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:
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