The World According to…

There’s a saying about being in a room that’s so small you have to step outside to change your mind.

That old saw pretty much sums up the theme of the speech, This is Water, that David Foster Wallace gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College. I highly recommend reading it, or even better, listening to it on YouTube. Early in the speech, Wallace makes this statement, “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

We all kid ourselves, and we’re kidding ourselves a lot if we can’t admit it. We exist in individual worlds of our own construction. Our water, to quote Wallace. The physics of our worlds—the paradigms and underlying assumptions by which they work—usually have their roots in our interpretation of the things that have happened to us, or that we’ve seen happen to other people. This makes for an existence that’s so subjective the only way to validate it is by finding agreement among other people who see the world the same way. In other words, groupthink.

When you take groupthink to its extreme, you have a cult. We know about cults; we’ve seen them in the news. Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, the list goes on and on. Cults don’t end well. Several well-done documentaries recently reminded us of the terrible journey to death taken by David Koresh and seventy-eight of his disciples twenty-five years ago. Of course, that number of victims pales in comparison to the more than nine hundred men, women, and children who drank the Kool-aid at Jonestown forty years ago. These events leave us asking ourselves over and over again how ordinary people can become so delusional that they invest their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, and even the lives of their children in a lie.

Groupthink doesn’t always result in a cult, but it does always result in worldbuilding. We have a lot of worldbuilding in America right now, mostly propagated by social media and other media. Americans seem to be polarized into groups who are campaigning against this or against that, against him or against her, and a lot of individual, rational thinking can get lost in the shuffle.

It’s okay to build a world if you’re a gamer or a novelist, but it’s really not cool if you’re a political or religious leader. Those two realms, politics and religion, seem especially susceptibility to worldbuilding. In fact, religion is so susceptible to twisting itself around a lie that James, a very practical leader among first-generation Christians, had this to say about it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” That’s a pretty narrow path to keep our religion on, but reining in religion is always a good idea.

Many people who aren’t Christians see Christians as the poster children for groupthink and worldbuilding. That’s ironic because there’s a story about that very thing in Matthew’s account of Jesus.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

There are a few interpretations of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe Jesus meant just what he said, that he’d build his church with people who believe that he’s the Christ. Let’s face it, despite the theory that Peter was an ecclesiastical cornerstone, the fact remains that Christians are Christians because they believe Jesus is the Christ. Not because a bunch of other people believe it, but because God himself showed each one of them, individually, that it’s true.

I really love that David Foster Wallace gave that speech. I return to it from time to time as a reminder examine myself for blind spots. “Keep your heart with all vigilance,” the Bible instructs, “for from it flow the springs of life.”

Of course, it’s almost impossible to find those blind spots on my own because I’m, you know, blind to them. As the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Not me, that’s for sure. But then Jeremiah, speaking for God himself, went on to say, “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

I don’t mind letting God dig around in my heart. It’s a little too dark and scary in there for me to explore it on my own. Besides, he’s the original worldbuilder, and his worlds are so much bigger than mine.

 

 

Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment

Own It

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18

I used to think it sounded “better” when someone said they were an agnostic instead of an atheist. Agnosticism seemed less resolute. “I don’t know about the whole God thing,” sounded mild, even malleable, compared to the hard-core, in-your-face, “I hate God and the horse he rode in on!” pugnacity of atheism. (You have to admit; atheists aren’t typically easygoing.) But I misinterpreted agnosticism, which actually holds the position that God is not only unknown, but unknowable.

Even so, most people these days who say they’re agnostic probably mean they’ve just sort of opted out of thinking about God and everything that goes along with him. After all, there are so many gods. How could you possibly know which one to choose? And there are so may variants of the religions that trail after them like wake turbulence. You might get tumbled around and bruised in one of them if you aren’t careful. Best to keep your distance. In fact, that’s the very advice a work buddy gave me once. He was a middle-aged PK, still smarting from wounds inflicted by his father’s religion. “Don’t get too close to God, Lisa,” he counseled, “because he always takes more than he gives.” Wow.

I’ve known about God for as long as I can remember. My family were Baptists, the backslidden kind. For the most part, we went to church once a year on Easter Sunday. You can imagine how much fun that was. We went a few other times, too, when one or the other of my parents found themselves in the throes of conviction for a week or three. But it always wore off, eventually. Still, you don’t spend even one Sunday in a Southern Baptist church without hearing the “plan of salvation” and figuring out that the journey to God entails a trip down the aisle to the altar to make a “profession of faith,” not only in front of God, but in front of everybody else, too.

