Balancing Jesus and bone-writing
Being a missionary isn’t my dream job. Given it’s what I am and what I hope to be as long as God has me here on earth, I probably shouldn’t admit that—but it’s not like this is going to be posted on the Internet for Jesus and everyone to see. I’m not sure if heaven even has Wi-Fi. Anyway, I’m learning that being on the mission field doesn’t mean I’ve “found God’s will for my life.” I’m also learning that having fun and enjoying the work you do is a blessing from God.
Back in 2016, I took part in a writing event called “NaNoWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month), in which thousands of people like me around the world pledge to write an entire book—or at least 50,000 words of one—in the month of November. It reduces me and a multitude of others to babbling, incoherent nutcases each year. In order to complete the task, you have to eat, sleep, and breathe your novel.
Now I’ve got three NaNoWriMos under my belt, and each time I’ve finished a manuscript I’ve experienced a joy that just can’t be bought. It’s so rewarding to type “The End” after a solid month of agonizing, brain-numbing work. Each time, the end result has been so much greater than the difficulties that came before it.
But this third one was different, because it also happened to be the first novel I’ve written since I joined OM as a missionary in Africa.
Being a novelist is my personal dream job (well, aside from being a professional baseball player, but let’s be honest, that ship sailed a long time ago). If it’s God’s will, I can’t imagine a better dream to chase. And yet, I’ve read from some of my favourite writers—prolific, New York Times-bestselling authors—who say that even after decades of honing their craft, getting up each morning and writing is mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even spiritually draining. And I can attest to that, even as an amateur. Writing completely disproves the old saying: “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s hard work, no matter how much you love it.
Writing is without question the most fun I can imagine having, and yet most of the time when I sit down to write I think of a thousand things I’d rather do.
Missions work is like that, too. Despite how many times I’ve felt peace and joy after sharing my faith with someone in the market or in my neighbourhood, I still find myself making excuses when I should be evangelising.
Why is it that the things which bring us the most fulfillment in life are also the hardest to focus on doing?
And even harder to do at the same time.
Being a missionary is a full-time job. So is writing. But even though I wrote my previous two books while putting in 40-hour work weeks, this third one challenged me in a big way. With my other two, it was easy to make a distinction: arrive at work, clock in, put in your eight hours, clock out, go home and write. It’s not so easy here in Africa. Being a missionary takes focus; there’s never a “clock-out” time when you stop being a missionary for the day.
But at the same time, writing takes just as much focus. There’s never a time when you’re not a writer. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m either physically typing on my computer or I’m thinking about what I’ll be typing the next opportunity I get. I titled this blog after Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, a reference to the fact that writing is a process in which you empty yourself onto the page.
It’s hard to do that and be a missionary.
Just about every day of November, I wrestled with my inability to give 100 per cent to both tasks. The more focused I was on Christ at the OM office, the more distracted I’d be writing at home; and vice versa. And it made me feel really guilty at times—spending time writing when I should have been evangelizing or reading my Bible and praying.
I’m torn between two conflicting ideas: On one hand, Christ calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him—no exceptions. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room for anything else. On the other hand, taking up your cross doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a missionary; God gives us good gifts like our imaginations and expects us to use them and enjoy them for His glory. He’s not a slave-driving taskmaster who whips His employees if production falls a half a per cent.
If God were to give me the choice—be a successful writer or a missionary for the rest of my life—I can’t honestly say which I’d choose. Neither one would be sinful; discerning God’s will is not asking yourself, “What does God want me to do?” but rather, “How can I use what I’m doing to glorify God?”
So I’m pressing forward in faith that, difficult as it may be, one doesn’t come at the expense of the other. Whether I’m typing on my computer or preaching in the street, my one goal is to come to the end of my life and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”