Knacks and Knocks: A Reflection on Sacred Day Jobs.

{upon becoming the Arts Programming Director
at True North Community Church}

“What do you want to do with your life?”

The answer was always the same. At age 7, Be a writer. In college, Be a writer. I was fierce about it. If I did any other work–and I knew I would, sure as I’d need to eat–it would be for the sole purpose of supporting my writing. A Day Job.

For the past few years, I’ve amended this fierce focus. I’ve come to see my vocation as a kind of shamrock-shape, a triune calling:

shamrock_calling

Now, I have a piece of paper that says I’m a Master of Fine Arts in writing and literature; I have a marriage certificate and birth certificates to prove my claims on my dearies. But for the third leaf I have no documentation. What I have, instead, is a collection of knacks and knocks.

When I say knack I mean just that: A few coins’ worth of talent, often spent in play, but not necessarily invested in a long-term, disciplined way. For example: I like to make art, make music, speak to groups of people, dream creatively, bring people together toward a common goal. I’m no master of these things, but I have them like a pocketful of quarters to share if there’s a knock.

And when I say knock I mean an email or impromptu conversation where someone says to me: “Hey, we’re doing [love-inspired project] and need a little help with [task].” And then, after some thought, I say “Okay.”

Sometimes the first person in the dialogue is another human being. And sometimes it’s somebody else–Somebody Else, perhaps. The One who sneaks little notes into the mailbox of me. Scraps of paper with crazy love-inspired ideas scrawled on them.

*       *       *

So. At some point a few years ago, I was noticing this knack-meets-knock happening so often, and with such happy results, that I began to suspect these Odd Jobs for God might be part of my calling–a tinier, humbler version of that beautiful idea from Frederick Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And this leads me to sacred day jobs.

For years I’d volunteered at True North Community Church, doing graphic design and leading community service projects. And for a period of about a year, I found I had this growing desire to work at the church. This was about 3 or 4 years after my conversion, and I kept this desire to myself, kind of like a secret crush, because it seemed so embarrassingly unlikely; and after a year or so of this unrequited secret crushing, I finally let go of it. In the space of two weeks I started grad school for writing and got pregnant. I immersed myself in writing and motherhood, and life went on.

But three years later, with my graduation on the horizon, the executive pastor called me and asked, “Would you like a part-time job as a graphic designer?”

I have no formal training in design; certainly I wouldn’t call it my primary passion in life. It’s a knack. But I love the staff at True North and believe in what they’re doing, which they sum up in six simple words: “Honor God. Love others. Serve all.” Also, I knew it to be a place where a lot of laughing happened. And here they were inviting me to be a part of it. So after some thought, I said “Okay.”

For two years I did this graphic design job in absolute bliss. Knack meets knock. Tremendously fulfilling, to see a little bit of work mean a lot to someone else. Over time, they let me get involved in a few other things, too–even preach a sermon of my own.

At some point, it occurred to me that another word for “odd jobs for God” might be “ministry.”

But then I went on maternity leave to have a second child, and began to think that maybe that season of life was coming to a close, and I’d just go back to focusing on parts #1 and #2 of my vocation. When I got a message from my boss, asking if I’d like to talk, I wondered if it might be a break-up call.

But instead of gently nudging me out the door, as I expected, she offered me a chance to do something new.

*       *       *

Six weeks later, I am the Arts Programming Director at True North Community Church.

Oddly enough, what this job does is roll all my little knacks into one. I get to plan the artistic elements of our services and manage the creative team that does the video, graphics, music, sets, and lighting. I get to keep preaching now and again. Most importantly, I get to be a creative vessel for conveying God’s tremendous love, for inviting people into lives of more freedom and renewal and hope.

This, clearly, is so much more than a “day job.”

For that reason, it took a lot of thought, discussion, and prayer before I said yes. Because I still yearn so much–more than I can put into words–to see my stories in print. To finally publish the book that I spent 12 years writing, and others besides–books still to be written. A couple of years ago, I gave this lecture at the Bennington Writing Seminars on books that create space for the reader to experience awakening: books that awaken people the way I was awakened by Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking and the way Buechner, in turn, was awakened by King Lear.

These are–I know!–audacious aims. Ridiculous, even in proportion to the ridiculous gamble of the writing life. And the fiercely focused girl who said I’m going to be a writer sometimes whispers that my odds are even slimmer if I don’t ante up with all my hours, devote myself to writing as to a full-time job. Because now that I’m a mother, spare hours are scant and precious.

But another voice, one less afraid, says: No no no, my funny beloved, you’ve got the math all wrong. Try again. Try again with a What If.

What if  you saw the three parts of your vocation less as competing entities, and more as things that depend on each other for life?

What if those “day jobs” are the portion of our lives that pours the light of day, the weight of real life, into the art we make?

What if “day jobs,” for artists,
are not just something that pay the bills,
but an essential part of
our vocation to create art?

*       *       *

To some degree I have already seen this to be true. Last year I helped coordinate an ambitious project at our church: the renovation of a single mom’s hot dog truck. The project took a year to complete–a humbling year rife with obstacles and big questions about what it means to “help.”

When an editor friend asked me to write about it, I said I’d try, but I wasn’t hopeful. The whole project had been, to me, a mysterious mess. An essay needs to be more than a recitation of confusion and failure.

But I labored through several drafts of that essay and found that even if I couldn’t assign meaning to the experience, at least I could articulate the questions I’d uncovered within it.

Without the experience and the questions it raised, the essay would not exist. Now it does. (It’s coming out in The Southampton Review this summer. :) )

And–unforeseen benefit–I also came away from my writing desk with important things to take back to my work at church. A new understanding of grace, for one.

All this to say, I suppose:

To be intimately involved with other human beings–
How can this fail to change us?
–and, therefore, change the art we make?

*       *       *

I think most day jobs can be sacred, if you intend them to be. As my friend and coworker Steve told me recently, “It’s not the what. It’s the why and the how.”

This makes me think that we artists should not wish for a world where day jobs are unnecessary, but rather see them as banquet tables where we eat of the world, with all its oddness and complexity. We can then pack up our experiences like picnic lunches, like new evidence, and take them back to our art. We can puzzle over them. Digest them. Respond to them.

The voice of Fierce Focus nags me: By straying from your writing desk, you are running from your calling. I don’t dismiss that voice–she is useful when I’ve allowed diapers and “Do” lists to crowd the quiet places where stories grow.

I don’t dismiss her, but I do respond to her. Running from my calling? I have started to ask. Are you sure?

Running, or responding more fully than I have before?

Running, or allowing my writing to become more worthy and weighty than it has ever been?

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