A Fingernail in the Body: On Community and Calling

amberThree and a half years ago, I began my studies at Wheaton as an international relations major. I had hoped this would serve as a foundation for pursuing a degree in international law with the ultimate goal of a career abroad combating human trafficking. I was beginning to expand the little sanitary, ordered, happy sphere where I had spent my childhood, and I felt an overwhelming need to restore this broken world that I saw. I longed to be a vessel for justice in the hopelessness of slavery.

After my first semester of courses on this international law track, it became clear to me that I was attempting something both outside of my skill set and my interests. As most first year students do, I fought the sense of total aimlessness with the comfort that I would be required to take classes in virtually all disciplines and that I was bound to like something. In the spring of that year, I enrolled in a literature class with Dr. Gibson, solely looking to fulfill the general education requirement. I was drawn in by the stories, the Classical tales that for hundreds of years were carried along through generations, told around fires, memorized word for word until finally being recorded. I was fascinated at how a literary work could represent a culture, how deeply rooted even fictional tales could be in truth, and the seemingly infinite methods of relaying a message through words. I became enamored by language and its possibilities.

I declared a major in English with a concentration in writing, and in the past few years, I have studied texts from a myriad of cultures and time periods. For me, this has largely been an exercise in empathy. It is often frustrating to read, say, two hundred pages before really being able to discuss a work in depth, or perhaps to spend half an hour on a few lines of poetry before having any degree of understanding (thank you, T.S. Eliot). I am forced to spend a great deal of time pursuing understanding, putting myself in a posture of listening before I attempt to speak. I began to understand this practice as something extremely formative for me. It beckoned me to continually resist the temptation to propel through my life—unthinking, unexamining. I had been in the habit of an “infantilisation” of my mind, as Lady Greenfield termed it.[1] In a culture where it is easy to limit our attention to 140 characters, I was being challenged to observe patiently, to probe past my initial reactions, and to continually put myself into the narrative of another for a few hundred pages or hundred paragraphs or hundred lines. I have concluded that language is an empathetic project. Without it, your synapses, their intricate connections that are unique to you and your experience of reality, would most likely remain entirely separate from my own mental processes, my own reality. You would be irrevocably other. Language is redemptively involved in gathering the sinews of the human experience and tying them into something that can be grasped onto by another. This is gospel work.

The justice and redemption that initially drew me toward practicing international law is the same passion that I find at work in the craft and study of literature. It is a constant challenge to remind myself that both professions are of equal value. I want to believe that my contribution to kingdom work must be both visible and measurable, a tangible carrying of kingdom light and proof in the many holy fires for which I can claim responsibility in sparking. I realize that my own efforts in literature may never yield these sorts of results, but I cannot change the manner in which I have been gifted: I am unquestionably built for creative work.

What I have learned during my time at Wheaton is that I have a mind for the knotting together of things, for the color of life rather than its mechanics. When I accept that my mind was lovingly moulded by my Creator to think in just this way, I begin to grasp what it means to be a member of the body. The prophet Micah commands us as the body of Christ to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, but this manifests differently in each of our lives according to our gifts.[2] The beauty of the body is that a fingernail is only required to be a fingernail and to manifest that which is characteristic of a fingernail. Studying literature has brought me to the recognition that I am an arranger and examiner of language, and in doing this, I am being as much of a fingernail—tiny, simple, purposed—as I can be. There I will remain, on the tip of a hand raised to heaven, offering up these meager gifts and praising God with the same voice as elbows and eyelashes and earlobes: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”[3]

[1] Wintour, Patrick. “Facebook and Bebo Risk ‘Infantilising’ the Human Mind.” The Guardian. 24 Feb 2009. Web.

[2] Micah 6:8

[3] Isaiah 6:3