Monday, April 25, 2005

Bold and Courageous

This is my second address from Inscribe's WorDshop 2005 – Abiding Writers. A CD of this session will soon be available from Inscribe's web site or from my web site.

As abiding writers we must be willing to let our hearts be broken and molded. We must be willing to crack our sentences open and peel away the outer skin of our paragraphs. We must bear the responsibility of the gift.
Earlier I talked about the necessity of holding on to Jesus and to his Word. We must let the word of God sink into our hearts and minds, and, more importantly, we must let it change us. Sometimes we have to let it draw blood. We have to let it work in our lives and in our writing, to the point where we are willing to face the ugliness in ourselves and in the world around us. We have to let it work to the point where we are willing to struggle with that ugliness as we portray it in our work, as we experience it in our lives.

I think perhaps as Christian writers we tend to shy away from this. We want to write only about what is pleasant and wholesome. Our novels have to have a conversion experience by the end of the story and our poetry has to depict only the beauty of God’s creation. There is nothing wrong with writing about those things, but there is much more to the reality of life. I think perhaps we stop too soon. We picture the strong healthy tree but we don’t go where the roots are, sunk deep into layers of things that have died. We stay too much on the surface.

In his wonderful book, Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorback talks about cracking open sentences and bits of writing where we have remained on the surface of things, where we have slipped into a kind of voice over and distanced ourselves from the truth in the story. He challenges his students to go deeper.

We all resist doing this because it might mean we’ll bleed. There seems to be an underlying belief that facing what is painful and ugly in life is somehow denying the goodnes of God. But that is not what the Bible teaches. Listen to Psalm 12:6 (KJV) says – “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. “Tried in a furnace of earth.” That doesn’t sound pleasant to me. “Purified seven times.” That sounds like struggle and anguish and pain that has been forged into what is pure and wholesome. That sounds like process, not instantaneous perfection.

I was a pottery student many years ago. When I decided I wanted to do pottery, I thought it would be fairly easy. All you do is play around with the clay, right? I discovered there are many skills to be learned to become a potter, some of them quite difficult to master. It takes time to acquire those skills and there is a lot of knowledge to be gained – I discovered a potter has to be a geologist, an electrician and a chemist. And then there is the sort of mystical side of it all – the mystery of what makes a piece of work turn out beautiful, and even, in a way, inspirational.

As I began to learn all these things, I found out that you can’t use just any old clay to make pottery. It has to be the right consistency, the right combination of elements. Some clay is too fine. When it’s thrown on a wheel it won’t stand up, won’t keep its shape, won’t survive the heat of the kiln, so a substance called grog is added. Grog is clay that has been previously fired in the kiln, then ground into fine particles. Grog sometimes hurts. As you throw a pot on the wheel you can feel it scraping your hands. Sometimes it even makes them bleed.

Our writing needs grog. We must put the stuff of real life into it, or it won’t hold up. We must struggle through the pain to find the redemption, and own the truth we say we believe. Writing coach Natalie Goldberg has said -"A writer must be willing to sit at the bottom of the pit, commit herself to stay there, and let all the wild animals approach, even call them up, then face them, write them down, and not run away."

We can so easily wrap ourselves in a very comfortable theology and not do what God wants us to do. We like to stay safe in our comfortable lives and we like to stay safe in our writing. As a Christian, I wrapped myself in a lot of theology, things I said I believed. Over time, they became comfortable, familiar, and made me feel quite safe. Until I met a woman named Teri.

The first time Teri walked through the doors of our church, she extended her hand to my husband, the pastor, and said, “I want you to know I’m infected. I have AIDS.” Perhaps it was the shock of her bluntness, but I immediately felt something give way inside me, as though the parameters of our safety had been breached. Panic rose to replace my sense of comfort.

My husband and I had visited a friend who had died of AIDS not long before. The mental picture of his emaciated face was still very real, but that had been far away, in another city. Facing an AIDS victim in the doorway of our own little church was much different. It abruptly threatened my cocoon-like world. It shattered the illusion of well being and forced me to look in the face of pain and struggle.

As Teri stood in the doorway that day, I felt the parameters of my theology also begin to crumble. “Love one another,” my theology said, “Do unto others; Give a cup of cold water.” On and on, the theology rang in my ears while I observed others in the congregation care for Teri and her daughter. The carpeted foyer of our church seemed to echo with Jesus’ words. Words like, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matt. 25:45). I began to question what I really believed. Did I trust God? Did I trust Him enough to involve myself in this woman’s life, when that involvement could be dangerous and undoubtedly painful? What was I trying to protect so desperately? I began to ponder, with new perspective, what the apostle Paul meant when he said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil.1:21).

I pondered more as my husband and I began picking Teri’s daughter Brittany up for Sunday school – a little six year old girl also dying of AIDS. She was the same age as my own daughter, Meagan. Watching Meagan take her hand and lead her to the Sunday School class tore at the fear and callousness that was keeping me at a distance – keeping me on the surface - and it began to bridge the gap between my theology and my life.

