Writing as a Spiritual Gift
Whatever St. Paul says, the church has persisted in idolizing some spiritual gifts. Intellectually, we acknowledge that all spiritual gifts, all talents, are necessary to the healthy functioning of the body of Christ, but publically, we latch on to certain gifts as the coolest in the Kingdom of God. In the early church, the cool gift was speaking in tongues; in evangelical America, spiritual encouragement. We pair up with fellow believers to mentor them; we group up with cell groups, grace groups, life groups, and Bible studies; we attend Sunday-morning coffee hour regularly, holding a doughnut and ready to affirm fellow believers that are struggling; we ask people, "How are you?" and wait for them to emote to us so that we can support them.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. Far better that we support each other in the faith than tear each other down. Here's the problem, though: I am notoriously bad at encouragement. I've never mentored anyone in my life, or for that matter, been mentored. Almost no one emotes to me, which means there's rarely someone for me to encourage. Especially since my hope is to not only teach my students writing but also teach them about Christ, this failure to launch as an encouraging mentor can be discouraging.
Last October, I shared my discouragement with a friend, someone who excels at encouragement. What she said stuck with me: Stop worrying about a gift you don't have. Work on the gifts you do have.
I later mentioned this advice to another friend. She, in turn, told me about her sister Laura, a writer. According to one of Laura's writing teachers, not writing when you can is a breach of social responsibility. Do you have good ideas? Yes? Then share them, so that other people can benefit from your thoughts.
This way of seeing writing stuck with me. For far too long, I've seen writing as a hobby, something to be indulged during the long hours of a snowy afternoon, practiced after dark when the whole house settles down. Yet after dark, I'm tired. I'm more likely to hop on Facebook, read up on the Mars One mission, scroll through Buzzfeed drooling over pictures of delicious desserts that I will never make. I've always known I was wasting time; I've never thought that I was wasting my spiritual gift. I may not be gifted in giving spiritual comfort, but dang it! I'd like to think, at least, that I'm gifted in writing.
By this point in the 2014, many people are starting to give up on their New Year's resolutions. Yet just because New Year's resolutions don't work that well, doesn't mean that we should never make goals, that we should drift through life aimless, terrified of setting a goal lest we fail in our attempt to reach it.
Here's mine: I want to write more this year, and all the years subsequently.
For me, that mostly means writing non-fiction: more blog posts, more essays submitted to online publications (Relevant, Converge, Gospel-Centered Discipleship). Six years of writing literary analysis for my bachelor's degree, my master's degree, and my master's thesis means that non-fiction is far and away my strength. (And yes, non-fiction can be creative.) But just because we have a weakness doesn't mean we need to succumb to it. Therefore, I also want to write more poetry, more fiction; I especially want to try new things with poetry and fiction - more structured poetry, more frequent poetry; more fiction altogether. I want to stop worrying about the gift I do not have and focus on the one I do.
Writing in the Church
St Paul reminds the Corinthians in his first letter that the church does not function properly unless every gift is being used; stress any single gift too much, and you threaten its well-being. A car won't run correctly if we put on brand-new tires, snazzy hubcaps decked out with bling, and forget to change the oil. Why should we expect the church to run correctly if we polish one gift and neglect the others?
Right now, the church is excellent at forming relationships. What else do all those life groups, cell groups, or grace groups do besides build relationships between believers, providing them a space to come together weekly and share each other's spiritual and personal burdens? What else does the stress on mentoring do, but remind people that they need a confidante to help them get through hard times, and remind people that they need to care about others going through the hard times?
Unfortunately, what the church is not excellent at is reflection. Adam McHugh and Susan Cain, both of whom have written extensively about introversion, point out that almost nothing about church promotes deep reflection. The meet-and-greet at the beginning of the service, the doughnut-and-coffee hour, the Seven-Eleven songs that replace deep theological hymns and liturgies - all these favour emotion, not thought.
Here is where the gift of writing comes in: While believers who are good at dealing with emotion can do so, we who do not excel at dealing with emotion can trade in thought. We can, by our writing, draw our fellow believers back to issues we need to contemplate, back to reflection on our God and our relationship with Him. In many ways, the role of a writer in the church is similar to the role of a single in the church. We who are single are a symbol to our married peers, reminding them that human relationships are only for a time; the highest and best of all relationships will be with Christ in heaven. Likewise, we who write, we who reflect, are a symbol to those who do not, reminding them that life in Christ is not meant only to be experienced but to be thought about carefully.
Is it possible that to some extent, we writers even do the thinking for our brethren, a kind of heavenly division of labour? In St. Paul's words, some believers speak in tongues; some teach; some organize and direct; some show mercy; some pray. Could it be that some of us minister to the emotions; others, to the thought? That when our relationship-savvy brethren come to what we write and think about, they discover there something not germane to their own spiritual life?
Obviously, the question is a tricky one, all the more so because not having a particular spiritual gift does not excuse us from spiritual responsibilities (I may not have the spiritual gift of prayer, but I should still pray, for instance.) All the same, my hope as a writer is to supplement the church's focus on relationships with analysis and reflection, to remind my fellow believers that we love Christ not only with our heart but also with our mind.
Writing for Me
Still, these dreams are somewhat grandiose. Is it not presumptuous to think that I by my writing can change the church? Perhaps. I am, somewhat unexpectedly, reminded of the safety instructions delivered on an airplane right before take-off. "In event of cabin depressurization," they warn, "Put your own mask on before helping those around you." Only a foolish sense of heroics would violate these instructions: Try to help someone else with their mask first, and you may run out of air. You may endanger not only yourself, but also the person you were trying to save.
I wonder whether it is only my foolish heroics that hopes my writing may draw the church back to reflection, supply the deep thought necessary for life in Christ to thrive. Perhaps the real reason for my writing is much simpler: When I am writing, I am reflecting.
Remember those Buzzfeed articles I mentioned earlier, with all the beautiful dessert pictures? Scrolling through those is not conducive to deep reflection. Not even my newest intellectual hobby, reading the New York Times online every morning, really promotes reflection. Reading the articles may give me stuff to reflect on, but so long as I am reading what someone else wrote, I cannot be alone with my own thoughts. Not until I write, or at least until I sit and think, like Descartes in his window, can I reflect.
Perhaps this is a selfish reason for writing, but it is nonetheless important: I want to write more so that I can reflect more, so that I am spending my mind and intellectual energy not on an endless array of food pictures on the Internet, but on things that matter. Like the scientists of the 1600s, I want to think God's thoughts after Him, and to do that, I need to think, and write.
Poet Dorothy Parker is said have to claimed, "I hate writing. I love having written." The same is true for me: Is writing hard? Absolutely. It's much, much easier to just read Buzzfeed articles. It's much easier to email a friend than to write a poem. I spent nearly two hours on this blog post alone, without editing. Yet the benefits from having written are endless: Having written means that I have reflected, that I have thought about the world I live in and the God who designed it - and that is a treasure worth all the work.