Summarizing what matters most

Reading the First Things website lately has got me thinking – which I’m sure is what the writers there hope for. There are always thought-provoking articles and links, such as this article on the meaning of marriage, this column on why it should matter to use what pleasures other people seek, and the link to this discussion on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Most of the time, though, I don’t think much more about the article once I’ve read it. It occupies space somewhere in my brain, helping shape my views in at least some small way, and if the subject comes up I may actually remember where I read something about it recently. But I don’t find it constantly coming back to my mind the way a couple of articles have this week.

Wednesday there was Joe Carter’s article on being an influence-seeker. While I don’t generally think of myself as an influence-seeker, perhaps I should be. Carter’s intended audience is “Christians who have a message they want to communicate but limited opportunities to do so.” When I started my blog, I had hoped to generate thoughtful discussion on important and interesting topics.

With a few exceptions, if I have generated any discussion it happens somewhere else. I write about things that interest me, and apparently interest the few dozen people who visit here on a typical day (how much they read once they get here I have no idea). But what I write about follows no particular plan – just whatever I’ve been reading or thinking about.

Carter suggests writing about the great themes that God has set before you. He identifies his own as “restoration of the family as the basic unit of society and the recognition of the intrinsic dignity of all members of the human family.” I’m sure that somewhere among my musings about words and books and history I have something important I want to communicate, but it will take some more thinking to be able to state it in a few words.

I remember when I took a class at church (about five churches ago, before my husband was ordained) on identifying my spiritual gifts. In previous classes on the topic, I had usually ended up with “teacher” and “helping,” but I couldn’t see myself teaching Sunday School or a Bible study, and while I’m happy to help where needed I don’t seem to have the ability (which is usually assumed to be part of the ability) to notice where help is needed without being asked.

This class, though, was different in two ways. It asked me to think about what I felt passionately about, and it included “creative expression” as a gift (not listed in the “gifts” lists in the New Testament, but demonstrated by the craftsmen of the tabernacle and the writers of the psalms). I realized that what I really wanted to do was use my writing skills to help people gain new perspectives on life, faith, and God.

Finding ways to do that was another matter. I purchased a handbook designed for Christian writers, to find out where and how to submit their work for publication. I wrote poetry and stories and “essays” (for lack of a better word), some for specific publications that I submitted them to, but mostly just because I had ideas and I wanted to write. I did eventually get two poems published, but in a low-budget quarterly periodical with a circulation smaller than that of many church newsletters. I wasn’t looking for big numbers, but it didn’t encourage me much that this was the way to use my gifts.

Then today, in the Thirty-Three Things post, there is the link to an article on summarizing the most vital lesson to be drawn from your work. The context is scientific work, but it seems to me that people in any field ought to be able to sum up in a sentence or two the essence of what they have learned or want to teach others. Again I found myself asking – but not having an answer ready – how could I sum up what I want to share with others?

At work we’ve been trying to clarify our goals for the year (yes, it’s halfway through the year, but some of us have trouble coming up with ideas until pressed to do so by the June 30 deadline), a process that I find frustrating. I will work hard to meet goals given to me by my supervisor, but I find it difficult to come up with relevant, worthwhile, and achievable goals on my own. I finally wrote and submitted a few (and am waiting to hear back from my supervisor on them). But I also have been thinking that I need to think more about goals in my personal life.

It’s much easier to just take each day as it comes, without worrying about some grand plan for the future. Some days it seems that all we can do – deal with the challenges that work and family and the weather and our bodies throw at us.

I think sometimes that it would be great to have some important project to work on. It would feel meaningful, and it would motivate me to really make efforts to accomplish something. But first I have to know what “it” is. I occasionally have ideas. But I’m never sure if they’re really worthwhile projects, or just reasons to do something more interesting than laundry and dishes and yardwork.

So instead I blog. Usually (but not always) after I do the dishes.

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