Teri and Brittany were living in that precious, precarious state known as the brink of immortality. As we spent time ministering to her, she ministered to us. She entered into our lives, asked the probing questions that unraveled our pain, showing us the barriers of fear and mistrust that were keeping us from loving as we should.

Two days before she died, Teri sat in her wheel chair in the hospital lounge and we talked about going for a drive to see the fall colors. It didn’t take long to go from that superficial diversion of my world, into hers. She gave me one of her probing looks and then we talked about purpose: “I think I’ve been here to teach you,” she said. Aware of the irony of her words, there was a glint of mischief in her eyes when she spoke. Teri had never been a mature Christian nor a Godly role model, yet she was teaching me what faith meant, what trust looked like, what deep healing was really all about. She simply presented herself, flawed, diseased, and without speaking a word she said, “Here I am. What will you do with me?”

That short span of time when I struggled with what to with Teri was the grog in the clay of my theology. It’s what made it stand up – it’s what made it able to withstand the fire and be shaped into something useful, something beautiful and even something inspirational.

Writer Marianne Jones has said - “Creating is God’s gift to us, God’s way of taking the wreckage and broken pieces of our lives and recycling them into something more extraordinary than the original.”

Bill Roorbach’s book is full of exercises, some of them dealing with life mapping. It’s a fun process and there are different ways of doing it – one of the exercizes in R’s book is to map your childhood neighbourhood. As I did that exercise, all kinds of things came to the surface – people and places, incidents and even snatches of conversations. It was a writer’s dream! There was one memory that seemed particularly vivid, of a day when I was sitting on the front step of our house. My mother was there and I was crying. I wanted to go to the nearby store for ice cream. Then my father appeared in the memory. I remembered he gave me some money and sent me off to the store by myself, an unheard of thing until that day.

As I began to write that story, putting down all the details, the surface things, I realized there was something more there, something deeper, something disturbing. At first I tried to ignore those feelings. I just wanted to write a simple little story. But the more I wrote the more I could feel the tension in the story and in myself. So I asked my mother if she had any memory about that day. She was amazed that I remembered it. That was the day my father had closed his business and came home to tell her they would have to sell the house. That was the day the tension that had been in our home erupted and came close to destroying our family. I haven’t finished that short story yet, I’m still trying to crack open the sentences and the paragraphs. Those cracks have led to some things that I haven’t wanted to face about my childhood. It’s not an easy process but I know in the end it will be a far deeper and more useful story than I originally intended. Perhaps it might even be something beautiful, something inspirational.

Many of us have a lot of skill as writers. We’ve paid our dues, we’ve reached a level of comfort with our craft. Perhaps it’s time to go deeper, to put a little grog into our work – the stuff that will make us bleed, the stuff of truth.

I remember hearing the story about the Nobel prize winning author Eli Wiessel. As a young journalist in Paris he was assigned to interview a well-known Christian man and when that man began to talk about Jesus, Wiessel became angry. He said, don’t talk to me about your Jesus. Only a short distance from here unspeakable things happened. And we can’t express them. Don’t you understand? We can’t say the words.” That Christian man, with tears in his eyes, encouraged the young journalist to try, to try and find the words to say what was inexpressible because of its horror. I can’t imagine the pain it must have caused Eli Wiessel to write that story but he did open that vein and the result is the Nobel prize-winning book, Night, and a body of work that is powerful, noble, beautiful and inspirational.

Madeleine L’Engle has said - “The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.”

This is our responsibility – to struggle toward that wholeness in our lives and in our work. To take our work deeper, to make sure it has enough grog in it to ensure that it will stand, to put it through the kiln and ensure that it will be something useful, something beautiful, something inspirational. And all to the Glory of God because it’s His plan for us, His plan for our work.

This essay is part of the Celebration of Christian Fiction. Read more great essays etc at the Celebration -

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

More Celebration

The Celebration of Christian Fiction is up. Check out these great posts at:

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.
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!

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Old Story. New Context

In her wonderful book, The Ordering of Love, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a poem called Child of Abraham. She’s on a train, comfortable in a warm compartment, watching the people outside blow cold like smoke. Then a conductor comes and tells her she has to get off that comfortable train. He takes her to a battered, cold train and doesn’t answer when she asks where they are going.
Old story. New context.
In Image Magazine (#38) 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.
As a writer who is Christian, that is what I attempt to do. I write from my world experience, my worldview of life, of faith. I tell old stories – for there is nothing new under the sun – but the context is new, unique in the world as I am unique in the world.
The trick is to be true to that, to keep from falling into the trap of imitation and illusion, instead of stepping into the light of imagination and authenticity.
I just finished Bad Ground by Dale Cramer. Old story. New context. It works so well.
I pray as I attempt it.