Photo by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash

Lenten rejections

Rev. G. Travis Norvell

March 11, 2019

I normally try to give up something (like chocolate) for Lent. By the second week of Lent, however, I awake to giant cookies whispering how delicious they are. This Lent, I’m trying a different approach. This year I think I’ve developed a winning formula: 40 rejections (one rejection for each day of Lent).  

This may sound like one of the dumbest ideas you’ve ever heard of, but I think it is just the kind of trick of the brain that may open up new possibilities. I modified my Lenten experiment after reading a New York Times op-ed in December by comedian Emily Winter. In January of 2018, Ms. Winter set for herself a goal for the year: 100 rejections. 100 rejections from promoters, editors, celebrities, publishers, agents. 100 rejections. 100 Nos.

As a pastor, I like to think of myself as risk-averse. In fact, I plan most of my day around not experiencing daily failures or people telling me “no.” I like when people say “yes” to my ideas and dreams. I like it when I celebrate small wins or giant successes. This is ironic, because if I had not been willing to take a chance and risk rejection, I would have never been in a position to receive the call to the church I love and serve, Judson Memorial Baptist Church.  

Eight years ago, I resigned from a call and spent a year unemployed, curious if I would ever pastor again. I was at rock bottom when one day I had an epiphany: it can’t get any worse.

I put my fear in a box and started applying to jobs I had no business applying for, and the rejections started filling up my inbox. The first few rejections were difficult to take. But a funny thing happened: I started to develop rejection calluses and the rejections lost their sting. So, I wasn’t going to be a professor of preaching at a divinity school. So, I wouldn’t be the pastor of a large historic urban church that said only those with PhDs need apply. So, I wouldn’t be the University Minister for an Ivy League school. So, I wouldn’t be a seminary president even though I had a clever angle, “a young president will attract young students.” And so what that a Unitarian Church in Boston that used Anglican liturgy said I was not a good fit for their congregation? I applied again and asked them to reconsider. They did, and still said I was not a good fit for them. 

No matter. With each rejection I was making progress. I was gaining clarity and starting to take risks I had never taken before. By the time Judson and I found each other, I was clear about my call, clear about my hopes and dreams, and clear about what I could and could not do as a pastor.  

And then life happened, and then my modus operandi went back to being risk-averse.  

But I don’t think this is the time and season for being risk-averse, for playing it safe, for being comfortable. Even if there is another polar vortex this year, our world is still a “hot mess.” This is the time and season for risk, for courage, for boldness, for discomfort, for rejections and failures.  

This Lent I’m going to try new prayers, preach new sermons, sing new songs, read new authors, listen to new music, ask new people to join me in repenting of our racism, ask others to join me in giving up driving cars, ask people to give more money to social justice causes and to the church they love, invite new people to join me in the movement for peace, to pray for and with me, to come to church with me, to plant trees with me, to read poetry aloud with me. I expect rejections. I expect for some people to slowly walk away from me.

I also hope to develop some rejection calluses. I hope to reclaim a clearer picture of myself as a follower and friend of Jesus.  

The season of Lent is just that: a season. On Easter morning I can cease my courting of rejection. But during the season, I can welcome risk and rejection as I experiment, try new things, develop new habits, and remind myself of my true self.

What if this Lent, many of us welcomed and risked a rejection each day? What if we embraced this counterintuitive way to strengthen and hone our discipleship?

What if this Lent, many of us welcomed and risked a rejection each day? What if we embraced this counterintuitive way to strengthen and hone our discipleship?

Let us give up chocolate after Easter, because we’re going to need every pick-me-up we can get thanks to all the rejections we’re going to experience.  

40 rejections. Bring ‘em on…

The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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