Spit It Out: Thoughts on Writing

blank docI’ve been working on a single blog post for two weeks. It’s on a topic that’s very important to me, something central to my understanding of God, the church and the world. It’s also a pretty vulnerable piece, so I’ve been working and reworking my words, trying to articulate myself well. I’m growing more frustrated by the day because I have something important to say, but I can’t seem to spit it out.

I took a creative writing course in graduate school. Each week we had to submit a 500 word piece and share it with a small group of classmates for critique. My peers often said that they liked what I wrote. They complimented my sentence structure and my use of imagery and metaphor, but they always seemed to withhold something in their feedback. I didn’t know what it was then, but I do now.

I was missing substance.

I wrote a piece about a fly for that creative writing class. I wrote long and eloquently about an ordinary fly that flylanded on my desk during an afternoon lecture. The fly was uncommonly still, so I studied it closely. This was somehow fascinating to me, and noteworthy enough, I felt, to share with others. I described the fly’s antenna, the translucent beauty of its wings, its large onyx eyes, and its knees. Its knees! I’d noticed for the first time that flies have “legs” that seem to bend in the middle, and I wrote an entire page about this phenomena. (That’s so embarrassing.) I think the fly would have been satisfied with my attentiveness and awe-inspired descriptions, but my professor certainly wasn’t. She too complimented my writing ability and then gave me a B. That whole semester, she only ever gave me a B.

My professor clearly wanted more from me. She wanted me to move beyond my ability to use words to shape images. She wanted to know me through my words. She wanted to hear my voice slash across the page, impassioned. She wanted me to stop playing in the verbal sandbox, to gather up all of my words and my creativity with my soul, and build something solid and true.

She was right to want that from me, I just wasn’t ready.

When I started seminary, I was 22 and the youngest student at the school. I was competent, I loved learning, and I was engaged in the classroom, but I also held back. I didn’t speak up too often in class. I had big questions and well-formed opinions, but I didn’t share them in public, only in small groups of trusted friends. I had a voice, but I wasn’t ready to use it. I had substance, but I didn’t feel safe sharing it.

Over the years people kept telling me that I had a gift for writing. They encouraged me to write more and to share it with them. In the fall of 2009, I started this blog, which I called “The Purse” because of a funny, teenage anecdote involving my mother. It was an experiment in using my gift to use my voice. I thought if I told a few friends and family about the blog, that would keep me accountable. A familiar and caring audience would be the gentle pressure I needed to spit myself out on paper. I hoped to be clear and honest. To write well and to grow as a writer. To talk about things that mattered and ask important questions. But most of all, I wanted to take up my voice and have the courage to share it with the world.

Five and a half years later, I know I’ve accomplished all of that (though my use of punctuation still needs improvement). My little experiment in voice development is now a vital place of personal reflection. I’m a verbal processor, but I hate journaling. This blog is my forum. It’s where I talk out my thoughts and questions until they line up into something life-giving. Gradually, it’s become a place safe enough for me to share my pain, doubts, and struggles.

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I’ve put my soul in these posts, and it’s out there for the world to see. I now have over 700 subscribers, most of whom are strangers. That’s a modest number in the world of blogging, but I’m not hoping to quit my day-job. I’m just astounded that 700 people want to hear what I have to say on whatever topic I choose.

Despite my expanded audience, this blog continues to be something profound for me. I’m shaping, sharpening and sharing my thoughts, beliefs, and my faith with every word I write. Some posts are better than others, but I think my voice is coming through, confident and clear.

I know myself better than I did in 2009. The name change from “The Purse” to “Pastor with a Purse” is evidence of my growing self-awareness and a clarity of purpose. I know who I am. I’m using my voice. And I’m offering substance from my soul to the world. Now I have a new problem. I have important things to share and in my head I know what I want to say, but I can’t seem to harness my words.

That’s all I wanted to say, really. I just needed to set aside my angst over the post that I can’t seem to get out, and just write. Now, I also want to say how grateful I am to God for this blog. What an incredible adventure this has been, to open myself up to more than just a few trusted friends and share my soul with anyone who wants to listen.

