From the Basement

August 2, 2010

Don’t Give It Away: Notes from My Younger Self

Today, I was digging for books in the closet under the stairs, looking for books from a favorite series I’ve been re-reading, but I found a few other things, instead: books on writing, books on business, my long-lost Scrabble dictionary,The Sacred Romance, An Unfinished Marriage – all these books I remember from pre-college days but had long since lost and forgotten about.

There was one particular book I pulled from the pile: Don’t Give It Away! by Iyanla Vanzart, a workbook on self-awareness and self-affirmations for young women. Can I just say that I love my mom for giving me that kind of book as a teenage girl?  I learned to write through my emotions at an early age, and I was bad at keeping a consistent journal, so books like this one are precious to me – glimpses into the psyche of my earlier self.

True to form, my mom wrote notes to me throughout the book, many that were centered on Jesus, as Vanzart’s books – while spiritual – draw from a variety of faiths. Mom was wonderful, writing things like: Be patient and fearless. Let Jesus be the center of your joy! You are an original, unique creation. You are overflowing with linguistic intelligence – use it for good! Don’t worry over someone else’s opinion of you! Ask yourself, ‘Am I pleasing God?’ If the answer is yes, then let God take care of the rest. The answers to all of your questions can be found in God’s Word. Bury His Word in your heart!

My mom had a mom who did not encourage her, so she was always sure to affirm and encourage her daughters; she poured out her love into us and told us about the ever-flowing, gracious love of our Creator.

I wanted to share some notes I found in the book, notes from my earlier self and notes I wrote down today. Something I love about myself is how I date things; I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I like to go back and see what I’m thinking. The first notes in this book were between 1999-2001 (mom gave it to me on my first day of middle school).

And then, there are notes from 2004, when I was at the Crazy Church (I don’t think I’ve written about the Crazy Church, but I will at some point). Even if there weren’t dates, I would know it was that time – the language (the emphasis on being “sold out”), the belief that God would do what He wanted with me regardless of the desires He put on my heart, the overpowering guilt – these feelings are both tacit and stated in my comments. Now, being God centered is, of course, not a bad thing! But everything was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus – there was no enjoyment of the gifts He has given, and no faith that He would work in ways I enjoyed (He doesn’t always, of course, but feeling sure that He never will is not healthy). There are two extremes: being so about Jesus that you totally ignore the world and the gifts that are here and, alternately, being so consumed with the world and the gifts that we forget the Giver.  I’ve definitely been on both sides of that coin.

So, sharing a few notable items that stuck out. The first one caught my eye because I was talking about striving. At age 13 or 14. And thinking it was good. Oh goodness.

Prompt: The most perfect thing about me is…

2001, age 14: that I strive in my spiritual life. I nurture my talents. Note: this is when I still thought striving was a virtue. I say that because I’ve only recently realized that it isn’t.

2004, age 17 (at the Crazy Church): I am not perfect. I’m a work in progress, needing continual rebuilding. I can’t get through a day without God catching me at least 50 times. Note: that is so true! But I can feel the self-recrimination in my younger self’s voice (in this comment and others), and I know what happens to her the next year: total spiritual breakdown, total darkness. I feel her feelings of not being enough, of being constantly told she’s a sinner without being reminded that God’s grace extends beyond initial salvation! I feel her lack of mercy. Oh, I have such compassion for her!

2010, age 22, almost 23 (because I couldn’t resist making more notes): That I am a daughter of the King. He loves me perfectly, exquisitely! His promises are always true and His mercies are new every morning. When all is stripped away, there I am, in the middle of the road, walking hand in hand with the One who put the stars in the sky.

Another prompt demonstrates how changeable and glorious the young, imaginative mind is – I was always coming up with crazy new careers to pursue. What careers did you want to pursue when you were younger, and what did they say about your desires?

Prompt: I dream that one day I will…

6th grade: Save a premature baby. I will write a bestseller. I will score the winning basket!

7th grade: I will be a market-researching executive. I’ll write a bestseller. I’ll make varsity volleyball. I’ll get a full ride scholarship to UM. I’ll grow in Christ. I’ll own my own business.

8th grade: I’ll be a lawyer/writer. I’ll go to Duke and Harvard Law.

10th grade: Writer, business – but whatever God puts in front of me. (There’s that doubt that God would give me what I wanted… so pervasive in the 2004 comments; it wasn’t there earlier.) U of Chicago. Wheaton. U of Iowa. (I went to a private, secular liberal arts college, LOL!)

