When Pathways Have Closed
By Sheri D. Kling
When the pathways you’ve been devoted to have closed, deep inner work alongside trust in God’s presence, guidance, and imagination make up the kind of active partnership that can open new pathways.
When the pathways we’ve been devoted to have seemingly closed, how do we “keep the faith” and balance the need to wait for God’s guidance with the need to take action? This is an apt question for me right now.
I’ve been doing my best to partner with God since at least 2002. It was in that year that I felt the call on my heart to live a more creative life and pursue a musical vocation. At the time, I was working in the software industry in Atlanta. Although corporate marketing and communications had been a good career path for me, it was not without its upheavals.
The technology industry is volatile. And with frequent mergers and acquisitions always in play, layoffs and downsizings often follow closely behind. In about fifteen years, I think I was downsized out of my job at least six times. At the first occurrence, I was devastated. But by the third or fourth go-round, I had become someone who could, as R.E.O. Speedwagon once sang, “roll with the changes.”
In fact, I often found myself in a kind of coaching role with my stricken colleagues, urging them to release closely-held assumptions they must only pursue the same kind of work from which they had just been sacked. I instead encouraged them to follow where the energy was moving in their lives. What conversations led to invitations? What directions had a little extra sparkle that they may not have noticed before? What new thing was calling their name?
Having pursued theological education to become a scholar of process philosophy and theology, I now understand that idea of moving energy a bit differently. I might call it God’s lure or evidence of God’s persuasive love.
In process thought in particular—and open and relational theology more generally—God does not act upon the world as a coercive force, getting God’s way in every instance. Instead, God is seen as a loving persuader who works within all things for their evolution. God offers us possibilities for novel adventures out of God’s wide mercy and imagination, and it is up to us to listen so that we might discern those steps toward our best future.
In 2003, when my last software marketing job evaporated into thin air, I took this as a divine kick in the pants to get on with my musical life. That kick led me to launch a bold career as a performing songwriter, recording artist, and spiritual workshop leader. After releasing three music CDs, a book of essays, and performing many heartfelt gigs with appreciative audiences, I had to sadly realize that my pathway as an artist was not actually gaining any financial traction.
I gave myself a deadline and listened for God’s prompts for the next step in my journey. I had always felt a tug toward theological education, but the ordination pathway never seemed a good fit. When I saw that there was an alternative academic track—I knew I had found my answer. In 2009 I moved to Illinois to pursue a master’s in theological studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
I began my studies there with an open stance toward a specialty or area of focus. At the beginning of my second semester, this lack of clarity had me anxious until I made the choice to just let things unfold, trusting that a direction would emerge. Sure enough, it was in a class in process theology with Anna Case-Winters at McCormick Seminary that my future pathway made itself known. I saw exciting resonances between process thought and Jungian psychology. My research eventually led me to the Claremont School of Theology to work with Philip Clayton and earn my doctorate.
A vision for my future pathway became clear—I wanted to secure a faculty position at an institution of higher education. I did not foresee how limited the opportunities would be when I finished my Ph.D. in 2017. Applications submitted to faculty positions didn’t lead to interviews. I realized I might need to adjust my plans by seeking an administrative job, at least initially.
Throughout this period, I was, again, listening for God’s urgings. Two of my favorite methods for discernment are working with my dreams and watching for synchronicities—Carl Jung’s term for meaningful coincidences where the outer world connects with our inner world through meaning. I see the entire world as God’s mouthpiece, and so for me, partnering with God means tuning in to both the outer world and the inner world.
In early 2017, a series of synchronicities led me to explore posted job opportunities at the University of the South, familiarly known as “Sewanee,” in Tennessee. An open job in the registrar’s office matched my work experience. The application process moved quickly to interview, visit, and an offer. I was thrilled because I believed deep in my heart that even though this kind of staff job was not my end goal, things would evolve. As an institution, Sewanee seemed to have many of my interest bases covered: a school of theology, a department of religious studies, a center for religion and environment, and a beautiful landscape. I began my career there in July 2017.
A year later, a new possibility emerged—a job in the School of Theology for directorship of a center focused on lay education and formation. I secured that promotion and felt I had finally found a solid place. But two-and-a-half years later, just as the COVID pandemic was beginning in 2020, I learned of financial decisions that would lead to the elimination of my position and two others, set to occur six months later.
What now, God?
I found myself, once again, feeling cornered by stress.
Most of us are familiar with the idea that we have either a “fight” or a “flight” response to threat or danger. But it wasn’t until I read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., that I learned of the “freeze” response. When someone is facing a threat—whether a hungry tiger or a raging parent—if there is no ability to fight back and no ability to run, there is only one other alternative: to collapse or freeze.
As the weeks of my job search in 2020 turned into months, and COVID halted hiring across the United States, the old tendency to freeze in the face of danger hooked me like a siren song. I had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t seeing any movement of energy or prompts from God either. None of the seeds I put out into the academic world took root. I resolved to wait until God offered some kind of guidance. As Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson, writes in Inner Gold, when we’re caught in a painful situation with no clear pathway forward, sometimes the only answer is to “go off somewhere, sit still, and determine not to move until the dilemma is resolved.”
Claire Zammit, Ph.D., shows in her course Feminine Power that there is another way between goal-oriented action and collapsed inaction. Instead of plunging forward or remaining still, Zammit teaches that the most powerful thing we can do in such times is to identify and release the inner barriers we may have to receiving and creating a desirable future. Often, the greatest barrier to outer creativity has to do with inner identity—or beliefs about who I am and what is possible for me. These beliefs then shape our experience.
From a process perspective, we might say that our beliefs keep us stuck in patterns of repetition of the past and blocked from discerning the novel possibilities that God is luring us toward.
The task of identifying and releasing inner barriers is my current spiritual practice, and it is bearing much fruit. While it is true that certain pathways seem closed to me now, I know deep in my soul that God’s wide mercy and imagination seek my wholeness and creative expression.
I know God will not abandon me. I know that God’s creative life flows through me, vitalizing every moment of my existence, and luring me toward abundant life.
And so, I surrender to God’s healing work.
I make the choice to trust in God’s mercy.
I do my best to tune in to my deepest heart to hear God’s call forward to new futures.
Because I know whose I am. And I know who loves me.
Even—and maybe especially—in times of silence and closed pathways.
Questions: Change is the only constant in life. How do you handle change? Particularly, enforced changes? How do you bring God into that process?
Sheri D. Kling, Ph.D. (www.sherikling.com), is an author, teacher, and coach who draws from wisdom and mystical traditions, open and relational worldviews, depth psychology, and the intersection of spirituality and science to help people find meaning, belonging, and transformation. She sees her mission as midwifing spiritual rebirth in individuals, organizations, communities, and culture.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.