Thanks too, to my original twenty readers, those friends who encouraged me to write in the first place. You’ve helped me grow up and keep growing.

And I guess, while I’m at it, I should also thank my creative writing professor for all of the B’s she gave me. She showed me that I wasn’t using my greatest tool in writing — myself. I think if she could see how far I’ve come from that fly piece, she would be proud. She may even give me an A for all this substance.

When Someone You Love – A New Series

Advice is not my calling. Even though I’m a pastor and people often come to me for guidance, I resist the pressure to whittle down my role into what I like to call, “advicer.” Being a pastor is so much bigger! Plus, I’ve discovered that when people come to me for help in a tough situation, many of them already have a plan they want to execute. What they’re really looking for is permission from a spiritual authority to take a route that’s easier, but not necessarily better, for all involved. This is a dangerous game, one that subtly deals in manipulating a pastor’s pride and power. It’s a game I refuse to play.

Instead, when people come to me, I like to ask a lot of questions. My goal is try to uncover motivations, help articulate emotions, and generally to explore perspectives and options. As a pastor, it’s vital that I spend far more time asking questions than I do giving my opinion. That keeps me in the proper place as a caring companion and God in the proper place as Healer and Guide. It’s inescapable though – as a pastor people will always expect me to give advice.

I resist the same pressure as a blogger. I read a lot of blogs and articles. The trend these days is to write pieces that critique how Mr. X gets it wrong, tell how to do something in ___ easy steps, or list the top ___ reasons to do or be ______. (If I read one more blog title that starts with, “Five Ways To…” my fingers may fall off and my eyes start shooting jalapeno juice!) In other words, it’s all advice and opinions.

I want this blog to be more. I want more exploration, more creativity, more room to stretch, more questions, more compassion for difference and failure. I hope that by writing from my deep places with my unique voice, I’ll reach someone, somewhere in need of my spirit.

Though I’m cautious about dealing in advice, I realize that I do have some wisdom to offer, especially when it concerns caring for others. Fourteen years ago, God revealed that my calling was to care for the suffering. It’s a calling grounded in the spiritual gifts of compassion and mercy. With more than a decade of pastoral care in the trenches, after extensive training in crisis response and stumbling my way through the gauntlet of clinical chaplaincy, I have valuable skills and informed perspective to offer.

As you know from my last post, several of my friends are in crisis. I was debriefing with a friend, talking through what I was doing in response, how I’m able to help and my limitations. My friend said, “You know Corrie, not everyone knows how to do what you do. It’s a gift.” Well, yes. What I do as a pastor starts with a calling and gifting, but that I’m able to care well relies very much on the fact that I want to care. That I’ve tried to care and failed. That I’ve forgiven my failures and spring-board from them into fresh attempts.

My high school choir director Mr. Griffin used to say, “Everyone can sing, but not everyone can sing well. I can always teach someone to sing better.” I believe that everyone has the capacity care for others, they just might need some lessons. The raw materials we need are love and the desire to put love into action.

You all have people who you dearly love. Your loved ones will experience pain from time to time and you’ll want to reach out and show you care, but you may not know how. That’s where I can help.

Today I begin a new series called “When Someone You Love.” It will address situations that are common to relationships, but ones in which we may not be comfortable or well-equipped to respond. Future posts include: when someone you love loses someone they love, when someone you love is being abused, when someone you love is dying. I’m going to share what I’ve learned, tell stories of failures and successes, confront unhelpful tendencies, and chart out some ways we can show that we care.

And yes, this means I’ll give advice, but you can trust that it won’t be trite or untested and it will always be open to feedback. Feel free to email me with topics you’d like to tackle – corriegus@gmail.com.

May you be given, not only a sharp pen, but above everything else more and more of a burning and loving heart. Write with red ink oftener than with black. Encourage more than criticize. (David Nyvall, December 1893)

Best Sellers

This is a list of books I’ve drafted in my head and will one day get on paper.  Post a comment about the book you would be most interested in reading.