After college: write a novel, marry the BF, adopt kids, learn to rest! 🙂

Some things are so striking in their consistency across the years: a seeming inability to believe in good things, the prayer for wisdom, frustration with my baby sister, the song “Hold Me Now” by Jennifer Knapp, issues with control and striving.

Can I share a few funnies? I laugh when I read things my younger self wrote, but she is so right!

“When I look at me, I see a young woman with drive, ambition, and gorgeous lips! I love me! I am totally awesome – a rockin’ gurl who is 14 and one day!” (Yes, girl is spelled that way and it is underlined.)

“The best thing I can do for myself is eat healthily, read the Bible, and pray – and pamper myself!” (this was pre-Crazy Church, when I wouldn’t have written “pamper myself”)

My 13 or 14-year-old self, in response to The thing that really confuses me is: “Love! Everyone says it’s wonderful and horrible. I have no clue.” Amen, sister.

And last but not least… after one of the notes I wrote today, I added a P.S. for my older self:

I hope you are writing. I hope you are finding peace and joy in Him who loves you as no one else will ever love you. I hope you are resting in His arms.

August 1, 2010

Reconnecting with Old Friends (a.k.a. Books)

The last few days have been a bit discouraging on the writing front. So today, I eschewed working on the novel in favor of reconnecting with old friends. I plowed through The Serpent on the Crown, one of the later installments in the Amelia Peabody series, and honest to goodness, it does not seem an overstatement to say it was good for the soul. It was such a pleasure to hang out with characters I’ve known since my early teen years, to laugh and (almost) cry, to enjoy a good mystery, to just enjoy reading again.

So I’m curious – what books do you pick up when in need of restoration? Which old friends do you like to visit? What stories make you forget that you’re reading?

July 30, 2010

To Eschew:

Filed under: Choices,Faith,Fiction,Writing — jeannablue @ 4:06 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Deliberately avoid using; abstain from

“Eschew” is one of my favorite words. And right now, it could be used in the context of:

I am eschewing the job hunt for the next month in order to work on my novel – and to learn to trust God’s provision.

These last weeks have brought a lot of despondency and spiritual revelation, and I’m in a place – God, please help me – where I can honestly say that finishing the novel isn’t so much about selling it to a publisher as it is about learning to rely on my Savior for my daily bread. I cannot look to a job as my source of security, nor can I look to writing as my ticket out. My prayer this month is for a change in perspective — to develop a trust in God that resonates in the depths of my soul. I so identify with the cry of the father in Mark 9: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Hebrews 13:5-6 is my prayer for this next month:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

July 26, 2010

Youth is not a Limitation for God

In the last blog, I wrote that these last few months have been turbulent times filled with spiritual challenge and learning and growth, but also pain, heartache, doubt, fear, and anxiety. This week – the last few days – in particular have brought an avalanche of revelation.

What I would like to focus on tonight is one lie that has seeped into my life: that my youth and inexperience will keep God from using me, particularly in my calling. I put my faith in conventional wisdom that says that countless rejections must be collected before “breaking in”; what’s more, I measure success in human standards of being published. And when it comes to the ever-frightening idea of writing a non-fiction book on Christian living, or just meditations on faith from an unemployed college graduate, I practically freeze with fear, knowing that I lack the credentials – the degrees, the experience – to be published.

It’s really hard to put it out there and say that yeah, I have those dreams.

One caveat here. Over the last few months, I’ve read a flood of articles on unemployed college graduates and on the “Entitlement” complex of Generation Y – how we think we’re entitled to better work and whatnot. Personally, I’m totally willing to do the grunt assistant jobs. Get coffee for someone for years before “making it”? Sure! I’m willing to pay my dues. And similarly, when it comes to publication, I’m willing to start at the bottom. Rejection will happen and a thick skin is necessary. I recently sent out my first story to a professional publication, and I hold no illusions about making it in – it’s valuable experience and you know, I’m putting myself out there. We’ll see what happens.

Here’s my issue: conventional wisdom says that youth = inexperience = lack of wisdom, lack of success. And it’s common wisdom for a reason – it’s common!

BUT. With God, all things are possible. Do we really believe this? Youth is not a limitation for God. Inexperience is not a limitation for God. And it is dangerous when the youth internalize this “conventional wisdom” – that they must wait for wisdom, wait to be used, wait for Their Calling, simply because they are young.

It’s about keeping a right perspective. The fact is, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority are some of the most powerful tools Satan can use to keep us down.

