Category Archives: Things that make you go Hmm…

How to Finally Get Free of Fear and Just Write

Writers can treat their mental illnesses 
every day.
- KURT VONNEGUT

How do you hold onto your inspiration in the midst of all you face, and learn to be an inspiration every day to others?

It’s what we all want down deep, maybe more than anything else. But nothing else seems more difficult.

Everyone wants to live from their deepest purpose. But life seems to continually get in the way.

As I was writing, a bird banged into one of my big windows. Ignore it, keep going. It’s just a bird, not a person. What could I do anyway? Such a small thing in the grand scheme.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 

I go back to writing. All of us carry grief. We suffer greatly. Tragedy strikes again and again and we think, Ignore it and keep going. It doesn’t change anything. What can I do anyway?

We continually try to make the biggest hurts into small things.

Life barrels forward, full of big problems, big issues. We want to do what’s right, and it seems more important to stay focused, undistracted from the goal. In the face of pain and struggle, pressing on is a sign of strength, a com-fort (literally, “with strength”). It helps others carry on. Keeping on is how we make our lives matter most.

But even as I write those words, I sense the problem. How can anyone be an effective channel of inspiration if he won’t slow down and pause for what seems small? It may not be a distraction at all.

The world is too big, the problems too widespread. And my words are paltry, but at least I’m doing something….

I go out to search for the bird.

I look around the garden, thinking about the post I’m writing and trying not to get distracted or lose the thread. I’m trying to write against the pull to help a little bird.

But there’s something else here to find. Something I’ve been afraid of.

I finally find it under a bush. Just a little thing, broken and still. Life is completely a confusing tangle. And my fragile plans are largely defenseless in the onslaught.

White feathers and thin legs, upside-down in the dirt. I go back in to get a bag. I’ve always been a bit of a mess. Of course, I know, and that hasn’t kept me from writing, or from agreeing to teach others how to do it.

Maybe more often than protecting my fragile schedule from the “small” distractions and pricks of pain, I’m protecting my fragile heart.

I scoop it up and take it inside. It hardly weighs a thing. Its loudest, biggest moment, it’s greatest impact on anyone may have been at impact with my bedroom office window.

I’ve collected journals my whole life, filled over 30 now with scribblings, from 1984 to the present. As life has pressed in, and words have come out. The need to respond, to get things out, to catch it all and try to understand it, express it, just not out loud–this has been my major occupation. I help others write about things they haven’t resolved yet, long-past and recent, searching for clarity. And meanwhile, I’ve always struggled not to think it’s just a self-focused preoccupation.

It is and it isn’t. Both are true. And there’s a tension here, a higher purpose, and a pretty low one.

I set the bird on the counter and snap a few photos. So perfectly made. Look at the precision. Such a greater creation than my pile of journals, but the same question: How much has all of this mattered? Where’s the meaning in it? 

Everything remains unresolved. And this seems exactly what my writing is all about: how to hold things together while everything is tangled up and time is unraveling.

I’ve written searching for answers to life, to my emotional issues, to resolve competing ideas and get free of barriers. I never expected it to produce good stories or reveal meaning.

Maybe just a little meaning.

DId I miss a step somewhere? I’ve kept the pile on my desk to remind me to come back and decide what’s to be done with all this.

Everything I’d collected, all the words I tried to use to make time stand still. They never let me catch up, or finally understand my life. But it’s guided me to broken places that needed healing. Like this bird, it’s jolted me out of distraction and reconnected me to the more important thing.

I never understood how someone could live without writing–how could they manage all this themselves? All this feeling?

Did this bird have to die for me to discover greater life?

I’ve failed over and over to write what’s real. I’ve lived constantly overwhelmed by the intensity of feeling, and every moment could be the pinnacle of everything if we could just see it clearly, and capture it before the clarity fades again like a wavering mirage.

Summer is fading into fall outside the window.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st…

I can’t do this myself. I know this. Who but God can help me sort this out and take the next step?

The old journals, full of the fleeting thoughts of my unbecoming becoming, they’ve been prayers. Slowing and pausing to reflect is the work. And I’ve shirked the work often. And I live with the emptiness of that. Ignore your life and you miss the most important thing. Shirk the work and you forfeit the only way the puzzle pieces can ever complete the whole picture.

