Friday, October 31, 2008

News From God

I love this children's poem by Robert Louis Stevenson--

The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

I don't believe I'm some naive ingenue--I know the world is also full of a number of things that could and perhaps should make us all despair. But still I love this poem. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was often tormented by his depression, still he could often see and know that every day had "news from God," even in the clouds, or a little leaf, or in the way the frozen tops of the mud puddles sparkled with intricate beauty.

Today I hope I can give my son and myself a chance to notice and see how wonderfully full this world is of news from God.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

All us turkeys

Self portrait: Wild Turkey

In your lumpy brown suit, red necktie dragging,
shuffling, bowing out of sight.
Behind dusty weeds you find a low hill,
under an oak’s broad tent. Stiffly unfold,
slowly turn your full, dark fan—heavy bronzes
fringed with white. Stretch the blue-creped
skeleton of skull and neck to scream out
all you got—one high note gargle—as if to keep
from drowning in that sack of self.
To those that soar, or flit from branch to branch,
I think you’re crying:
Don’t look. See me. Don’t look. Please see.
My something beautiful.

I wrote this poem a few years ago, when I was just beginning to explore writing again. I still feel in captures some of the internal struggle many artists, including myself, go through.

At the time I was leading the creative writers' group at church, and people would approach me with very sincere questions and concerns about the spiritual formation risks of writing done for others to read. I remember one individual sharing with me that the very fact she had a natural talent made her reluctant to begin writing, because, as she explained, it would be so easy to become prideful. Another person questioned the motives, his included, behind writers wanting
their poems or stories to be read by others.

I personally understand all too well their concerns, as the turkey poem tried to express. I can't casually dismiss them. All of us know that love of acceptance, praise or money have snared artists and caused them to lose the core of what made their work unique and beautiful and true. And as Christians, we want to learn to honor God, to live with humility and to pursue his glory and not our own.

A couple years ago I felt compelled to start writing again, and to bit by bit face a bit of the risk of being known in that writing. And so, I've had a chance to explore some of these issues first hand--and I have found that in fact, though my pride and self-absorption and vainglorious heart are raging monsters--they seem to have almost no relationship to my writing. I have found that my writing, usually, is just something small, really, something like a little beautiful leaf or rock I've found or a sunset that I've seen and want to show others. Usually, it feels very disconnected to this broken hearted, greedy dragon I carry around, the one demanding approval and attention.

I recently read something in Dallas Willard's MARVELOUS book The Divine Conspiracy that seemed to explain this, a bit. He makes a distinction between a God-given drive for significance expressed in our creative impulses and an egotistical, pathological self-obsession born of our broken, lost state. I'll quote it at length below. C.S. Lewis' Weight of Glory also speaks of these things with amazing insight.

I have to confess that I actually deeply dislike writing and speaking about spiritual formation issues. I really understand almost nothing about this stuff. But still, I want to encourage those would-be artists afraid of their own pride to take this risk. In my experience, it could, at the very least teach you a lot about yourself, and even better, give the rest of us some beautiful writing, or art, or music to enrich our lives.

Here's the Willard quote.

"The drive to signficance that first appears as a vital need in the tiny child,a nd later as its clamorous desire for attention, is not egotism. Egotistical individuals see everything through themselves. They are always the dominant figures in their own field of vision.

Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count. It is a form of acute self-consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved. It is indeed, a desperate response to the frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.

Unlike egotism, the drive to significance is a simple extension of the creative impulse of God that gave us being. It is not filtered through self-consciousness any more than is our lunge to catch a package falling from someone's hand. It is outwardly directed to the good to be done. .....

In the last couple years, I have met my self-obsession and even egotism. I have behaved more foolishly than any turkey. But I have also discovered that this is not the final word on my life, or on anyone's life.

And I have also come to feel that my writing is, like I said, just not a big deal. I hope I do get published and read by others, because I think it's fun. I enjoy letting others know this part of me that brings me such joy.

I don't feel like a turkey singing anymore... (at least, not right now).

But I think it was ok, even very good, to go through that time when I did feel so much like a turkey, hoping people saw me and also fearing them seeing me. Though the experience was horribly painful, I had the chance to know myself and my dragons a little more, and even better, I have learned to believe that God can defeat even this oldest and most tenacious monster in me. (I also suspect there will be plenty of chances for me to feel like a turkey again...but I hope I will trust a little faster and easier next time I feel that way!)

I would so love to hear from any artists--to know if you have struggled with these issues at all, and how you have met God in the struggle.