Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Review of L'Engle's "Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art"

I think 2016 went out with a fizzle for me. I've been down about current national and world events and moods. And, ever the introvert, discontentment with external events is eventually subsumed by disillusionment about my own lack of apparent contributions to the betterment of society over the last 38 — better make that 39 — years. I've been down on my writing, parenting...wife-ing... friend-ing...Christian-ing. And, as it turns out, being down on myself does not translate into becoming a better version of myself. 

I begin 2017 thinking about many of the thoughts contained in Madeleine L'Engle's classic book on being a Christian creative.There's this little flicker of hope when I read Walking on Water, first published when I was 2 years old, and now reprinted in portable paperback form with a lovely sunny rainy cover and a nifty reader's guide at the end. I've been reading and re-reading this book for a few months now, hesitating to write my review because then I'll have officially "finished" the book, so packed with treasures, tips, observations, philosophy and theology.  In L'Engle's theology, creative work is a spiritual discipline— a prayer— and listening to the work is the same as listening to God. 

To work on a book is for me very much the same things as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he's not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear. To pray is to listen also, to move through my own chatter to God, to that place where I can be silent and listen to what God may have to say. But if I pray only when I feel like it, God may choose not to speak. (140)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Asking Myself: When has God intervened in your life?


This is the 32nd post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's excellent book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and my previous post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.


Q: Can you think of a time when God intervened in your life?


First off, what do I think about the term "intervene"? Is this some kind of saving grace at a time when I didn't deserve it or couldn't muster it myself? Is it something I didn't even know or think to ask for? Or is it a clear answer to a desperate prayer? Intervention of old (and new testament) seems to entail the supernatural: shipwreck survivals, gospel-preaching teleportation, earthquake prison releases and the like. 

I do not have any clear-cut, undeniably hand-of-God moments in my history. But, as usually, I buck against this obvious interpretation of the idea of intervention. And I wonder, might God be intervening momently... keeping the earth in motion and the sun burning and us tiny humans from blowing each other to smithereens? And doesn't he work specifically in my own life-- intervening in matters of the heart? But to answer what I think the question is actually asking, yes, I do have a handful of incidents that I attribute to God's intervening hand. And I will tell them to you:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Asking Myself: Have you ever felt resentful, angry, or afraid of God?


This is the 31st post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's excellent book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.


Q: Have you ever felt resentful, angry or afraid of God?

I wanted to write about anger and resentment because I have a ready wellspring of life episodes that fit this category of my dynamic relationship with God. But, I realized, all of them were deeply personal; writing about them on the internet just didn't seem safe or fair to the other people intertwined in these moments.

So, I moved on to my third choice-- a time when I feared God. I touched on the topic of fear a couple of posts ago. But this time I want to tell a story of fearing God--- or maybe, more precisely, of fearing because I didn't trust God's goodness. I feared that God's will would not be for my own good. 

Winter in Taiwan, 2002.

Taipei winters are wet and breezy. Sometimes typhoony. Sometimes with earthquakes. Clouds and pollution settle on the city's mountain-rimmed basin. Fist-sized snails suction themselves to the palm trunks, and the geckos come inside. (I add these latter details not to creep you out, but because I'm actually very fond of both geckos and giant snails. I digress.) The main trouble with Taipei's winter and the 24-year-old version of me was that I was damp and bone-chilled and tense and allergic and asthmatic and covered in eczema, and having diarrhea 8 times a day. I was also prone to nightly anxiety attacks. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Asking Myself: Who was God for you when you were a child?

This is the 30th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.

Q: Who was God for you when you were a child?

Try as I might, I don't have a cogent essay to answer this one. Instead, I present here a hodge podge of memories and impressions.

God as Protector
You know, as a child, I think I always felt pretty safe. I was secure in God's protection. This is surely in part a product of my loving and secure upbringing and the fact that my country was not war-torn or in a state of unrest. But even on a spiritual level, I didn't worry about losing or being lost.

There is a dream I had that seems to speak to this question. I might have been about 8-years-old. It was realistic in that it seemed ordinary- my house was my house, I was me, the lighting and quiet were all very much they way they were. (I point this out because usually my dreams merge people and places into new composites that are as much fiction as they are nonfiction.) The one strikingly abnormal thing about the dream was that there was a an evil presence against me in some way, perhaps Satan himself. He'd slipped into the normalcy of my house and his intentions were for ill. And in my dream I went to the top of my staircase and belted out a song from Sunday school; it echoed against the vaulted ceiling of the stairwell.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lisa Cron's "Story Genius" urges aspiring authors to get to know their protagonists


These days a lot of books like to tout brain science in order to seem wiser and more cutting-edge. I found the subheading of Lisa Cron's Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, to have that same draw. The literary agent and now story workshop teacher proposes that humans are sucked into story because we feel that learning how other people like us face their challenges might help us navigate our own. She also throws in a few random statistics about the percentage of would-be authors who receive rejection letters and book sales averages in an attempt to show that the failures are due to stories that lack the blueprints she outlines in the book. I found this introductory part of the book that debunks the supposed myths of prevailing writing camps (the plotters and the pantsers) to be what many introductions are: a sales pitch for her methods and perhaps for her workshops. 

While the book doesn't quite live up to its "sciency" promise, I have been finding it very helpful in its clear course of action and encouragement as I attempt to flesh out a story idea that's been running around my brain for a while.

The fun part about this book is that Cron's friend and fellow writer, Jennie, plays the role of the guinea pig, offering up her own flicker of a story idea and developing it according to Cron's steps so that it gradually unfolds over the course of Story Genius. Following Cron's steps, Jennie fashions a storyline that follows a topic I find utterly insipid (a woman adopts a dog so her dog-loving friends will think she's normal as she deals with the fall-out of a romantic relationship gone awry) into something that tugged my heart strings and even caused me to shed tears. 

