[For a spell I was away from my computer and easy access to the internet. Five thousand miles away, in fact. Hence, this post is a bit dated but I hope not wholly disposable.]
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Off and on I ponder what God might want to do with my impulse to write.
That’s a lie, of course. I think about it all the time.
Writing is a large part of what I do as a pastor. But there are those who encourage me to push my writing to a larger platform. Such urgings stir something inside of me which I sometimes ignore. Other times, I feed them, as I did in April by attending the Festival of Faith and Writing, a biennial writers’ conference hosted by the Calvin College Center for Faith and Writing.
The attractiveness of this event is conveyed in this summary of the event’s history:
“Since our first gathering in 1990, we have been privileged to host hundreds of writers, including Maya Angelou, John Updike, Elie Wiesel, Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith, Miroslav Volf, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Saunders, Christian Wiman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Tobias Wolff, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Mary Karr, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Yancey, Anne Lamott, Ann Voskamp, and Michael Chabon.”
One need not have writerly aspirations to be drawn by such a lineup. My wife (who cannot understand why anyone would want to write) thoroughly enjoyed attending with me. She was moved by the presentations of Walter Wangerin, Jr. and Kate Bowler touching upon suffering and joy, and she was challenged by a number of panel discussions on racism and diversity in contemporary publishing and church life. Books create community among readers. To meet and interact with their authors enriches that experience of community.
We both were particularly engaged by Kate Bowler, a young professor of church history whose cancer diagnosis two years ago spawned her wonderful book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). She has not yet escaped this diagnosis. She is still on a journey that may result in her early death. Her affirmation of life, that it is both beautiful and awful, is necessary for us all to hear. “I am not special,” she pointed out, meaning that sadly many, many others are on her path. This was confirmed during the question and answer period as one person after another stood up to ask questions preceded by statements of context, “My brother/mother/wife/friend has cancer/is bedridden/is suffering….” Her voice is a hopeful one in this broken world, and her voice draws people into a community of hope.
As a pastor with a conservative bent, I found myself sailing an unfamiliar ocean of theological diversity. I suspect that some of the nearly 2000 people in attendance are moored in the same theological harbor as I. Others, though, clearly sail from different ports and some struck me as genuinely adrift. I am grateful for my rootedness in historic Christianity. I find security in the sound doctrine and clear definition given by the creeds of the church and I find no need to jettison any of that (even if I had the right or desire to do so). When people differ it is easy from a distance to pass judgment and to condemn. When, however, I meet these people, when I have coffee with them or engage them in conversation, they become people with real questions and concerns. I may still disagree with them, but I am moved to treat them with greater charity and to ponder how my well moored theology might bring answers to the questions and struggles that they raise. Though uncomfortable this is good.
All the while, the preacher in me was moved to preach. And this came from a surprising source. The church in which I serve does not ordain women to ministry and does not permit them to preach. Consequently I did not expect to have my flickering belief in the power of preaching so magnificently fanned into flame by a woman preacher. Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church, is renowned as a preacher in many circles. (She has recently been widely praised for her book, The Crucifixion.) She spoke passionately on the power of the word of God preached. Her words challenged me to remember what I often forget. There is power in the word preached. The Holy Spirit of God carries that word forward to the hearts of His people. It is a great privilege as a preacher to stand in the pulpit every Sunday and participate, not in a show or display of oratorical or rhetorical prowess but in the work of God among his people. She moved me to want to preach fourteen weeks before I will be able to do so again.
As a reader, as a pastor, and as a preacher I benefited. But as a writer? Did attending confirm my impulse to write? One session, wonderfully titled “Publish or Parish?” featured a panel of men and women (including Lauren Winner) all who have found ways to balance pastoring a church with their writing . To this panel I posed the question, “Is writing a hobby or a calling?” Their unwavering answer was that if it were a hobby, they would have abandoned it long ago.
I’m not so sure. I’m still processing whether this is a part of my calling or just a notion that needs to be put to bed. If it is calling, the question becomes what will or should I do to serve that calling? The jury is still out on that.