Someday you’ll be able to step back from it and see it all in its proper light. If you aren’t afraid to feel where you still fear, and seek it out with the power of God’s truth and love.

Fear (awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

This is the crucial point. The whole thing is one giant journey of discovery. And finding the next bit of treasure, the next reward of the next step, only comes from open-handed living.

I can’t let the rush to move on make me miss it.  If I don’t seek God in my writing time, I reject my life as unimportant, disconnected–just some events, some concepts, some people. So much loss. So much silencing of the voice of God in my life.

I don’t want to miss my next step. Paying attention is hard, and diminishing the diminutive has been my habit. I’ll never know real life if I don’t accept my responsibility to stay on the hunt. Much as I want to believe I’m untethered to this, unaffected by it and all the messy relationships everything has with everything else, much as I fear this will only make me crazier, I know this is only fear’s shadow passing.

There’s a bigger world yet to come….!

I wrap up the bird and take it back to the garden, return it for the girls or Sheri to find.

And I say a prayer for God to be with me, here in my fear. The temptation to pass it all by is so strong. I know now that ignoring it is ultimately only seeking death. Face your fears. And the reward of the effort is greater understanding.

Above all, gain understanding…If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

I go back inside and thank God for the bird, for saving me yet again. I pray for help to take this next step and I write out the words, trusting they won’t complicate it but simplify, and somehow reveal a beautiful design not my own.

I pray to keep on, seeking to find all the words he’s placed for me.

And I can do this. I can write and I can care because I’ve been cared for.

Far more than birds.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

A Word on Writing Progress: Loving and Leaving the Fear Box

So there’s an image I’ve wanted to explore for a while.

(It’s not this one, though I like it…)

 

I call the image “the fear box.” (Not that picture. The mental image I have. Clear on that?)

It’s made of a type of protective, soft material, but very strong. We’re all raised in this sort of cage, and it’s a God-designed, natural, humble place where we recognize our limitations. We all like the feeling of comfort that the thick, restrictive walls give us. The boundaries of the box are so certain and sure and we instinctively know the fear box is good and needed.

For newborns, there’s nowhere safer than the fear box.

As we grow a bit, the boundaries begin to feel like restrictions. Our limitations aren’t as limiting anymore, though we know we still need the box…just maybe not so much or so tight as before. If we’re given help modifying and expanding the box, we’re able to grow and not get in too much trouble.

The many people who promote the benefits of the fear box—its safety, its certainty, its traditional trustworthiness—say you can know that you know the box is for your good.

And it is. You know it. You’ve lived in it your whole life.

But if those box-benefit extollers might also say that people who’ve left their boxes are called “outsiders,” and in a voice that conveys their true feelings, tell you how wrong the outsiders are and how much they need to be made right, you’ll feel a sliver of hesitation. But you’ll agree, of course. The lost need to be found. They need to know the wonderful safety and security you’ve known.

But there’s a love growing in you, a light that can’t be contained. And that sliver of doubt will let some of that light out. And eventually, whether the next day or after several years of fighting with yourself, you know you must leave the fear box.

And what will be more important than any other reassurance as you muster your courage to finally leave, is not how much you need safety and security and traditions, but how love is what’s in you saying no to the fear box. And if you can let that love out now and learn not to restrict it or temper it, it will guide you to your new home.

If love is there, nowhere is unsafe.

***

Another week has passed and very little writing on the novel was completed. The usual work and distractions kept me busy, but again, I could have made time, reserved some for it.

A major hang-up, maybe a main hang-up for me has been imagining the response by well-meaning, lovely church people, people I respect.

Some might say I should respect them less, get irreverent about everything that isn’t God. I don’t disagree. I’ve worked through many barriers and claimed the courage and empowerment to go where I need to and speak what needs words.

But I need to say Christianity isn’t perfect perfectly, winsomely, with the fragrance of Jesus. And this has kept me locked in fear.

Christians hold many things precious—churches, pastors, leaders, teachers and teachings, worship, the Bible, The Church, Jesus, God, Holy Spirit, doctrine, creeds, Christianity itself, and even Christian culture. All the resistance I know I’ll face, constantly reminded by a lifetime of experience, has kept me endlessly revising instead of printing.

