Category Archives: Things that make you go Hmm…

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.

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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.

A Word for Writers on Healthy Integration (or More Accurately, the First Word of Likely Many More).

“It’s always the vulnerable heart that breaks broken hearts free.”

 

I read a new book recently and it changed me. It helped me realize something I hadn’t before.

dsc_0037Books often do that, of course, but not in a quite so fundamentally altering way. You know how when new information comes, there’s always that period of instability before you can even recognize what’s happened? And then comes an undetermined time of processing it before you can assimilate and actually use that new fact or element of knowledge from your newly expanded and solidified position?

Yeah, that happened recently. And I realized I don’t think about that enough. I’m guessing you probably don’t either, or at least not consciously, with intention to do something about it. I assume you already know we all face the requirement to assimilate new info, whether or not we always do it. After all, that’s sort of the whole point of this walking-around-upright-and-aspiring-to-social-respectability-for-doing-something-useful-with-these-opposable-thumbs gift of consciousness, isn’t it?

dsc_0066So, because integration is a hidden process, it’s underappreciated. But I think it’s one of the more important processes to explore for how vitally essential it is to our lives, our minds, our hearts, our strength and our souls.

Because my postulate is that to love God well in all those areas absolutely requires good integration (vs. bad or simply lacking).

So one of the takeaways of this book is that integration is really all about consistency. That is, you can’t be well integrated in life and able to use your newly gained knowledge, abilities and wisdom without consistently doing the work to integrate new knowledge, abilities and wisdom.

Right? I know–it’s neuron-stretching. But when you realize this, you see why with all this new information continually coming at you, and faster today than ever before, the sheer effort to synthesize it with your existing life is overwhelming. We resent, resist and actively fight against the onslaught every day. But how many of us realize this invisible duty to take it in and deal with the anxiety that causes? And isn’t it even fewer people who actually think of ways to pursue better integration of their expanding understanding, and then follow through on what that new awareness dictates?

dsc_0027Is this important? Do you agree? For years I’ve believed that what we need most are strong examples of people doing this and making the effort, so we can see the positive change and the new intentions and how they play out in someone’s life. If we could watch a “good integrator” working to apply his or her learning in their life and see what the results are, wouldn’t that be of priceless value in our info-choked lives?

I wonder what could be more needed–of course, such a personal story would be one of the hardest things to write, to say nothing of ensuring the picture was vulnerable and honest enough to appeal in today’s culture. Clearly, an exemplary integrator would have to struggle to be authentic and laid bare. She’d need to care little about the judgment that would follow when her experiment in allowing change by an invisible hand to grow her awareness was misunderstood, maligned and even denounced.

But that’d be the cost, and it’s ultimately why I’ve grown to love inspirational memoir. Because it’s instructive in the ways I need it to be most–to see it, feel it and experience it for myself. Who can’t identify with this deep need to live more “wholistically?” You don’t have to be a writer to know this training is among our primary needs for survival now, since we’ve become largely safe and comfortable in our modern world. The great danger we face as humans isn’t physical or even ultimately intellectual–it’s spiritual. It has always been thus; we just haven’t been so capable of focusing so much attention on it before. dsc_0018

Which is why we’ll rip apart at the seams if we don’t get clear on how to do this mental work real quick.

Anyone coming to this work of demonstrating healthy integration, i.e. spiritual growth, will pay a price. Family and friends will oppose your efforts, see them as variously selfish, self-immolating, demanding, unreasonable, or even unhinged. There’s no easy response to why you’d choose to pursue this. Many won’t see it as growing our ability to identify with Christ’s wounds, yet isn’t it ultimately just that? To see more of the real world and experience the only real way to break our prejudices and privileges, and finally feel what another feels?

The connections there aren’t immediately obvious, but that’s why I’m compelled to commend this book to you. What I aspire to with Higher Purpose Writers is exemplified in Ann Voskamp’s new memoir, The Broken Way. Her example has shown me we need more Christ-followers willing to follow, to leave comfort and seek to know what we tend to miss as disintegrated, disembodied members of the body. So many members of the body are being dismembered and must be reminded, that is, re-membered. So many are being distracted and so many haven’t been given “the easy setting” like us. And what we need is more people willing to show the struggle to suffer in solidarity with them, without judging or arguing with their politics, or believing falsehoods to sidestep our mandate from God.

Simply, we are to love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves. And we need to integrate this knowledge to get involved in saving lives.

This book is the reason I began feeling disintegrated and stopped posting several weeks ago. dsc_0034As with One Thousand Gifts, The Broken Way forced me to recognize it and do something about it. After writing about writing for over 20 years, one of my main takeaways is clear: writing can create an eddy to remove you from where the river of creative flow is taking you. Without attention to integrating your spiritual knowledge, it can prevent you from facing your deeper fears and producing more good work of a higher purpose.

