By Michael Lyle
The Carvers were a trial.
There was a Carver on the rescue squad, a Carver in the church choir and every Sunday school class in the church, a Carver in the high school band, a Carver in the middle school, a Carver in the elementary school, a Carver on the church softball and volleyball teams, a Carver on community t-ball and soccer teams, a Carver at every picnic, meeting, or prayer group, a Carver in every parade. Every manifestation of church or community included at least one Carver.
Hank Carver, sometimes-employed husband, father (five times over), and generally good fellow, attended worship regularly, worked faithfully with the rescue squad and Ruritan, and did whatever good he could whenever he could. His wife Amelia (who on the occasion of her fifth delivery insisted that the doctor remove all possibility of a sixth) taught Sunday School, sang in the church choir (along with her eldest, a son and exceptional soprano), attended every PTA meeting, volunteered every time the pastor asked for help, and did whatever good she could whenever she could.
The lesser Carvers (son Jamie, daughter Edith, daughter Grace, daughter Candy, and son Joey), were, quite literally, everywhere else. It was not unusual to find several Carvers at the same place, and/or at multiple and widely diverse places, at the same time. The Carvers, like Moby Dick, were believed by many to be ubiquitous.
The Carvers also possessed other universally attested traits in addition to their great, good hearts, outgoing personalities, and omnipresence. Their cars were frequently under repair, their bills were usually overdue, the children perennially lacked transportation, among other things, and they were often caught in the grips of some extenuating circumstance or other.
Hank was perpetually on the brink of a new job, or just one seventy-five dollar part away from getting his truck back on the road. Amelia’s worn-out sedan was frequently one tank of gas, or one inflated tire, short of a trip to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the school (to drop off or pick up one of the kids, or to meet with one of their teachers), the church, or the supermarket. The kids usually lacked the instrument necessary for them to play in the band, funds for a week at summer camp, the deposit for the school trip, breakfast, funds for the youth ski trip, new shoes, hats, coats, umbrellas, lunches, belts, matching socks, dinners, pairs of glasses, or prescriptions filled.
They lacked these things until someone in the community heard about it and came to the rescue. If it takes a village to raise a child, it took an entire town to keep the Carvers going.
The Carvers were at the heart of the community, and the community’s heart never had an opportunity to stray very far from the Carvers. It was a textbook symbiotic relationship, except the community sometimes felt inadequate and occasionally resentful of its role.
The Carver kids were legendary for emptying any and every candy dish a household had to offer in one quick pass. It was nothing to see them flying out the door, mouths and pockets at maximum capacity. If no treats were clearly visible, one of the little ones would usually ask about availability.
Certain families stopped answering the phone on the days Candy would likely need a ride to (and of course from) soccer practice. In those days, before the Internet and smartphones, many acquired caller ID primarily to identify the Carvers. Everyone knew that once they agreed to give Candy a ride to the soccer game, or pick Edith up from band practice, or get Joey from preschool, they could be saddled with the child for hours, and sometimes through at least one meal. And because folks were uncomfortable dropping a nine-year-old off at home when they knew no one else was there, everyone opened their minivan doors, their refrigerators, and their hearts over and again despite promises recently and vehemently made to themselves to the contrary.
Eventually, the Carvers found their way into the very language of the community. If one had provided money, transportation, clothes, food, or any other means of support, or, as happened on occasion, all of the above, they considered themselves “Carvered.” Giving a lot of money, keeping a child overnight, or paying a utility bill was considered to be a “Major Carvering.” Dropping a Carver child off at home, inviting one to a family meal, or swinging by the Carver home to take a late-sleeping Carver to school, was considered to be a “Minor Carvering.”
To the extent that pretty much everybody in the community had been “Carvered” at one time or another, it was doubly true of the church. Mom Amelia often latched on to one person or family in the church at a time. About every two months, I got a call from a different upset and confused parishioner with the familiar story. Amelia had “been sharing with them,” and they had “started helping out.” Then Amelia had started asking for additional help. Then Amelia had asked for increasingly larger forms of help. Then the person began feeling used and confused and decided to call the pastor. Those within the congregation who had been “Carvered” grew at an alarming rate.
The Carvers were a trial, and a peculiar kind of godsend. The Carvers generated more theological discussion and more visceral wrangling with Christian ethics than any sermon, class, lecture, presentation, or activity I’ve experienced. They provoked ongoing wrangling with servanthood, forgiveness, honesty, patience, love, stewardship, and the nature of Christian community.
The Carvers gave liberally of what they had: love, honesty, strong bodies willing to work long and hard, musical talent, faith, and their unique selves. The Carvers loved and served well, and they were well-loved and served in return, as well as fed, transported, tolerated, subsidized, clothed, forgiven, gossiped about, complained about, embraced, prayed about, prayed over, prayed for, and avoided.
No one ever figured out what to do, what not to do, or when and how to do it, or not. Everyone occasionally wished the earth would open up and swallow the Carvers and their needs whole, and everyone simultaneously wondered how to love them better and how we would get by without them. The Carvers were a trial.
Every family and every person was ultimately left to make her or his own peace with the Carvers and how they should be handled. My moment came one Christmas Eve.
I grew up hearing about how Santa was always so worn out from his work on Christmas Eve that he slept for a week, carefully ministered to by Mrs. Claus and the tireless, subhuman elves. It didn’t take many Advents and Christmases as a minister for me to completely understand such fatigue.
I’ve done manual labor, worked in a department store during the holidays, and worked in other high-stress jobs, but the weariness I feel on Christmas Eve as the pastor of a local church surpasses anything the secular world has thrown at me. And it’s not the multiple services, the secular expectations, the inexhaustible details, the parties, receptions, celebrations, or engagement with rampant consumerism that does it. It’s the illusory holiness that can’t quite be grasped that really takes it out of me.
My family had given up on me years before. I had surrendered being “normal” during Advent and Christmas, and they had given up trying to interact normally with me. Everyone had learned to maintain a certain distance.
Sometimes I would catch them whispering about how I seemed to be doing when they thought I was out of earshot. They would give me looks of genuine compassion and periodically inquired as to how I was “making it,” or would simply place a loving hand on my shoulder. But by the time Christmas Eve arrived, the parsonage decorations were up, gifts wrapped, and my wonderful wife, daughters, and sons-in-law safely gathered in, I was pretty much beyond reach, and everybody knew it. They loved me anyway and waited patiently for my eventual, gradual return.
The Christmas of my “Carvering” was as idyllic as it could possibly be under the circumstances. Our lovely, historic town was decorated to a standard sufficient for any Christmas story set in any English village or Currier & Ives lithograph. The beautiful, old church was glorious in its Yuletide finery. It was appropriately cold, and flurries had swirled all afternoon.
