Tag Archives: St. Paul

Become Perfect

Somebody asked a master painter how to paint a perfect painting. He answered, “To paint a perfect painting, first become perfect, then paint.”

So, I translated, to write a perfect story, become perfect then write.

I labored over this advice, judging how far from perfect I was, and wondering how far from perfect one could be and still create a masterpiece. And I considered that what I know about certain writers of masterpieces makes me believe they were not much more perfect in a human or spiritual sense than I am.

I decided the advice made no sense unless we interpret it this way: It’s not essential to our writing that we be perfect, or even close, all the time, only when we’re writing.

When we sit down (or stand up, or pace around) to write, we need to cast off imperfections such as our tendency to rush to judgment, our impatience, our preconceptions, our worries about whether we’re going to succeed.

We need to clear our minds of anything that keeps us thinking or feeling out of accord with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Saint Paul, and try to approach our stories from an attitude of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Then we can treat our creations with deep respect and compassion. Even if we don’t approach perfection for a nanosecond (most of us probably won’t) the closer we come, the closer our creations may come to realizing their possibilities.

And the process of writing (or gardening, or fiddling) will be a spiritual exercise that draws us closer to what God would have us become.

Find more wisdom in Writing and the Spirit

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus would tell a story.

When my son Cody was 14 and more troubled than I can write about and keep from feeling my heart break all over again, I gave him a Bible. I had only recently begun attending church. Sometimes Cody would go with me, but though he would never admit to being baffled, I sensed he didn’t have the background required to take much from the messages. So I bought him a Bible of his own and suggested that if he read at least Matthew and Acts, he’d get some basics that would make church less strange and tedious.

Late that night, he ran upstairs. Sounding more animated than he had in a couple of years, he said, “Hey, I thought this Bible was a lot of preaching, but it’s a great story.”

Didn’t Cecil B. DeMille title his epic film, The Greatest Story Ever Told?
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In his essay “Faith and Fiction,” novelist Fredrick Buechner contends that whether what we call inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, from the muse (who or whatever she may be), or results from a lucky break in the process of imagining, it’s possible at least every now and then to be better than we are, to write more than we know. And he points out that St. Paul asked, “Do you not know that God’s spirit dwells in you?”

And 1 Corinthians 2:16 maintains, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Which could mean that Christ’s mind has entered ours, thereby giving us its capabilities. Or it could mean that we can use our minds in the same ways Christ used his.

Either interpretation tells me we are capable of tuning in and getting divine help with our essays, poems or stories. And if we aren’t tuning in, if the spirit isn’t helping, the problem may lie with our attitude.

One Sunday Gary Goodell, a pastor and former seminary professor, proposed that it may be through the act of communion that Christ enters our being.

Let’s suppose this is the case. Then having the mind of Christ depends upon receiving communion, and according to 1 Corinthians 11: 23-29, receiving communion (rather than just gobbling it) requires a humble and honest attitude.

So, attitude may be the key to the place (or places) the spirit (or spirits) rests. Our attitude may determine which spirit can move us, as well as how much we hear of what the spirit has to say.

Love

Some time ago, during one of those periods when I have been obsessed with the goal of learning more about love, I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, in which he gave a definition I found plenty enlightening. He argued that love is not a feeling but is rather a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another’s spiritual growth. More simply: love is willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another.

From Peck’s angle, love is an act of will that may or may not connect to a particular emotion.

C.S. Lewis wrote about “the four loves”: eros or romantic love; storge or affection such as family members may exhibit for each other; philia or a strong friendship bond; and agape or unconditional love, as God exemplifies and would have us apply toward others.

As Lewis points out, all the loves except agape can readily be abused, poisoned by the desire for self-aggrandizement. What appears to be one of those loves may actually be no more than pure self-love in disguise. We pick our friends for how they can serve us, our lovers for the lust they may satisfy. Love for our parents or kids might depend upon what their accomplishments and status do for our image.

