The Spirituality of Being Called

photoWhat does it mean to be called? In the words of author Ryan Pemberton it was “leaving behind a job where I wrote marketing campaigns and press releases so that I might string together words like Cheerios on fishing line.” Put another way: to be called is the costly decision to offer our true selves to the world. It is the risk of incarnation.

Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again is Ryan’s memoir of how he came to discover himself – and ultimately God – when the security of success, love, and belonging got ground into pieces. His story is not for the faint of faith. He leaves a stable job in the U.S. to get another (yes, another) B.A., this one in theology from Oxford. He lives oceans apart from a pregnant wife in order to follow his dream, while friends follow in judgment. He shows up with his new family seeking food stamps when a return home means a rocky start. His story looks suspiciously like a man walking to his death, only it’s the death of illusions and the beginning of life resurrected.

In some ways, Ryan’s story is much like mine. We met, in fact, at a reading I did at Duke Divinity School when he was a student and I was testing my calling as editor of and midwife to Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. I remember him standing in the back of room: tall, white, warm, and noticeably male. We talked afterward about writing and theology and how we both longed to be back in the Pacific Northwest. Later, when he asked me about swapping reviews for our new books, I told him I was game. There was just one thing. As a Catholic and feminist, I was suspicious of C.S. Lewis love. Too often I’d seen Protestant pastor men use Lewis as a default in sermons, instead of doing the hard work of lifting up theologians of color, women, queers, and the unschooled. Instead of doing the hard work of putting theology in their own words, too.

RP Author Shot 2

In Called, Ryan is quick to say that none of us is meant to imitate the greats, or use their words as shorthand for the voice we alone can give. Even so, C.S. Lewis’s ability to translate theological truths for a popular audience is what gave Ryan the imagination for his own calling. An encounter with Lauren Winner did the same for me in college. When I asked her after a campus event whether I should be a Christian in the feminist world or a feminist in the Christian world, she said bluntly, “The church needs you more.”

I never did fall in love with C.S. Lewis. But on a five-hour flight between Raleigh and San Francisco, I developed a kinship with Ryan. The parts where he describes trying to find a publisher for his work and affirmation from his mentors was especially heartening for this writer who’s always wondering, “Is this as hard for you as it is for me?” I didn’t know until I read his kind and skillful words how much doubt about the writing life still gnaws me; why do I do this? this self-directed schedule? this vicious vulnerability? this back bowed over static screens when I’d rather be among the trees?

“Because I can.”

It’s a simple answer to the question of why we do what we do, and a blessedly un-spiritualized one. It’s an answer that reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s “Because I’m good at it.” It’s an answer that Ryan receives from an unlikely source. He writes,

“I think that’s what we’re all meant to do, all we can do, with the gifts we have been given, be they experiences or talents. Those gifts are waiting to be used to touch others’ lives, as we patiently listen for and obediently follow the direction to which God is calling us. Because that’s what you do with gifts, you give them away.”

You give yourself away, too. 

Not because you have to.

Or because you should.

But like love come down to a waiting world, because you can.

You can find more of Ryan’s writing (and his review of my new book, Lessons in Belonging) at And if you’re in Durham, NC, you can find me reading at The Regulator Bookshop Thursday, February 26th at 7:00 p.m.! (*Note the new date)

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