The Broken Way revealed to me I hadn’t yet integrated my knowledge about God with my own living of life. And that’s the opposite of being truly helpful to anyone in the real world. Maybe it’s not uncommon and we all experience such disintegration every day. We all know it’s incredibly hard to do the work of waiting and gathering and then considering all the factors of an issue, let alone to integrate the new awareness that arises slowly without being distracted and derailed. We grow too complacent, disinterested and convinced it’s unproductive navel-gazing. Maybe we also grow too afraid of inspiring others to conjure white padded rooms for us as we slip into self-important delusional behavior. But we can’t allow our fears to win. We can’t give in to our doubts that acquiring a fairly complete picture of our true work in this world, and integrating it, is possible.

dsc_0051Our hearts and everyone we’ll ever meet must follow this process of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. And it feels to me today on the cusp of another election (God help us) and the dawning of a dark and dangerous day for the west, it’s time to own my disintegration and get living again.

So for the next few weeks (possibly months), amidst myriad other tasks, factors and worthy and unworthy colluding distractions, I plan to follow what promises to be an epic interior journey, one I’ve never really embarked on before.

It may be only my fellow God-haunted nerds and misfits who see it and feel this excitement, but oh, my fellow Inspired aspirants, it will be epic…

More certainly to come. Will you join me?

For the higher purpose,

Mick

P.S. Please do check out my friend Ann’s book. It’s sure to sell well anyway, but as my favorite of 2016, at the very least it’s helped to make the year far less disappointing on balance.

In Praise of Inadequate Writers

I have to think of a story of a time I was a failure,” I said to my family at dinner after reciting the perfunctory prayer and filling our plates with Saturday night pizza.

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“I can’t think of anything,” I added, laughing. It was clearly not for any lack of material. “Can you think of a time you failed?”

Sheri thought about it. “I got an F in Old Testament in college. Or maybe it was a D. It felt like an F.”

“Oh, me too!” I said. “Old Testament was crazy hard.”

“I once got a B,” 12-year-old Ellie said. “I think it was in science. Mrs. Sutton’s class in fifth grade. I totally deserved it but I was devastated.”

“Really?” I asked. I hadn’t realized she’d taken it so hard.

“I only ever got A’s, until that,” she explained.

Though we live together day after day, I forget how little we really know about each other. Do I fail to ask enough and truly listen?

And then, an idea came about embracing my inadequacy. It seemed it could revolutionize the way I live and approach my work day to day….

164819_494124054563_777394563_5801658_7068250_nIf I were to open the floodgates and start sharing all the times and ways I’ve failed to live up to what I could be, the selfless me who often takes a back seat, I’d have plenty of interesting stories to share. All the places I’ve failed, and it would set an example for sharing.

We all love inadequacy stories. And we have so many of them!

If we’d just accept them, wouldn’t we connect more? Isn’t that what relating is—the place you can relate your stories of your fully-lacking self to relate to someone else?

It’s a big question, and it takes me a few days to consider the implications and whether I can do it authentically or if it would feel too forced. These relational experiments are strange but they feel good, right, purposeful.

And basically, I already know I can’t help wanting to be better than I am. So maybe this is a way I can at least get some good mileage out of my failures.

IMG_0616We all sense the importance of this, the vulnerability Brene Brown and others talk about—so why aren’t we more honest about our shortcomings? Why don’t we shed our inhibitions and share what we’re bad at, where we struggle and even our discomfort over appearing inept?

Of course, we know why. Because of judgment. We’ve been hurt and wounded so often, and some folks relentlessly. That shaming has formed us to a large extent and many others, and it’s not good enough to say “just get over it” and move on. Some people are more resilient by nature and determined to press on, while others take the embarrassment in and dwell on it, forcing us to care what others think before considering our own freedom. It’s a pernicious, ubiquitous bully, and it’s made us all in some way hide our feelings and true personalities.

We all have a few truly horrific stories of pain and suffering we’ve endured.

And we’re tired of feeling bad all the time.

IMG_0763To really let that all go and embrace our inadequacy we’d have to know we wouldn’t be shamed again. Our stories of failure may be our greatest opportunity to connect with each other, but to share them, we’d have to forget what we’ve been shown over and over, to somehow believe it’s not completely foolish to be vulnerable.

And that can sound downright impossible.

I was Ellie’s age when I realized my accusers were as afraid or more so than I was. Not of me, of course, but of others, of failing to win the attention, approval and acceptance their attention-starved brains craved. I couldn’t have articulated it like that, but I knew all people are insecure and the ones who tear others down are the most insecure of all.

And what I know now is, failure isn’t what we think it is. The world doesn’t end. In fact, when you fail and embrace it, it can get far better. Failure connects us. And real connection is what everyone wants anyway. Some people just get told they have to protect their proud image and never question the logic of it.

We forget this, but what’s worse, we’ve become trapped by the lie that upholding appearances is the way to feel good and successful in our consumer-driven, happiness-worshiping culture. The supposed “free,” guiltless, nutrition-less, connection-substitutes we consume today—from amusements to shopping centers, to media and theaters, to video games and prepackaged foods, to cheap-thrill hobbies and wish-fulfillment fantasies—the endless parade of addictive modern fripperies has made us forget how dependent and inadequate we are.
Everything is formulated with just the right amount of addictive happy-juice to hook us and keep us coming back for more, and we’ve forgotten what healthy functioning is, what connectedness means, that we aren’t the center of our universe and we don’t deserve to never struggle.