I stewed in my own conviction through those years of intermittent and dreaded church services, and somewhere in the back of my adolescent mind I formulated a plan to make a deathbed confession and thereby dodge damnation. I know that sounds pretty silly, but it was the best I could come up with for the conundrum of believing I should be “living for God” and not wanting to hang out at church, or with church people.

Then one day, on the way to the Texas State Fair, a friend rocked my world. This friend had a sister, a Jesus Freak, who’d told her about the Rapture, a.k.a., the Second Coming of Christ. My friend thoughtfully passed this little newsflash on to me.

Wait! What? He’s coming back?!?

She told me everything she knew about it, and she was far less worried about it than I was. I’m pretty sure the news wrecked my day at the Fair (at least, until I self-medicated), and it very definitely put a wrinkle in my deathbed confession plan. But, with time, I was able to iron that out. At least, until I went to lunch one day with my own sister, who’d also become inflamed with love for Jesus. She told me, with enthusiasm, about a Bible passage, a parable, that had become especially vibrant to her recently. Rather than paraphrase, here it is:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:1-13 ESV

Holy crap!

This news was more than a wrinkle. It demanded a complete overhaul of my plan for dealing with the God problem.

So, pragmatist that I am, I bit the bullet and decided I’d go to church and walk the aisle if that’s what it took to avoid the Big Lock Out. The very next Sunday found me at the altar of my parents’ new church, which they’d been attending since – you guessed it – they’d become enamored with Jesus. It was the seventies, and people were falling for Jesus all over the place.

But a funny thing happened on my way to salvation. At the altar, eyes closed tight, I met Jesus, and I realized that I’d always known him, or that he’d always known me. Whichever way I try to describe it, what happened was that he, Jesus, was instantly familiar to me, as if I were returning to the place – to the very One – I’d come from. Before I came from anywhere else. It was that primal.

So, later, when I discovered in the Bible phrases like, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,” they really resonated with me. That identity, that being “found in Christ,” described how I felt. How I still feel.

That was more than forty years ago, and in all that time, which really isn’t very much time at all, I can honestly say that I’ve never believed more or less than I did at the altar that January morning in 1975. I’ve always believed with the same degree of confidence: Absolute confidence. I’m absolutely sure that God exists, and I’m absolutely sure that Jesus is everything he said he is. I’m absolutely sure that he knows me. I’m absolutely sure that I know him, though imperfectly. But I’m also absolutely sure that the time will come when I’ll know him just as well as he knows me. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV) When I take time to stop and think about it, I look forward to that day.

So, there it is. After years of study, years of prayer, years of worship, years of conversation with people about God and the meaning of existence, and even years of disappointment in myself and others, I still believe. I believe that God is knowable, and that I personally know him and am known by him.

I’ve thought the matter through, and for the record, I identify as Christ’s.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

Merry Christmas!

Posted in 2017 | Comments Off on Own It

Mincing Words (and Writers)

“There’s an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine: ‘Wanting to meet a writer because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.'” Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

If writing technical reports taught me anything, it taught me how important it is to be specific and succinct. My readers were few (by design), but they were influential. They were busy executives, incredibly busy. They wouldn’t waste time wading through a bunch of sentences to try and figure out what I was talking about, so I learned not to mince words. I soon discovered lucid prose was like a laser on a rifle. The bosses didn’t always pull the trigger after reading my findings, but when they did they hit their marks with deadly accuracy. This was my personal experience with investigative journalism, and it informs my writing to this day.

No good writer minces words, but that doesn’t mean the writer herself isn’t minced. Stories are like recipes, the difference being that stories include bits of the writer along with all the other ingredients. What comes out, if the work goes well, is a pleasantly astonishing something, something that’s entirely different from the writer, whole on its own when separated from her, but it contains the writer nonetheless.

I think Ms. Atwood’s quote is spot on. In her book on writing Atwood goes on to say that people are sometimes disappointed to meet her in person, finding her to be less than they expected. Less disturbing, perhaps. More ordinary. They wonder how her stories could come from her. They aren’t alone. “Where is this stuff coming from?” wonder writers everywhere as they lay print to pages.

