This Is My Story

“In biblical Hebrew, there is no word for ‘history.’ Instead of ‘history,’ the word ‘memory’ is used. The idea is that history is someone else’s story, but memory is your own.”
–Heidi Johnston

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

Story, story, story. The word echoed through my weekend, shaped by various tongues. Once or twice it might have come out as “narrative,” a slight variant on the form, but the same essence.

“We tell stories from the image we hold in our hearts,” Jonathan Rogers said as he spoke of honoring our place—our hometown or family. We tell stories to support the thesis we have of “home.” We love our hometowns and our families, he reminded us, not because they are great, but because they are ours. “Remembering this lends the story to universality. Every human place has mythic experience.”

“Baseball is such a multi-purpose narrative tool,” said Russ Ramsey.

“The best way to tell someone you love them is to listen to them,” Michael Card said.

“This is not forever,” Heidi Johnston said. “We are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” She challenged us to be so immersed in the Bible that what we write tells the story of Scripture. If we speak only from our imagination without being anchored in truth, she said, we are only giving empty hope.

“Stories name our hopes we’ve hidden away and didn’t know we had,” said Doug McKelvey. “A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” Telling your story is throwing out a line and hoping that it connects with someone, he said. You’re inviting that person in as a third part of the creative process when they grip the line you’ve thrown out.

“Story is an invitation into a house that becomes a cosmos,” said Walt Wangerin. “What makes the story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.”

He reminded us of Deuteronomy 5, when Moses tells the story of Sinai to those about to enter the land. The generation who were there at Sinai are all dead, but Moses spoke to the generation before him as if the story were their own. His words echoed Heidi Johnston’s from earlier in the day, “History is someone else’s story; memory is your own.”

“Beware the man who makes himself the hero of his own story,” said Russ Ramsey in his sermon on Sunday morning. He combined the warning with this, “May we try to be brave, believing that trying to be brave is being brave because the author of life controls the narrative, and we are in his hands.”

On Saturday night, as the Settles Connection sang “Blessed Assurance” they invited us to sing along.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.


This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

“This is my story…” My story.

My story is that of a bride adorned for her bridegroom.

My story is that of a people whose God chased after their wayward hearts like a lover.

My story is that of a hard-headed disciple who betrayed his best friend and his Lord, only to be restored over a coal fire on the beach.

My story is that of a servant, entrusted by his master with five talents and turning them into ten.

My story is that of a king who took what he lusted after and killed to keep his sin hidden.

My story is that of a man who took his son to the mountain to sacrifice him, only to learn that the God he served would never ask such a thing like the gods of his past did.

My story is the story of a group of people who came together to discover the strangers they’d met were already their friends.

My story is the tale of a people made in the image of God who once turned away from him, but found him a gracious God with mercies new each morning, who shows steadfast love thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments.

These stories are my own, so deeply pressed into my soul they’ve left a mark. That mark, when watered, will become the seed of new stories. And I can throw out those stories into the world like a line, awaiting a hand to catch them and tie them to the hand’s own stories. And the line will go out again and again, so that strand after strand after strand all lead back to the truest story of all: that of a God who loved his creation so much he lay down his own life to save it from its brokenness.

Post-Moot

We are post-Hutchmoot again, and I am certain I will have many things to say in the next few days, but I’ll begin with a few quotes:

“A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” -Doug McKelvey

“This is not forever, we are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” -Heidi Johnston

Hutchmoot 2015“What makes story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.” -Walter Wangerin, Jr.

“Beware of the man who makes himself the hero of his own story.” -Russ Ramsey

(and for a bit of fun, please imagine the following in a Northern Ireland accent)
“Have you ever been at a conference with so many references to Deuteronomy?!” -Heidi Johnston

Catching Up

I have, again, been remiss in posting here, but I do have some recent posts elsewhere. Here’s a bit of a recap:

Saturday: Sabbath

Wondering what the day between the crucifixion and resurrection sounded like.

When I lived in Pennsylvania, my small town had a Chabad- Hasidic Jewish synagogue at the top end of State Street. Newtown was full of historic buildings where George Washington had slept, and most along State Street—the main street of the town—had been converted into boutique shops and restaurants. I lived at the bottom end of State Street, and on a Saturday afternoon, the street and sidewalks between my apartment and the synagogue were crowded with chatting shoppers, hands full of bags and Starbucks beverages.

Every Saturday afternoon, quiet in the midst of the bustle, families, dressed in their finest, their heads covered, their prayer shawls showing from beneath their coats, walked slowly up State Street to worship.

Community and Compulsion

A baseball game and John 14.

And here’s the thing, the risk doesn’t always pay off. Sometimes the person you were vulnerable with proves untrustworthy, sometimes entering into another person’s mess leads to getting taken advantage of.