The town always celebrated a 7:30 P.M. ecumenical service at which one of the town clergy preached and all the others participated in the service. These community services were much anticipated, and the preacher usually started on her or his sermon in October. (I still recall the sermons I preached on those occasions as well as the ones I heard. If we all had put that kind of time and energy into our weekly efforts, there wouldn’t have been an empty pew for miles.)
These were occasions at which the host church, host pastor, guest preacher, and everyone present displayed their very best. Grown children of local families knew that if they were coming home for Christmas at all, they’d better have themselves present and presentable by 7:30 P.M. Christmas Eve. College students home for the holidays sat with their families and acted like their faith was more important to them than ever. These were much-anticipated, special gatherings of a close-knit community in which all cared about the others and knew more about one another than was healthy or necessary.
By 10:00 P.M., however, everyone had resorted to home and hearth. A few still visited from house to house, delivering home-baked goodies and spreading Christmas cheer, but most were done and gathered in. The town lay quiet, as only we Methodists ventured back out for 11:00 communion. So picturesque was this particular Christmas Eve in the Blue Ridge Mountains that I had begun to believe this might just be the year that I arrived home from the 11:00 P.M. candlelight service ready to relax and celebrate.
In spite of myself and the vagaries of the season, I mostly looked forward to those late services on Christmas Eve. They had become the essence of Christmas for me and for a goodly number of others, and they attracted a diverse crowd. People who didn’t even attend worship on Easter ventured out in the late-December cold each Christmas Eve to hear the story again, sing the familiar carols, and light their little candles. Those services, of the many in my life, remain the most beautiful and peaceful of my experience.
That particular evening, a mystical holiness hung palpably in the air. The service flowed seamlessly, the worshipers departed in joy tinged with awe, and scattered snowflakes fell as I wished the departing congregation “Merry Christmas” on the church steps. My family waited patiently with me as I made sure all the candles were well out and began switching off lights. Finally, I told them to go along home, that I would be there in a few minutes. The parsonage was a short walk up the street, just on the edge of the town. I simply wanted to spend a few minutes alone in the quiet sanctuary.
Tears filled my eyes as I knelt at the communion rail in the stillness of the darkened church. Like a shipwreck survivor fresh from a perilous, crowded raft, safely ashore at last, wrapped in a blanket and cupping a mug of soup, I blubbered heartfelt thanks for deliverance and my life’s innumerable blessings. Spent and calm at last, as I rose to gather my things and enter ever more fully into the childlike joy of Christmas, I was startled by Candy Carver’s silhouette, illuminated by the light coming through the doorway leading to the rooms behind the sanctuary. “I need a ride home,” she said.
How long had she been standing there? Had she watched me kneel and cry like a sentimental child? Where had she been as everyone else was departing? How had she gotten there? Where was her family, and on Christmas Eve for God’s sake?
My cozy Christmas Eve was suddenly adrift in a fog of resentment, covering me like a pall of lead. Here I was again on Christmas Eve, spent yet again, my expressions of relief and release answered by a punch in the gut.
“Where’s your family?” I asked. “Isn’t someone coming for you?”
I thought of my family waiting for me up the street, anxious to open our one Christmas Eve gift each before turning in, and ready to finally get “Christmas” underway. I thought of how they were probably expecting more of me than usual because of the good place in which they had left me just moments before.
“Mom said I should get a ride with somebody.”
Except we were all out of somebodies. At that moment it felt as if every other somebody in the world was sitting around the tree with their family sipping eggnog while I stood there wishing all the Carvers lived on Mars. Of all the somebodies in the whole world, I was the one being “Carvered” on Christmas Eve.
“Can’t we call your house and have somebody come pick you up?”
“Our phone’s not working right now.”
“Get your coat. Let’s go.”
I fumed all the way to the car, all the way through town, and halfway out to the Carvers. Finally, I came out of myself and looked over at Candy. There, all in a heap, bundled up in a worn-out coat two sizes too big, sat the entire Carver story embodied in that one child: all the embarrassing situations, the awkward requests for assistance, the hand-me-down clothes, unpaid bills, unappreciated duties grudgingly performed by over-used friends, neighbors, and church people. It all draped from that child like the acolyte’s robe she had but recently hung in the sacristy. Only this time it was her pastor whose irritation shone through.
“What do you want for Christmas, Candy?” I heard a kindness in my voice that hadn’t been there since I’d bidden my family to go ahead home.
After a silence, Candy named a couple of things popular with her age group that year. Both were expensive, and I knew she wouldn’t be getting either.
“Anything else?” She named a couple more little things, and then we were at her house.
“Thank you for bringing me home,” she said.
“You’re welcome, Candy. Merry Christmas! I hope Santa is good to you. You deserve it. And thank you for being our acolyte tonight.”
She smiled and closed the door. She let herself in the house. The light was on, but nobody greeted her except the two scroungy dogs that lived under the house and had come barking and snapping at my tires as we pulled up.
Candy alone, of all her family, had come to the late service that night to acolyte for me, for all of us, and I was so caught up in myself that I hadn’t even noticed. Too embarrassed to impose on anybody else, she had waited around to ask her pastor for a ride home. She had waited for the safest person to impose upon, and yet had experienced the same old resentment yet again.
Had I undone everything the service might have offered Candy? Had we really offered her much of anything in the first place? The wonderful feelings of my personal Christmas experience certainly weren’t hers. She was a Carver. Carvers were a trial.
It was deathly quiet as I drove through town, passing the churches, houses, and small businesses of people I knew. As I passed my own now-dark church and headed up the street to the parsonage, I knew Candy would forgive me, probably already had if she was thinking of me at all, and that the seasonal, popular Christmas spirit had been replaced by something altogether more profound.
Michael Lyle is the author of the poetry chapbook The Everywhere of Light (Plan B Press), and his poems have appeared widely, including Atlanta Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crannóg, The Hollins Critic, Mudfish and Poetry East. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Michael's other work on Foreshadow:
Wick of the Soul (Poetry, October 2022)
Tennis Players (Poetry, October 2022)
Yahweh (Poetry, October 2022)
Family of God (Poetry, October 2022)
By Katie Baker
Vocation: a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. (Oxford Dictionary)
I will be upfront with you. I do not feel a strong feeling of suitability for my chosen occupation. To be honest, I was not exactly proactive in my choice. Post-Bible college, my only requirements for a decent job were 1) not working on Sundays and 2) stability of schedule. The first requirement was God-focused; the second was me-focused, and I did not pray as much about any of it as I should have.
The result of this lackadaisical approach is that I have found myself working in one of my least favorite fields for the last 10 years. Yup. 2022 was my big 1-0 anniversary with its resulting bump in paid time off. The other side effect is that I do not, and never really have, felt called or suited by God to work in the banking industry. I have always enjoyed words, not numbers—ideas and stories, not finance. Therefore, I feel called by God to something that is not my 9-to-5 job. Something that does not pay the bills. I have been a writer and a storyteller for as long as I have been able to read, and that is where God has placed my passion.
