Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Primary Word

The following is the address I gave at WorDshop 2005, the Spring event sponsored by Inscribe Christian Writers' Fellowship

Plenary Friday Night – The Primary Word –writing as children of God
You can’t get blood from a stone. In order for us to pour out our life’s blood on the page, we must be solidly connected to His word and yielded to the Holy Spirit.
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My husband and I have three daughters – the oldest, Katie, is 22 and just moved up to Edmonton to continue her journey toward a Masters in Speech Pathology. Our youngest, Meagan just turned 16 yesterday and has one of the leading roles in a high school musical production. I hope you don’t mind me bragging just a little.

Our middle daughter, Laura, turned 20 in January, and is, in more ways than one right now, in between. She finished a course at Grant MacEwan two years ago and has been working in the city since then, but not entirely satisfied with where she is and what she’s doing. She felt the Lord had something more for her. So she has taken a leap of faith and has applied to SIM to go and do mission work in Bangladesh.

As she launched herself onto this path she has had to make some decisions and that’s never been easy for Laura. She’s one of those people who has a perpetually positive outlook so she can see good in every decision and has a hard time deciding which is best. She sent me an email a while ago, saying she was having a hard time deciding if she should stay in the city, paying high rent, having to drive across the city to work, etc. or if she should come home. She’d be able to save more money at home and get her student loan paid off more quickly but … she has a good group of friends in Edm., a good church in which she’s very involved. So she just couldn’t decide.

As a mom, my first instinct was to tell her what to do. And I think you can guess what I wanted to tell her. But I restrained myself and told her to keep praying. The next morning I was reading some scripture and came across Psalm 84. After reading it, I emailed Laura and typed out vs. 3 – “Even the sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest for herself where she may have her young – a place near your altar, oh Lord Almighty, my King and my God.” I told my daughter, “nest yourself near The Lord,” and it won’t matter where you fly.

Over and over again, God calls us to do this – to nest near him. “Abide in me,” He says, “Hide in me. Let me gather you under my wing, stay close.” I think God repeats it so much in His word because he knows how prone we are to not doing it. We so easily fall away, separate ourselves from the source of nourishment and protection. And He knows how dangerous that is. He knows there are a lot of dark corners in this world.

When I was in university, an eon or so ago, I had the opportunity to go to Europe with a girl friend. We found ourselves in Lisbon Portugal one day, looking at a map and trying to figure out how to get to the castle of Sao Jorge, or St. George, which is built on the top of one of the hills that the city is made up of. As I was sitting there a young man came along and asked what we were looking for. He told us his name was Guiermo (sp?), and quickly pointed out where we could catch a bus to get to the castle, but then he offered to take us there himself. He said, “I’ll take you where no tourist would go.”

Being adventurous and more than a little naive, we said yes. Guiermo took us through a portion of the city called Alfama – the oldest section of Lisbon. I had never been in any kind of slum before, so entering that place was a shock. The streets were extremely narrow. The sun could not penetrate there so it was cold and very dark. Guiermo stopped just as we were entering Alfama. “Stay close,” he said. There were men lingering in doorways, smoking and staring at us as we passed; women cooking on open braziers, stood upright and stared. There were lots of very dirty children and what seemed like hundreds of chickens in that crowded, dark place.

I began to realize we had done a very stupid thing. We were in a potentially dangerous place with a complete stranger. The street sloped slowly upwards and eventually became a long series of worn stone stairs. As we began to climb I grabbed hold of Guiermo’s shirt and stared at the hole of light above us where the street ended and opened out onto a wide sunny boulevard. I held onto his shirt until we stepped out onto that street.

Stay close, Jesus says, because you live in a dangerous place. You will walk through dark places and I am the only one who can lead you through safely. I’m sure many of us here know the truth of those words. We’ve been through dark places in our lives – perhaps some of us are there now - and holding on to Jesus is the only way to get through them.

But how does this relate to us as writers? Well, we are a peculiar lot, aren’t we? We sit for hours in front of a computer, working and re-working our stories, our poetry, our articles.

Some of what we write is what I call “just do it” work – the kind that you can ream off fairly quickly. You put your mind into it, you use the skills you’ve developed and you get the job done, but only a small part of ‘you’ goes onto the page.

But then there are those other pieces, the writing you pour your mind, heart and soul into. A man called Walter Wellesley Smith has said – “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at a keyboard and open a vein.” When we write those kinds of pieces, the kind that are in a sense, written in our own blood, they are more than just words on a page to us. They are part of our heart, part of soul. They are precious to us and it takes a lot of courage to send them off to someone who may not recognize the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into them. And then they come back with not so much as a line of encouragement, but just a form letter saying the ms. doesn’t meet the publisher’s needs. Or the pages are slashed with red marks and maybe even nasty comments.