IMG_5322Embracing failure can ironically become our new “guilty pleasure.”

We long for freedom, to escape the demands of our lives and bury ourselves in the soft creamy center of the incredible sweet things around us. But what if our wish-fulfillment fantasy that led to lasting good feelings was just beyond the challenge of appearing like a failure? If we insist too strongly that we don’t ever want to feel bad, we’ll never find out that embracing our inadequacy and failure can actually bring the freedom and joy we’re longing for (as the hugely-popular new Pixar film “Inside Out” recently made clear).

Every experience of failure is a connection story waiting to be shared.

No we don’t have to be achievers or successful or hold these perfect images together. We just have to give up that substitute happiness and our addiction to the numbing, feel-good drug, face the truth, and see that we’re all vulnerable. And we’re all failures. And that’s a very good thing.

We all have endless connection stories to share. And sharing them can be how we succeed.

Are you struggling with someone who needs this reminder this week? Maybe your best way to remind yourself is to share with them a “connection story.”

And when you try, remember that you never fail without gaining yet another way to succeed.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why We’ve Got to Learn to Say No

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Below, The Living Novel: A Symposium, 1957

I think no matter who you are, no matter how you grew up, every Christian writer struggles to say no to others.

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Some may learn to say “no” readily. But many writers start out avoiding saying no to people at any cost. We’re avoiders and pleasers. We may say “yes” initially only to avoid the inevitable confrontation, then say “no” later by avoiding the situation.

I’ve done it regularly. Habitually. And I’ve seen it done for years.

But everyone who writes has a unique call and so must rise above this.

And in my experience with Christians, we rarely, if ever, acknowledge the essential importance of saying no.

Oh, we say no to sin. And to anything deemed “questionable” or unsafe. But to other Christians? To the church or (God forbid) the leadership? That might not reflect well on our presumed holiness.

Churches don’t give out gold stars for saying no.

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People who don’t go to church can get away with it. Some may have first found permission by leaving. Yet how many are saying no to the wrong things or in unloving ways?

The point is, we need to learn how to say “no” well, and our model human opposed both the typical Christian and the disengaged and hardened folks alike.

He said a lot of loving no’s to people. And often.

He said no—in love—to strangers, friends, crowds, the disciples and Pharisees—in other words, to everyone.

Why is this so important? Because unless you can say no in love, even well-meaning Christians can create barriers between you and God’s will.

Saying yes means nothing unless you can also say no. Only “no” can correct and refocus people when they’ve gotten off track. Only “no” can move the attention away from its wrong focus. And only a loving heart can use no to affirm the goodness and love inside the opposition.

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Unfortunately, “no” seems so ignored among Christians today that most can’t handle the slightest hint or whisper of it. Now we have to treat adults as children and instead of “no,” offer a firm “thank you for understanding why I can’t serve at that event,” or “God bless your commitment. I’m already giving elsewhere. I appreciate your graciousness.”

If only that was acceptable.

Years ago, I set out to help Christian writers say “no” to the forces that opposed their higher purpose. I thought I’d be fighting the godless consumer culture. Instead, I’ve found the greatest opposition can come not from culture but from the church.

If you’ve had trouble saying no, you’re not alone. And you need to get alone to yourself for at least 30 minutes. Take a notebook and pen and go imagine your future 10 years from now if you can commit to the vision God put in your heart for you to write. Write down what you see.

Imagine it and then believe that one day soon, that will be you, successful.

That is who you are going to be.

Circumstances do not dictate this. People do not dictate you.

God is vision-caster, the Great Imaginer, and when He gives his called artists a vision, He’s saying that one day, it will be your day. But if you never commit to it, and especially to saying “no” to the ungodly demands, expectations, unspoken rules and implicit requirements placed on you by a restrictive church or family or culture, it will never be your day.

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We can’t sacrifice our God-given vision for a person or an image or a church. We must use our gifts for the Person and His image and the Church at large.

If you’ve failed to say no in the past, repent and move forward. Claim your gifted strength and know that every failure along the way is one less you have to make now.

Mistakes are necessary; they’re how we learn to value what we eventually gain.

But we’ll never get to where He’s called us to go without imagination and belief.

If you will go and write the vision, you will see where you will be. And you will know you can not quit.

You have to go get it.

So decide to believe. And He goes with you. And there is no fear because fear is not real. Fear is choosing to respect doubts as greater than the future reality. It’s believing things that are not or may never be true are true. That’s insanity. Fear is a choice; we can chose not to fear.

You can simply choose instead to believe the real vision. Choose it and own it.

As Tozer said, there is blessedness in possessing nothing. Yet a vision is a pure gift, and possibly for artists, our primary possession. You can have this vision if you have focus. And you will have it if you don’t quit.

But the first step before anyone else will believe this vision is you believing it.

So all that matters is, can you say “no” to say “yes” to your vision?

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If you’re ready to jump, the 30-Day Story Course starts Friday. Four lessons, four evaluations by me. $500 $99