Inveterate—confirmed, hardened, incorrigible, habitual, compulsive, obsessive: Yup, that describes me as a church-goer. I may lurk on the periphery, I may rail against the church’s (titanic) flaws, I may flinch every time I name myself a Christian, and yet I can’t help myself. Church has blessed me. So I show up.
Those of us who are inveterate church-goers are numb to scripture. We’ve heard the stories so much, our immediate reaction is, “Blah, blah, blah; same-old same-old.” A rare good sermon might shake us out of our complacency, helping us hear scriptural wisdom afresh or making it relevant. Every once in a while, a beam of sunlight breaks through the barriers of the text and lands, shockingly, on our bored hearts. Most of the time, for me at least, the Bible is flat, familiar, and, frankly, uninteresting. (more…)
I read this story recently in Poets & Writers. It may be a parable about stick-to-it-iveness, or perhaps it’s an invitation to apply the vision of hindsight to our current ambitions. Bear with me.
Daniel Wallace, the author of six novels including a New York Times bestseller, has tried for more than thirty years to publish in The New Yorker. When he first began submitting work there in 1984, The New Yorker defined literary success for him. His stories landed on the desk of the fiction editor, Daniel Menacer, who eventually began jotting “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes, “and it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over the first six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal and encouraging. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He actually invited Wallace to continue submitting. Writers call such comments “good rejections.” (more…)
Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.
This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. (more…)
Years ago, when flakes of old paint began falling on choir members’ heads, the trustees of my small United Methodist Church spearheaded a fund-raising campaign by parading around the pews carrying signs saying, “Repaint! The time is at hand!” I’m happy to say that moment was the closest to a call for repentance I’ve ever experienced in church.
The trustees’ joke returned to me recently because Emily and I took five days off of work to repaint our stairwell. (more…)
Isn’t curiosity marvelous? Something sparks your interest, and you’re off—questioning, learning, exploring, pondering. Say you meet someone new, share a bit about yourself, and they’re genuinely curious; suddenly you’re deep in conversation, sharing details about yourself or your work that you rarely otherwise disclose, and you begin to wonder whether this person might become a friend. Or say you receive a new artistic medium, a set of oil pastels; you’re eager to feel one in your hand, run it across a blank page, be surprised by the streak of color. Or say you’re a writer with one idea that leads to another, that leads to a few weeks buried in the library stacks and then a few years pursuing a project; you’re absorbed, you’re riding the rails of your heart without a clue where the train is going.
The gift of curiosity is this: We lose ourselves. (more…)
When seekers trekked out to the desert in the early centuries of Christianity, the wise Abbas and Ammas there advised them to “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
I’ve been mucking around in this pre-original-sin wisdom lately, and, let me tell you, it’s mind-bending. Mistakes, weaknesses, temptations, sins—Augustine hadn’t yet made of these cause for guilt and shame, so instead they’re understood as unavoidable, even necessary to the life of faith, and worthy of gratitude. In story after story, thieves create chances for the monks to release material attachments and exercise compassion. The devil comes not as the temptation to do bad things but rather as distracting thoughts. This is a topsy-turvy faith, barely recognizable today as Christianity. (more…)