Maybe that’s why some writers affect aloof arrogance, to hide the fact that they aren’t all that. They needn’t bother. None of us are equal to the work. That’s the beauty and the joy of it.

 

 

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Souls on Board

“Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
                                           Ecclesiastes 12:7 NKJV

Air traffic controllers are supposed to ask standard questions of pilots experiencing in-flight emergencies. You could guess them if you thought about it; they’re mostly common sense questions. What is the nature of the emergency? What are the pilot’s intentions? How much fuel remains? Here’s an interesting one: How many souls are on board?

When I was a brand spanking new controller, the old guys explained the phrasing of that last question by asking me a different question: What if the aircraft is transporting cadavers? Indeed. Search and rescue teams need to know how many living people were on the airplane.

Whatever our spiritual or religious leanings, or lack thereof, we probably can agree that, when everything is said and done, there will have been a definitive number of persons who lived on earth. You may believe the earth will end in a meltdown of global warming. Or a catastrophic collision with a meteor. Or a nuclear apocalypse. Or, like me, you may believe a trumpet will sound in the spiritual realm, after which this world will be folded and put away like a worn thin coat. Regardless of how it happens, our collective intuition tells us there is, in fact, an end to all this. At some moment near the final moment, the last baby will be born and thereby complete the count of souls on board.

Where do all these people come from, and where do they go? Everybody knows Christians believe people continue to exist as individuals after death. We believe this because of Scriptures like Romans 14:11-12, “For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

We don’t talk much about where we came from, at least not in the circles I frequent, but I started thinking about it after my last post. At some point after a human sperm burrows into a human egg, a human soul enters the physical world. I don’t know the state souls exist in while they wait in the wings for their turns on stage. Frankly, I don’t think anyone knows. “God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NKJV) But surely each of us existed in some state or other before we appeared on earth, even if only as an intention of our creator. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

It’s harder to lump people together in light of each one’s eternalness and singularity. It’s harder to think of them as random. I venture to say it’s harder to think of others as different because we all came from the same place, and we’re returning to the same place. Turns out the old joke is true: “You’re unique. Just like everybody else.”

Death happens every hour of every day, yet despite its commonness, I believe the Lord feels every single death as if it were the only one. Because for that person, it is. The psalmist said, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:5) Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)

Don’t be afraid. We are known.

Posted in 2017 | Comments Off on Souls on Board

A Writer’s Womb

INTERVIEWER
You start with a character in mind. Does that character change as you go along? Take Sophie’s Choice for example.  

STYRON
There’s a scene near the beginning of Sophie’s Choice about Sophie’s childhood in Poland, and she begins to talk about her father. I was trying to establish her personality through the memory she had of Poland and her father. As this monologue unspooled and I wrote it down, I began to feel as if I were listening to an actual voice. She tells how her father—a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow—had become a passionate fighter during the war to save Jews from the depredations of the Nazis. Then the most amazing thing happened: I suddenly said to myself, This woman is lying to me; this fictional character that I’m creating is telling me a lie. This couldn’t be! I knew I had to wait for a long time in the book to reveal it, but I realized that her father was in reality a vicious anti-Semite. This is what I mean about the autonomy of the character: how characters become more real than real. What amazed me was that I discovered this about this young woman even as I was writing—this revelation came out of the blue. But I was totally convinced that she was telling the truth first, and I only realized in my inner self that she was lying. That to me is a testimony of the ability for characters in a novel—at least of the kind I was writing—to take on a life of their own. William Styron, Paris Review, Art of Fiction No. 156, 1999

We know how babies are made, for the most part, which is to say we know the mechanics of it. What we cannot grasp is how a particular life enters that evolving physical tissue. A reasonable person might concede that since we don’t understand how it happens, we are ill-equipped to judge when it happens. But that’s another topic. The fact is that it does happen. So it is with writers. Like Geppetto carving his wooden puppet and hoping for a real boy, our dreams come true when our wooden characters magically transform into real boys and girls.

It happens to all writers whose work blossoms from the good earth of characters, but none of us knows how it happens. It just does. And when it does, it’s like electricity hitting Frankenstein’s creature. Suddenly, the collection of pieces we’ve cobbled together draws a breath and becomes a being with his or her own desires, motives, and agendas. We know these characters aren’t real people, but I’d venture to say they are as real to us as the memory of a person. Especially once the work is complete. Proof of life comes when they are that real to our readers, too.

