Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Better Eyes

 The older I get, the more I understand that life is really all about seeing. 

When someone comments on one of my floral drawings, I'm usually quick to point out the my skill level is not actually extraordinary. I just look really hard at where the curves and lines are on my flower, then try my best to make my lines the same... or mostly. Typically, said person still thinks that takes some skill, but to me it just seems like I have learned to see lines clearly. 

This same concept is true in painting. In order to paint a picture well, you need to be able to see well first. Variances in shadows, shades, lines, colors: it's all very important if you are trying to replicate, even in general, a landscape or portrait or anything that happens to be your subject. 

Living well is also an art, and it also takes a special kind of seeing. 

I've been considering this more during the last couple years of my foray into more and more fiction literature, especially as I have wandered into fairytales (unfortunately, only in reading, not in reality). I'm currently listening to Lilith by George MacDonald, and after also listening to Phantastes last year, I am seeing so many connections, so many truths that for some reason do not immediately hit home at first glance. It has reminded of Moses. 

We all know that Moses saw the burning bush, but there's a tiny detail I saw in the story that forever changed me. 

"Then the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought "I must go over and look at this remarkable sight. Why isn't the bush burning up?" When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, "Moses, Moses!" Exodus 3:2-4

Moses didn't just see the burning bush and then God spoke. Moses saw the bush, he wondered about it, decided to look more closely in order to understand it, and that's when God spoke. In fact, scripture reads like that is the reason why God spoke to him. I'm sure God knew Moses would wonder and then look more closely, but this is still important to see, to remember, and to know why that detail is important. 

As I continue in educating myself and my children, I keep asking a lot of questions. Some days, the questions are more like "Is this worth it?" "Am I doing more good than harm?" "Could someone else do this better?" But for the most part, the questions that keep coming to mind are "How can I use this to make a difference in their lives?" "How can I help more people see the truth?" and even "How does anyone actually see the truth?" As my mind sometimes begins to spiral from one heavy question to another, I often wonder what the point of all our education really is. I know in my head that it is to know God and make Him known, and to help all of us better see truth, beauty, and goodness, but then, how are we to use those things and what is it we really ought to do

Education, like drawing and painting, is a practice in seeing more clearly. The older I get the more convinced I am that seeing better will equal living better. Seeing God's reality more clearly will help me to sin less voluntarily, to live more freely, to love more willingly. We think if we figure out what to do, we will see how to go about it. This is backwards! We need to see first and trust that what to do will come out of that clarity.

The problem is, most of us do not see the truth being displayed around us every day. The world lies to us, people lie to us, even our minds lie to us. This is where excellent fiction can help tear down the things that keep us from seeing, and in so doing, free us to live better. 

It's easy to see error in the story of a sweet 11 year old boy making a devilish mistake or a grown bachelor wasting his life wondering away in a library instead of actually living. We are told his inner motives, witness the fallout, and hopefully also see the forgiveness and redemption on the other side. We don't often get to see the pieces so clearly in our own lives, and it's generally far too painful to have someone else point them out directly. But when we are immersed in a story that can stay on the pages, it somehow bleeds into us in a safe way, a private way, so we can walk through our challenges without fear and then come out with a deeper understanding of how our lives are impacting the world around us. It gives us a way out of ourselves so that the way we see ourselves is closer to the reality others see. It's not the same as introspection, or obsession with self-knowledge, but like looking into a mirror where we see some of the ugly reality but also a way out. 

Ultimately, that way out is always Jesus, and the path is also almost always through a pattern of surrender and sacrifice. Here is where stories give us the courage to believe what we see! When you read the best of fiction, namely fairytales, you also see how this difficult path our ordinary hero takes is always for his good. He always comes out better, more beloved, more content, and more at peace. We see his outcome and it gives us the courage to trust the outcome Christ has for us, the outcome Christ has freely given us through His death and resurrection. We know that our death will not be the tragedy we sometimes envision, and that our surrender is sure to breed good fruit. 

I am finally understanding in my heart what C.S. Lewis meant when he explained "But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again." 

A good fairytale is really just truth that is sweet, small, and beautiful enough for us to devour without realizing the goodness it will give our souls. It is just one way that God can give us eyes to see and ears to hear. So, by all means, still make reading your bible a first priority, but then, wander into a fairytale and embrace the new vision it will give you of God, of the world, and your place in it. 

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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Dauntless Act of Writing

I think most people who have any inclination toward writing something of historical value, wonder what it takes to become a great writer. I write this not because I am one, but because I can commiserate with the desire and for many long years have been thinking about it, yearning for it, wishing for it, and have not really done much about it. I do desire for that to change, and I hope something stronger than my ambition can get me there. 

So what does it take?

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

For one, it is more about being than doing. Yes, a huge part of being an excellent writer is that you do, in fact, write excellently. However, you must also write about excellent things, which means you must have excellent thoughts, excellent ideas, know how to use excellent words, make excellent mental connections, and generally, have an excellent sense of humor. You must BE excellent in many ways, inside and out. 

How does one become excellent then? I cannot answer this apart from knowing Christ. In my own life and on my own path, I become a grouchy, isolated, selfish little hermit, or on the opposite end, I become boastful, overly-talkative, and want only to show myself off. All of my true excellence comes from Christ, and to try and set you on a path other than that would be doing us both a disservice. He is what makes me good, able to do good, able to become good. And besides all that, He is the one who prompts me to do the writing, to delve into the difficult, and to share the excellent things He illuminates. When His truth is revealed, it makes Him seen, and we can be thankful when our writing is beautiful to others, but mostly we can rest knowing it is beautiful to Him. 