When I was 23, this sort of disconnect did not bother me; I was mostly worried about paying off my student loans as fast as I could. Now that I am 33, the line between what I am doing and what I feel I should be doing feels muddled. Is it okay with God if we spend all our life doing what we view as a meaningless job? Would God even agree that there are meaningless jobs? (Do I even agree with that supposition?) Can I be true to my calling while spending all my mental energy for a paycheck? It’s a rough, if not non-existent, accomplishment some days.
Then I think: Well, sure. Sometimes God calls people to certain vocations that also serve as their “9-to-5”. We most associate missionaries and pastors with this reality. But the Bible also does a lot of talking about toil and the sweat of our brow—results of any vocation, whether God-called or chosen of necessity. After all, many of the figures called by God in the Bible had to have “day jobs” to support their ministries: Paul was a tentmaker. Peter was a fisherman. Lydia was a seller of purple.
So why do I feel such dread and shame when someone I have not seen in forever asks, “Well, what are you up to now? You still work at _____?”
It never fails. I always cringe. “Yup. I’m a blah-blah-blah clerk. Very exciting, I know.”
If anyone asked the Apostle Paul what he was up to lately, I doubt he was replying with an abashed, “Still sewing those tents.” Pretty sure it was more like: “Spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ.” I doubt his occupation entered his mind at all when the shekels and generosity of the churches grew a little tight. Paul’s life mission was not to sew tents, even though that is an admirable profession; it was to reach people with the gospel of Christ.
And isn’t that every follower of Christ’s first and foremost vocation? To show the truth, light, and compassion of Jesus to whomever is around, no matter what we may be doing?
Who is to say I cannot proudly answer the question “Oh, what do you do?” with “I’m a lover of Jesus. A writer. And a blah-blah-blah clerk”?
God may call some of us to make a living with the calling he has given us, and he may call some of us to scribble into notebooks and post on blogs, never really knowing who needs our voice and never really knowing if it makes a difference. He may call some of us to punch a clock at a job that intellectually bores us so that we can pay the bills for—or (maybe!) have a break from—the God-centered work we are called to do in our spare time.
The word vocation conjures up more than just a 9-to-5 paper-pushing or ditch-digging job; it conjures up a sense of purpose and completeness. God calls us to a higher purpose than pursuing money or simply paying the bills, knowing full well that we will still need to pay the bills. In my life, my higher calling often collides with my day job by supplying me with inspiration to write about, and sometimes it opens up my highest calling when I am given the opportunity to show a co-worker or a customer the grace and love of Jesus.
Although we can easily compartmentalize our life into work/home/hobby, God does not want us to compartmentalize Him. He wants the fullness of all of our moments ordered under Him, in sync with His will for our lives so that we can say like tent-maker Paul, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12b-13). God calls us to serve Him in every moment, on every platform. Even if you are like me and do not love your job, there must be a reason He has put you there for this season, however long it may last.
Perhaps we are just a little bit too Western when we ask someone what they do and expect their 9-to-5 job to actually jive with their life purpose. Maybe we draw ourselves into these boxes by trying to keep pace with those around us who measure their success in currency symbols, promotions, doctoral degrees, and all those initials lining up behind their names. Our faith tells us that all those things, as nice as they are, if pursued outside of the will God has for our lives, will be so much hay and stubble when we reach heaven.
Earlier in Philippians chapter 3, the Apostle Paul lists out his whole resume, all of the reasons he has for “confidence in the flesh” according to his culture and his religion. It reads exactly like someone today who has all the initials lining up behind his name, but because Paul’s calling was beyond all of that, he ends his pedigree with this realization: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil 3:7–8)
Sometimes I have to take a step back and remember where God wants me when I am beating myself up because I am bored or stuck in my day job. I have to remember that it is God who gave me a passion for writing stories in an era when writing stories is not always profitable, and when I am wondering if anyone will ever read them and hear whatever it is God is trying to say through me. I need to forcibly remind myself of God’s grace and sovereignty when I get into that headspace where I believe my job does not fit because I do not like finance. Just because our perspective is too limited to see something’s value does not mean that that something is valueless. Above all else, I am called by God to have a correct perspective of my life and those things He has tasked me with doing. Despair can happen, but we do not need to stay there.
I suppose God’s answer to someone like me whose vocation is beyond their occupation might just be, “Focus on Me, and keep on keeping on.”
Katie Baker is a graduate of Clarks Summit University with a Bachelor of Arts from their writing programme. She lives in beautiful upstate New York and writes mainly fiction that deals with the truths of life even in the small moments. Her work has been previously published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, TWJ Magazine, and Torrid Literature Journal. You can find and follow her writing at Seekingprose.com.
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When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, 'Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?' A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, 'Do this and you will be saved.' At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
Someone asked the same Abba Anthony, 'What must one do in order to please God?' The old man replied, 'Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.'
Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, 'What ought I to do?' and the old man said to him, 'Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.'
Abba Anthony said, 'I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, 'What can get through from such snares?' Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility'.
He also said, 'Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.'
A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another', and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again', and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.
It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
Abba Anthony said, 'Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labour in vain.'
From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (trans. by Benedicta Ward, SLG).
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By Anthony S. Zimmer
Maybe that job is a sacrament by which we are becoming Christian. Maybe it is saving us.
We dreamt of achieving a vocation – and we worked hard for it! I remember the diligence, the faithfulness. But we live east of Eden. We strove to flourish, to “bloom where you are planted”, but the ground was cursed, and our souls withered on the vine, replaced by thorns and thistles. Those failures – the pain, the anger, the frustration, the despair – exposed our hearts to ourselves.
And what is sanctification but first the revealing of our hearts? And what is sanctification but second the giving and receiving of grace? Maybe that job, like baptism, is a plunge into dying and a grace unto living.
Can our half-saved hearts trust us with the jobs we want? Might it not root our hearts deeper into the soil of a corrupted kingdom? Might not Money/Pride/Power, its accumulation and storage, accumulate and store us? Might we become too sated by this fallen kingdom and forget how to criticize it, forget how to mourn?
We forget that our first vocation, our first divine calling, is to pick up our cross and follow Christ.
Do and be. Leave
will do and will be
to the vagaries
and the constancy of grace.
Anthony S. Zimmer has served in a variety of pastoral roles in America and South Africa. Bi-vocational, he lives and works at the nexus of business, missions, local ministry and theology. He holds a bachelor’s in Bible and Theology, an MBA, and is working towards an MA in Biblical Interpretation.
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By Terry Jarvis
After eight months of getting up at 4am to go on the round and often working well into the evening on the figure work, it was a terrific shock to find myself out of work. I felt suddenly that my life had come to a total standstill. The pressure of the recent years weighed on me, and I felt crushed by the burden of my own inadequacy.
