On a Wedding

A few years back, some friends–Boris and Martha–asked me to give the charge at their wedding. To commemorate my own wedding (21 years ago today), here’s part of what I said… 

The old wedding ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “adorned and beautified” marriage “with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee.” You know that story. The wine had given out, so Jesus turned six big stone pots full of water into wine. A hundred gallons of wine.

When they served it out, the guests were astonished—not because Jesus had turned water into wine (they didn’t know that), but because it was better than the wine the host had served first. The steward marveled, “But thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about that miracle. It was a wedding toast for his son and daughter-in-law, and the two middle stanzas go like this:

It made no earthly sense, except to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims with a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true,
That the world’s fullness is not made, but found.
Life hungers to abound,
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

In one sense, the miracle at Cana isn’t as outlandish as it seems. God turns water into wine every day. I’m not speaking metaphorically here. I’m speaking as literally as I know how to speak. The rain falls to the earth by God’s grace, and it travels up the vine to plump the grape. And then, by some process that none of us understands, the drop of rain is translated into a drop of wine, that maketh the heart glad.

The miracle at Cana is a picture of God doing what he does all the time. And yet, there’s no mistaking that on that wedding day, the grace of God was multiplied to an extravagant, an almost embarrassing degree. A hundred gallons of good wine! And the deliberate, sometimes slow process by which God blesses was foreshortened into a single, transformative moment.

***

I heard about a man in Nashville who had the floor of his study covered in Moroccan leather. Can you even imagine that kind of extravagance, that kind of luxury? The very ground the man walks on is Moroccan leather! But it’s no more extravagant than what the two of you are doing. By taking the vows you’re about to take, you’re declaring that the very foundation of your life together is a promise more precious than any Moroccan leather. The ground that you walk on, the roof over your heads, the walls that surround you—the raw material for all of it is a love that is both rich and enriching. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

If you don’t believe that—if that sounds like gross hyperbole—then what are you doing here? Why are you standing here in front of God and everybody, putting all your eggs in this one basket? “Forsaking all others.” Why would you do that, unless you really believed you were moving from glory unto glory—from good water to a hundred gallons of good wine. No, you must believe it.

Martha, Boris, I don’t know what you deserve. You don’t either, by the way. But if marriage has taught me anything, it has taught me how little deserving has to do with it. Love is a kind of grace: the worthiness of its object is never what matters. No, worthiness is a poor basis for love. Rather, the worth of the beloved is revealed in the mere fact of being loved. Ahead of you stretches a whole lifetime of learning what it was that made you love one another. Maybe you think you know already. If you do, you’re the exception.

None of us knows what lies ahead. I don’t know what kind of trouble and heartache lie ahead for me. But I know there’s a balm. And she’s the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning, the last thing I see before I go to sleep at night. That is an astonishing thing to think about. If life offers any richer blessing this side of heaven, I surely don’t know what it is.

By standing here and taking the vows you’re about to take, the two of you are putting yourselves in a position to lay hold of more happiness than you deserve. Not everybody gets that chance. Plenty of people have the chance and they blow it.

So here’s my charge to you: Live in the grace you’ve been given. There’s not much hope for a person who won’t live in the grace he’s been given. “Life hungers to abound / And pour its plenty out for such as you.” But life doesn’t usually force its plenty down your throat. If you would rather have your own way than be happy, life doesn’t mind shrugging its shoulders and saying, “Okay, have it your way.” Martha, Boris, I hope you won’t clutch so tightly to your own agenda, your own idea of the way your life ought to be, that you don’t have a free hand to scoop up the blessings that are being poured at your feet.

Marriage is a state of grace. And it’s a great mystery. And Christ adorned and beautified by  his presence and first miracle that he wrought at Cana of Galilee—by turning good water into good wine, that maketh the heart glad.

On Self-Forgetfulness...Again

I have a friend named Laura who shows up at our front door every now and then with a cake she's baked or a pot of soup she's cooked. "This is fabulous," she always says. "I want y'all to have some." There is neither pride nor false humility in her utterance, but bare, declarative fact. Everything she brings is fabulous. 

Laura's motives, it appears to me, are as pure as any artist's motives could be. She loves food enough to perfect her art as a baker and cook. She loves her friends enough to share her creations with them. Her pride, her humility, her self-consciousness--none of these things seem to enter into the equation one way or another. She loves the work. She loves her audience. 

Last week I wrote about self-forgetfulness. Laura on the front porch with her oven mitts is as good an example of creative self-forgetfulness as I can offer. "This is fabulous. I want y'all to have some."

That kind of self-forgetfulness in the face of one's own good work brings to mind one of my favorite passages from "The Weight of Glory," the sermon by C.S. Lewis. In heaven, Lewis writes, we will bask in the pleasure of God's approval. That may sound like the ultimate vanity. But, as Lewis argues, it is the purest, even the humblest pleasure of the creature, to please the One who made you for his pleasure.

There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing God made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride.

Lord, haste the day.