My life’s enriched by the many, many characters I’ve read and loved, and by the ones I’ve written. They are my strongest motivation to write. If I don’t write, they aren’t born.

“Sing, O barren,
You who have not borne!

Break forth into singing, and cry aloud,
You who have not labored with child!
For more are the children of the desolate
Than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.
Isaiah 54:1 New King James Version

 

 

Posted in 2017, Words | Comments Off on A Writer’s Womb

More Where That Came From

[The poem] “Mythopoeia” was inspired by the 19 September 1931 conversation in which [J.R.R.] Tolkien and [Hugo] Dyson convinced [C.S.] Lewis that the Christian story is a myth that “really happened.”…This conversation changed the course of Lewis’s life. It also clarified and solidified Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation, his conviction that human creativity is a reflection of the Divine. This poem contains his most eloquent expression of this concept:

man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, Diana Pavlac Glyer, 2016

I think J.R R. Tolkien was on to something, and I’m not the first to think so. A very practical disciple named James, who wrote a letter a couple of thousand years before Tolkien, put it this way, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” A lot of translators qualify the word “lights,” rendering it “the heavenly lights.” But the Greek doesn’t hint at that meaning. It reads simply, “ho phos.” The lights. The Father of the lights.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told a crowd of people, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Light shines indiscriminately. A lamp doesn’t care who’s in the room; it just does its thing. Likewise, the sun and the moon and the stars shine on everyone, deserving or not. Indeed, later in that beautiful sermon, Jesus said, “…I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good….”

It’s tragic, really, that as a group, we Christians are better known for making rules than streaming light. Rules are about Religion, with a capital R. But light, well, light’s about love and grace and generosity. Light is good. “Shine a light on it,” we say, when we want to make sense of a thing. Light helps people see what they’re doing. People can work in the light. They can play in the light. Light wakes folks up.

About 40 years ago, Pastor Jack Hayford taught a series of messages called “Released Unto Resource Fullness.” I expect they are available in the digital library. In one of the messages, Pastor Hayford told the story of visiting a church that had a really good pianist. During the worship service, this pianist played a chord, a progression of notes, that Pastor Hayford had never heard before. He’s a musician himself, so he went to the pianist after the service and asked him to show him the chord. “Oh, no,” the brother said. “That’s mine.” Pastor Hayford said he thought the man was joking, but he was not.

The point of Pastor Hayford’s message was not the man’s stinginess, but that God, whose abundance is without measure, at least any human measure, has an endless supply of goodies to pass to us and through us. Our part is to be willing to give it away with generous hands, as Jesus did when he fed a crowd of hungry followers. As a young boy did, when he willingly gave to the Lord his lunch of a few fish and bits of bread. Thousands were sated, with leftovers. Lots and lots of leftovers. Plenty for everyone.  Indeed, Jesus plainly said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” So there you have it. Abundance with a capital A.

Close-fistedness manifests in many ways, from the cook who won’t share her secret recipe to the drug company whose medicine is priced exorbitantly high because of greed. None of it is helpful, and none of it is godly. I pray we recognize we are all, at best, recipients of God’s goodness and light, and that we become better ministers of it to others. This I pray, beginning with myself.

After all, there is always more where that came from.

Posted in 2017 | Comments Off on More Where That Came From

Heart to Heart

Clarissa takes one of Richard’s hands in hers. She is surprised, even now, at how frail it is—how palpably it resembles a bundle of twigs.
He says, “Here we are. Don’t you think?”
“Pardon me?”
“We’re middle-aged and we’re young lovers standing beside a pond. We’re everything, all at once. Isn’t it remarkable?”
“Yes.”
“I don’t have any regrets, really, except that one. I wanted to write about you, about us, really. Do you know what I mean? I wanted to write about everything, the life we’re having and the lives we might have had. I wanted to write about all the ways we might die.” The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Someone once said a writer needs to write like a cow needs to give milk. The act of putting words on the page, of composing—just that action—brings the writer the same satisfaction an old milk cow gets when her full udder is emptied. I believe this is a true comparison. There is an ache in the need to write, a yearning to—by some combination of insight and capacity and skill—distill into sentences life’s wonder, its vastness, its past and present and future.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve taken into my own heart the aching heart of every writer whose work I’ve tried to comprehend. Perhaps this is the tribal ritual of writers, past and present, our version of pulling a brave warrior’s heart from his chest and eating it. We feast on the fierce originality of those whose tracks—ink on paper—we follow, and thereby we become fierce and original, too.