It is crucial to remember that God doesn’t call the equipped – he equips the called. We are called to lean on him and not on our own understanding; we claim that the joy of the Lord is our strength and our salvation. God does not require an advanced degree or decades of experience to be used. In fact, he delights to show his strength in our weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Paul writes:

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

A dear friend of mine is going to a foreign country for ten months to set up an organization in a field she is not trained in. She’s the one who first told me that God equips the called, and it was a blessing to be able to repeat her words back to her when we had lunch a few days ago. Skills and knowledge can be learned – the content she’s working with can be learned – but she has an invaluable knowledge going in: the knowledge of the mercy and grace of Christ Jesus and her ability to show His compassionate love to others. Jesus will make a way where there is seemingly no way.

Our youth and inexperience are perfect opportunities for the Lord to make manifest His glory, for we really cannot boast on our own wisdom and understanding. Indeed, God recently slammed a door in my face that would have brought me that advanced degree and the worldly respect that accompanies it.

It is not wishful thinking or naiveté that gives me so powerful an assurance in this wonderful quality of God’s, but rather His own words. God delights to use the ill equipped, the young, the “wrong” choice to bring about His glory. Two examples come to mind: Moses and Esther. When God drew Moses to Himself via the burning bush (such an awesome idea), He said: “Come now… I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Moses’ reply falls from his lips before he can stop himself – “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

He protests. Even though we can see how Moses is uniquely, wondrously called to this task (saved from Pharaoh’s edict as a baby, raised in the palace, familiar with Egyptian customs, and y’know, he’s sort of the brother of the current Pharaoh) – in spite of all this, Moses clearly felt himself ill qualified. He doubted himself. He didn’t think he was worthy.

God’s response to Moses’ fears? “I will certainly be with you.”

We are never enough; He is always enough. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.

Of course, God’s assurances do not assure Moses – a chapter later, Moses is still arguing with God, saying he’s not eloquent enough to speak. And yet God provides for this weakness, as well (Moses’ biological brother, Aaron, is a gifted speaker).

God will make a way where there is no way.

Similarly, Esther is called to act in a radical way. She is a young Jewish girl hiding her beliefs from her new husband, who just happens to be the King of Persia. She’s inexperienced and, in spite of the presence of her cousin Mordecai, frighteningly alone. However, she is thrust into Purpose headfirst when one of the king’s advisors, Haman, hatches a plot that would destroy all Jews in Persia (the Holocaust, only thousands of years earlier).

Mordecai implores Esther to go to the King and beg his mercy, and she protests, reminding Mordecai that no one can enter the King’s inner sanctum unless personally called (death is a possibility for such radical disobedience). Mordecai’s response to Esther’s fear is famous: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)

In spite of their youth and inexperience, even in the face of their fear and anguish, God used Moses and Esther to deliver His people in marvelous ways. In fact, he positioned them perfectly. They acted against convention, against “common wisdom” – they were willing to risk death in order to obey the call of God on their lives.

They were willing to be used. Humility and submission: these are the qualities we are all to cultivate in terms of obedience to God. The aged and the young, the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated – regardless of status, a humble, submissive spirit before the throne can and will be used by the Father.

One example of awesome humility and submission was Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the angel Gabriel came to her, she was 14 – eight years younger than I am right now. Luke tells us that Mary was “troubled” at the angel’s appearance and greeting; Gabriel exhorted her to not be afraid. When he told her of her calling – to bear the son of God! – her one question was an understandably logistical one (that she was sort of a virgin). The angel answered her question, finishing “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary then replied, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

Wow. Wow.

Mary then visits her cousin Elizabeth (who is preggers with John the Baptist) and her song is just incredible.

My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior.

For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.

For He who is mighty has done great things for me,

And holy is His name. (Luke 1:46-49)

She is 14, engaged, pregnant with the son of God, and about to face ridicule, condemnation, and public gossip. (Remember that Joseph almost leaves her over this.) She is no fool – she is well aware of what happens to women in her situation, and yet her faith is absolute. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior” – let that be an inspiration and exhortation to us today.

(I realize that it may sound as if I am implying that youth and inexperience are inherently limitations and weaknesses. Not so! We all are possessed of limitations and weaknesses that seem like mountains, but these are nothing for our God.)

How glorious it is, as a young person, to know our savior, redeemer, lover, friend. How wonderful is it to be pursuing His heart, His right thinking this early! To not waste decades and years on the pursuit of vanity – things that cannot possibly fill us. How awesome to be walking in His light, to be seeking Him, to be latching onto our callings at such a young age! Oh, my prayer, friends, is that we would all walk in our callings, for how beautiful will they unfold – like flowers opening under the sun – over the years and decades of our lives to come.

