I’ve been cultivating the suspicion for more than twenty years. The first seeds of it fell from the lips of the women at my church, scattered with their promises that they were praying for my mother and they just knew God was going to heal her. When God didn’t, the seeds sprouted, took root in a heart broken open, grew and wrapped my soul like kudzu. It’s taken years to fight back the vines – some, I had to hack away at until everything in me ached; others fell to dust at the first whisper of a breeze. But even with the stalks pruned back to nothing you can still dig down and find tangled clumps of roots wound into the deep places, waiting to send out new shoots, infecting my heart with suspicion only barely dormant:
God isn’t listening.
It’s a suspicion that sees “I’ll pray for you” as a polite, socially mandated nothing, like the “How are you?” from the cashier at the grocery store. Perhaps you’ll be praying for me, or perhaps not – it doesn’t make any difference, really; the point is merely to say it.
It’s a suspicion that believes in prayer as a discipline to develop, an act of obedience and submission to a God who logs the time like billable hours. Praying because it changes my heart, but not because it changes anything around me. (Scratch a fundamentalist-Christian-school alumna and you’ll still find a Calvinist, I guess.)
It’s a suspicion, especially, of anyone who does the whole laying-on-hands, praying-for-the-sick bit like they actually mean it — they’re setting themselves up for disappointment, I’m positive, playing with fire. (Close my eyes and a decade later I can still feel the panic attack that sent me running for the lobby of the church I visited with a friend, whose pastor asked for those battling illness in the congregation to stand up and those around them to lay on hands while he prayed for them.)
And it’s a suspicion of those who treat a personal relationship with Jesus as something like a conversation — people who say they hear back from God when they pray, that they feel God guiding them or calling them or leading them — even when I say I believe the Holy Spirit works in our lives this way, down deep I’m more inclined to think they’re being dishonest or delusional, falsely attributing to God what’s really just emotion. And the heart is deceitful above all things, after all.
I’m not saying I want to live like this, contaminated by suspicion and cynicism. I’m not saying it’s right. But it’s what’s in me, if you dig deep enough.
Which is why feeling something like a calling has me rattled.
When I hear the words come out of my mouth, I feel called to be a writer, there’s a hard edge in my voice: that’s not really a thing, says the critic. Gifted at writing? Perhaps. (Some days I can answer yes to this; other days it feels presumptuous, who am I to say I’m good at this, prideful.) Can’t think of anything else I’d rather do as a career or a hobby? Certainly. But calling means more than just, This is how God made me. It means, I sense God actively asking and instructing me to do this thing.
Which is kind of a mouthful.
And yet lately I’m feeling something like an active direction. A lot. And I have to battle the impulse to respond with, Stop being ridiculous. If I say I’m a writer Because God, does it imply that I’m too proud, that I think I’m awesome? Saying that God is calling me to write feels like deflecting.
Am I being dishonest and delusional?
My therapist points out that if God is calling me to write, then to not write would be disobedient. And while I’m not big on framing things as disobedient or sinful these days, she has a point.
Some days I feel like my writing is a waste of internet space, I tell her.
There is plenty of internet space to go around, she says. You’re not going to use it up.
If I say God is calling me to write, then writing badly would reflect poorly on God, I say. The pressure is almost paralyzing.
It’s not up to you to make God look good, she says. Let Him handle that part. You just write.
One of the most powerful things about the Renew and Refine Retreat was something that was never said: What are you doing here? There was a baseline understanding that each of us were there because we are writers — that writing is a calling for each of us; something that will look different for each person, but calling was a given. And in that was the freedom to delve deeper, to talk craft and logistics, to explore the big questions like What does it mean to write Truth? without being bogged down by questions like What makes you think you’re supposed to be a writer? Our conversations all started from the place of I am called to be a writer and were met not with Oh, really? but with How specifically is this going to play out, is this playing out now, in your life?
Lisa Colon DeLay, the retreat’s Spiritual Director, led a devotion the first evening about how we as faith writers called by God have a mission that echoes the words of Isaiah, the same ones Jesus quoted at the beginning of His ministry: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news. Lisa said, To be a writer is to be a prophet, and the word prophet burned through me like fire, ached like pressing a bruise.
Calling. Prophet. Crazy words, these. Words I’m afraid will fill me up with more than I can hold.
I think of Moses, asked by God to bear His words to Pharaoh, and Moses said, No. I can’t. Please not me. And God, frustrated, respects Moses’s No, uses Aaron instead. I think of Mary, told by an angel that she will bear the Word, given the opportunity to say No, please not me, but instead answers: May your word to me be fulfilled.
I want to respond like Mary, but I am fearful as Moses.
Inside the calling to write is also the calling to stay put, to plant myself in a situation that’s making me unhappy instead of leaving, looking for something better, something easier. Seeing a place where things are unjust and need to be made better and leaning in, using my writing to hold a mirror up to people who need to see their faces etched with privilege and grace; shining the light of a Jesus Whose burden is easy into the margins, the dark places where the everyday injustices cast deep shadows that threaten to choke out the light.
And it is scary and exhausting and sick-making, this calling, and the fear makes me want to say No use someone else please; but I want to be a part of this radical grace, this bearing the Word into the darkness, proclaiming good news in whispers and blog posts.
Calling. Prophet. Word-bearer. Crazy words, words that demand I drop the suspicion and just write, so I released it to the wind and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.