 

 

 

 

Writing Tip: Be Less Introspective

You write, presumably, because you have seen something in the world around you, and you want to show it to someone else. Why, then, do you spend so much of your writing time thinking about yourself? You're there at your desk, trying to work out the next sentence, and before you know it, you're thinking about yourself instead: your failures, your ego, your word-count goal. You speculate on how you're going to feel when you make your goal. You get a jump-start on the self-loathing you'll feel if you fall short. You wonder what people are going to think when they read what you've written. You wonder if anybody will even read it. You question whether anything you've ever written was actually good. You buck yourself up, remembering that, yes, you've written plenty of good pieces--brilliant pieces, in fact. Which makes you suspect that you've already used up all your brilliance. You think about your friend whose blog gets twice as many comments as yours, in spite of the fact that he can't write his way out of a paper bag. Then you ponder Edgar Allen Poe, who died penniless and alone in a Baltimore gutter. It occurs to you that you'll never write as well as Edgar Allen Poe. In short, it takes about 45 seconds to decide that you're the piece of crap that the universe revolves around.

Just in the writing of this little post, I have experienced this self-absorption in many forms. I was going to knock it out and post it last Wednesday. Wednesday came, then Friday, and I still hadn't sat down to write it. When Monday rolled around, I had officially missed my stated goal of posting once a week, and my teaching semester had started, so now I had something resembling an excuse, but also the nagging feeling that I was letting down the 140 people who had signed up for the Writers' Consortium...and being a bad example too. But since my post was overdue, I would need to make it extra-brilliant--more brilliant than I felt I was up for...

Saint Augustine (among others) spoke of sin as incurvatus in se--a curving in on the self. This truth is nowhere more evident than in the neuroses and dysfunctions that so often accompany the act of writing. Self-absorption, self-consciousness, self-promotion, self-loathing, self-justification, self-doubt, self-aggrandizement--incurvatus in se.

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn't have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I'm writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption--and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking "What will my reader think of me?" I start asking, "What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I'm writing about?" And good things start to happen. I don't live in that place all the time. I don't even live there most of the time. But I don't get much good writing done when I'm not in that place.

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis evoked the idea of incurvatus in se as he explained why Satan rebelled against God and lost his place in heaven: "in the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Satan] could think of nothing more interesting than his own prestige." I write because I live in a world that is full of wonders and I count it a privilege to point out a few of those wonders to a few of the people I share this world with. I write because I live in a world that's a whole lot more interesting than my own prestige. And yet I am forever stalling out because instead of looking outward at this astonishing world, I look inward. Instead of wondering at the world, I wonder what the world is going to think of me.

So here's my challenge to you, my writerly friend: be less introspective. Look outward at the world and at your reader, and leave yourself out of it. See what you see, and then write it down.  

 

 

Writers' Consortium: The Goal Roundup

I've been looking over the goals articulated by the the 100+ writers who have joined the Further Up and Further In Writers' Consortium. They're pretty interesting. More than thirty of you hope to finish novels this year. About a dozen of you plan to write memoirs or family histories. A dozen of you are looking to write poems. A whole lot of you have committed to regular blogging (the Lord bless you and keep you…a blog is a hard master).

It was exhilarating to see what many of you hope to bring into the world: fiction for mentally handicapped high schoolers, a concept album based on GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, a book about gluttony. Some of you are writing to chronicle or memorialize or work through pain--the pain of cancer, the pain of a hard season of ministry, the pain of watching a mother disappear into Alzheimer's.

Many of you stated your goals in terms of process rather than end product. You have committed to write every day, or once a week, or one Saturday every month. I admire you commitment to the work and your trust in the process, which can hardly help but yield good things.

I do get the sense that some of you view your process-driven goals as somehow humbler or less ambitious than the product-oriented goals--novels and memoirs and sonnet cycles. This is not true. Those writers with sexier goals will have to commit to the process too: they too will have to say, "I will write X hours on Y days of the week, starting at Z o'clock in the following location." Those of you who have committed to big, product-oriented goals, take a cue from your process-oriented peers. I will soon be asking you to describe the very mundane routine that you are willing to commit to.

Having said that, I do have a couple of questions for those of you who have defined your goals in terms of process rather than product. First, if you backslide some day or week or month--and you almost certainly will--what can you put in place to ensure that you get your butt back in the chair the next day rather than giving up on your goal (which, technically, you have already failed to accomplish)? If your "Read through the Bible in a Year" plan has ever crashed and burned somewhere around Leviticus 2, you know what I'm talking about. Have a plan that balances no-excuses rigor with a willingness to extend to yourself the same kind of generosity and mercy that you would extend to anybody else you love.

Here's my second question for those of you whose stated goals are entirely process-driven: are you sure you can get up and write every day (or every week or every month) without having a clear sense of the end product you're writing toward? I only ask because I know I can't. I can keep a very rigorous schedule if I'm finishing a chapter or an essay. But if I'm not pushing toward a clearly defined goal, I find the snooze button very tempting. I know there is real value in sitting down every day and keeping the pen moving to the rhythm of whatever is on your mind. Good things come out of that discipline. I've just never been able to do it with any consistency. 

