There were four of us crammed in a room at the Holiday Inn Express on 29th Street; 2 per full-sized bed. We ordered a pizza at midnight on Friday TO OUR HOTEL ROOM. It was in the high 50s and low 60s the whole time we were there, sunny and brisk enough to make me hum “Autumn in New York” the whole time I was there, which was less than 48 hours. I got to meet some friends I had only known online, take the subway up and down Manhattan, and eat a pot of lobster mac and cheese for lunch. I’m glad I live in San Francisco, but every time I visit New York, I make a pact with myself to return, and soon, because there is always so much to see and never enough time.
The real reason for the trip was the Q Conference on women and calling. Q has put on a number of fantastic conferences, known in the Christian world for bringing lots of different topics under one roof. It’s very Kuyperian in focus or, more appropriately, lack of specific focus. Past conferences have dealt with issues of contemporary art, international trade, mental health, immigration reform, and (my favorite) surfing. But this one-day conference was developed more intentionally along the lines of this one topic, and lots of different speakers talked about the notion of calling from lots of different angles.
Kate Harris opened the morning, talking about “A New Understanding of Vocation.” Rather than understanding calling as always related to career, our potential, and our gifts, Harris suggested that calling is comprehensive, concerned with the present moment, and rooted in our grief. It was that last idea that stuck with me and still has me thinking. My friend Sharon wrote about it well: “For many, hardship and tragedy are not distractions from calling, but the very soil from which it springs.” This was interesting to me, too, for the way it seems to fall along gender lines. I wondered how often someone would say a man’s calling is borne from his pain or grief or sense of injustice, rather than a sense of ambition or particular drive. I know that much of what I love to write and talk about is deeply connected with my own sense of hurt or injustice–my own anxiety, my frustration with churches and denominations that refuse to let women teach and lead, my sadness that so many people are treated so badly by the church. Harris’s words resonated with me deeply, and left me thinking about the gendered ways in which we talk about calling.
Rachel Held Evans gave a great talk about Biblical Womanhood, which was mostly familiar to anyone who has read her book. Rachel talked about how many women in the Bible didn’t fit into nice molds of cultural femininity, including Ruth who, as a single, poor, initiative-taking woman bucked a lot of stereotypes women in the Ancient Near East were supposed to fulfill. Her calling wasn’t primarily about her gender; it was about who God had made her to be.
Shauna Niequist was next, with a talk about what her mother taught her. You can read it here, and if you haven’t already, I recommend that you do. Shauna’s mom, at 62, is kicking ass. She’s an expert in peace studies and conflict reconciliation; she travels frequently to the Middle East and the Congo to work for peace-based initiatives; she’s a grandmother to Shauna’s sons; she’s an artist and a writer and a friend. But it took a while for Lynne, Shauna’s mom, to get there. It took, in her words, “decades of depression and exhaustion” before Lynne was able, with the encouragement of others, to discern and pursue becoming the person she was called to be. Because of that becoming, Shauna is able to do the things in her life that she is great at and loves doing without guilt or shame or question. As someone with a mom who has mentored both Shauna and me in this area, I can’t imagine that life of decades of depression and exhaustion. Lynne’s wisdom is hard-earned, and I’m so grateful Shauna passed it on.
There were so many other fantastic talks that day. Kathy Khang spoke “In Defense of Ambition,” and why we need not to think of ambition as either “masculine” or a zero-sum game. Women in many cases have been acculturated to believe we don’t deserve power, so we aren’t sure what to do with it. But much like what Andy Crouch writes about in Playing God, power is a gift to be stewarded, not a bad word to run from.
The inimitable Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today, talked about singleness in the church and as a woman with a calling. If women fall prey to the myth that life begins with marriage, they miss so much of their chance to have meaningful, rich careers and friendships and communities where they are. There is a notion that the work that single women are doing now is not their “real” calling–that the highest calling is for marriage and children. And although she didn’t use the word, that idea is basically eleven kinds of bullshit. The church needs to work against that by celebrating and supporting the work of single women, and not making them feel incidental to ecclesial life.
Lauren Winner talked about life and calling when it all falls apart, which was the topic of Still–and if you haven’t read that, stop reading this and go! “These seasons [of despair] are not aberrations from the faithful Christian path,” she said. “They are not to be escaped. They are to be endured, and ultimately, embraced.” From someone else, this could sound trite. But Lauren has been through it, and remained faithful, and has this whole wonderful notion of our spiritual journey as playing hide-and-seek with God that has been ringing in my ears ever since. More on that, perhaps, at a later date.
Nicole Baker Fulgham gave one of the most powerful talks of the day, and one that tied the whole day together for me. We had heard so much about what we could listen to or discern for our calling, but not much about how our callings were tied to those of people who could not afford to be at a conference room in New York City on a Friday, who could not afford even to think too much of calling because they are too consumed with thinking of paying rent and putting food on the table. She laid out a framework of support for girls and young women that was practical and helpful. Her book, Educating All God’s Children, spells out that framework in more detail as a response to the often-abysmal state of public school education for low-income kids. She was fantastic, and I’m looking forward to reading her book.
The one talk that felt a little off to me was Kathy Keller’s, in the afternoon. She had some good things to say about our calling being rooted in our gender, and I agree that gender is not incidental to calling. But she and I would interpret that phrase in very different ways. The difference is fine by me, but she talked a couple of times about there being an arrogance or rejecting of God’s gift when we don’t accept complementary gender roles. (She didn’t use the word “complementary,” but that’s an accurate definition of what she was describing.) The accusations of arrogance was frustrating to me–I don’t agree with complementarianism, but I don’t think it’s a willful arrogance that lands people in that camp. Keller also didn’t seem to enjoy speaking, if that makes any sense–it felt to me like she needed to make a point, made it, and then wanted to be done speaking as soon as possible.
The real draw of the day, of course, was the breathless anticipation of what everyone would be wearing. Well, not everyone–mostly everyone was dressed super cute, because it’s a room full of women and we all dress for each other. If you think differently, you’re probably a man. But Katelyn Beaty won the day’s best-dressed award in a super cute colorblocked dress. I don’t remember what Shauna wore except probably it was from J.Crew, and she had on a great statement necklace. Lauren Winner, whose outfit “wasn’t even an outfit” (from the horse’s mouth), had on like seventeen different accessories, including chunky yellow fingerless gloves and her signature cat-eye glasses. Rebekah Lyons wore a really pretty kelly green blouse, and I wore jeans I had tried to “distress” last year with a resultant hole in the back butt pocket, so I kept pulling my sweater down so no one could see through to my hot pink underwear.
That was that. The rest of the weekend was a blur of delicious meals, exploring Bryant Park and Chelsea, Brooklyn bars and Thai food, and great conversation. The conference was a gift to get to be part of, and even more than that, the friends I got to spend time with reminded me of the goodness of a near God who cares deeply about who we become. But I am glad to be at home, in my own bed.