For two whole days I lay face down on a sun bed outside in the yard in a state of semi-consciousness. I couldn’t think. I had no mind. No will. Nothing. Nothing but fear and a gnawing emptiness.
I was living a nightmare. I was falling to bits. I couldn’t even talk to Sue. No one could help me. Only God. I made up my mind to pray and pray until I got through to him again. I prayed. Fell asleep. Awoke and prayed again. Slept some more. Prayed again. I felt as if all hell were let loose on me.
Near the end of the second day I was feeling desperate to fill the emptiness in my heart with something from God. I reached for the Bible lying on the ground by the bed. I opened it and read: ‘It is God who is all the while effectually at work in you – energising and creating in you the power and desire – both to will and to work for his good pleasure and satisfaction and delight' (Philippians 2:13, Amplified Bible).
That was it! That was really it! God was clearly speaking to me through this verse, telling me that he was working in me, making me willing… making me willing even when I didn’t feel willing… giving me the power and desire to do his will.
The thought began to put me together. For the first time I felt free to think about what I really wanted to do and confident that my will and God’s will could be one and the same. And the instant I turned my mind to consider what desire there was in my heart about what I should do with my life, I was surprised to find that there were things tucked away there unrecognised.
I pieced together the thoughts. My desire was this – to live entirely by faith and trust in God, to preach his message and to rely on him to meet the needs of myself and my family.
But, even as this revelation came, I knew that I wasn’t yet ready for that life. So did I have a practical desire for the present? Yes. I was startled to discover that deep down I did have a very real desire. I wanted to be a craftsman!
Why? Where had that strong desire come from? I saw a picture in my mind of a small resentful boy standing all alone facing a wall. It was me, in that children’s home so long ago, hurting, being punished. And for what? For whittling away at a lump of chalk with a toy drill. As long as I could remember, I’d always loved whittling sticks or lumps of clay or chalk. It came naturally. I enjoyed it. I might even be good at it. Could I be a woodcarver? I remembered what Sue had said to me years before when she’d watched me working away at a set of chess pieces in Manchester. Then I had been experimenting with mounds of clay baked in the oven, scraping away for hours to achieve some level of satisfaction.
‘You’ve got a talent for it. Use it for God,’ Sue had said.
This was enough to put me back on my feet. I wasn’t sure where to begin, but I was convinced God was showing me that I should work with my hands. I’d already done a lot of experimenting in my spare time, using different rubber solutions to make moulds to reproduce chess pieces in resin. I got to work again, getting books on carving and practising endlessly on odd pieces of wood. Recognisable shapes began to emerge. Animals mostly, or birds.
I prayed for a shed to work in – and almost immediately a friend told me about her mother’s next-door neighbour who wanted a shed taken away. I prayed for tools – and was given the opportunity to buy practically everything I needed to equip the shed for a fraction of the real price.
Being creative in this way, actually producing something of value with my own hands, was the start of a new confidence and a healing closeness with God. I spent hours in my little shed in the garden – and worked for God and with God. As I shaped and caressed my rough sawn block and began to see emerging the antlers of a stag or the wing of a bird, I could almost feel God at work in my life, shaping and loving me. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but then, didn’t I sometimes have to take the roughest of files to my wood in my search for the best result?
Working when you have to is boring, but when it’s a heart’s desire because it’s God’s will, then it’s perfect! Working in the will of the Lord is a delight! And he gives us the power to accomplish it.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at first to make any money from my work, slow as it was. I decided to look for a job until my work improved enough to guarantee regular work. At the local employment exchange, I saw an advertisement for a driver with a joinery business. Bad memories of my time with the men at the radiator repair yard came flooding back, and I turned away. But when I returned three weeks later, I had the nagging feeling that God wanted me to take that job; sure enough, it was still on the board, and I applied.
As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. It was a pleasant small family company of high-class joiners. And, as well as feeding us for the next year or so, the job had one other very valuable benefit: the carpenters, who got to know of my woodcarving, often passed me generous offcuts of really good quality wood which kept me well supplied in my shed for a long time.
Carving new shapes from old… that was at long last happening in my life, too. And at long last, I felt I could cope with helping others. During this time I began to make contacts with prisons and remand homes and started to visit there, hesitantly at first but with growing confidence when I saw that the men and boys I talked to were interested in finding out what had happened to someone who really knew by experience what they were going through.
Since my time in Manchester, I’d longed to visit prisoners...I met a chaplain who invited me to speak at Feltham Borstal, and that’s how I was finally able to start visiting the prisons. Also, our church fellowship had a singing group which used to visit prisons, and I began to use this as an opportunity to speak about my experience of coming to God. Following that, I was given invitations to speak at many prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, and Winchester. On one occasion, eight prisoners at Pentonville were converted after I shared my story with them.
One afternoon, I was in Twickenham Library, in the reference section. I often went there to study books to get ideas for designs for my woodworking. I looked up as a creaking of the floor announced the arrival of someone else. An elderly, gentle-looking man with an umbrella hanging from his wrist and a big smile on his face searched the room with his eyes, obviously looking for someone. When he saw me, he marched right over and thrust a piece of folded paper into my hand.
‘God wants me to give you this,’ he said, still smiling broadly. Then he turned briskly and disappeared round the shelves of books.
I was astounded. I’d never seen the man before and never had anything like this happen to me. I unfolded the bit of paper and read a Bible reference. I could hardly wait to get home and look it up. The verse was from Matthew 7:7: ‘Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking (reverently), and the door will be opened to you’ (Amplified Bible).
It was an exciting way for God to confirm to me that I was going in the right direction. I would keep on seeking, keep on with God, keep on wanting to do his will. Having found his will, I wasn’t going to let it go easily, no matter how tough the going got.
Terry Jarvis is a wood carver and author based in Cumbria, England.
Terry's other work on Foreshadow:
I Found a New Life (Non-fiction, 2021)
'Carving New Shapes from Old' is excerpted from Terry's book The Long Search (print version; ebook version). It has been republished here with the author's permission.
Below is Terry's description of The Long Search:
I'm a wood carver with a special love for working with driftwood. Right now I’m planning to create an original floor lamp from a large and beautiful piece of wood that is deeply grooved and lined from the effects of the ocean. I call it ‘the castle in the sky’ because that’s what I see in its shape. I want to mount it on a curved white pebble base and light the ‘walls’ and ‘windows’ and ‘turrets’ from below.
My piece of driftwood has been shaped so creatively by the action of the waves – just as my life has been shaped by events, circumstances, difficulties and trials. The rough and smooth parts of my character have been moulded by the days that have gone before. I have been tested and tried as a person. By the age of 22, I had travelled much of the world, largely in pursuit of making money through drug smuggling. Although at one time I had a great deal of money, I discovered I was empty inside.