In short, Cron asks the right questions, such as who is the protagonist at her core, what event made her that way, what myth is at the core of her worldview, and what event will totally upend her current way of thinking? By skillfully answering these questions, Jennie made me actually care about her budding dog-lover. 

I can see how some writers might find Cron's methods limiting... there are indeed great stories out there that don't quite fit her protagonist-centric mold or perhaps leave the ultimate meaning of the book ambiguous so that diverse readers can find their own message. 

But as a complete novice to novel writing, I'm pretty excited to follow Cron's detailed advice, if nothing else, as a way to keep myself motivated in the face of so many distractions and procrastinations!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Asking Myself: In what activities do you feel blocked from God's presence in your life?


This is the 29th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.

Q: In what activities do you feel blocked from God's presence?

Well. I hate to say it, but I often feel blocked from God's presence. Perhaps this isn't as bad a thing as it seems at first religious glance. After all, it's better to feel blocked, than to be completely unaware of it. Hopefully that dry, dismal feeling is the impetus I need to seek him out or to assess how actions and frame of mind might be contributing to the distance.

Yet it's hard for me to single out specific activities that unilaterally hide his face. I supposed the safe answer would be: I'm blocked when I'm sinning. Yet, sometimes sin triggers the conscience alarm that makes me most aware of of the Almighty. So what actually blocks me from God?

My off-the-cuff answer produced these three activities that I find to be fairly sure-fire ways (for me) to be blocked from the joy, peace, love and creative energy that come from God's presence.

1. Spending any more than 5 consecutive minutes on social media.
Especially in our polarized political and cultural climate, any amount of time spent skimming through or clicking within my various feeds makes me prone to the habit of outrage so many articles and posts seem crafted to inflame. These days, I find that doing anything more than "liking" a few of my friends' kid pics leads to being sucked into the world of injustice and idiocy. More than feeling my blood boil, I feel the urge to retaliate, to set the record straight. The impulse is checked only by the observation that most of the opinions expressed on social media are fixed. Facebook is not (for me) a place of humble reflection nor an open marketplace of ideas where people feel safe enough to consider another perspective. Jesus did act on his righteous anger over the money changers in the Temple, but I don't think he purposely fed his indignation by returning over and over again to turn tables. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Asking Myself: In what activities do you experience God's presence?



This is the 28th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. Posts 26 to present focus on Questions on Spirituality.


Q: In what life activities do you experience God's presence on a regular basis?

Some of these questions are starting to sound a little bit similar, eh? But I think we need a lot of questions about God's presence in order to mine the depths of our experience. The emphasis here is on what routine, mundane or daily activities are spiritually charged. When do I commonly feel God is with me? 

My younger self would have answered when I'm praying with others or when I'm in corporate worship or when I'm studying the Bible. I think these still hold true. But I also really treasure the "regular" or even "secular" moments in life when I sense he's Emmanuel. My top three activities in the vein of ordinary-sacred would be:

1. Journaling in my green chair. 
This is something I do almost daily, and can really get absorbed in if I don't watch the clock or am not interrupted by some small person or other. A friend commented recently that I'm not very handy with words in person, as in speaking what's on my mind. This is true. However, something about the pace of writing by hand allows my thoughts to flow naturally-- even articulately-- compared to my speaking pace. I feel as if I'm able to express my truest self-- and something even beyond myself--- when I write in my journal. It feels like a conversation with my Maker and dearest Friend. Or perhaps conversation isn't the best metaphor, because I don't mean to say that I hear a back and forth repartee. Maybe it's more like a convergence of thoughts, my mind with the mind of Christ. Sometimes my entry begins as an unloading of anxieties or ideas or wishful thinking, but once that's emptied out, I feel a clearer connection, a brighter sky between me and God. However the entry goes, journalling is for me about the surest way to find His presence.  

2. "Working" in my garden.
Perhaps because I so highly relate to God as a Creator, I really feel alive in His presence when I'm immersed in his Creation. I have, for most of my adult life, attempted to keep some kind of garden... be it dying potted plants on my Taipei balcony 15 years ago, or the tangled and sloppy little garden I have now, wedged up in an exterior corner of my house and entwined with netting to keep deer at bay. When I "garden" I actually spend a lot of time just looking at the plants and the microcosm they create. There's no conversation during this time. I'm just in awe. It doesn't matter how many times I've looked at the furry blueish leaves of sage or the hairy stems of my heirloom tomatoes or the smooth bud of a pepper just emerged from where a white flower once was... When I'm in cahoots with this menagerie, seeing things with my worm's eye, macro lense mind, it seems like the whole universe, for that moment, is at peace. Perfect peace.

3. Chatting with my kids in the car or at the table.
My kids are so smart. No really, I'm not just saying this. I've got three future theologians and philosophers under my roof. "Mom. I wanna read God." "Mom, does God hate Satan?" "Mom, is Jesus Jesus's Father?" "Can there only be good if there is bad?" "After we die and we wake up in the fourth dimension will it seem like this life in the third dimension was just a dream?" I get all this and more while driving them home through rush hour traffic or trying to get dinner(s) for three very picky eaters on the table. My love for them and my sheer delight at the zany and sage things they say make me feel a kind of grateful simpatico with my mysterious Father, who must find us equally lovable and amazing, as only a parent can. 

And you? What are some of the everyday, repeated moments that make up your life in God's presence? Do you find these moments are part of the daily rhythm, or do you make an intentional choice to find Him in tried-and-true places?

Next Week: In what activities do you feel blocked from God's presence?