Readers, as I edited this interview, Leslie’s words literally brought tears to my eyes. This is a gives-you-goosebumps kind of interview: beautifully honest and spiritually deep. Just what I needed as I edited it, and hopefully just what you need to read in this God-ordained moment right now.
So, as you can tell, I’m really excited to give you this chance to hear from Leslie Leyland Fields. She’s an author, a regular columnist for Christianity Today, a mom, and a woman with a unique job: participating in her family’s fishing business. Keep reading for some interesting, compelling, and honest thoughts about calling, motherhood, real-life, and the adventure God has in mind for each of us.
I almost always identify myself first by where I live — I live on two island in Alaska, on Kodiak Island in the winter and on a small island in bush Alaska in the summer where my family and I commercial salmon fish. But I also resist being defined by where I live — there begins the paradoxes I live between and among. I’m mother to six children, ages 24 to 10, and I’ve delivered eight books into the world, all facts that contain both tension and blessing. But I know no better place to live.
This month we’re exploring the idea of “calling” in our lives. For some women, this is a really inspiring and invigorating idea. For others it’s frustrating because it can bring with it an expectation of doing something grand and important; meanwhile their real life feels so . . . normal. What’s your gut-reaction to the idea of having a calling? Why?
I believe in calling. Most of us know the root word for “vocation” is vocare, meaning “to call.” That term and idea was used by the church for a vocation within the church, but we have a fuller understanding that the world cannot be riven into sacred verses secular arenas. We’ve all been “called” to go out and make disciples, but we’ve been called in different ways, and each according to her gifts — and her afflictions. Fulfilling our call is very rarely going to look dramatic and grand. It’s going to look and feel small, especially to us in this culture when everyone lusts after fame and a global platform. It’s going to be small acts done in private spaces, away from the cameras and microphones: a cup of cold water, a call to a neighbor who’s just returned from the doctor, mentoring a teen, helping a friend through a marriage crisis, feeding strangers. We can and we must do these kinds of things as part of our calling. But calling is more than this. It’s about fostering the particular gifts and afflictions that God has given each one of us for the up-building of his Kingdom. If you’ve got a beautiful voice, sing. If you’re an amazing gardener, garden. If words on the page are your passion, write. And afflictions: If you’ve been through serious illness, gone through marital pain, whatever burden of witness God has given you, exercise that witness among others in need. Here is what I’ve written in my Writer’s Manifesto about writing and calling (but it applies to any gift):
Writing is a vocation, a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible, but the writing inexorably, day by day, moves us closer to holiness, the city of God.
Any calling, if it is of God, will include all of this: struggle, suffering, and yet a steady movement toward God and His holiness.
One reason I wanted to interview you about this topic is because I loved your book (with its critical subtitle!): Parenting Is Your Highest Calling–And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt. Why do you think this idea that “parenting is one’s highest calling” can be so dangerous for moms? And why, in your opinion, is it a myth?
As Christian women and as mothers, we’ve been fed this idea since we were young: that our greatest contribution to the world, to the church, to the kingdom of God is the children we produce and raise. There are a number of problems with this. Motherhood can become a kind of sanctified retreat from the world, from the church, from other responsibilities. I know when you’ve got a houseful of young children how absolutely absorbing that is. But we are more than mothers: we are daughters of the King, we are neighbors; Christ calls us “friend” and “sister.” Regardless of the size of our household, we’re all commanded to love God with all we have and are. Our tendency as women is to channel everything into our children first rather than seeing that loving our children is one way we love God. At the other end, when our children are gone, some women feel as though they’ve lost their purpose. And when a child grows up and chooses not to follow the Lord, which happens in nearly every family, we are devastated. I’ve heard from numbers of women who are crippled with guilt, feeling as though they have failed the Lord and failed their primary assignment in life. We’re so focused on getting everything perfect and right at home, as though God requires a perfect home to redeem our children. We think if we get it right, then God can act. But God’s grace has always worked in and through human imperfection.
What personally motivated you to write that book?
I wanted to be the best mother possible, but I clearly wasn’t. I had a daughter and five boys. The last two boys were born unexpectedly to me in my mid-forties. I tried to live out every parenting expectation of my church, Christian radio . . . and I found it impossible. I was a failure every single day. After 15 years of this, I began to suspect that much of what I was hearing about raising children was mostly human-sourced and not Bible-sourced. I began a thorough reading of the Scriptures and discovered there was so much more truth and freedom in its pages about parenting than the myths and concoctions I had ingested. Writing the book freed me from humanism and behaviorism, and it restored the majesty and sovereignty of God over my parenting life.
A central idea related to calling is a person’s daily work. For those with a full-time ministry job, a sense of calling seems natural. But for folks with normal (secular) employment, discerning a sense of vocation in one’s daily work can sometimes be tricky. Can you tell us a bit about your family’s fishing business? How do you experience a sense of calling or vocation in that part of your life?
When I married my husband, I entered a wilderness and began a life that is circumscribed by commercial fishing. I’ve been involved for 35 seasons now. My children have grown up in it, grown up in boats, working on the ocean, pulling salmon from cold stormy waters. It’s very hard, consuming work that I’ve been part of in various ways. When I first landed on that island and immersed in the 14-hour work days, poetry and literature fled entirely. I lost my voice and my self, consumed by fish, ocean, wilderness. Slowly it came back, though, as the years went by, as I found ways to speak and write and ways to live as a full human being rather than as just a worker. So I know this tension you speak about. I know it as a mother as well, subsumed by diapers, night feedings, spending all your efforts to simply keep others alive. We can’t sustain that essential work — fishing and mothering — without attending to the other parts of us. We can’t always live perfectly balance lives — in fact, we seldom do — but neither can we always live imbalanced lives. I had to re-order my life to make room for those God-planted talents in me which were “death to hide” as John Milton has written in his sonnet “On His Blindness.” That meant erecting some boundaries, it meant saying no when people wanted me to say yes. It may take courage to clear a path to live more wholly and fully, to deepen and exercise our gifts, but that’s what we need to work toward.
What encouragement would you most like to offer my readers when it comes to their own sense of calling?
As women, we work so very hard. We want to be perfect. We want our children to feel loved, to thrive, to grow up to love God. We want to have strong marriages. We want to exercise our gifts and be responsible with our afflictions. We want to be a blessing to many. How do we do it all? It’s all the same work. It all comes from pursuing God, from loving God first. From that posture, we’ll find the wisdom to take up, to lay down, to reach out, to tuck in, to erect boundaries. It doesn’t mean our lives will be simple or comfortable, but it does mean our arms will drip with fruit.
Years later, we’ll look back in amazement at what God has done in the midst of lives that felt out of control. I find myself constantly astonished with what God has done through what has felt like a hard life of small efforts. My next book is a prime example: Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt through the Practice of Undeserved Mercy (forthcoming from Thomas Nelson). It tells my story of forgiveness of my father, who was mentally ill, and it follows some astonishing stories of both hardship and forgiveness that I think will bring about a lot of deliverance for people. But the writing and the living of it was done in small efforts that God has somehow chosen to use. Keep at it, women of God. God will bless and use your hard life of small efforts more than you can imagine right now.
Leslie, thank you so much for encouraging my readers—and me—through your honest words to us today. Readers, learn more about Leslie, her books, and her life in wild and beautiful Alaska on her web site, www.leslieleylandfields.com.