 

Posted in 2017, Words | Comments Off on Heart to Heart

Love The One You’re With

Tribe. n. a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18 ESV

I recently enjoyed the company of a three year old for a few days—the daughter of good friends. She lives in another town, one quite a bit different from mine, so our time together was a vacation from her routine in every way. The schedule was relaxed, and the activities were exciting. It was easy to see she had mixed emotions as the visit drew to a close: She didn’t want it to end—she was having buckets of fun—but she missed her family, too. As it happened, there was a family dinner the night of her return home. At one point in the evening, I noticed her at the other end of the table, nestled among cousins, aunts and uncles, mom and dad, grandparents and great-grandparents, a big shining smile on her face. She looked so very contented to be with her people again, to be among those with whom she shares life day to day and week to week. She’s back with her tribe, I thought.

I Googled “Tribe” and found everything from “7 tips to finding your tribe” to “The 3-step plan to find your tribe” to “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” That last one’s especially catchy, don’t you think? These weren’t new websites, either. Apparently, we’ve been talking tribal for years. I hear the term used a lot among writers, as in, “Find your tribe!”

Okay. Sure. That sounds good.

Our infatuation with the term “diversity” notwithstanding, we humans are tribal. “Birds of a feather flock together,” we’ve said for as long as there have been words and birds. As surely as the moon pulls the tides, we’re pulled toward like-minded people. We don’t have to work at it, even if we’re only three years old. And guess what. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to want to be with people who value what we value, who see the world as we see it, who think the way we we think. People who, if we can’t finish their sentences, at least we comprehend them. In fact, I think it’s healthy to acknowledge that we, as humans, need our tribes. We just don’t need them to the exclusion of everyone else.

I once knew a man, years in the grave now, who was born and raised on a farm. He never traveled beyond fifty miles or so from the house where he was born, the house in which he lived until he was an old man. He never knew anyone outside his family and neighbors, not really. He could read and write, but he did not read or write. He was the most opinionated person I’ve ever met, and he never saw a reason to entertain opinions that were different from his. Folks with highfalutin ideas were just plain stupid. My old acquaintance seems awfully dull and provincial to us more sophisticated types, but I’m not convinced he was all that different from us. I think maybe he just didn’t know how to put enough spit and shine on his narrow-mindedness to make it look like something else.

We are more alike than different, and we’re most alike in our bonds with our peeps. It’s a generous play to give people who are outside our tribe the liberty to be different, without judging them. But it seems like the right play. In fact, it’s probably the only play that has a future for every tribe and tongue.

Well, there’s a rose in a fisted glove,
And the eagle flies with the dove,
And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey,
Love the one you’re with.

 

 

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Unnecessary Wear and Tear

“To me, it’s all about perceptions, perceptions about life or human nature or the way something looks or the way something sounds. Two or three of them on a page in a notebook, that’s what it’s really all about. Getting enough of them to enliven every page of a novel, like light. I mean, to call them felicities is wrong. You have to have a clumsier formulation, something like droplets of originality, things that are essentially your own, and are you. If I die tomorrow, well, at least my children, who are approaching as we speak, at least they will have a very good idea of what I was like, of what my mind was like, because they will be able to read my books. So maybe there is an immortalizing principle at work even if it’s just for your children. Even if they’ve forgotten you physically, they could never say that they didn’t know what their father was like.” Martin Amis, The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 151, Spring 1998

Did you know that poodles are hunting dogs at heart? Even the toy sort. I knew two poodles, one chocolate and one black, who together did not weigh as much as a large tomcat. Yet these two, Genevieve and Maddie, once tore to pieces a beautiful Christmas angel that was to be a gift. Because that’s what poodles do. I wish you could have seen how much fluff came from that deconstructed angel. It was scattered from here to yon across the living room rug, and in the midst of it reposed the two pudelhunds, heads high, proud and satisfied with the work they’d done. As far as those two were concerned, the angel was just another chew toy, and not a very sturdy one at that.