I would like to offer a snippet of a sermon from John Piper on this subject of youth and wisdom. He uses quotes from Ecclesiastes and Job that are just outstanding sources of encouragement on this topic.

To bring our minds into conformity with God. Job 32:8: “But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding.” To walk in the Spirit, pursuing His calling on our lives in our youth, for indeed, we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

I really like the song “Song of Hope (Heaven Come Down)” by Robbie Seay Band. And there’s one line that gives me chills – it’s the first line of the chorus.

I will sing a song of hope, sing along

God of heaven come down, heaven come down

Just to know that you are near is enough

God of heaven come down, heaven come down

I will sing a song of hope. That is our calling – all of our calling – on this earth. Not literally singing, perhaps, but proclaiming the perfect Hope we have in our Creator.

Lord, I pray that I would have the courage to sing a song of hope, in whatever form you want me to sing, to whoever you want me to sing to. That I would not let my own fear get in the way. My own insecurities, my own anxieties about youth or inexperience or pride or whatever else I’m dealing with. Jesus, your strength is made perfect in my weakness. You are enough. All of you is enough for all of me. I pray for the strength to proclaim your word boldly, to love boldly, to sing boldly, to hope with a boldness and strength that can only come from you. Amen.

July 20, 2010

Curls, Control, & Contentment: An Essay on Faith

I wrote this back in January (hence the references to grad school), but I really needed to read it today. How awesome is it when God uses us to remind ourselves of His goodness and mercy…

~*~

I’m currently sitting at my aunt’s office desk, and for some inexplicable reason I have a bottle of hairspray next to me. It is extreme hold hairspray. It literally says that. Extreme. It is beyond strong, beyond maximum – extreme (Aussie Instant Freeze). On the front, it says that it “arrests your style.” Seriously? My hair is under arrest! That is the level to which I’ve resorted in order to feel like I’m in control.

Let’s back up. In 7th grade, I cut my budding curls down to a pixie cut. As in, early 1990s Winona Ryder short. My hair, which went from straight to curly during those peachy puberty years, absolutely terrified me. I had no confidence in my ability to manage my curls. So I cut them off until I was ready to grow them back out, ready to deal with them (it took a year).

This is me in a nutshell. I was so scared of this unruly thing in my life (it just so happened to be growing on my head), that I cut it off and kept it at a distance until I was ready to let it back into my life, where I timidly began to think about creative ways to manage it. I am now to the point where I’m perfectly comfortable letting my three (maybe four) day hair be shown in public – or perhaps that’s senioritis attacking my personal hygiene. Who knows.

At the root of this fear is a lack of confidence. I didn’t have confidence in what I was given. I also didn’t have confidence in my ability to manage the situation. But really, I didn’t have confidence in myself (or my Creator). We control-freaks hold things with a death grip, terrified that letting go means falling into the unknown – into the painful truth that we don’t control nearly as much as we think we do. The world does not revolve around our plans and schedules, wants and desires. There are plenty of things that are absolutely outside of our control, and we have to learn to accept that. Easier said than done. I for one am so not there yet, but it’s where my heart wants to be, and I think that counts for something.

As graduating seniors, we are concerned with getting a job, getting into graduate school – things that are decidedly outside of our control. Our conversations abound with negative prophecies and heart-heavy predictions. There are so many unknown factors, things that can have absolutely nothing to do with us – budgets, hiring cuts, smaller acceptance rates. Maybe… maybe… maybe… We love to torture ourselves with fantasies of worst-case scenarios. And to what end? Imagining the future only leads to heartache. It distracts us from the present as well as from the promises of our faith. As C.S. Lewis said, the future is the thing that is least like eternity. When it comes down to it, dwelling on the future merely feeds my lust for control.

It helps to get perspective, and that can come from both good and bad situations. I most recently got a reality-check from the latter. I met a friend for lunch the other day. That morning, I’d completed yet another application and for some reason, the anxiety was shooting through the roof, to the point where I ended up running to the toilet. Proof that all those negative anxieties and fantasies we indulge in affect our bodies.

So I met my friend for lunch. My news – applications (what else is new?). Her news – her cousin, who is around our age, was diagnosed with cancer. Talk about perspective. Now, this is not one of those “it can always be worse” exhortations – that’s not a productive method of coping. Rather, that lunch was a reminder. Even though there is the fundamental difference that I invited my situation and her cousin did not, life remains a series of unknowns for us both and, indeed, for everyone. It takes a lot of faith to get through each day.