So to recap, if you are able to commit to the process without an end product in mind--if you are able, as T.S. Eliot suggests, to "take no thought of the harvest,/ but only of proper sowing," then good on you. Proceed with my blessing. But you also might find it helpful to commit to an end product. 

In writing, as in may facets of life, it's important that you do do whatever works best for you--whatever keeps the pen moving across the page. But you should also be open to the possibility that you don't know what works best for you. 

Next up: I reflect on your reactions to one another's goals and ponder how we prevent the Further Up and Further In Writers' Consortium from becoming a shame factory.

The Next Light Pole

I've taken up running in recent years, and it's done me quite a lot of good. Besides feeling better physically, I have benefitted from knowing that I, an old dog, am still capable of learning new tricks. I'm not a natural runner; cultivating the discipline to do it has taught me lessons that have applied elsewhere in life, including my writing life. Here's the most important thing I've learned from running: when I find myself miles from home and exhausted already, I've learned not to ask, "Can I run all the way home?" The truth is, I usually don't know whether I can run all the way home. I have learned instead to ask, "Can I run to the next light pole?" The answer to that question is almost always "Yes." And once I've made it to the light pole, I start thinking about the next light pole.

Of the few books I've read about how to write, my favorite by far is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. That book has done much to shape my day-to-day approach to writing. Lamott compares writing a book to driving at night. Your headlights don't illuminate any farther than the next turning. But you keep going anyway, knowing that by the time you make that turn, your headlights will light the way to the next turn. And eventually you get where you set out to go.

Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing, like night-driving or distance running, requires a certain amount of faith. You set out for a destination without knowing exactly how you're going to get there. For me, at least, it helps to remember that I don't write books. I write sentences. A book is what you have after the fact. On any given day, I'm only writing pages. I'm only running to the next light pole.

Further Up and Further In: A Writers' Consortium for 2015

Do you have a big writing goal for 2015? Do you want to write a novel? A memoir? A sonnet cycle? An opera? Do you find it difficult to know where to start or how to keep going? Further Up and Further In is a community of writers who have taken the (rather large) step of stating, "My writing goal for 2015 is ____________." Throughout the year, we will offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and--hopefully--a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort. 

What should you expect from this consortium?

Good question. To some extent, we'll be defining the process as we go along, depending on what members of the group need. At least once a week I will post a consortium-related article here at jonathan-rogers.com. That article may be about the writing process or about crafting better sentences; it may answer a question that has come up in the consortium that week; it may be a writing prompt. These articles will be part of my regular blog and will be available to anybody who visits the site. Some of the consortium discussion, however, will take place in a private Facebook group inhabited only by those who have joined the consortium. For instance, you will state your writing goals, your schedule, etc., in that private group, not on the public blog. Though I am the host of the gathering, much of the value of the consortium will derive from the members' interaction with one another. Perhaps the most important function of this consortium is to provide a place for writers to say, "Here is my intention," and to be taken seriously by people who have stated a similar intention.

What should you NOT expect from this consortium?

In Further Up and Further In, we will not be discussing publishing issues such as finding an agent, writing pitch letters, marketing, etc. There are many excellent Internet resources on these topics; I'm sure you can find them. This consortium is all about the writing process and writerly craft. Also, while critique is a vitally important part of becoming a better writer, we won't be critiquing one another's work in this consortium. I ask that everyone refrain from posting excerpts from works-in-progress on the blog or in the Facebook group. I imagine that some of you will choose to share your work with one another. Please do so via direct communication--private messaging, email, etc.

How to join Further Up and Further In

To join our writers' consortium, fill out this short form. It simply asks for your name, your email address, and a few details about your 2015 writing goal. I will add you to the private Facebook group, and the next time you begin to doubt that you are a "real writer," you can remind yourself that you are a full member of a writer's consortium.

Beyond the Region of Thunder: Flannery O'Connor's Last Days

Fifty summers ago, Flannery O'Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, "So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you." In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O'Connor's dormant lupus; the tell-tale "lupus rash" broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O'Connor spent a month in Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital--from May 21 to June 20.

A prodigious letter-writer, O'Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of "Parker's Back" in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. 

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The Origins of The Charlatan's Boy

The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. "The day you were born," my sister said, a little exasperated, "what year was that?" The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, "A little baby don't know what year it is."

When I sat down to write The Charlatan's Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: "I don't remember one thing about the day I was born." Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister's student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady's troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.

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Discussion Question: The End of the Carnival

What do you make of the fact that the local preachers band together to shut down the carnival at the end of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost"? It seems clear that the freak show (or, in any case, a second-hand account of the freak show) brings our young protagonist closer to a place where she is ready for the Eucharist to do its work on her. That being the case, there is a certain irony in the preachers shutting the thing down. On the other hand, if part of the preachers' job is to raise the moral tone of a community, you can hardly blame them for taking a stand against freak shows in general and the hermaphrodite's unseemly exhibit in particular. I'll just throw this little tidbit out there as a discussion starter: In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all." I suspect that quotation has some bearing on this question. (Forgive me for wrenching that quotation entirely out of context; you can find it on p. 93 of Habit of Being if you prefer your quotations in context).