It’s fear, obviously. And what works best on fear is not frustration, condemnation, shame, or any of my usual responses. But only love.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”

***

Comfort comes swiftly to the loved.

It rushes in to prove yet again no pain or fear can break trust.

That trust is life itself.

The bigger, stronger, higher love will always help,

wipe the tears, and receive the feelings as precious,

wordless truth from the heart, the love box,

from which flow the springs of life.

Fear and pain don’t change reality, only love does.

Love is what’s true,

the ever-present reality to take all cares and keep them.

Love secures, always, always holds safe.

Come what may.

“Oh, love, never let me go…”

***

Must we be willing to break with the old to allow for the new?

Does progress require a sort of irreverence for tradition?

Life is built on an inherited box of foundations and advances. Respect them all. But also risk disrespect and “rebellion” to build what’s needed now.

Every author before you has felt this fear. Whatever this book will add to life, you’ve got to trust that love goes with you. It strengthens and empowers whoever is willing to receive it.

We can face everything that may come.

We can venture out.

Safe is where love is.

 

Praying you’ll know you’re held safe as you seek the higher purpose,

Mick

 

The Head vs. Heart Debate

The head learns new things, but the heart forever practices new experiences.

– Henry Ward Beecher

 

An author friend of mine told me last week that when her kids were in their early teens, they were in horrible competition with each other and they argued all the time. She said she had to figure out how to make them work it out. So she made them roommates for six months.

And it worked.

Suddenly, inspiration struck me—this is just like being a writer.

My own struggle to write is like an internal competition between my head and my heart. Both think they have the best solution, but both need to get beyond the fighting to see the value of their own disabilities. What I’ve needed is to figure out how to embrace both sides of my personality as loved and needed.

If head and heart are naturally at odds with each other, it stands to reason that learning to write well would absolutely require figuring out how to become a patient parent to both sides of your demanding self.

In that moment of inspiration, I imagined my brain as an older brother named Wisdom, who’s constantly telling his little sister Grace, the heart, what to do. He’s smarter, maybe wiser too, and he keeps Grace safe. She’s impulsive and needs Wisdom’s help, but he often needs to back off and give her some space. Grace may not know exactly where she’s going but Wisdom’s going to have to learn to let her lead at times so she can learn how to get them where they’re really going.

My problem has been that Wisdom doesn’t know where the story needs to go, but Grace doesn’t want to listen. Sometimes Wisdom imagines leaving her behind and writing the book himself, and sometimes Grace fantasizes about overpowering him and making him eat dirt. Both their frustrations are valid, but without both of them, they won’t get anywhere.

Grace is ignorant. And the first problem is the squabbling. Those who’ve made their war past-tense somehow figured this out—and felt it out—the way to becoming a patient parent.

And in that flash of inspiration I knew if I want to finish this novel, I need both Wisdom and Grace to sign a treaty. Both of them will have to send their best selves up to the head office and get down to the heart of the matter.

I thought of Pixar’s genius film, Inside Out, those emotional characters at the controls. They needed to learn to be rational. And I’ve got to be reasonable and empathetic, logical and loving.

Basically, Grace and Wisdom will have to marry.

(Wisdom is suggesting I abandon the brother/sister metaphor at this point. Grace is feeling a little uncomfortable too.)

I need them to fight together as they go up against the dragons. They need each other. Their love must go beyond reason, beyond feelings. They’ve got to battle it out and find a connection that goes beyond romantic affection or mutual appreciation. They’ve got to find an unbreakable fusion.

Maybe that’s what amazes us about a well-put-together person or a well-put-together book. They represent a fully embodied humanity—they fit together, their head and heart complement each other. They’re balanced.

They’ve worked through the self-doubt and self-consciousness to become self-aware, and finally, self-possessed. Their internal role-wrangling has been ironed out, and their head and heart play nice.

Maybe at some point, they realized they had a passion and particular gifts, but the heart needed some coaxing by big brother brain to put her faith into action. Maybe she also needed some discipline to stay on the tracks and not get distracted.

But now they can co-lead. And both can feel in charge. And both can believe God is with them and they’ve got this. 

(Thanks to my fabulous memoirist friend, Lyneta Smith, for the inspiration.)

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How Jesus Unblocked My Writer’s Block and Freed Me to Write–for Good

“We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.” – Thomas Merton

All art, writing included, is built on ideas. The size of those ideas can’t be measured, but we know some are very, very big.