The unknowns can bad things we don’t expect. Illness. The death of a loved one. A breakup, a divorce. Arrest. And then they can be things that we do – like knowing we’ll hear back, one way or the other, from prospective jobs, internships, schools. Getting to hold a newborn baby. Going home for Christmas to find the house chock-full of treats baked in anticipation of your arrival. And then, wow, there are the genuine surprises – like meeting the right person at the right time or unexpectedly finding a way to pay for something you’ve needed. The fun chances, the joyful surprises – these happen all around us, too!

We forget that it’s not our ability to predict or expect outcomes that matters. None of us have that kind of foresight. It’s how we handle those outcomes, those journeys. It comes down to having confidence in yourself and not in your trappings or expectations. It’s about trusting who you are. Because we each have worth, we each have value, and no matter what situation we are placed in, those things are sure.

As believers, we are the beloved of Christ, and it is in His eyes that we are made whole and complete. When we find our identity in Him – when we know that Jesus is at our side and that He is our Abba Father who is for us, offering the gifts of peace and joy and grace and love – when we can rest in His loving arms and say “come what may” because all things work to the good of those who love Him who have been called according to His purpose – when we know that if our earthly parents love us and want to give us good gifts, how much more does He want to give! – when we know these things and can rest in them, there is confidence. There is peace. There is light. And it is that light in a difficult situation, that peace that surpasses all understanding – those are the things that mark us as His.

I want more peace. I want to radiate joy and contentment, not anxiety and fear. I have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing! He has hedged me behind and before, and as long as I just crawl up into His lap and remember that, first and foremost, I am a daughter of the King, all is good. Because life with him is good.

I’m reminded of the Niebuhr prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The good news is that He gives us serenity, courage, and wisdom. All we have to do is ask. We should consistently turn our situations over to Him in prayer, but so too should we ask for the character and the mindset that will alter how we see the situation. More righteousness. More Christlikeness – more like Christ.

Christ is perfect love, and perfect love casts out all fear. Lately, my fear has been crowding out my excitement. I don’t always feel like I can choose excitement, and that’s partly due to my internalization of the world telling me that a good student and an ambitious individual should be worrisome, anxious, nervous for their future. But why on earth am I taking their advice? I have EVERY reason to be excited right now. Every reason to have faith that all will work to the good. I rebuke the words that tell me that sitting around every day nervously checking my email and mailbox is a proper way to manage my time. Like my curls, I have no control over what’s growing right now.

Another issue at play here is waiting. Waiting is a blessed time, truly. In the Bible (and in life), it’s a time of preparation. Of prayerful supplication. Of purification. In short, waiting is a process to be embraced.

And I want to embrace this time: the waiting, the joy, and the knowledge that come what may, my Abba has got me on His lap and He’s saying “Wait for what I do next – I’ve got so many wonderful things planned for you! You’re going to love how I have you do My work, the opportunities to love people, to reach people – you’re going to love it, you’re just going to love it.” I want to shuck fear off of me, to slither out of that skin of anxiety and worry, to just be joy. I want that. And as long as my eyes are focused on my Abba, the joy is for the taking.

July 19, 2010

On Writing, Job Hunting, & Sun Tzu

You know you’re your mother’s daughter when you sit down in the Borders Cafe with The Art of War for Writers and are joined by your mother, who is reading The Art of War for Managers. Here’s to mother/daughter bonding with Sun Tzu.

Due to a lack of funds, I didn’t purchase the book, but one message (which I’d heard before) bears repeating — write hard, write fast. Tie that with Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Draft philosophy, and you’ve got a recipe for a first draft. Or rather, you have no excuses to not write a first draft.

So — having had my ass kicked by Sun Tzu’s modern devotees, I made a goal for myself: 15000 more words by Saturday. That comes out to 2500 a day, for those who do daily word counts. That’ll put me ca. 35000 words by the weekend, which is almost halfway through an 80000 word novel.

You’d think I would have been on fire today. But no.

Today is a wonderful example of how far I will go to avoid writing when I’ve tried to set goals. I spent way too many hours job hunting. Productive! may be what you’re thinking, but trust me, it’s more like, looking at every possible company (FBI, CIA, NSA, you know, the usual) and getting more and more depressed at the lack of jobs I’m qualified for.

I did find a few to apply to, however, and I even drafted one cover letter (not for a government agency).

This always happens. Whenever I set goals for my writing, my productivity in other areas kicks into steroid-like overdrive. Which is good for those areas. Just not for my word count.