To write well is to revise. To revise well is to dissect, analyze, cull and rearrange, then stitch it all together again, hopefully without too many seams and in a prettier form than it was before. This is necessary, and it is good, but it’s hard on the writer. There’s a wear and tear to the process and a recovery from it. Like surgery. Because of this, writers ought to be darned selective about critique. Our work is not a chew toy, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Critique belongs to those whose aesthetics we admire and those whom we trust. How else will the work be elevated? But emerging writers, and those who are yet to emerge, are given to showing off what they’ve done. They present it to anyone and everyone who’ll hold still long enough to give an opinion. And…well…you know what they say about opinions.

The Paris Review Art of Fiction No. 151  is a delight, and I recommend reading all of it. When asked how important ego and self-confidence are to the writer, Martin Amis had this to say,

“Novelists have two ways of talking about themselves. One in which they do a very good job of pretending to be reasonably modest individuals with fairly realistic opinions of their own powers and not atrociously ungenerous in their assessments of their contemporaries. The second train of thought is that of the inner egomaniac; your immediate contemporaries are just blind worms in a ditch, slithering pointlessly around, getting nowhere. You bestride the whole generation with your formidability. The only thing your contemporaries are doing—even the most eminent of them—is devaluing literary eminence. Basically they’re just stinking up the place. You open the book pages and you can’t understand why it isn’t all about you. Or, indeed, why the whole paper isn’t all about you. I think without this kind of feeling you couldn’t operate at all. The ego has to be roughly this size. I’m not sure it’s true, but I was told by a poet friend that even William Golding can come into a literary party at six-thirty and do a good imitation of a self-effacing man of letters, but at nine o’clock the whole room may be brought to silence by his cry of I’m a genius! Just give him a bullhorn. They may have their little smiles and demurrals and seem twinkly and manageable characters but really . . . Is there anything you’d like to add? Yes. I’m a genius! End of interview. There’s also the flip side, of course—terrific vulnerability, crying jags, the seeking of the fetal position after a bad review and all that kind of stuff.”

I suppose once you’ve written something that unveils human nature as unflinchingly as Lord of the Flies, you deserve to unleash your inner egomaniac. The fetal position is much more familiar to the rest of us. God knows—no matter how formidable our genius—once our work is public, there’ll be no shortage of critics. But in the mean time, during the revision process, we ought to find a safe place among our writerly colleagues.

The moral is this: Guard your confidence. It’s the portal to that beautiful wellspring whence creativity flows. As Mr. Amis wisely observed, “…you trust entirely to instinct. It’s all you’ve got. Writer’s block, disintegration of the writer, that’s all to do with failing confidence.”

Not only that, guard the confidence of others. If other writers trust us enough to give us access to their work—in a group or one on one—we must take care to grasp what they’re trying to do, lest we boorishly trample their pearls of originality.

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2017, Words | Comments Off on Unnecessary Wear and Tear

Pray Without Ceasing

“The captive exile hastens, that he may be loosed, that he should not die in the pit, and that his bread should not fail.” Isaiah 51:14

I’ve had a few recurring dreams. One in particular is very disturbing, and I’m always relieved to wake up from it. It may sound silly, this dream, but I hate it. In it, I have a parakeet that I’ve forgotten to feed or water for a long time. When I finally notice the poor bird, who is caged and depends entirely on me for sustenance, it isn’t quite dead, only skeletal and suffering—I know, this is awful, hard to write even—and the bird has suffered in silence a long time. That’s part of my awareness in the dream, the knowledge that its pain has gone on a long time. And it’s my fault, not because I was deliberately cruel, but because I was simply neglectful. I didn’t bother to notice. I was busy and didn’t pay attention. The last time I dreamed this dream, a couple of months ago, there was a new twist: I didn’t feed the bird because I thought it was dead already. This twist finally elevated the dream from an occasional, unpleasant experience to a teachable moment. Perhaps I’m a little like King David of Israel, who was more empathetic toward slaughtered lambs than slaughtered spouses, a fact the prophet Nathan leveraged to make the king understand the grievous nature of his sin against Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah (2 Samuel 12).

I think this dream of mine is not so much about parakeets as prayer.

I know of one congregation in California who pray as if they are the only ones praying. That seems like a very good idea, despite our secret belief as Christians that if we don’t do something we feel impressed to do, surely the Lord will move someone else to do it. You know, someone more “called” to that particular task. It’s probably not realistic to believe there will always be someone else to do what we should be doing and aren’t. That’s not really how life works, is it? Chances are, if it’s ours to do, and we don’t, it won’t get done.

