and how foundational that experience was for much of what I would do later in life. The only thing that could move me to leave it some three years later was seminary and a growing desire to learn how to communicate my faith more effectively -- another huge risk in itself. But I'm still doing it today as producer and host of the "Day1" radio program.
What if I hadn't taken that first terrifying risk? What if I hadn't listened to God's inward call to move to a strange land? I would have lost a lifetime of wonderful memories and life lessons packed into those three-plus years.
God told Abram: "Leave your country, your family and your father's home for a land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). I'm certainly no Abram, but I do hope to be a willing child of God, sensitive to divine coaxing, open to God's calling for me -- no matter my age or how overwhelming, strange and faraway it might appear.
How about you? Let me encourage you to take poet Mary Oliver's suggestion, from her poem "Evidence," to "keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable."
"I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by
this adventure--your life--what would do for