Since I was a young kid, I believed there was a God. But after my mum died of a brain tumour and I found myself in the care system, I gave up praying. Despite the instability of my teenage years, deep down I always felt there was a God. However, my interest in spirituality took me on my travels into many religions and the occult. It was only when I literally got to the end of myself that I cried out to God in desperation. He heard me, and I began a whole new life.
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Alice Wisler on helping bereaved parents through writing
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. ~James 1:17, NIV
You can do it, an elderly poet and bereaved mother had written when asking me to lead a writing workshop. Sascha was well-loved in Denver and supposed to be in charge of the event, but since she wasn’t feeling well, she asked me to fill in for her. Get parents to write, she told me. It all sounded easy, but it wasn’t so easy for parents who had experienced the death of a child.
Bereaved parents are heartbroken. They’ve gone through the worst pain. They mourn; they shout. On their really bad days, they’ve been tempted to smack a dozen moms who have healthy kids and life-is-grand attitudes. They are critical when it comes to those who want to tell them how to grieve, especially those who have never had to bury a child. “The hardest room in the world,” described one psychologist who was asked to talk to a group of bereaved moms and dads in a church basement. After his acknowledgement, the room let out a collective sigh. All the judgmental stares slithered under the front door. Bereaved parents are a tough crowd, and I would be facilitating a workshop for them at a conference where I knew no one. It would have been reassuring to have at least one person sit in the front row to smile and nod.
I did have one advantage: I was not an outsider. I was one of them, a mom who had lost my son Daniel to a cancer-related death. I was also familiar with the workshop’s topic of writing. Every time I wrote in my journals and tear-stained, dog-eared notebooks, I was spared from driving off a cliff or smacking someone who told me I’d see my son again in heaven, so there was no reason to cry. Even though I had never stood before conference attendees and shared how to write and why writing is beneficial to healing, I knew that writing had saved my life.
When I asked Sascha for advice on how to lead the workshop, she wrote: Get parents to put two words together. That’s how it starts. Two words together. Two words lead to three, and so on.
Weeks later, I flew from my home in North Carolina to Denver, Colorado. I took my place behind the podium as parents trickled into the conference room and found seats. I smiled and hoped that no one knew that I was a novice and this was my first lesson. Would I be able to convince the gathering that unleashing pain onto paper is a gift? I thought of the ways my pen and keyboard had pounded out poems, articles, and journal entries, and how those actions had brought me therapeutic clarity.
Breaking into my thoughts was a question from a woman in the front row. “Do we have to write?” Her black T-shirt had Loved and Remembered printed in gold letters across her chest.
The sign by the door to the workshop clearly said Writing Workshop, but this was no time to argue. “You can do whatever you feel comfortable with,” I said.
“I don’t write well. I just can’t write about my son. I’ve tried. Each time I sit down to write, I just cry.” I was sure that was true because she was crying.
When the room quieted, I introduced myself. I told a bit of my story: how my beloved Daniel was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age three and died from cancer treatments eight months later at four years old. I spoke of his love of watermelon, the beach, and the original Toy Story movie.
One of the exercises I’d prepared for the group was to write poems in honor of their children. While writing through pain is vital, being able to recollect happy memories of our children is a comfort on the journey. I read a few poems from one of Sascha’s books and then told the gathering to put words together even if it was just two at a time. Chatter stopped as each person bent over his notepad. I heard muffled tears, saw a few people wipe their eyes, and as I watched, I prayed for a positive outcome. I wanted word to get back to Sascha that I’d been a successful substitute.
After ten minutes, I asked if anyone wanted to share his or her poem.
No one said a word. Some looked uncomfortable. Then a hand shot up. “I’d like to read my poem.” It was the woman who said she didn’t write, couldn’t write.
In a clear, animated voice, she read her poem. The lines spoke of how her son used to tease her that she didn’t like to cook, that the only thing she could make was microwavable meals. I heard laughter. The woman laughed, too. When she finished, the whole room clapped.
Her smile was wider than the Colorado sky.
Two mothers in the middle row nodded at me while others hugged those seated next to them. They got it! They understood the power of written words, of shared memories. I hoped they’d incorporate writing about their children into their weekly lives and that the process would empower them.
Over the next years, doors opened, and I was invited to facilitate grief-writing workshops across the country. Writing for healing, health, and hope is a message I never tire of sharing. When I hear parents read their written words or tell me how writing has been a healing balm on their journey, I’m grateful to God for this good gift that starts with one solitary word flowing into another.
Alice J. Wisler is the author of six novels, one devotional (Getting Out of Bed in the Morning: Reflections of Comfort in Heartache), and three memorial cookbooks. She teaches writing workshops across the country. Visit her at www.alicewisler.com.
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By Kathryn Sadakierski
Throughout my academic career, it seemed that everyone had different visions of what I should become. Some teachers saw me as a future doctor or lawyer; others encouraged me to pursue studies in the social sciences, education, business, or psychology; another suggested that I simply focus my energy on writing. Imagining myself following these paths, I was overwhelmed by the vast array of possibilities and variables. How would my life change if I chose one over the other? I felt torn, knowing I couldn’t do everything, that I had to define my own dream, my own way forward, amidst so many conflicting views of my calling.
Having worked with young children in early childhood and elementary school settings as an assistant teacher, I’ve come to realize a vocation broader than any single career: that of a spiritual mother. There is nothing I love more than nurturing and guiding other souls, pouring myself into helping them to grow, and being present for them, sharing the insights God gives me because He knows what they need to heal.
Being a spiritual mother involves being a teacher, and the most important thing I can teach is love. In fulfilling my vocation and living my life for God, I draw upon my variegated academic background and wide array of interests to discern how best to teach and nurture a love for learning, for life, and for all that God has created, in others. Beyond imparting specific skills and content knowledge, a spiritual mother fosters faith and empowers others to live it out, finding wonder and inspiration in all of the little miracles that make up daily life so that, moving forward each day, a spirit of hope can be preserved.
At one preschool where I worked, by the end of the day, the 13 three-year-old students in the class were loath to wake from their naps, tired and sometimes teary. As I assembled a collection of books at the table and began to read aloud, tears evaporated, weariness forgotten. Like little listeners of the Sermon on the Mount, all of the children gradually walked up, or sat down in a chair beside me, gathering around to hear the narratives. I channeled all my dramatic skill stemming back from the illustrious days of my roles in elementary school plays (perhaps it was apropos that I’d been cast as the queen once!), bringing characters alive with inflection, connecting the stories to the interests of the students, polling them as to what they thought would happen next, pointing out the vibrant details of the illustrations in the picture books. Enraptured, smiling faces ringed the table, laughter brightened the room, and, once one story ended, I was flooded with requests to read another favorite book, turning the pages again, starting a fresh chapter. In this small way, infusing my love into sharing a story (or several), I could comfort and uplift, offering the spiritual equivalent of a hug, a warm and maternal benediction to go forth with peace.