So now that I’ve got that 6-hour job hunt out of my system (and two beers in me, let’s be honest), I’ll start writing.

I think.

15000 words aren’t gonna write themselves.

P.S. Whenever the words aren’t coming, the boyfriend suggests the Jack Bauer method of torture – you know the one about how when Jack Bauer lost his keys, he tortured himself until they gave up the location? Ah, never mind.

July 18, 2010

Desiring God/Desiring Publication

There’s a set of questions that have been tangled up in my mind lately, and they go something like this:

Is publication a godly goal? Is publication the eventual end game of all this writing? What happens if I don’t get published? Is it even okay to desire publication?

I’ve been reading Desiring God by John Piper, and I highly recommend it. He argues that the pursuit of pleasure is absolutely essential to the Christian life; that anything done without that joy is not edifying to others or glorifying to God, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him (I am oversimplifying his thesis here, so bear with me). Over the last few days, the readings on love, joy, and giving have been blowing my mind, and today, I was struck by how applicable some of his discussions were to this issue of Calling.

One issue Piper deals with is the contention that pleasure and virtue are mutually exclusive – that as believers, we cannot (should not) seek pleasure or reward in our actions (he, of course, argues that we can and we should). To me, publication is one of many writing “rewards.” You see the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon connection game that my brain played in about five seconds?

Let’s take a few steps back and start small. Let’s forget publication for a few minutes and talk about the relationship between action and reward, and the supposed binary between virtuous acts/pleasurable acts. Can a virtuous act be pleasurable?

To expound on that question, should an act be virtuous in and of itself, without reward? I’ve never understood the phrase “writing for the sake of writing.” At its heart is a worldly wisdom which says that for an act to be virtuous, we shouldn’t seek a reward. If it comes, okay, but we should not expect one. To that assertion, everything in me says, what a load of bollocks! I don’t write simply to put words on a page anymore than a painter paints so that he can brush some red stuff against a canvas. I write so that people will read, and what’s more, I find writing to be an intrinsically enjoyable pursuit. Is it still virtuous?

In 1941, C.S. Lewis basically A-bombed the idea that pleasure and virtue are irreconcilable in Christianity. He preached, “I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires [our pleasures] not too strong, but too weak.”

John Piper further expurgates this notion of virtue/pleasure as a binary with his thesis that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. Piper writes: “If love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of other people, and if God loves such joyful givers, then this joy in giving is a Christian duty, and the effort not to pursue it is sin” (104, italics mine).

I write because I am pursuing joy, because it is the most powerful way in which I experience God. I hold no illusions about giving back to God; there’s nothing I can give that He hasn’t first given me. Thus, writing has to be a primarily hedonistic pursuit, even though others are reading my work. It would be wrong for me to write out of duty – to say I am writing for your edification and not my own, to abandon any pleasure in the act. Joy comes from above, and so if I am joyless, then my work is empty, and it is not going to edify you at all. Piper uses the analogy of marriage: how awful would it be for him to bring his wife roses on their anniversary if he were motivated by duty and not by love. And so it is with God: we are to worship because of an overflow of love rather than because it is our “duty.” Piper reminds us that yes, God loves a cheerful giver!

It is right – it is pure – to seek joy and pleasure in the act and to invite others to come and experience the joy as well. Thus, my joy is your joy, and your joy is my joy. There is a natural culmination, a natural reward of such overflowing abundance.

There are those who may say that it is wrong to desire public joy in the fruits of your labor, as it were. That it is unvirtuous or ungodly to expect reward in an act of love or calling. To them, Piper offers the words of C.S. Lewis, who writes:

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not…. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.

The proper consummation, or reward, of writing is readership. It is not wrong to desire to reach people, to hope that others are edified by your work, for their enjoyment and edification may be seen as the consummation of the act. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul exhorts believers to use their gifts for the edification of the church, of the body. Indeed, he places the public expression of gifts over private in terms of edification – that it is better to edify the body rather than yourself alone (for in edifying the body, you are edifying yourself).

Enter my desire for publication – and this is where things get tricky. The desire for publication, for readers, may well be satisfied by sending essays to friends in email form or by blogging – and I’ve done both. Given our discussion of joy and public edification, readership in any form may be interpreted as Lewis’ ‘consummation.’

And yet in me there is both a contentment and a discontentment. There is pleasure in what I have, but there is the intense desire to pursue more of that pleasure.

This is the relationship we are to have with God, yes? Piper talks about it; Lewis does, too. There is in the believer a beautiful tension – holy contentment and holy discontentment working in tandem to till the heart, to work the soil for the Maker’s glory. My utmost for His highest, as it were.