That puts a writer into a dark place. Many of us have been there. It’s easy to take the criticism personally. After all, it’s our life’s blood we’ve spilled onto that page. We can easily believe that our words are unworthy, and we are too. Despair comes creeping in, or arrives like a knife in the gut.

Or perhaps you’ve had some success. You’ve managed to be published and received a level of appreciation, even acclaim. Then one day you sit down at the computer and nothing happens. Your mind seems to have gone into some kind of neutral zone where inspiration is unheard of and creativity just isn’t there. That can be a very dark place for a writer, especially if it lasts for some time.

When we as writers walk into those dark places, we need to be holding on to someone’s shirt. We need to know that there is someone who cares about us, someone guiding us, someone who will keep us moving forward. When we are clinging to the shirt of Christ, we are able to keep going, even though we’ve been rejected, even though we feel dried out and incapable of writing another common word, let alone anything inspirational. We need to know who loves us.

What is it that will make us reach for Him? Let me go back to the other metaphor - we need to have nested close to the Lord. Think about that picture for a moment. What would that bird see – that one nesting at the temple of God? She would see the priests going in and out, the believers singing songs of praise and offering sacrifice. She would hear the Word of God being read and she would sense the presence of God dwelling there.

When we nest close to the Lord we get to know Him, through his word and his people - the two main sources of guidance, encouragement, protection. And as we engage in the reality of these things, we get to know God’s character, His heart, the depth of His love for us. And then nothing else matters, then the idea that we may never be published in the top Christian magazines doesn’t matter. The idea that we might never be as famous as Max Lucado doesn’t even cause a blip on our radar. The fact that our novel has been rejected fifteen times doesn’t stop us. We reach for Jesus and keep going.

But what about all our dreams as writers, you ask? Shouldn’t we be striving for the top magazines and the skill of Max Lucado? Absolutely. But we should not be obsessed with those dreams. Neither should we be obsessed with the work we are doing. We should be obsessed with only one thing and that is to know Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God. Anything less is “Rubbish” – manure, as Paul called it in Philippians 3:8. Yes, all the knowledge you have, all the skill as a writer that you’ve acquired, it’s all rubbish compared to “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

The good news is that when we arrive at that place we are, like Paul, freed to do the work He has planned for us to do. It’s a paradox, that once we have released our death grip on our gift, we are freed to function within it.

This is what God intends – He is the Primary Word and He demands first place in our lives and in our work. The good news is, He has it all planned out.

I love Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

I used to think of that verse in terms of helping people – the practical stuff like delivering meals to the elderly, visiting the sick, teaching Sunday School. And of course that’s all included. But have you ever thought of your writing as the good work God has prepared for you to do?
Philip Yancy tells a story about feeling out of the loop as many of us can –His wife was out there doing “good works,” ministering to the poor, and when she came home and asked how his day went he answered, “Well, I found a great adverb today!” It can feel like we aren’t serving God the way we should, sometimes. And that can turn into a dark place. We need to realize our work is our service to God and to God’s people, and determine to function at the highest level in that role. It is of high value to God.

I began to realize this was true after publishing my devotional book The Spur of the Moment. I realized it as I received e-mails telling me about life-changing events in people’s lives. LIFE CHANGING! How could this be? The book is so small – it has such a poor cover - the stories are just anecdotes put into a spiritual context. How could something so small be life changing? It is so because God makes it so. That work was planned before I was born and the Son of God – Jesus himself prayed for those who would read it!

In John 17, verses 17 &18 – “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” Jesus was speaking about his disciples but he doesn’t stop there. He continues with the wonderful verse that comes after it – v. 20 – “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.”

“Through their message.” Interesting that He didn’t say, through my message. In a recent edition of Image Magazine the editor wrote about writers like Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor who "re-imagined the Christian faith for a secular age." In other words, they wrote old stories within a new context. They made the message their own, let it seep into their hearts, minds and souls and then let it pour out. The were inspired and their work was inspirational. Inspired – breathed into. Inspirational – that breath flowing back out into the world.

As writers who are Christian, that is what we must attempt to do. Write from our own world experience, your world view of life, of faith. Tell all the old stories – for there is nothing new under the sun - but tell them from the uniqueness of your perspective. Because someone out there needs the words you will write. Somewhere out there is perhaps just one person whom God has prepared to read your words at the right time and place. Or perhaps it will be thousands or even millions. The numbers don’t matter. What matters is that we do our best with what God gives us and let Him do the rest.

So how do we maintain that perspective? How to we live in that reality? You all know the answer to that question. Nest close to the Lord. Engage in and cherish the fellowship of believers. Read your Bible. Oh what a cliché that has become! But we need it so desperately. We need to study the Word – The Primary Word - and get to know the one who wrote it. It’s there we’ll discover all the encouragement we need, in those times of rejection we’ll find all the words that will help us to cling onto God’s shirt and follow him until that moment when we will step out into the glorious sunshine and be face to face with Him.

So hear this, His primary word – Abide in Me!

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