I was led to my calling by a spiritual mother herself: St. Therese of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun known for her “Little Way,” a path toward Heaven paved by a sincere heart and given through everything humbly done for the love of Christ and others. St. Therese viewed each task, no matter how seemingly menial, as an opportunity to joyfully serve God, offering everything up for His glory. Her view later inspired St. Teresa of Calcutta’s life work: to “do small things with great love.” Through each experience, small steps building up towards a larger goal over time, great things can be achieved. Just one kind act has the power to convert another soul. Similarly, starting in middle school, the experiences I had with assisting as a counselor at my church’s Bible Camps, and later with teaching children’s catechism classes, all came together to strengthen my understanding of spiritual motherhood, as I learned how one smile, one encouraging word, could make a positive difference for a child.
In her autobiographical masterpiece The Story of a Soul, St. Therese teaches spiritual truths through natural symbols that readers can relate to, just as Jesus did in his parables, illustrating the story of her own soul with rich imagery that captures the many blessings God gave her throughout her short, but no less impactful, life. Specifically, St. Therese likens souls to flowers in a garden, all resplendent in their own unique patterns and colors. If the garden were lacking one type of flower, it wouldn’t be the same, since each blossom radiates its own beauty that can never be replicated. Being a spiritual mother means tending to this garden planted by God, cultivating the seeds of His love, helping others bear fruits honoring the Spirit, and reaching out to Him as they bloom.
Just as flowers gravitate to the sun, through nurturing others, I strive to direct them toward the eternal light of the Son. Spiritual teachers like St. Therese have shown me through the legacies of their lives that love is the root of every vocation and makes the greatest impact. This is what allows for growth, for gardens to flourish. It’s not only about providing the necessary tools, but about applying them and always caring. When I consider the far-reaching influence of global leaders, I see my own role as quite humble in comparison. How can I make a difference in my corner of the world? But, as saints such as St. Therese and Mother Teresa have taught me, change truly does start in our own backyards.
Transformation is a cumulative process. Every part of our life is used to help us realize our calling and to aid others in finding theirs. Each moment is a stepping stone, another stair that can lead us above the limitations of circumstances so that we can be united with God. God hasn’t made any mistakes, hasn’t failed to take anything into account. What we see as small is an integral part of His plan, a thread in a tapestry of interconnected souls. In God’s eyes, every step matters.
Cast in this light, helping children tie their shoes and button their coats are small things done with great love, love that doesn’t need to be communicated in words. Just by being their vibrant selves, the children I work with bring me so much happiness. Similarly, Jesus’ humility, compassion, and patience awe me--I love Him for being all that He is. To be in His Presence, whether at Eucharistic Adoration or in the yard watching the light dance across the sky, is everything. To pray, to do whatever He asks, even the ostensibly small tasks of the day, is important, if only because He has asked them. Anything done for Jesus is valuable.
I have come to understand more than ever why God calls everyone to be more like children, so pure-hearted and full of life. It is my goal to help them retain their luminosity, to celebrate it, and carry it well into adulthood. Children learn best when treated with love--but then we all do, regardless of age. My work in the classroom inspires me to lead with love outside of the classroom too, as I realize the incredible need for kindness everywhere in the world. I can bring what I have learned from working with children to helping each person I meet, keeping in mind that love is what all of our hearts long for. My calling involves teaching everyone who comes into my life, through the written and spoken word, about God’s love for them.
Not all of us may be called to be biological mothers or fathers, but we all can be spiritual parents, bringing new souls into God’s family by shedding light in the ways unique to each of us. In comforting, healing, teaching, writing, and speaking, I aim to point back to God, to instill hope in His mercy. But whichever route I take in expressing my vocation, God’s love is at the root of each little way, each little seedling that can go so far in brightening the garden.
Kathryn Sadakierski’s writing has appeared in anthologies, magazines and literary journals around the world, including Agape Review, Critical Read, Edge of Faith, Ekstasis Magazine, enLIVEN Devotionals, New Jersey English Journal, NewPages Blog, Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts, Refresh Bible Study Magazine, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Today’s American Catholic and elsewhere. In 2020, she was awarded the C. Warren Hollister Non-Fiction Prize. She holds a B.A. and M.S. from Bay Path University.
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Tim Harvey on serving people who fall through the cracks
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Jada Williams addressed the Gun Violence Prevention Commission in Roanoke, Virginia, with a conviction formed from tragedy and tinged with the tiredness of someone who has labored long with little to show for her work. Speaking in an unremarkable City Hall conference room, she had come to tell us the story of her teenage son, Jamal, who was the innocent victim of a gang-related shooting during the summer of 2021—a tragic situation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The shooting left Jamal with significant, long-term disabilities.
In the months following the shooting, Jada barely left Jamal’s side. Her fierce maternal care, however, came at a high price. Caring for Jamal meant quitting her job so she could be at his bedside. Quitting her job meant spending the savings intended to purchase a home for her family. Spending her savings meant being unable to afford rent, so now she and her family, including three other young children, live in the basement apartment of a church member’s home. At times, Jamal’s needs were so demanding that her other children spent the weekend with their teachers.
Our commission’s agenda this particular evening left us mired in the data of gun violence, assault and murder tabulated into neat statistical reports and identified by colored dots on a map of our city. The poise and determination in Jada’s voice, however, reminded us of the deadly importance of this work. What might have been most striking about Jada’s remarks that evening was that she was not angry with us; in fact, she expressed deep gratitude for this voluntary effort.
But Jada was determined to be heard. Since that night when her family’s life was changed forever, Jada has tried everything she can to get help. She has visited every social service agency in our city seeking assistance with housing, nursing care, and support for her children. In every instance, she has come away empty-handed. It turns out that our city has an abundance of agencies that exist to aid persons in all kinds of circumstances—all kinds of circumstances, it turns out, but hers. Everywhere has Jada turned, it seems that she doesn’t quite fit the mission of the agency or purpose of the charitable organization that otherwise exists to provide assistance of one kind or another.
She came to the commission to insist that as we seek solutions to prevent gun violence, we not neglect to find solutions for victims of gun violence like Jamal, persons who fall through the cracks of the social safety net after news coverage moves on to the next story.
Ministry beyond the congregation
The Roanoke City Council appointed the Gun Violence Prevention Commission in the summer of 2019 to study the rising levels of gun violence, identify its root causes, and create meaningful opportunities for positive, non-violent living in our diverse city. Our nine-member commission is made up of social workers, mental health professionals, and clergy.
Like many cities in America, incidents of gun violence in Roanoke have increased over the past 10 years. And while we are each horrified by the long litany of mass-casualty shootings plaguing our nation, the type of gun violence we are working to reduce is gang-related with a deep taproot in the soils of poverty, racism, and the so-called “urban renewal” movement of the 1960s–1980s. Many of the housing projects and neighborhoods where gun violence is concentrated are the product of this triplet of urban brokenness.