#1.  Overcoming Religious B.S.: A Model for Pastoral Care

This is a non-fiction work that teaches Christians how to and how not to care for people in crisis.  Chapters will include: silence as care, using scripture in a healing waImagey, space to speak the unspeakable, lament, allowing others to make their own meaning, and organic blessing and prayers in the moment.

#2.  Prayers from the Dust and Dirt

This book will be a compilation of prayers of the vulnerable in North American society – orphans, victims of human trafficking, single parents, the unemployed, felons, the abused, etc.  I will personally travel, meet and pray with the vulnerable.  The second portion of the book will be prayers written and prayed by the privileged on behalf of their vulnerable sisters and brothers.

#3.  Prayers for the Table

This is a compilation of prayers written for everyday meals, special occasions and holidays.  I hope to solicit written prayers from my many artist and pastor friends across many cultures.  It will include simple sung prayers.

#4.  Coyotes & Cacti: A Metaphorical Survival Guide for the Spiritual Desert

How many of us have read self-help books that break down our bad behaviors and then offer a long rationale and dubious list of “healthy” behaviors to implement?  In this book I contend that changes in behavior are far more successful when we first have a change in vision, when we look at the same situation and see it differently.  Notice the clues and tools that are already available to you.  I put this theory into practice and help those in the spiritual desert recognize the survival metaphors inherent to desert landscapes.

#5.  Freedom, Imagination & Risk: The Missing Pieces in Kingdom Growth

The more I observe what the church does and what the church doesn’t do, the more convinced I become that Christian discomfort with biblical freedom, a lack of vision or imagination for the gospel’s power to transform and a fear of risk-taking are the major stumbling blocks of today’s church.  This book will explore this premise, taking up the sometimes controversial topic of “women in ministry” as a case study of what could happen in our homes, churches, country and our world if we lived the Christian life with more freedom, imagination and risk.

#6.  Asylum

This is a memoir of my early years of faith and my experience of the church.  It will explore the church as a place of both refuge and insanity.  It will encompass my childhood through discerning my call to pastoral ministry.  Essentially, this work will cover the awkward years, the effects of bullying, body image issues, unconditional acceptance, discovering my gifts, etc.

#7.  I Am: Jesus’ Seven Proclamations in the Gospel of John

This will be a two book set, the first a collection of creative chapters that explore the history/context/images of the seven “I am” statements in John (bread of life, light of the world, gate for the sheep,  good shepherd, resurrection and the life, the way, truth and the life, the true vine).  The second book will be an accompanying bible study guide for personal or group study.  In my opinion, the world is greatly in need of some meaty bible study guides!

#8.  Benched

This will be an internal critique of evangelical churches that bench women from living out their gifts and calling to leadership, teaching and/or pastoral ministry.  It will feature testimonies of real women who are committed to the evangelical church but have grappled to live out God’s calling on their lives.  This book will be co-written and edited by my friend and fellow advocate Alyssa Brooks-Dowty.

#9.  The Gospel According to Eve

Before I am unjustly condemned like author Dan Brown, let me state before it’s published that this is a work of creative fiction.  There won’t be any radical departures from the biblical story like suggesting that Jesus had a child.  Instead, this book will give accounts of Jesus’ ministry and message from the perspective of his female followers.  I hope to write and edit this book with fellow writer and pastor Stacey Gleddiesmith.  We will solicit the work of female alumna of Regent College, Vancouver B.C..

#10. Get a Move On: Five Contemporary Injustices We Can Change 

I don’t want to give away all five, but here’s a sneak peek at two social issues that I truly believe we can and should change.  Since culture is constantly in flux, this work should probably be an article for a magazine or newspaper.  Perhaps I could submit a new list every decade!

  • Orphans – There are currently over 400,000 children in America’s foster system and 100,000 of them are available for adoption NOW.
  • Homeless homosexuals – It’s a fact that a growing sub-population of America’s homeless is teenagers whose parents kicked them out when they came out as gay.