Idol Writing

2015/03/img_1958.jpgA few months ago when I blogged about scaling back my writing efforts in favor of motherhood, a faithful reader asked in the comments, “Do you think your writing desire might be an idol?”

After giving her question plenty of thought and prayer, along with hunkering down with the Bible and other sacred writings, I can answer that question. The answer is yes.

It’s a complicated issue, because I’m also quite certain writing is a calling from God. It’s part of my mission and ministry. So, on the one hand, my writing is a calling from God. On the other hand, it is an idol. How can two such opposite things get confused in the same activity?

God has impressed me with lots of thoughts about this as I seek to put him back at the center of my life. (If it seems like I have to wrestle with the task often, it’s true—I do. Satan is always warring within me to take my focus off Jesus.)

Worshiping Gifts, instead of the Gift-Giver

Isaiah and Jeremiah teach me much about my tendency to confuse the gift with the Gift-Giver. Isaiah 44 strikes to the heart of the matter by describing how people use part of a tree to make an idol, and then burn the rest of it as firewood (see especially verses 9-11 and verse 15). The firewood is the proper use for the wood, because the wood is only a tool given by God for sustaining and improving life.

It’s the same with any “tool” or gift God gives us. Our gifts, like firewood, are meant to be spent for the spread of the gospel. We should not try to conserve them, because they were given to be used. When God gives us a talent, it is wrong to worship it, to look to it to bring us satisfaction. No, we should always and only look to God for satisfaction, and salvation. The talent, gift, or tool, is just that: a tool that should be used, even exhausted, in the service of God and others. It is nothing to take pride in; on the contrary, it should help us humble ourselves before God.

I am on track when I focus my writing on God and the message he wants me to share with others. I get off track when I focus on what my writing can bring me: as in fame, success, or recognition.

I also get off track when I focus on the writing of others, even Christian writers, as something to aspire to so that I can have similar success.

My Distorted Relationship with Reading

On that note, here’s something that surprised me in my recent inventory of my heart: I’ve been reading “good, Christian books” with the wrong motives. I’ve been reading lots of self-help books, but not receiving any help—because I’m reading for craft, not content.

What do I mean?

Four of five years ago, when I first starting seriously researching how to publish my writing, I read that writing is a business, and writers need to study writing that sells. At the time, I was also getting to know the Lord better and working at beating depression, so I had the noble goal of writing and publishing uplifting books. To feed these parallel goals—publishing, growing spiritually—I started reading writing/publishing books in tandem with Christian/self-help books; at the time, the writing books were to help me write better, the Christian books were to make me a better Christian.

But at some point, all my reading, even my Christian reading, became too much about the publishing. I found myself reading popular Christian authors not just for spiritual feeding, but for research.

I wanted to know what topics these best-selling authors were writing about that were selling so well, and I wanted to know how good they were at the craft, to see if my writing could stand up to theirs—or, more particularly, to see if my writing was of publishable quality.

When I judged that my writing was, in some cases, of higher quality, I became prideful.

And when I read that I must immerse myself in “good writing” in order to produce “good writing” (grammatically and aesthetically speaking) I became a reading snob. I started to choose my reading based on the quality of the writer’s writing—and not so much on the quality of the writer’s Christianity.

I won’t name drop here. I’ll just say I’ve read some “Christian writers” who write beautifully, but who, in their writings, exalt a spirit of selfishness and prideful-ness, and a resistance to yield to God’s hand of correction, should it conflict with their inner desires. Some of these Christian writers are heavily influenced by the world and popular culture’s “follow your heart” mentality—a mentality that must, if I believe God’s word, come from Satan.

I know some of my own writing bears out this struggle between Christ and Satan—and I am sorry. I am not sorry for representing the struggle, because the struggle is real, and we must name it to overcome it. But I am sorry for the times I have let Satan win. And I repent of it. I want to give my gift of writing to the Lord once again, to be used to uplift him, and not myself.

Getting Back to Truth

So I am getting back to truth. I am reading some hard-hitting stuff that doesn’t really feed my literary side, but feeds my soul. And I am asking the Lord to make the “soul impact” of my writing my greatest concern—not it’s literary quality, or it’s salability (if salability would mean it is out of alignment with God’s truth). I am letting go of “idol writing”—writing for myself, and for my own gain—in favor of writing for love of God and for my fellow humans—the two greatest commandments.