I sought appointment to the Gun Violence Prevention Commission out of the commitment to peace and nonviolence I’ve learned as a lifelong member of the Church of the Brethren—one of the three “historic peace churches”—and my 18 years of pastoral leadership in Roanoke. The six Church of the Brethren congregations in our city have a long history of ministry with our entire community, an emphasis that has continued as incidents of gang-related gun violence are increasing in the high-poverty, historically Black northwest quadrant of our city.
My congregation finds great spiritual value in our outreach: we tithe our congregational giving and designate much of that money to non-profit organizations that provide housing, counseling, and medical care to persons “in need.” Beyond our tithe, we regularly offer our time and talent to a non-profit organization that builds beds for children who do not have them. We eagerly support our denomination’s disaster response programs through special offerings.
But two things are clear. The first is that ministries like these have a real impact and address a significant need. The second is that charitable giving has not yet touched Jada in a way that will change this new trajectory of her life.
Jada’s story offers a difficult combination of two uncomfortable facts that seem to be contradictory, but actually combine in a difficult truth: the social “safety net” is only barely keeping her head above water. Yet Jada did not come to the commission to ask for assistance. Even after she learned I am a pastor, she did not ask if my congregation could help her. Jada is simultaneously appreciative of the many who have helped her and is still struggling to keep her life together. All she insists is that our commission be aware of the people who are falling through the cracks and do something about it.
An uncomfortable confession
As I drove home from our meeting the evening Jada spoke, it occurred to me that I have the privilege of choosing how to respond to people like her. Do persons in my White, middle-class, suburban congregation have any obligation to Jada? We share a faith, a city, and a common humanity. Each Sunday in worship, my congregation seeks reconciliation with God and one another by confessing that “we have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
Could the struggle of Jada’s family be something we have left undone? A challenge with a familiar liturgy is that repetition leaves us deaf to our words, granting us the privilege of keeping a deeper significance of prayer—and the people and circumstances it represents—at arm’s length. What would we learn if we asked God to show us what we are leaving undone? How can we translate these words into action and, in so doing, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” in a way that impacts a struggling neighbor?
Such prayer might cause us to reconsider the meaning of “neighbor.” This is the issue at the heart of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story so well known that the phrase “Good Samaritan” has long been part of our secular vocabulary. Jesus tells this story in response to someone who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In a story of persons who either do or do not assist a man badly wounded in a robbery, we find that being a neighbor means personally entering someone’s suffering. The Samaritan man who provides assistance is held up as a model because of involvement that comes at great personal and financial cost. His direct intervention sets the wounded man on the road to recovery, an intervention that comes while others were so busy with religious obligations they had no time to be curious about a man who had been left for dead.
Jada’s story presents some difficult questions for us. Repenting of things left undone should not cause us to overlook the good work we are already involved in. Financially supporting those who serve our community extends the reach of our congregations and strengthens our neighborhoods in significant ways.
What our repentance offers here is an invitation to go deeper, recognizing that healing the brokenness in our communities will involve a costly personal involvement. It might begin with a partnership with a congregation across town, where we show up and earn the right to hear stories like Jada’s, while learning of both the beautiful and broken places in neighborhoods we rarely visit. It might mean investing our time and talent in ministries and programs that others are sponsoring, providing both assistance and encouragement for those already working on the front lines of brokenness. It might mean having our preconceptions shattered and our hearts touched about what life really looks like for neighbors we have not yet met.
We live in a time when it is popular to blame others for the things they have done. But a commitment to public ministry challenges us to consider the things we have left undone: thinking about people and situations we’ve never thought about; seeing people we prefer to overlook; challenging ourselves to invest our faith in a compassionate neighborliness that walks long, costly roads with people like Jada for whom there are no quick answers.
Tim Harvey is the pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Virginia.
Tim's other work on Foreshadow:
The Comfort that Comes to Those Who Mourn (Non-fiction, May 2021)
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By Alina Sayre
In the evangelical church where I grew up, we typically used the word calling rather than vocation, and it had a very specific meaning: the audible or near-audible voice of God that turned people into pulpit preachers or overseas missionaries. As a teenager, I dared not view myself as called because only men were allowed to be preachers in my denomination, and I had no draw to evangelize overseas.
Besides, it was writing I loved. Not even the “holy” kind of writing, like Bible commentaries or Christian magazine articles—I wanted to write novels, fantasy stories, poems. However, I had no theology for this. There were no writers at my church—none who would make a public confession, at least—and we did not discuss the gifts of the Holy Spirit much. I knew only my urge, my need to shape and craft words. So I wrote fervently but guiltily, always outside of church, worrying constantly that this passion was a sin or at least a distraction from God.
It did not help that my faith tradition has historically been skeptical of art and beauty. As a Protestant, I am the spiritual descendant of iconoclasts, from Calvin to Zwingli to Cromwell. Reading the Second Commandment literally—“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”—Protestant reformers whitewashed church murals and bricked over mosaics so worshipers could better focus on hearing the word of God. The American Restorationists, my denomination’s forebears, may not have been quite so zealous for outright destruction, but they still considered visual art to be a pointless distraction from plain teaching or even a risky flirtation with idolatry. Thus, at the church where I grew up, we worshiped in a plain, practical auditorium. Instead of pews, we had folding chairs that could face in any direction, circle up for small groups, or disappear entirely for Vacation Bible School (VBS) and Super Bowl gatherings. Flat screens were framed on the front wall, large enough for easy-to-read song lyrics, but not so large as to be mistaken for a movie theater. A plain wooden cross stood in one corner.
A lot of good was done in that big multipurpose room: food drives, backpack drives, Christmas gift drives, free VBS and trick or treating for kids in the community. But there was not much beauty in the space. Church funds were considered better spent on programs, and really the idea of God was all we needed anyway.
All of this made me deeply suspicious of my vocational inclinations. I felt increasingly convicted that writing was something I was made to do, but how could that be from God when art was frivolous, maybe even idolatrous?
Over time, a few influences shaped my theology of vocation as a writer. One was the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he discusses the diversity of the Holy Spirit’s gifts to the church:
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many." (1 Cor. 12:12–14)
Unlike the simplistic limitations of calling from my upbringing, passages like this one emphasize that there is room, even necessity, for diversity in the body of Christ. Each part of the body needs the others. A body made of all hands or eyes or lungs or elbows would be ill-equipped for, or perhaps even incapable of, life. Similarly, what would become of the church’s life and witness be if all vocations were to pulpit preaching or missionary careers? Christians have left mighty impacts on the world as nurses and janitors, social workers and interior designers, engineers and fitness instructors, archivists and activists, parents and park rangers and psychologists. There is space for all people and all callings in the church body, and that includes space for art and writing.
