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The Power of Words

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Frederick Buechner wrote in one of his memoirs that “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”

Or as Anne Lamott said last night, we want to say, “Me, too!”

The power of words to connect us seems to be a theme at this third annual Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Seminary. At this morning’s keynote, author Diana Butler Bass referenced “the tender power of I,” suggesting that the word “I” connects us to one another and to God. When Moses said, “Here I am,” and God said, “I AM,” it connected them and placed them on sacred ground.

Dogwood on sacred grounds of Princeton Theological Seminary

Many times as Diana told her personal story, I found myself thinking, “Me, too!” Her journey along “the road to an unexpected vocation” resonated with me and made me feel just a little less crazy for chasing this writing dream.

“Writing is a spiritual path,” she said. “Cherish your own path . . . Who are you? To me, that is the central question writers must struggle with.”

Writing Good Into the World

As intimate and personal as writing can be — especially memoir writing — there is also a strong communal element to it. Who am I in the world? What is my calling? How can I be of help?

I don’t know if it’s the spiritual nature of this conference or the dire times we live in or both, but this sense of mission and calling seems to be another big theme this week. 

Like Anne Lamott, Diana expressed “deep distress” over what’s going on in America. She thinks it’s a critical time for people of faith to “write for the world” as a way to counteract evil and inspire people.

“We are living in the age of the anti-word,” she said. “There is evil surrounding words right now . . . amazing technology that could spread beauty is instead being used to spread evil. Words are being purposefully used to undermine truth and beauty and wholeness . . . Malevolent forces are taking words and using them for oppression.”

Diana urged the two hundred-plus people crammed into the auditorium this morning to “write to reach people’s hearts” and to “engage intentionally to build goodness and beauty and to embody the Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1

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Writing Wisdom

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I’m just back from listening to my literary hero talk about writing and faith. Of course she ended up talking about Donald Trump, because this is 2017 and that’s what we talk about, no matter where we start out.

Anne Lamott says that she is still stunned, shaken to her core. “I wake up every morning and think, ‘this can’t be what’s happening.’”

Ditto.

She says she is just starting to get her sense of humor back and I’m awfully glad to hear it. Most of us are holding our collective breath much of the time these days, but it’s hard to hold your breath and laugh at the same time. So spending an hour with Anne Lamott was good medicine.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep it simple,” she advises. “Grace will bat last; it always does. And in the meantime we’re going to take care of the poor.”

Anne says that in writing as in life, “failure, messes and mistakes are where it all happens.” I wonder if that might be true for politics as well? Might the new grassroots energy and determination engendered by our massive electoral failure invigorate America’s progressive base so that we can care for the poor and the planet again?

I hope so. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t want to talk about President Tweet. He takes up too much of my mental space already.

Writers Write

I’ve come to the third annual Frederick Buechner Writing Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary to remind myself that life goes on. I need to focus on my writing again.

Last year at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, I committed to blogging every night. It was too much. I hardly slept. I will not promise that from Princeton.

For tonight, I’ll just share some of Anne’s wisdom about writing:

My favorite line of the night: “The first thing you do is to stop not doing it.”

She says everyone wants to write, but only “down the road” after they sort themselves out. “There is no as-soon-as: as soon as you retire, as soon as your kid graduates, as soon as you move. You don’t want to wake up in three years, that much nearer to the end of your life, and not have written . . . And don’t wait till you think you have something to say — you’ll never write a thing.”

“Start where you are, and assume it will be go badly.” In her book Bird By Bird, there’s a whole chapter called Shitty First Drafts. Expect your first draft to be too long and too detailed. “Taking stuff out is one-third of creativity. Get a good eraser.”

“Perfectionism,” Anne says, “is about terror. Terror of not being enough. We evaluate ourselves as objects.” Ouch. Clanging bell of truth.

Anne often ends her talks with a quote from Frederick Buechner, even when she’s not at the Buechner Writing Conference. And so she did:

“From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein. . .”

Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary

Lenten Question: What Does it Mean to Be You?

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LENTEN QUESTION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE YOU?

