Q & R: From a graduate student, on my journey

Here’s the Q:

Let me begin by telling you how much your work has motivated and inspired me. Like many in my generation (I’m 22 and a grad student), I have been struggling quite a bit with reconciling a strong desire for faith with a growing sense of alienation from the standard, homogeneous orthodoxies of American Evangelical churchianity. Your books, especially A Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christianity have had a liberating effect on me, both spiritually and intellectually, and they have helped to give me the courage to challenge my own paradigms and assumptions while still living wholeheartedly as a follower of the way of Christ.
This may seem odd, but I suppose the thing that draws me most to your work is a certain affinity I feel with your background and biography–or at least what little of it I have been able to ascertain through your books. When I first discovered your work and learned that you were a former English instructor, a pastor, and the product of a very conservative Evangelical upbringing, I thought: “this sounds so similar to my own experience–I need to read this!” I grew up in (and still occasionally go home to) a fairly conservative Pentecostal / Charismatic family and church. When I entered college, I became an English major because I wanted to be a writer; visions of grandeur of being “the next C.S. Lewis” or some sort of adolescent pipe dream like that. And now that I’m done with college, I’m in grad school, working on my MA in English, exploring academia, and figuring out what I’m going to do next (most likely, teach high school for a few years). But the truth is, while I have always had a passion for literature, writing, philosophy, and “the life of the mind” in general, my greatest passion has always been for ministry. Not ministry in the traditional sense, necessarily, but being involved as a participant in God’s Kingdom, serving His world, and using the gifts He has given me in whatever way I can.
I guess what I’d really like to know is more about your own journey from where you began (college, grad school, teaching, ministry, etc.) and perhaps some practical advice based on how you got started as a writer and an activist. When did you know that writing would be one of your primary tools for ministry? At what stage did you begin making the connections and contacts you needed to expose your writing to a wider audience? What advice would you give to a 22 year old English graduate student with a passion for faith who, in some ways, sees you–based on your own career path and the affinity I feel with the ideas in your writing–as something of a role model?
I know you are extremely busy, but if you ever get an opportunity, I would greatly appreciate some feedback!

Here’s the R:
First, I should say I’m honored if I can be of help to you in any way. Our stories do have a lot in common. When I was 22, I never would have guessed I’d spend 20 years of my life in full-time pastoral ministry: my goal was to serve God as a professor in a secular university somewhere. And when I was a pastor, I never guessed I’d someday be a full-time writer and speaker. And since I’m still relatively young (?!), who knows what new surprises the future will hold?
As I’ve re-read your note a few times, three things come to mind that I feel I should share.
First, I hope you will get experience among the poor and marginalized. Everything I’ve done in recent years has been enriched by our experience (by “our” I mean my wife, Grace, and I) in the early years of our church … working with alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill … with refugees from Viet Nam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Iran … working with hard-core unemployed and people in economic distress. And in more recent years, I’ve been able to spend time in slums and refugee camps in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. If we only look at life through the lenses of privilege, we miss most of life, and we miss the most important dimensions of life.
Second, just from your brief email it’s clear you’re already a strong writer. Obviously, I’d encourage you to keep writing … blogging, articles, and books if you can. But I remember hearing an essayist interviewed on NPR once who said that there are very few essayists who become important in their field before the age of 40. This, he said, is because it takes 40 years to develop a point of view, and point of view is something that can’t be rushed. I suspect that by point of view he meant character, plus perspective, based on experience. I say that to say that I’m glad I didn’t publish any books before I was 40; if I had, I would have boxed myself in with some ideas that weren’t close to being presentable yet. (Right now some of my critics will be thinking I should have waited at least until I was 80 to start writing!)
So, if you teach high school, don’t think of that as unimportant work. It’s tremendously important – important for the students you inspire with a desire for lifelong learning, important for the faculty that you contribute to, important for the parents you assist in the development of their children, and much more. But it’s also tremendously important because every day you will be developing your point of view.
And third, when it comes to activism, I’d encourage you to start now, start small, and start local. As I suggested in Everything Must Change, there’s much you can do in your own community in service of the planet, poverty, and peace.
I hope we’ll get to meet in person someday. I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about the possibility of starting an annual summer gathering either for a long weekend or a week where folks like you could get together and mentor me, and perhaps I could so something reciprocal. If that materializes, I’ll post information here. God bless you!