Another point of guidance came from the writers who shaped my own journey. Many of the books I read and loved in childhood, including C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, were written by professing Christians who used their imaginations fearlessly. These stories not only delighted me, but they also gave me wisdom on how to navigate some of the most difficult moments of my life. As I grew older, I was also inspired by writers of other faiths or of no formal religious affiliation, a demonstration of the Spirit moving without boundary to share beauty and inspiration with all God’s children. Realizing the impact books have had on my own journey has strengthened my conviction that words and stories are a meaningful vocation with the power to inspire, convict, comfort, delight, and direct people’s lives.
Though I did not encounter Frederick Buechner until much later in my life, I gradually pieced together a theology similar to his famous quote: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” I concluded that the deep gladness that resonated in me when I was writing stories or shaping sentences came from somewhere, and that somewhere was the created part of me where the Spirit was still hovering over the waters. Why would God have placed that gladness in me without intending for me to use it, particularly in a world starved for the inspiration, provocation, refreshment, curiosity, and hope that can come from art? It is a question I still cannot answer. And so I write.
There are still plenty of people who view art as spiritually suspect or a second-class vocation, but pushing forward into this writing life with honesty and vulnerability has brought me great healing and freedom. My most recent publication was a book of poems entitled Fire by Night, which explores topics such as grief, loss, and spiritual deconstruction. While terrifying, writing from the deepest places of my heart liberates me to be more courageous, healthier, and freer to explore the future. It also brings me encouragement to get emails from people who say that my words have given voice to their own previously silent experiences. Perhaps that is what Buechner was getting at: when we pursue our vocations, however unconventional they may be, we nourish the needs of both the world and our own souls.
I am a writer, and I am no longer afraid to call this life my vocation. I no longer see it as spiritually frivolous, distracting, or sinful—quite the contrary. This gift of the Spirit is my deep gladness and my way of, I hope, giving back to the world’s deep need. If the body of faith has many parts, perhaps I am the writer’s callus.
Alina Sayre is the award-winning author of five books, a graduate student of theopoetics and an editor of Foreshadow. You can learn more about her work here, and you can find her book of poems Fire by Night here.
Alina's other work on Foreshadow:
Find more resources on writing and vocation here.
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By Terry Jarvis
A busy Saturday in Kingston, London. An unlikely place for such a drama, but even before I saw him on the bridge a sense of the unusual was with me.
He was a big lad with short fair hair. With one arm he gripped the parapet of the bridge, the other was wildly waving his jacket. My eyes fixed on the terror on his face as I dashed through the traffic. Cars slowed, people paused, shading their eyes and frowning. But not going to him. Anger about their lack of caring swept over me and pushed me towards him. I was nearly there, seeing now his blue short-sleeved shirt, his wide eyes, the spectacles clutched in his hand together with his jacket, flapping, held out over the water. I saw the white knuckles on the bridge.
'Don't, please don't!' I grabbed fiercely at him and clutched the top of his arm. 'Don't jump!'
He pulled away and was gone. Over the edge and down. I heard the sound of hurrying feet and felt behind me the pressing wall of the crowd. They peered into the water, curious but distant. And yet again the anger welled up inside me.
I pulled off my shoes. I was aware of Sue, shocked and quiet at my side. Pulling my money from my jeans pocket I pressed it into her hand. I felt stiff and clumsy as I clambered onto the ledge. And before I could get myself ready for a dive -- I tripped.
Thirty feet down, I hit the water hard and sank into a terrifying grey-green world, cold and dark. After what seemed an age as long as a nightmare I rose up again into the brightness, my lungs bursting. I caught sight of the blue shirt just a few yards away and reached out towards it. As I grabbed him he struggled, twisting round and pressing me down under the water. I fought my way up, coughing and gasping. I yelled now. 'Help, someone! Help!' Weakness was creeping through my body with cold fingers.
Suddenly I saw the boat. A grey-haired man in a summer shirt and dark trousers was at the steering wheel. Behind him a thin suntanned woman lay back in a seat. I yelled again. The man glanced sideways at me and then his lips tightened and he turned away from me, gripping the wheel.
'Wait... stop! No! Help!' The words struggled from me as I thrashed about in the water. I shouted several times, but he continued to ignore me.
And, amazingly, that was when his engine ran out. I heard it splutter as he tried to restart it, then all I could hear was the slap slapping of the waves against the boat as it turned slowly, drifting with the current. Drifting towards me! Now the woman stood, nervously glancing all around. She picked up a short piece of fraying orange string hanging from the bows and threw it towards me. I ignored it and struck out with the last of my strength towards the boat, grabbing the rough edge and hauling myself exhausted over the side.
Then there was the canoe that drew alongside, seeming to appear from nowhere. It was being paddled by a silent young man whose calm, almost serene, face was framed with long blond hair. The shaking wet body of the boy who had jumped off the bridge was clinging to the front of the canoe. I leaned over and pulled him into the boat.
The canoe went softly on its way and I held the limp body in my arms and let him cry.
The rest of the incident passed in a clamour of activity, noise and excitement. The police arrived and asked lots of questions. Someone in the boatyard gave me some dry clothes. Then I was in the back of the ambulance. Vic -- that was the boy's name -- lay white and unseeing under a grey blanket. The ambulance attendant droned on and on.
'Now look at all the trouble you've gone and caused everyone... it just don't make sense. A young man too, whole of your life in front of you, why... there's just no reason... ' There was a hard edge to his voice I hated.
I leaned over the blanket, trying to manage a smile, though my throat was sore and my eyes felt strange and swollen.
'Vic, you're going to be all right, don't worry now. I know how you feel. I know how it hurts. Believe me, I do... You see, I've been there myself. Six or seven times I've tried to take my own life. With drugs mostly. Overdose. But that's all in the past. I found a new life, when I discovered that Jesus Christ is a real person. Finding out about Jesus has changed my life completely.'
Vic looked at me. He said nothing -- but his eyes seemed to shout for help.
The ambulance man rubbed his hands together nervously. He coughed and stared at his feet.
'Well, now, this ain't somethin' I'd just tell anyone,' he began softly. His voice was quite different now, low and confidential.
'It's about the wife. She says she can't take no more. She says she's havin' a sort of breakdown. Nerves it is. She talks about doin' away with herself. I just don't know what to do.'
The sadness was there again, welling up from deep inside me. I desperately wanted to help them both and felt so weak.
'O Lord, give me the words to say! Please give me the right words to say to them,' I prayed.
Terry Jarvis is a wood carver and author based in Cumbria, England.
The above excerpt comes from Terry's memoir The Long Search (Hodder & Stoughton, 1985) and was published with the author's permission. You can purchase a copy of the memoir directly from Terry by emailing him at email@example.com. It costs £7.95 (including shipping; UK only).