When I graduated from college, I moved to New York City. I was going to be a missionary there, trying to plant a church. I was excited – Greenwich Village, “serving” God, a new adventure – and then, I arrived – my parents’ station wagon full of my stuff. I stayed one night – crying hysterically in my new bed with my mom comforting me. I was having a nervous break-down. I needed to go home. So we left the next day.
I wasn’t made to be a missionary. That wasn’t my calling – that was someone else’s calling, but as a graduate from a Christian college, I had, in my naivete, absorbed a message that said the only things worth doing with my life were BIG things – like moving to New York City and becoming a missionary or becoming a doctor and doing eye surgeries on children in developing countries or marrying, having children, and becoming the world’s best mom. That wasn’t the message my college tried to give, but it’s the one the church gives often, and my college – or parts of my college community – got wrapped up in that idea. It has taken me almost 15 years to live into my true calling – the God-given one as a writer and a teacher, and yes, even a farmer. And I am the happiest and most healthy I have been in a long time because, as my friend S says, I am living my story.
Yesterday, I read a really intriguing and well-written article over at Prodigal Magazine. Gary Thomas reminds us that as artists we need to be sure we don’t get caught up in our own egos and write/paint/sing just for ourselves. Such an important reminder – we are given talents and gifts so that we can serve. But I think Thomas also creates a false dichotomy here – I can be happy and thrilled with my life; I can find myself made “whole” by living into who I was made to be, AND I can still serve others with my work. My ability to write with others in mind does not depend on my denying the gifts and talents I was given; in fact, my ability to serve others REQUIRES that I use those talents and gifts.
I know that wasn’t Thomas’s main point, and I did appreciate the central sentiment of the article, but in a culture where art is already devalued as selfish, I think we have to be very careful not to buy into the idea that “denying self and following Christ” means we ignore who we are made to be. That’s what I did when I moved to New York, and it made me no good to anyone.
I also think we – being society in general and Christian society in specific – have to be very cautious to not hold artists to standards we don’t apply to other people. I have never once heard someone claim a doctor was selfish because she used her innate love of biology and her talent for caring for children when she became a pediatrician. And I’ve never heard anyone say that an civil engineer was selfish because he uses his amazing spatial reasoning ability and his deep love for bridges to build safe and beautiful structures. We seem to find artists more selfish than other people, and I just don’t think that’s fair.
Simply because our work isn’t quantifiable doesn’t mean it’s not serving humanity. Books have, quite literally, saved my life on at least two occasions because they gave me hope and reminded me there was a way through. Paintings teach me how to see fresh, and this new sight helps me see people new, too. Music, well, music just makes my soul sing. These creations serve humanity, all the time. Every day.
Pursuing a vocation just to please ourselves misses the mark – we don’t live in a world where anything we do stands apart from other people. But pursuing a vocation because it pleases other people and not ourselves – that misses the mark, too. We have to be true to who we are made to be – artist, teacher, landscaper, chef – and if we are really true, if we really do this work for passion and love, if we share this work with others, we can’t help but serve them, even if we are gleeful for every minute of our working day.
I thought I was made to be a missionary in Greenwich Village because it was artsy there, because I loved the thought of the city, and because I thought I could make a big difference. Instead, I had a different calling – art at my dining room table in a farmhouse where my words touch – I hope – some people on some days. This is enough. This is right.
What is your calling? How does it serve? Are you living into that service?