Write Stuff Wednesday 8

mask“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Ernest Hemmingway

The best fiction is filled with truth. The people may not be real. The scenarios may not be real. But there is honesty in the story’s portrayal of the emotional journey, the path of growth for those made up characters that speaks to the reader. It doesn’t happen in all fictional stories, but it does happen in the best. It takes place when the writer’s story proceeds from a place of complete honesty, and that takes place when writers are completely honest with themselves.

I heard a conference presenter speak one time about the need for the writer to be emotionally healthy. She said when the writer is able to draw from the pains and joys they’ve experienced, they can create scenes with more depth and realism allowing the readers to really feel what the characters go through. She cautioned writers to make sure all the junk from the past was dealt with in healthy ways and fully. Without proper handling of the past, trying to draw out the emotions from those events can be harmful to the author. With it, the author can remember the thoughts and feelings with clarity and use them to create characters that go beyond being caricatures.

To deal with their characters’ pain, the author draws from their own. It’s not too far removed from the actor that uses experiences from their past to draw out the emotions they need for their current scene. It’s one way an author writes what they know, and the author that accomplishes it creates stories that will resonate with the readers.

Thinking about it, maybe that’s one of the issues the church has had in recent years. There are exceptions, but overall, we’ve decided it’s better to put on a good face so the world can see how much better it is on the other side. When we ignore our hurts and preach a gospel that says the true believer will know only health and wealth, we create a grossly exaggerated picture of what a life of faith looks like. People try out this genie-in-a-bottle style faith, and when it doesn’t work for them, they fall away.

On the other side, we have those who embrace their own spiritual unhealthiness. They take such a laissez faire attitude towards their sinfulness that it becomes unimportant. The idea starts off well with the belief that we all sin and we should acknowledge our sin. But rather than being broken by our sin and dropped to our knees in repentance, we say, “Oh well, God forgives. There’s no need to purge it from my life.” We proudly announce our sin like the shaming signs we put over the neck of our pet cat when it eats the family goldfish. It becomes our twisted badge of honor. “See, I’m a real person, just like you.” This caricature goes to the other side of the spectrum and leave others saying, “I don’t need their God, because they are no different than me.”

It’s time for us to deal with our sins in a healthy way. We will sin. And when we do, it should break our hearts knowing it strains our relationship with our Father. It should bring us to the place of repentance. Yes, we may continue to struggle with that particular sin, but each time, we bring our failure to God and each time He will forgive. Our sin will not be something to be proud of. It will be something to learn from.

It’s time for us to deal with our struggles with honesty. Maybe you’ve never bought into the idea that the Christian life is all roses and sunshine. Great. But have you ever perpetuated the myth even in a small way by refusing to be real with others? How many times have we heard the jokes about family members biting each others’ heads off all the way to church only to get out of the car and greet others with a giant smile and an “I’m so blessed. How about you?” attitude? We put on our church face and pretend we’re fine when we’re breaking inside. We have to look like we have it all together or maybe the brother across the aisle will think we’re less Christian than he is.

I’m not saying everyone needs to know every sin or every struggle we face, but there is a level of vulnerability the church seems to lack these days. We’re supposed to share one another’s joys and pains. We’re great about announcing our blessings, but our pains hit a little too close to home. What if someone judges us because of them? What if my struggle is so much worse than everyone else’s struggles? What if I really am alone in this? Rather than face that possibility, we put on our happy church goer mask that isn’t marred by the pain of sin or struggle.

How much more powerful would our witness be if we were to humbly deal with and acknowledge sin in our lives and point to the One who is helping us overcome? How much more strength would we find through the support of others if we were honest about our struggles? And how much more open would those in the world be to embracing faith if we erased the caricatures and went forward with a true portrait of faith that included the depths of pains or disappointments we faced before God brought us out of it into our joys?

By the Book: Have you been real with others in your faith or have you become a caricature? Have you been real with yourself in your faith?

Speaking God’s Truth

While it’s the day for Main Character Monday, I have something else on my mind tonight. I had a hard weekend that didn’t leave its struggles behind as the work week started. It’s left me tired physically, mentally, and emotionally. Spiritually, it has sent me to my knees in prayer more focused and dedicated than my usual daily prayers. It is in these kinds of trials that submitting to the unknown of “Your will be done” becomes a true act of surrender.

Even though the exact nature of this situation is completely new and totally unexpected, it isn’t the first time my world has been rocked by a trial so life changing that I almost can’t wrap my mind around the idea that it is in fact my reality now. It isn’t the first time I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop or been forced to face the fact that I don’t know what comes next and fully realize that I might not like it when it comes.

The first time I faced the complete undoing of my perceptions of what my life was and was supposed to be, it broke me in ways I never thought possible. Even as I immersed myself in prayer and God’s word, I struggled with frequent panic attacks and depression. Even though I saw God working in my life and felt His strength getting me through each day, I hurt more deeply than I ever thought possible. I grew closer to God and learned to rely on Him as never before. The road to get there wasn’t easy, but God didn’t leave me on my own. In fact, a Facebook thread in one of the reading groups I’m in reminded me tonight that not only was I not left on my own, God went above and beyond to speak to me during that time in a way that was unexpected and user friendly.

When circumstances became too much, I’d read. My brain didn’t have to fight through the depressed exhaustion I felt in order to read. When I was immersed in the story, I could finally contain the thoughts running amok in my head. It was the perfect way for me to decompress for a small period of time. Little did I know that as I picked up The Still of Night by Kristen Heitzmann, that God would use it to challenge me to change my perspective on the painful hand I’d been dealt.

I’ll admit I bawled reading that book. So many points hit home. The specifics of the fictional circumstances were far from mine, but the truths about faith and life and pain were all too real. One of the moments when things clicked with me was in a quote that has stuck with me for the last fifteen years. “Things don’t always work out the way we want. The trick is to want the way they work out.” It’s simple and profound. It summed up “Thy will be done” perfectly, and it was wrapped in a story so well written that I had to finish it even though it was speaking hard truths to me.

I’ve enjoyed many well-written Christian fiction books through the years. I’ve been encouraged and challenged by them. But none have felt as much like God had it written especially for me, to help me accept where I was and encourage me on the path to healing.

Even God’s timing was perfect. I get Kristen Heitzmann’s books as soon as I know they’ve come out. If The Still of Night had come out years before, its message might not have resonated as deeply. I hadn’t been broken yet. Years later, and I would have already come through enough that the message would have merely been a reminder of a lesson learned. This one came out only a few short months before my storm hit, and I purchased it just after. Because the author chose to let God use her, my walk of faith was strengthened at a time when I needed it most.

I share this with you for two reasons. The first is as a reminder that God may choose to speak to us in unconventional ways. Scripture is of utmost importance, but He will use people, songs, and even fictional stories to open our hearts to His truth. Don’t shut Him out just because His message isn’t coming from your pastor or the 66 books of the Bible. Listen and accept His encouragements and challenges as the loving gifts they are.

The other reason I share my story is as an encouragement to let God use you. I’ve always been passionate about writing. But reading good Christian fiction sparked a desire in me to do for others what my favorite authors have done for me. I want what I write to communicate God’s truth to other believers. I want the stories I write to encourage and challenge people in their faith.  It’s my desire to let God use my stories to touch others. If God uses Faith’s Journey or any future books I write to speak to even one person the way He spoke to me through The Still of Night, I will count that as success.

By the Book: Maybe you write. Maybe not. Do you sing? Draw? Speak? Make cookies? I don’t care what talent you have or what you’re passionate about. Let God use it to speak to others.