Today I’ll share some thoughts about Lent from one of my favorite authors. Even if you’re not a Jesus-person and you’ve never given Lent a second thought, this could be a useful exercise for you. Lent — which begins the day after tomorrow — is a traditional time for self reflection and re-centering, and Frederick Buechner gives us food for thought and prayer in his book, Whistling in the Dark.

† † †

“In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days. After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus  went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.

  If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?

  When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

  If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?

  Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

  Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

  If this were your last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”

flowers and Dayspring 039

Love Conquers All

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I’ve spent the morning drafting a blog about Christian voters (doesn’t that phrase send shivers down your spine right about now?) and I think it might be good enough to submit for publication. Hence, I can’t post that offering here. But I really want to connect with “my tribe” in the blogosphere because November 2016 is not a good time to be alone in your head. So I will simply share this quote from Frederick Buechner today.

I cannot say I am here yet, by any means. I am still in the reality of Romans 8:26, where ” . . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

So I groan.

But Buechner has words, and here they are:

“The love for equals is a human thing–of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing–the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing–to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy–love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.”

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Realizing Why I Am Here

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Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night

Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for

Lyrics by George Harrison, from Beware of Darkness

I’ve always loved that song. It is George’s aching cry to us (and I think to himself) not to be swallowed by the darkness. Sitting in my high school bedroom hiding beneath clunky headphones and a veil of Marlboro smoke, I would crank up the volume on the mournful/hopeful song, attempting to drown out the world. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I raged. I was a teenager.

In my young adulthood, I decided that feeling was too hard, so I anesthetized myself in myriad ways. I learned to deny the darkness and numb my sadness, not realizing that hiding from it simply makes it stronger.

Light in a World of Shadows

A large part of my spiritual journey has been coming to terms with the darkness in the world. I still don’t understand it, but — on a good day — I can accept the “both/and” nature of life: light and darkness, despair and joy, life and death. I have realized that in this world of shadows, my job is to turn determinedly towards the light and to absorb it into myself so that I radiate it back out into the darkness.

I may fall into sadness sometimes, but I know deep down that George was right — “that is not what I am here for.” The light that lives inside of me is stronger than the darkness that’s in me and around me.

This is one of the things that appeals to me about the person of Jesus. He is said to have mourned and wept and to have been “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” yet he is described by all his friends as full of light. His best buddy John said that he was a light for all people and that his “light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” So that’s where I turn to absorb my light.

The Hungering Darkness

In his book The Hungering Dark, one of my favorite authors Frederick Buechner speaks eloquently about the darkness. This passage seems even more relevant today than it was thirty years ago when the book was written . . . uncertainty, fear, conflict.

Buechner begins with a quote from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. I’ve chosen an Isaiah translation from The Message version of the Bible:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows — light! sunbursts of light!”

Then Buechner goes on to say:

“In one respect if in no other this metaphor of Isaiah’s is a very relevant one for us and our age because we are also, God knows, a people who walk in darkness. There seems little need to explain. If darkness is meant to suggest a world where nobody can see very well — either themselves, or each other, or where they are heading, or even where they are standing at the moment; if darkness is meant to convey a sense of uncertainty, of being lost, of being afraid; if darkness suggests conflict, conflict between races, between nations, between individuals each pretty much out for himself when you come right down to it; then we live in a world that knows much about darkness.

Darkness is what our newspapers are about. Darkness is what most of our best contemporary literature is about. Darkness fills the skies over our own cities no less than over the cities of our enemies. And in our single lives, we know much about darkness too. If we are people who pray, darkness is apt to be a lot of what our prayers are about. If we are people who do not pray, it is apt to be darkness in one form or another that has stopped our mouths.”

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness

Day nine in my efforts to blog every day.

Losing Track of Ourselves

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Today I am much involved in the wheres and whens and hows of logistics for a road trip, strategic plans for church, antibiotics for a tick bite, appointments for car servicing, blah, blah, and blah.

Having no useful words in my own head, I offer a few from the head of Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors. May they expand your world today, if only for a moment:

“We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow — the immediate where and whens and hows that face us daily at home and at work — but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are really going.”

Frederick Buechner

Where are we really going?

Where are we really going?

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