Paul instructed the Thessalonian church to pray without ceasing. We could read 1 Thessalonians 5:17 with a hyper-spiritual notion about keeping a line open to heaven, but that line is always open to the believer. It stays open because of what Jesus did, not what we do. So I’m wondering if Paul might have had praying for others, a.k.a. intercession, on his mind. Those three little words might just be my command to keep praying for the ones who belong to me—I know who they are—even if the unenviable circumstances of their lives have gone on so long that it’s almost impossible to believe they will ever change. It doesn’t matter if I really don’t  want to see these people ever again—my sentiments are beside the point. It doesn’t even matter if I’m dead to them or they’re dead to me. My charge is simple: Pray. Every day. Don’t stop. Even if the prayer is no more than, “Lord, give them this day their daily bread.”

I don’t know if the Lord spoke to me through that crazy dream or not, but I do find fresh compassion in my heart where there was apathy before. I wouldn’t say my heart grew three sizes like the Grinch’s, but it’s definitely roomier in there.

And, hey, maybe I won’t ever have that darned old dream again.

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2017 | Comments Off on Pray Without Ceasing

The Weary World Rejoices

“For we know that the whole creation groans together and travails in pain together until now.” Romans 8:22, Darby Translation

“It was, of course, the memory of Sophie and Nathan’s long-ago plunge that set loose this flood [of tears], but it was also a letting go of rage and sorrow for the many others who during these past months had battered at my mind and now demanded my mourning…who were but a few of the beaten and butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the earth.” William Styron, Sophie’s Choice

In 1893, a young Norwegian artist named Edvard Munch produced a piece he called “The Scream of Nature” that depicts not only a human screaming, hands clasped to face, but also a convulsing, indeed travailing, sky and sea. Needless to say, the painting is disturbing and so dramatic that its elements appear to be in motion. One wonders what melancholic insight moved a painter to express such anguish, but that scream must resonate with a lot of people because the painting is very famous.

In his novel, The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Another writer, Virginia Woolf, had this similar thought, “The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” The great comic and tragic irony is that even people who manage to miss the worst the curse has to offer arrive at the same destination as those who do not: Death. It is this ultimate pointlessness that prompts Hemingway’s and Woolf’s observations. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, discusses this far more lucidly than I can in his 2015 series Questioning Christianity. Skeptics welcome.

There are too many sad stories in the world to tell them all, be they fact or fiction. Just this month I saw Manchester by the Sea, a film beautifully shot on Cape Ann, Mass—one of my favorite places—that tells the story of a young man trapped in pain so great he barely endures day to day. He’s very quiet and still, most of the time, but by the end of the film the viewer has no doubt Munch painted his soul and its landscape.

A couple of summers ago, I went to the Dallas Market with my friend Sue who owns a retail shop, The Lily Field. Sue was shopping for Christmas merchandise for the upcoming season. That’s a funny thing about retailers—they must plan for the season that’s still half a year away. So, we were strolling through the temporary displays when we came upon a vendor with some rustic wooden signs. There was this one small sign, about fifteen by fifteen, white letters on a black background, propped against some others. The sign read simply, “The Weary World Rejoices.” That brief phrase in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of Market stopped us in our tracks. Not a word was said, but we both teared up at the relief that had come in the person of Jesus.

When the child who had been born in a stable in Bethlehem—heralded by angels (Luke 2) and whom prophets had foretold (Isaiah 9:6)—when that child had grown into a man, he introduced himself to the world with these words,

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

There are countless people whose pain Jesus has taken. These beaten and butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the earth somehow found the Christ and in an intimate exchange that no other person can comprehend or ever take away, they received beauty for ashes, joy for mourning, praise for heaviness, and their broken hearts were healed. They went on to live healthy, fulfilled lives. You may not know who they are because they don’t talk about what happened. It was between them and the Christ. I know. I’m one of them.

O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. 

Fall on your knees!
Oh, hear the angel voices!

O night divine
O night when Christ was born;

O night divine!
O night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need!
Our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King!
Before him lowly bend!

Behold your King!
Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord!
We ever, ever praise Him! 

His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

 

Posted in 2016 | Comments Off on The Weary World Rejoices

Lord of Creation

A Psalm of David

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
    and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them,
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure,
    making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure,
    enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is clean,
    enduring forever;
The rules of the Lord are true,
    and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can discern his errors?
    Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
    let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Posted in 2016 | Comments Off on Lord of Creation