Earlier this season, in a Detroit Tigers baseball game, Victor Martinez (a.k.a. V-Mart) scored a run from second on a single from Yoenis Cespedes. V-Mart was never the fastest runner, is now in his mid-thirties, had an off-season knee surgery, and had just tweaked the same knee a few days earlier: speed is not his thing. He only made it home because J.D. Martinez, another player on the team, got caught in a run-down between second and third and the opposing players didn’t have time to throw V-Mart out.

I’m Not the Queen

Discovering what it means to be a part of the Body.

A few weeks ago, I sat reading over breakfast at Panera. I watched a woman come in and strike up conversation with the employee behind the register, looking up at the menu to determine her breakfast choice. She paused every few sentences and sipped from the beverage already in her hand: a coffee from Starbucks.

I posted the observation on my Facebook page. I considered commenting on it, but decided to simply post it as a statement: “There’s a woman standing in line at Panera drinking from her Starbucks beverage while she orders.” I had my own opinions on the matter, but I was more intrigued to see what people would say in response.

Writing with Light

photocampLearning about photography and the Author of Light with a crew of teenagers.

On Monday, David Johnson, the Director of Silent Images, presented some initial thoughts on photography to the students. Two of the things he noted stuck with me particularly. He began by asking us to think about the meaning of the word “photography.” I’d never thought about it before, but the root words are “photo”—light and “graph”—writing. Photography is, David said, “writing with light.” One of his rules for the week was “look for the light.”

The second thing David noted which stood out to me was the idea that a photograph tends to be seen as an objective witness to events. He asked us to think about how cameras on our phones have in recent days impacted the course of history. From showing the abuses of corrupt governments to recording a sequence of events in a conflict, a camera in the hands of an individual standing on a street can have tremendous power.

Stuck in the Middle

“I took one of those online quizzes to see if I’m left-brained or right-brained,” I said to Debbie over coffee earlier this week. She began chuckling even as I continued my thought: “I’m right in the middle! Practically 50-50!”

“I could have told you that,” she said. She laughed a little more, then lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You know it’s your parents’ fault.”

It is. My parents, the artist and the administrator. They complement each other well. It’s only when you try putting those two into one brain that you get a slightly schizophrenic reaction.

Brained-ness

I seem to be perennially stuck in the middle.

I’m always torn, wrestling back and forth between the two sides of myself, the creative side distracting the administrator, the administrator reigning in the creativity and making it orderly.

There are plenty of positive things about being who God made me to be. Just in recent weeks that has been a huge theme in my life—learning to celebrate myself and others exactly as we are made to be. It’s like God took this fantastic chemistry set or cabinet full of spices and mixed and mingled each one of us into a unique blend. I’ve been delighting in the care He took in His creation of us.

And yet, I’m stuck in the middle. I’m torn. I’m always a little lost, trying to find my place. If I settle on one side or the other, I find myself looking over the fence and wishing I could also have some of the grass from there.

There’s a line in Cool Hand Luke, when Luke is in the church talking to God, that always has struck me: “You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in?”

I hear ya, Luke. I hear ya.

The Cry of the Artist

“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!” –Babette’s Feast

***

Criterion Collection DVD cover for Babette’s Feast

I came to Babette’s Feast eagerly. I’d seen it years before – multiple times. I’d studied it in a course and given a presentation on it. I’d read the short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), perhaps even before I first saw the film. I’d read the short story again many times since. I’d taught it in a course. I’d recommended it to friends. I thought a few years back to buy the DVD and discovered to my horror that it would cost me nigh on $50 for a DVD produced in the mid-90s. I bided my time.

Then the word came. The Criterion Collection was releasing a new DVD. They know how to celebrate good art. It was satisfying news. The cost would be reasonable. And I settled in to count the days until I could get my hands on a copy.

***

Early this summer – almost late spring – I sat on my friend Julie’s back porch in Charlotte, North Carolina and we talked about Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly. I was aware of it; I’d followed Jeffrey as a movie reviewer for years. I’d heard good things about the book, but hadn’t yet invested the time or energy to read it.

Jeffrey was on the list of speakers for a conference Julie and I plan to attend this fall called Hutchmoot. I was excited. His book was on the recommended reading list. Julie had begun it.

“I’m loving it,” she said. “I’m wondering if we should think about using it as the next book in our reading group. What do you think?” She sketched out a few ideas of how it could be divided up nicely for discussion. I glanced through the table of contents. I skimmed a few pages. I concurred.

She floated the idea of asking Jeffrey to join the discussion. A book discussion with the author? I encouraged the thought.

***

I got more out of Through a Screen Darkly than I could have imagined getting. It did not just, as the subtitle predicted, look closer at beauty, truth, and evil in the movies; it looked at them in all of art. It challenged me to watch movies differently, to approach art more carefully, to be a better recipient of art, and therefore a better creator of it.