I believe there’s one idea I’ve long held that outranks them all in crippling my motivation to do the work required.

Everyone has to work through many wrong ideas. For me, somehow I learned to focus a bit too much on the product of my faith, to value not my work, but my work in the world.

On the surface, it seems a small thing. And there’s clear biblical support for the idea: We don’t look at good intentions, we look at the fruit. We don’t care about what’s on the surface, the heart is what matters.

Biblically, that’s true. But you can see how prioritizing the product over the process–the goal over the journey–is a twisting of this teaching. And intentional or not, as is so often the case, the idea has created a big misunderstanding. The result for me, and I’m convinced many others, has been confusion, frustration, and even death of much art. Art became a utilitarian function, a tool in service to the end result (mainly saving souls, but any such “purpose” of art could have done equal damage).

I could have created this idea from my own pride and desire for acclaim, but I’m here to tell you that any result of our art is not the purpose. Hear me and hope again: this is not a Christ-following artist’s proper focus.

I know this is controversial, but that’s not my goal here. Maybe you’ve struggled with a form of this idea too. The Bible says we are all in a process of being transformed (2 Corin 3:18, among others). Life, like art, is a process. And we can only take part in that as we are able to accept it and abide with Christ in it. 

Leaving the complicated theology aside, focusing on the product gets us confused and looking for Jesus out there, somewhere far off in the distance, in the future, in another place, in other people not here, not now, not in us.

Any artist deeply senses this is true. But many of us resist giving it its rightful place in our minds. We focus on getting somewhere, and so many other things too. We want progress, we want a product. Our fear and our misunderstanding blinds us. Jesus offers his help, his rest, his spirit of knowledge and understanding. And yet we don’t even hear him. We will not stop long enough to listen. We rush ahead and deny that we’re hearing anything.

And when it’s pointed out to us, we may even deny that we’re artists at all.

Of course we’d be able to listen to God and hear him if we were real artists! We’re only dabblers, and pretty bad ones at that, after all.

But consider: maybe our assumptions about what it means to be Christian artists are off base. Maybe they’re informed by our culture, by its insistence on measuring product and productivity, and by our own refusal to accept that there is no measurement for the movement of the Inspiring Spirit. It blows wherever it pleases (Jn 3:8).

Can our rational, enlightened minds even wrap themselves around this ancient truth and feel its power again?

If we could only realize, if we could only believe what Jesus says is true about the kingdom of heaven living within all men (Lk 17:21), it would be obvious that believing is all we have to do. Making art is a byproduct of praise, and the product is

Making art is a byproduct of praise, and what we produce is a byproduct of that, and all of that can take care of itself.

Jesus said that accepting the mystery that he is the embodiment of God’s Love within us is our comfort and our assurance (John 14). And this profound mystery is not just beyond us or above us or out there far off somewhere, but actually living within us right now, infusing and enlightening us like beacons, calling and waiting for the world to wake up to it.

The evidence of him is all around us, but more importantly, it’s filling us with life and is alive inside us. Right now, right here. When you believe it, that becomes your new reality. You are ignited, “born anew,” and every day becomes a new chance to see that life is this precious, this sacramental, this holy. Every day, the sacredness is in the very dirt and rocks that hold up our feet and spark our senses to recognize it.

Oh, but we miss it. We’re still deaf, and dumb and blind to it. We only know what little we feel, what tiny parts we sense, and what enormous things we lack. We long for more but we’re all too aware of what stands in the way. And we are never enough aware of God.

Yes, this is the deplorable, depressing human condition. And yet right here is the wide open mission field of the called artist. Do you not see it? Look! These are the fields ripe for harvesting, the sacred purple fruit literally bursting for recognition, longing to be made into fine wine for the world, to be made into its inspired intended purpose, into its perfect product: the glory of the God of all things!

We could be transformed if we’d just stop trying to figure it all out. Stop trying to improve on this today. Give up the work and be still. Pay attention. And be loved.

You are not alone! We all waver and doubt. We all wait and grow sick with the rot of the dream within us, the dream planted by His Spirit when he energized us and gave us sight. We all grow weary waiting for the day our product will go out and do its work. And we all are tempted constantly to give up. And right here we could be transformed if we’d just stop focusing on what we think is the point. We don’t have it all figured out. And we never will.

