When I realized that I had a serious gift for writing, I felt a moral obligation to become a “writer.” By “writer,” I don’t mean someone who does the work of tilling words and ideas like a farmer tills wild ground; I mean the labor of identity development--the labor of trying to get large numbers of people to recognize me as someone who writes well.
That goal sounds so strange now that I look at it directly, and I’m not sure where this pressure originated. Maybe I noticed what other writers were doing and felt the need to follow them. It’s also likely that I was still carrying the burden of “saving the world,” either from some long-past Baptist revival or from the plot of a superhero movie.
But the work of writing and the work of trying to be a writer are not the same thing. The former involves long, solitary hours of reading, thinking, praying, connecting images and thoughts to words—work that is complete when the chasms between what is perceived and what is communicated are spanned.
Trying to be a writer, however, involves attention-getting strategies and branding. It means:
Posting twice a week
on certain days
in less than 800 words
using lots of pictures
focusing on a theme
building a platform
asking strategic questions to make your readers feel connected
maximizing social media
developing a persona
networking with other famous writers.
You tell yourself that you do all this because the world is dark and because if you get famous enough, you will at last have the power to wield the one ring in such a way that Middle Earth is saved.
Perhaps that's the calling God has given some people. I don’t doubt that these strategies have been used well in some lives, but over the past few months, I’ve found liberty and purpose in another viewpoint.
It’s also possible to invest small for the glory of God.
Going small opposes so many ideas I was taught as a young evangelical. I was trained in strategic planning, target audiences, the identification of natural leaders, spiritual multiplication, megachurches, megaconferences, and superstars. The Baby Boomer generation applied corporate strategy to every possible angle of the gospel of Jesus, and this made a certain amount of sense to me in my twenties.
But in my 40’s, I’m no longer sure that the ends justify the means. If 2016 gave me one good gift, it was permission to finally admit the inherent dangers of an incorporated Christianity. 2016 showed me the deformed end of a church that relies upon the stuff of earth to accomplish the will of heaven, and I want nothing more to do with it.
I’m finally ready to look for something different. And out of frustration with the mechanics of the American church, I've withdrawn significantly in the past few months to focus on my work and to figure out how I want to invest the last 1/3 of my life.
This morning I was reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Body and the Earth,” and I found a quote that applies to the stewardship of a writing gift. In this paragraph, Berry explains that for all our talk of global citizenship, we serve the world best by living well in a small area. We don’t give best by becoming influential on a national scale or by becoming known. The world is changed when citizens are faithful in local realms. Berry writes:
To forsake all others does not mean--because it cannot mean--to ignore or neglect all others, to hide or be hidden from all others, or to desire or love no others. To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly, one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a "world citizen." There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality.
This bit in particular applies to what I am learning:
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality.
I can’t save the world through my blog. I can’t save the world through a book release. I can’t save the world through becoming famous enough to bear the weight of this planet on my own shoulders like some evangelical Atlas.
I can be a good teacher in a classroom of 20 students. I can listen to a teenager who is having a bad day. I can unpack a novel in light of the lavish love of Jesus. I can be fair. I can be kind. I can be patient. I can speak up for four people who are being treated unfairly. I can write notes of encouragement with a real pen on real paper, and I can use my gift by God’s power to resurrect one dead soul.
Now and then I can write an encouraging post for five people--or I can write a post for one person who is struggling.
I can wait to post until I have something important to say.
I can let the gospel apply small. I can let God be God and trust Him to place my labors in the context that is most useful to him.
I can live small then smaller still, encouraging my readers to do the same.
I can do all this because the gift of writing doesn't offer an identity that springs into being with a publishing contract, or with a following in the 100’s of thousands. Writing well is simply a tool to utilize in the context of an identity that was secured long ago by the work of Jesus. We have nothing to earn; we have only to wake up each morning and say, "In every small step I take, Thy will be done."