On a good day, this is where I am with God: basking in his love, yet desperate to learn more. This is also where I like to be in my relationship – content with my beloved, yet yearning for greater depth and intimacy with him. And so it is with my writing. I am content with what I do, but I desire greater skill, greater knowledge, and – frankly – greater impact.

So where is the line? Does “impact” mean more readers? I’ll be honest – I often think it does. Does “impact” mean getting paid for my writing? – again, I often think it does. And there’s the rub.

It strikes me that the idea of getting paid to do what you love is a worldly goal. This is not to say that it is never a spiritual outcome; there are plenty of doctors, craftsmen, and writers whose callings have become intertwined with financial security. Piper and Lewis, for example.

But there is a danger when we start seeing money/worldly success as the end game, when we perceive that if there is not that success, then we have not fulfilled or obeyed our calling, or – worse – that the calling is not important. Too often, I fall into the trap of thinking something like this: I’m not published, so my writing isn’t touching anyone.

Which is, of course, total crap. I’ve only to look at my own life for examples of the contrary. One friend is a marvelously gifted actress, and the fact that she isn’t on Broadway (yet) does not mean that her talent and joy are not being shared with her audiences. It does not mean that she’s not walking in her calling. It does not mean that God is not bringing fruit – quite the contrary.

When the endgame becomes worldly success – getting paid to do what you love, as it were – it dilutes the joy in the act. It dilutes my present contentment, and it confuses my definition of “more impact.” When concern for money or security creeps in, holy discontent becomes sin.

John Piper says, “The ‘eagerness’ of ministry should not come from the extrinsic reward of money, but from the intrinsic reward of seeing God’s grace flow through you to others’” (109).

Is that reward enough for you today? Is it enough for me? We must be careful, lest our desire for the gift eclipse our yearning for the Giver.

Paul said that we act for the joy set before us. Are we acting for that joy? Are we hoping for that joy? Are we expecting that joy? One of my girlfriends likes to say, “Expect good things.” And indeed, that is the promise that is made – not easy things, not secure things, but pure things, good gifts from our perfect Father. Joy. Love. Encouragement. Relationship. Mercy. Forgiveness. Hope. Purpose.

Those are reasons to praise.

Those are reasons to write.

July 16, 2010

On Writing & Grief

Filed under: Family,Writing — jeannablue @ 6:28 pm
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Up until last night, the writing was not going well this week – prayer writing, blog writing, fiction writing. This has been hampered in part by exhaustion and in part by my own crazy expectations, but mostly because of the frightening illness that struck our 3-year-old cat, Lucy. She passed away late Wednesday night, and we got the call Thursday morning from the vet that she had died.

Strangely enough, I think that Lucy’s death has driven me back to writing. The week has been so clouded with uncertainty surrounding her illness that the clarity of her death was almost welcome – she’s out of pain, and there is an end to the madness that permeated the house. We said our goodbyes, and she is now buried in the backyard with a pinwheel marking her grave (stone marker to follow).

Where before the house was emotionally frantic, we are now settling down. There is sadness, and pain, and loss – especially for my mom – but things are coming back down to normal, whatever normal is.

Maybe the release of grief and frustration helped unlock the creative recesses of my brain, but the last 15 hours, say, have been a firestorm – not necessarily of writing (though I have been doing that) but rather of figuring out what the story is about. There’s a key event in the past that I didn’t know, and now I do. I feel like I can proceed so much more smoothly, knowing what it is that’s driving the heroine toward her present course of action.

Another thing that helped free the ideas was pictures. I don’t do this very often, but late last night I stumbled across a recommendation to go through magazines looking for pictures of your characters. I found many pictures, only a few that I know definitively are my characters, but that’s more than I had before, and seeing multiple pictures of them – even possibilities – was so encouraging, so inspiring.

I am well aware that losing a pet is not like losing a person, but there is a palpable sense of loss in a house that comes with the death of a beloved pet. And today, I am filling that sense of loss with writing, with experiencing my characters’ grief rather than my own, dealing with their families instead of mine. It’s times like this I am very grateful I have a story to disappear into.

July 14, 2010

The Light in the Tension

I haven’t been posting regularly due to a two-week excursion in which I visited various family and friends in four different states. Five modes of transportation, one great lake, and countless cups of coffee later, I’m a little tired but mostly rejuvenated.