Stop trying to improve. Give up the goal of the work and be still. The work will come from that. And if the world is to be changed, it will only be by that.

Pay attention to what really matters. Step down into the stream of the Spirit. The water flowing around your feet is a metaphor of the water flowing within and out of you every day. It will feed the fruit of your work if you will just stop and feel it and then express what you feel. Give yourself to it today. IT IS FOR YOUR LIFE!

Do you hear the song within it? And will you give yourself to that song? If you will, you will have produced something worthy of framing. And you can let praise be your product.

For the higher purpose, today and always,

Mick

Our Only Real Hope for 2017

Do you do New Year’s resolutions?

I sort of do. I set some intentions based on who I want to be, goals I’d like to accomplish, and barriers I’d like to overcome. It’s nothing super specific or targeted. But this year, with one girl just entering the ‘tween years and one full-fledged teenager, there’s a certain urgency to get busy making that progress toward better health in every area.

I guess the question is, What will we need most in the coming year?

IMG_6452There’s the usual things–eat better, workout more, use better tracking and measures for both. But if these are just ways to improve myself, that’s going to fail. It’s not motivating enough.

Similarly, I know that if I want to improve my parenting, my relationships, my work and my play, I need a higher purpose.

I looked back to previous years’ posts and I saw how I fell short. Maybe it’s because of all the challenges I faced. I got sick, got busy, got distracted, and I forgot God and caring for others around me. Other factors conspired too: bad weather, discouraging words, circumstances. At times I was handed heavy weights of pain.

It was frustrating. But not all those challenges produced were such bad things. They slowed me down, made me reckon with the reality of life.

IMG_6386

Being sick forced me to slow down and just be with God. Being overworked forced me to pray and fight distraction. And being distracted made me better appreciate the value of the gift of time.

If I can simply remember that nothing worthwhile comes easy, that time and again it’s proven–no real struggle, no real progress–maybe I can slash failure out as a possibility for 2017. What I seem to need most are reminders–monthly, weekly, and daily–that every struggle is a chance to depend more fully on God, to embrace my inadequacy.

Why can’t that be my resolution for 2017?

I could seek out the struggling more, stand with the suffering. I could believe that some struggle is necessary if I’m going to appreciate and love God properly. I could trust that without trials and burdens I wouldn’t realize how much I need God.

Is this the good, the true, the beautiful higher purpose to be sought in this new year? To know that struggle and pain brings deeper dependence on God? Isn’t that the freedom from all fear of failure I’ve been seeking? This year, can I resolve not to forget and not to get busy with plans and avoid all the struggle, and miss the real point?

This year, I want to do more than plan to avoid struggle. I want to plan for a new resolution. I want to track my progress toward a higher weekly goal: to remember that God is with me in all things. 

This year, I could resolve to set aside selfish goals for a higher purpose.

…To know that when pain and difficulty come, I can remember to stay open to God’s voice and listen to it, ready to see what he has for me and others there.

I’ve said it all my life: no pain, no gain. Can I lay down my life in this way? Even invite struggling with others, the needy, the ones I’m here to love?

I don’t want to go on protecting my life, seeking my own gain, improving my status and reputation, striving for bigger and better in all things.

I want to resolve not to do that this year.

I want to resolve to remember God’s higher purpose and stand with the suffering.

I want to do this expecting something totally different come next Christmas. I want to finally let go and live what I believe. Because this I know:

Embracing struggle and pain and continuing to hope that God has a higher purpose for it all is our only hope of true progress this year.

This old world will break our hearts and make us despair if we don’t commit to this harder way. If there’s a spark inside you to do something different this year, don’t wait to fan it into a flame. Follow that voice of inspiration, and seek this higher purpose. The new year of blank days stretches out before you….

The new year of blank days stretches out before you….

We can resolve this, and know the thrill of freedom from any chance of failure. With this hope, there is no fail, only gain.

For it’s all for a higher purpose, in all He has in store for us this year,

Mick

p.s. I’ve been heading this way for a few months now, inspired by Ann’s most recent memoir, The Broken Way. If you’d like inspiration in following this idea in 2017, I can’t recommend the book any stronger.