Julie had the brilliant idea of pairing each week’s reading with one of the movies Jeffrey mentions in the section we were discussing. The movies were optional. I did a terrible job of keeping up with them. Interestingly, as I read the book, I found myself watching movies less.

I knew now they deserved my close attention, and the glare of the computer screen and the Facebook alerts coming in on my iPhone should not be constantly present while I experienced them.

But the final week, after we finished all the chapters of the book, I knew I’d watch the movie: Babette’s Feast was planned.

I remember telling Julie when she suggested that we could end with a week discussing Babette’s Feast that the timing would be perfect. The planned week was immediately following the new DVD’s release. Then our discussion got delayed a bit along the way and we ended up with Babette a week later than planned – for me, immediately following a writer’s conference.

***

I keep thinking about art lately. About what it means to create art. About what the role of the artist is. About art in the contemporary culture. About art industries. About the relationship of the artist to the industries.

Ken Gire spoke at the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference where I was on faculty this past week. He reminded us that we as writers are lovers of words. He speculated that there was a time for each one of us when we were reading and something inside of us said, “Follow me.” And now, 20, or 30, or 40 years later, we were there at a conference, pen and sheaf of paper in our hands, in hopes that our words will do for someone else what words did for us.

He called the handing over of a manuscript to an editor a sacred moment. “Something of your heart is mediated in the thin, white, wafer-like paper,” he said. And then he went on to challenge us: “Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t reduce art to paint-by-numbers….Aspire to something true: from the depths of your heart to the depths of another.”

***

wrote recently that the best thing about Joss Whedon’s new Much Ado About Nothing was that it got made at all – “that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen [in the contemporary art industry].”

I called Whedon’s choice to make the movie a risk. He had no financial backer when he chose to make the film. He had no method for distributing it. Sure, he had connections, but there was no guarantee that his art would ever see the light of day.

***

Makoto Fujimura uses the ancient Japanese technique of nihonga in his painting. Nihonga uses precious stones and metals to create the pigments with which the artist paints. Mako’s paintings have colors made from lapis lazuli, from gold, from corals, from malachite.

He points to Jesus’ commendation of Mary in John 12 when she brings the costly perfume and anoints him with it. “That is an amazing commendation for someone like me who tends to work from the heart, who tends to work with precious and costly materials. I remember that the extravagance of Christ’s love for me prompted an extravagant response. Eventually, I came to connect what I do as an artist with Mary’s devotional act. Maybe that is the one act we can look to as the centerpiece for a paradigm of creativity.”

***

I asked Christine if we could approach Babette’s Feast without the distractions. We put our computers in other rooms. We turned off, really off, our phones.

She’d never experienced the story. I had.

It has been years since I watched Babette’s Feast. I almost saw it with new eyes. I knew what was coming, but the visual portrayal was dim and faded in my mind. I watched Babette learn how to make bread and ale soup from the sisters, patiently learning words as she went, and I knew that they had no idea that they were teaching Shakespeare how to write plays.

I watched Babette win the lottery, cash the check, and put the money carefully into a wooden box. I watched her carry the box, clutched close to her heart, to her room, then sit down and look at it. I watched her walk the heaths and beaches. I knew the decision she would make. I knew the sacrifice that was coming.

I watched her thrill as she unpacked the ingredients. I watched her eyes alight as she created the dishes. I saw the industry with which she worked to prepare the meal, up to the very moment the platters went to the table. She did not touch the wine until the guests were in the later courses. Her sharp eyes kept all in order.

And then I experienced again the beautiful revelation at the end of the story, that Babette has spent her entire fortune, ten thousand francs, on the meal the sisters and their friends have just consumed. When they protest that she should not have given away all her money for their sake she gently tells them, “It was not just for your sake.” When they ask if she will now be always poor, she says, “A great artist is never poor.”

Philippa understands, to some small extent, the heart of an artist. She comes closer to Babette and continues to press: “Was this the sort of dinner you would prepare at the Café Anglais?” Babette nods, saying she could make the people happy when she did her very best. Then she quotes Achille Papin, the opera singer who once taught Philippa, “Through all the world there goes one cry from the heart of an artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”

“But this is not the end, Babette,” Philippa says. “I feel sure this is not the end. In Paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.” She walks forward and embraces the cook. “Ah, how you will enchant the angels!”

***

We sang a song in church this morning that struck me anew.

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

And I hear the voice of many angels sing,
“Worthy is the Lamb”
And I hear the cry of every longing heart,
“Worthy is the Lamb”

***

There is a cry that goes out from the heart of the artist.

It’s the cry that says, “Take the time to experience deeply.”
The cry that says, “Don’t sell yourself short.”
The cry that says, “Take a risk.”
The cry that says, “Extravagant art is worship.”
The cry that says, “It is worth spending everything.”
The cry that says, “Give me leave to do my utmost.”

The cry that says, “Worthy is the Lamb.”