Curiously, though, I’m not feeling rejuvenated in my writing. This is a really strange sensation. I wrote a lot at the first lake I visited (the “From the Lake” post), but after that… not much. I write longhand on yellow legal tablets, so I spent a lot of time typing up those notes, but aside from that – nada.

I attended church this last Sunday with my boyfriend’s family (the last stop on the trip). During the sermon, the pastor briefly discussed what he called “the tension between promise and fulfillment.” Those of you who have been reading can certainly understand why this phrase appeals to me; you’ve read my thoughts and prayers as I learn to negotiate the teeter-totter that is unemployment/contentment. But over the last two weeks, I’ve shared that information with a lot of people and, honestly, I’m a little burned out. I’ve spent so much time explaining that I’m focusing on my writing that I’m… err… not focusing on my writing.

These conversations have stoked the fire that is expectation. Expectation is one of those double-edged swords – on the one hand, it’s good to have goals, expectations, hopes, and dreams. But on the other hand, those expectations can turn into little monsters, things that make us cower in the corner because they seem too big. And I’m going to quote Nelson Mandela, who quoted Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

Sometimes, I’m as afraid of the work it will take to achieve as I am of total failure. It’s the tension between promise and fulfillment. For example, I know I will finish the novel I’m writing. This is a promise I’ve made to myself that will be fulfilled. But sometimes (like right now), I’m like a deer in the headlights, scared stiff in the middle of the road. My own expectations have spiraled out of control, and as a result they’ve halted my progress, halted my running.

This seems to happen when I forget the foundation of the promise. The foundation is the knowledge that writing is a gift from God. The foundation is knowing that He didn’t give me a gift and a calling only to leave me out in a barren wasteland. When I am centered on him and him alone, and not on myself and worries about success and reaching people and whatnot – in that, there is peace and security and love. There is no fear when we are walking in the light.

Marianne Williamson continues:

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

In Philippians 2, Paul says that we shine like “stars in the universe” in the midst of darkness and depravity. And Jesus calls us the “light of the world.” When we are walking in him, we are walking in the light.

His light in us is the gospel: his love, his mercy, his graciousness, his forgiveness, his faithfulness. And that light is manifested in many ways: relationships, words, actions. Through writing. Through acting. Through dancing. Through singing. Through… (your gifting here).

As the childhood song goes, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” The song exhorts us as children to not hide our light, or to let Satan “pff!” it out. What a powerful message this is for adult believers. Don’t hide your light – don’t be ashamed of the gospel or of the form ministry takes in your life. And above all, do not be discouraged. As Angela Thomas writes in Do You Think I’m Beautiful?:

In case you have missed it, there is a battle going on. The battle is for your soul. And if your soul belongs to God, Satan will go after your heart and your mind and your passion. You will still make heaven, but eventually he will turn up the fire and try to scorch your dreams, your enthusiasm, and your very life. …. As long as you and I are hauling that stuff around, Satan wins. And I’m so tired of him winning. (180)

Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Lately, my light has been dim. The beautiful thing is, all we need to do is look to the Lord for comfort, renewal, joy, love, peace. We can sing praises over our barren places and watch our Redeemer tenderly and faithfully work that land. What was (or is) barren can be fertile. What feels dry can be watered, renewed. What once was dim can shine anew.

In the tension between promise and fulfillment, there is light.

June 23, 2010

Breakthrough

Filed under: Fiction,Writing — jeannablue @ 8:25 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Today, I was ready to set aside the novel-in-progress for a different idea. Just set it aside. I wanted to work on the other project – the more exciting, controversial project. At least, talking about the unruly women of history seems more striking than a quiet novel set in a small town on the Great River Road.

But my protagonist was having none of that. Today, she decided to come out and play. Finally.

Part of the reason I was ready to set the novel aside was because I was having such a tough time getting a picture of her. Almost all of my first writings are dialogue, and pretty much dialogue only. I’ve always had a good ear for speech and rhythms and such; of all the parts of a story, dialogue comes easiest. Description, now, that’s harder. And instinctually knowing what my characters feel – well, that’s just something that comes with time.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time – or at least, I’ve tried to spend time – with my protagonist, and I just wasn’t getting a read on her. Some things came; the post Trust Your Characters came on the heels of a good session.

Maybe it was the threat of moving to a different project – who knows? But today, I got a sense for her as I never have before. She started to do things and feel things, not just say things (for me, there is a difference, at least when I’m still getting to know a character). She decided to go kayaking with the guy I know she’ll fall in love with, and I only know that because he invited her to go kayaking before I could even catch up.

I love when characters do that.

So I am a very happy girl right now.

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