William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” exposes the authentic and the counterfeit (for those who read this poem in my earlier post, it’s well worth rereading):

“Love seeketh not itself to please,

Nor for itself hath any care,

But for another gives its ease,

And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,

Trodden with the cattle’s feet,

But a Pebble of the brook

Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,

To bind another to its delight,

Joys in another’s loss of ease,

And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

Though I deeply respect and admire the insights of Mr. Peck and Mr. Lewis, I can’t accept as a complete answer either “love” as willingness to sacrifice regardless of feeling or “love” as a catch phrase for a number of different emotions.

What Soren Kierkegaard refers to as “the subjective” tells me that love is a unity though it may express itself in different variations, and that the willingness to sacrifice based upon motive not partnered with emotion can’t be counted as love.

In First Corintians, St. Paul asserts that: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Simply, whatever I do without love is meaningless. I could sacrifice in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world, but the action wouldn’t be worth doing.

I won’t speculate whether St. Paul meant that actions taken without love will backfire or that, even though they might help others, they won’t draw us any closer to God or heaven. His meaning may be far beyond my comprehension.

But I will speculate about the application of love, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, to our work as artists.

Suppose we get blessed with the opportunity to see an exhibit of Van Gogh originals, or to hear fine musicians play “Ode to Joy”. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will notice that the creator of the painting or symphony has applied something more than great skill, that the artist’s love has entered into the creation and remains there as long as the work exists.

When I read Dostoyevski or Dickens I often glimpse through the words the love that inspired the author to write those particular words. And we encounter love not only in the greatest masters. I recently finished the Harry Potter books and found in them an abundance of love.

So, my advice is, if we intend to create anything beautiful, by which I also mean anything true, we had best apply ourselves to the acquisition and practice of love.

Otherwise, if I attend the best writing programs and learn all the poetic skills, I will offer only noise. If I devote myself to craft and produce dozens of novels that entertain millions of readers, I have given nothing of value in exchange for the fortune I may have acquired.

I had a remarkable friend, Sylvia Curtis, the mother of Eric Curtis, whom you could meet in Reading Brother Lawrence. One day I as I entered Sylvia’s apartment she met me with a scowl and demanded, “What’s the purpose of life?”

I said, “Uh . . .”

She said, “To know love and to serve God.”

Later she admitted that definition came from a Catholic priest in an orphanage where she had done time.

Please note that “to know love” comes first.

Kierkegaard and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown

Even during the rare times when my mind is able to fully engage, I might read a paragraph or page of Soren Kierkegaard and find my only reaction is “Huh?” I might read the page over again and again and at last give up, wondering if the translator was suffering from dementia.  But, if I put down the book and ask myself to translate subjectively, beginning with the premise of the section or chapter and asking how could this premise, in my experience, possibly prove true, usually an answer comes.

The Works of Love chapter, “Love Believes All Things” maintains that (in my translation) we who aim to follow Christ should believe that Lucy won’t pull the football away just as Charlie Brown kicks at it. Even if she pulls it away seventy times seven times, we are required to believe that next time she won’t.

What’s more, Kierkegaard has the audacity to argue that if we believe all things, even that Lucy could change, we will never be deceived. “Huh?” I muttered, then laid the book down and wondered how could this be true?

I don’t know whether Charles Shultz read Kierkegaard, but I imagine he knew of St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthian’s 13:7. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Without claiming Charlie Brown as a Christ figure, I will submit that Charlie is no dupe, that he remembers quite well what Lucy has done in the past and realizes what she may do again. Yet he also recognizes that no matter the number of times Lucy has snatched the football, the next time she might either snatch it or hold it still. After all, she is human, and humans grow and change. So he chooses to believe in Lucy.

Either at some point in his development or in accord with his nature, Charlie has chosen to love. On account of that choice, love has become part of him. So he believes all things. And he is not deceived. He knows he may turn a flip and land on his back. She may laugh and berate him. But he would rather suffer pain and humiliation than risk forsaking love, which chooses to believe. Sure, he could walk away, but he is neither a quitter nor a coward, and Lucy has offered him a chance to believe, to act out of love. I applaud Charlie Brown.

So would Kierkegaard, who writes: “… knowledge does not defile a man; it is mistrust which defiles a man’s knowledge just as love purifies it.”

Ken Kuhlken’s Reading Brother Lawrence, the account of a trip to the Kingdom of Heaven, recently came out as an ebook.