So, first off, becoming excellent via the gift of Christ. 

Next up, die. 

Yes, you must die in a thousand ways every day in order to write well. Otherwise, your writing is always going to be full of your agenda. There are times when sitting down to write out something intentional and specific is called for: recipes, instructions, specific explanations or responses to questions. Much of becoming great though, is a death to my own plans, a surrender to the unseen, the unknown, the untested. Living through what I’d rather not endure or dare not volunteer for is what makes me able to write well. To tap into the ideas that live beyond myself and in another world, I must give up my ideas of what I am willing to live through and give into what He has in store. 

The actual writing itself is fairly painful and when we experience pain of any sort, it helps put pain into the right perspective and enables us to endure it better. For instance, the words never come out right the first time, I can never type as quickly as my thoughts, and it always requires a lot more time and energy than I expect. I have to surrender to my limits, my brain’s ability, and the mysterious balance of my emotional and physical limits. I have to be mostly okay with things not going my way, and this last year has revealed just how terrible I am at that. 

The process of becoming a great writer will most definitely include enduring much more unpleasantness than you expect, and in a variety of ways. One last way I am going to address here is in regards to thinking.

I get great pleasure from thinking, but my brain doesn’t know when to turn off. I am great at distracting it, for a time, but in the end, my brain will pick back up where it left off, and rather than getting through the things I’d rather not think about, I have instead only delayed them. Cue the spiraling thoughts about all the time I have wasted and cannot get back (ten years flies much faster than you’d imagine). Enter the haunting idea that maybe I am far too boring or old or tired to trade in my experience and time for some excellence in written word. I begin wondering if I have what it takes, and what will happen to my life if I don’t do this hard work right this minute and fight harder than I think I can in order to become more than what I am now. This, and 1,000 other thoughts swirl while trying to untangle a story-line, an outline, a detail that I think I hear God whispering to me. And that’s all before I put any of it into paper, or even dare to share the general concept with my spouse or a friend.

As a writer, you have to think about much more than you’d prefer, both because of much of the unpleasantness of the human condition and also the difficulty of piecing together a story. Your brain is like a muscle, and it must be stretched, exercised, and pushed harder than is comfortable in order to become stronger. If I have the inspiration to write about a situation or topic, it is likely that God will push that idea out of me through a level of thinking my lazy-self would rather not do. So, then either I don’t write it and feel the loss or depression of not having actually written anything, or I write something less than amazing and bemoan that, or I do a lot of internal and difficult work to then sit down and hash out that difficult work onto paper or my computer with no immediate gratification. It all sounds very lovely, yes?

Lastly (for now), if you want to be a writer of long-term significance, you must accept that you are not living in your own time. This will come with rejection and probably some isolation, as you may not relate with as many people around. Your work may never be popular in your day, and even if it is, that is still not a guarantee it will last. As I do not know how much we will know about the going-ons of earth after our own death but before the end of the world, you may very well go to your grave and beyond without the gratification of seeing people love, enjoy, and benefit from your work. Can you live with that kind of unfulfillment? As I mentioned before, the only recommendation I have for this is Christ. With Him, and His eternal promises, I know full-well (though often must remind myself) that my work on earth has eternal benefits and it doesn’t matter much whether I know about them before I leave this world or not. 

Much of this does not seem worth the trade-off, yes? Maybe you are wondering where the hope is in becoming a great writer? Right where it needs to be: the eternal rewards of giving my life to the Lord and to others. If our writing does not aim to be an everlasting, fruitful gift, it is out of the wrong motives. As with much work that has the best of motives, it is not always accepted well for a time and the risk of all that time and effort, of lost years, and missed events can be incredibly daunting. That's why it's even more important that our vision for the outcome is cast far, far away and placed entirely in God's hands.

I often go at writing with hopes that are mixed, and when discouraged, I go through long seasons of distraction and looking for something better, more productive, more rewarding (in the now) to do. While reading Jeremiah this month I have been struck by his dilemma. He was persecuted so often for the truth he spoke, proclaiming God’s wrath in a very direct and unpopular way. He decided to stop telling everyone what God was telling Him, and you don’t get the sense that God was forcing Him to do this or assigning it as punishment, though God clearly told Jeremiah to go and prophecy. Despite his desire to live out of the spotlight, out from under the scrutiny of others, Jeremiah cannot stop. He is restless, and it became painful for Him to keep God’s words in, a fire in his bones, ready to explode. He couldn’t help but share and he finally became willing to endure the consequences of his sharing because he trusted his fate to the Creator. He knew the reward for him would not come in this life, and that it would actually bring him suffering, unpopularity, shame, and isolation, but he still did it. 

I am no Jeremiah, but I feel a sliver or two of his internal turmoil and his external suffering. 

If we are to be writers who live beyond our lives, we must live beyond ourselves right now too, not just in the words we put to paper (or screen), but in our daily living, in our willingness to endure, beyond difficulty, beyond companionship (notice I did not say without), beyond instant gratification, and beyond this world we can see. We must go into what we can’t see and bring it back to show whoever might dare to look. 

This journey is not for those who want to be popular, rich, or live a life of ease. The writer’s journey is one of a time traveler, a cross-bearer, a willing captive. Is this what you are willing to become? If not, you may still have fun being a good writer, and your wit and skill with words may still bless and encourage others. But if you want to be great, you must become a servant to the hungry souls you aim to reach. It may reduce you to nothingness, starvation, and a soul-parched dryness you worry you may not come back from, but the rewards do await, as long as you are willing to wait to receive them on the other side.