Lord, help me to stay true to you in all I do—especially in this gift you’ve given me.

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Friends in High Places

I walked in the church, scanned the pews for a place to sit, and found tears in my eyes.

You know that story in the Bible where God opens the servant’s eyes to see the army of horses and flaming chariots surrounding him? His eyes were opened to see what had been all around him all the time—and suddenly he didn’t feel so alone anymore (2 Kings 6:14-17).

Well, God opened my eyes last weekend. For several months I’d been ruminating on how alone I felt. And it seems I never miss an opportunity to tell my readers that I’m 1,000 miles from home. Indeed, writing to my roots has revealed that I often feel displaced in my new home, and I feel even more that way when visiting my old home.

Being in a hiatus from work and school has also laid some things bare: I don’t know who I am without my work. Sometimes I don’t know how to relate to people outside of the most functional of activities: I can be a teacher, a sister-in-law, a communications secretary and music leader for church, a Bible study leader for friends.

But what about just a friend?

I can tell you right now, friendship—hanging out, relaxing, shooting the breeze—none of these have been my strengths.

Yet despite all the off-putting, prickly parts of me, God has drawn friends to me. And at the church that day, I saw them.

There was Tasha sitting in the back left pew of the church. Her friendship was a carryover from the small group Bible study my hubby and I had for a year and a half. We still get together often, for fun things like spa days, iced tea, and girl talk.

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Me and Tasha–on our cruise to Cozumel in December. The hubbies came, too.

Then, a few rows up, was Tammy, a new-ish fixture in our church, who responded to the call I made in October to start a choir. Now she has taken the reins, much relieving me, and also become a fun girlfriend.

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My friend Tammy directing a mean choir in December! They sounded great. I’m at the piano to the left (you can’t see me).

Across the aisle were Ashley and Christina, two young moms whom I’d only recently come to know from our Tuesday night prayer group. They’d been in the congregation for many months before their lovely personalities were uncovered for me. Both sincere and searching for the Lord, they responded to the opportunity to pray with Amanda and me, who had recently been trained in prayer ministry.

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Me and Ashley at my house for a late night Easter egg hunt. It was for the kids…really!
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Christina with her two strapping boys–also at my house for that late night Easter egg hunt.

And behind them was Amanda. I had known Amanda the longest of any of these ladies, yet until our prayer training, I’d hardly known her all–had not seen the beauty of her personality beneath her quiet exterior. Now we are prayer partners and buddies in ministry.

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That’s Amanda chuckling on the left–we had a great time at our 2012 New Year’s party. The life-sized Barbie was my husband’s surprise in our informal gift exchange.

How did it come to be that I was so blessed with all these friends?

Last summer when Amanda and I joined the prayer ministry Straight 2 the Heart to lay our hearts bare before God and our small group—I saw that we had a lot in common. A lot of hurt, a lot of self-protections, and a lot of desire to serve the Lord if we could only know how to channel our pain into something positive.

Looking back, I think it must have been the laying bare of my heart before God and a trusted small group that allowed me to be more authentic with these others that have decided they like my company. Sure, I’m still detail-oriented and serious when I talk church business. But over the past year, I’ve had more frank and open conversations with ladies in my church than I’ve had in eight years combined.

Sharing my heart in a prayerful, supportive environment has bound me together with Amanda, and now Ashley and Christina, in a way that mere biblical instruction can’t. And as a result, I have been able to relate more authentically to others like Tammy and Tasha, and even my music committee in meetings, where we have finally started talking openly and corporately about issues our church has had for a number of years.

Showing some vulnerability not only to my prayer partners but also to my acquaintances has opened the door for conversation that goes beyond surface level…and finally, friendship.

Since deciding to be more honest with others, it’s been a relief not to have to hide my feelings—to be able to speak up when something’s on my heart—to get it out in the open and deal with it sooner rather than later. And saying things that have gone unspoken before—such as on music committee—has actually gotten people thanking me for my honesty and openness.

Do people prefer pretenses, or plainness?

While being honest can open up some uncomfortable cans of worms, in my experience, that’s not any worse than tiptoeing through church—and through life—not knowing and not being known by anyone. Being honest is no worse than feeling alone—wondering if I’m the only one who ever suffers.

As I’ve learned, the sooner we share our stories with someone and listen to theirs in return, the sooner we are brought out of our self-centered misery. The sooner our eyes are opened to the fact that we are not alone.

I’m so thankful for my friends in high places, the old no less than the new (although this post just happened to be inspired by the new). Much love to all! Here’s to many more great memories!

 

Is My Writer Seeping Through?

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Since deciding to be a “real” writer, I’ve kept a low profile. Not wanting people to know I’ve embarked on a low-paying (sometimes no-paying) job, I’ve hidden my true profession behind a façade of graduate student and teacher.

I haven’t been a teacher since May 2011, but until last December, I really was a graduate student, putting the finishing touches on my one-hundred-page master’s thesis. Mostly I was done by October, but I still let my classmates offer condolences for “how hard” the writing must be.

It wasn’t hard, really, because my advisor let me write the way I wanted to write: creatively and personally (with a little academic jargon sprinkled in). I guess this “practical” approach worked because the topic was practical: best practices for teaching writing.

When a few of my fellow students heard about my personal [slash] creative [slash] academic project, they seemed intrigued.

“I’d never have thought of that,” some said.

As they scrambled to turn up sources on the databases, scouring search engines and library shelves, giving themselves ulcers looking for an original angle, I just sat back and wrote. I started from the inside—I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t much care about citing the scholarly conversation that had come before me, or that would come after.

I know this sounds sort of pompous, and it wouldn’t work in some of the disciplines where original voice is not prized. But thankfully, English departments operate on this truth: If a voice is engaging enough it doesn’t really matter what it’s saying—people will read it for the good writing.

And that’s the truth in the real world, isn’t it?

People who don’t care a lick about golf will watch Tiger Woods because he excels in his sport. Same for most Olympians and Olympic sports. Who watches bobsledding or curling on a regular basis?

But millions watch the Olympics because it’s fun to watch pros do what they do best.

Funny, then, that I feel I’m still hiding in the wings, waiting for permission to “come out” to do what I do best.

Well, not so funny, I guess. I have no doubt that the hiding is due to the overwhelming personal content of my writing. (It’s not really about the money.)

In order for me to write about the things I write about (mental illness, family dysfunction, deepest fears) and be respected, I feel I have to be either a mental health professional or a pastor, or some other authority who can talk on these things at a close, yet safe, distance. That, or I have to make the writing itself attractive. Because the topics just aren’t.

Still, I am convinced that these topics are worth discussion. Worth a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and many book series. I am convinced that all this painful self-reflection is what more people ought to be doing, but aren’t. But if it’s so worthwhile, why aren’t more people doing it?

Because: Like graduate students fumbling for research topics, we are afraid of ourselves, and we are afraid of what self-examination might reveal. So we look for other voices to latch onto. Let someone else be the guinea pig—or the “straw man,” to use an academic term. Then, if our life thesis fails, we can partially blame the voices on whom we’ve built our own.

Well, I’ll stand behind my own work. To the thesis examiner who said my work got uncomfortably personal at times, I would remind her that everyone else who read it said it was the most memorable thesis they’d ever seen. She was more comfortable in the theoretical realm, and that’s where she encouraged me to return. Toward the end of the defense, we had a more informal discussion about how we felt about publishing—how we felt about others reading our work—and this professor said she felt terrified thinking others would read her academic writing (not to mention any personal stuff).

Just like she couldn’t understand me being so personal in writing, I couldn’t understand her being so guarded (about dry academic prose). Perhaps she is worried that others will smell a rat—that of inauthenticity. And I guess if I were not being true to myself, I might worry about the same thing.

But after denying myself public expression for so long, I think having to live in hiding is far worse than living exposed. After spending time in a theoretically constipated English department, I think living vulnerable is better than living jealous of writers whose real-world topics you only dare poke with a critical stick.

Perhaps my guarded professor would even agree. At the end of the day, she passed my thesis unconditionally. Call my writing what she will, that day she called me a master.