Archives For Psalms

Marrying a Writer

November 28, 2014 — 7 Comments

museA recent episode of the series Castle illustrated something all of the spouses of writers know—they are wed to peculiar people.

The premise for the program, currently in its seventh season, is that a mystery novelist accompanies homicide detectives in New York City on their investigations.

Despite his frequently outlandish theories, Richard Castle often contributes significantly to solving the crimes. His counterpart is Kate Beckett, the senior detective who leads the team.

The two of them recently wed, which led to the following exchange while they were on their honeymoon, which doubled as a homicide investigation at a frontier “dude ranch.”

Faced with complex evidence, Castle says, “That’s why we approach this as writers.”

Beckett responds with a comment representative of literary spouses. “So we procrastinate and we make things up?”

Ouch.

That strikes a bit close to home. The second element—making things up—can be construed by our nimble minds as an actual compliment. Yes, we do think creatively and out of the mundane box. Thank you very much.

On the other hand, the procrastination label . . . well, speaking for myself, it fits far too well.

Writing, after all, is not simple. Even poor writing requires effort. And, if one hopes to write well . . . it requires time, skill and practice.

Few can sit down at the keyboard and imperiously command their “muse” or inspiration to be at hand. This is true for all authors, including Christian writers who seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.

The simple fact is, however, that if we waited until we felt fully inspired, most of us would accomplish little.

In my own case, I sincerely attribute anything good that I might write to the Lord. The chaff comes from me. I won’t presume to guess what small percentage of the words are wheat, but I will confess that I am most productive when I discipline myself to write. And, this discipline typically involves a self-imposed deadline.

Thus the reason for the graphic at the head of the page. I have recognized in the fall of life, as I seek to pursue my writing avocation more seriously, that “The deadline is my Muse.”

Beckett knows very well that her fictional husband often requires a deadline to complete his novels.

My wife sees the same principle at work when I request her urgent proofreading of something I’ve waited too long to complete.

C.S. Lewis had ample experience with deadlines himself. And he knew well that even a required submission date could not guarantee literary production. In 1958 he wrote to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, saying that he may, or may not, be able to provide a contribution to an upcoming edition of The Psalms as Poetry.

Dear Gibb, Thanks for the book, a very nice bit of work. I’ll try to re-read Miracles for mis-prints while I’m in Ireland, where my wife and I go tomorrow. When is deadline for your Fifty-Two? Not that I’m sure I can pump anything up anyway.

He did manage to provide a contribution, which he later included as part of the introductory chapter for Reflections on the Psalms.

I’m not certain whether Lewis wrote those pages simply because inspiration compelled him to . . . or if the issue deadline provided a little supplemental motivation. I suspect it was the latter.

To any writers out there who never require the encouragement of a deadline—consider yourself uniquely blessed!

To the masses who share my battle with the plague of procrastination, you have my sympathy. Still, after pausing for just a moment to commiserate, let’s get back to the pleasant labor of writing, and the thrill of “making things up.”

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.

Jews Following Jesus

March 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

interfaithJewish poetry is breathtaking. The Psalms have nourished people of faith, as well as secularists, for millennia. C.S. Lewis wrote this about the providence of God in using the Jewish people as his conduit for blessing the world.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

He alluded to this in a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun and writer. In 1941 she sent him a copy of her new book, Windows on Jerusalem: A Study in the Mystery of Redemption. Lewis responded with gratitude. (Contemporary authors will find the detail of Lewis’ informal critique of her book illustrative of what he brought to the meetings of the Inklings.)

Thank you very much for the book. It has given me real help. What I particularly enjoy in all your work, specially this, is the avoidance of that curious drabness which characterises so many ‘little books on religion.’ Partly it is due to your Hebraic background which I envy you: partly, no doubt, to deeper causes.

Things that particularly pleased me were the true meanings of Beloved (p. 8) and Son (p. 9), the whole account of the Transfiguration (pp. 16 et seq), the passage on Sacrifice (p. 32), the passage ‘This was a shock’ (on p. 35), on our inability to understand sin (41 and 47), the very important bit about Hebrew & Roman ideas of ransom (52, 53): the really splendid account of how God can’t help deceiving the devil (56) and the allegorical close. There are, in fact, a good many Gifford Lectures and other such weighty tomes out of which I’ve got less meat (and indeed less efficient cookery!).

Judaism & Christianity

Jews and Christians have a complex relationship. This is even more true for Jewish people who come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. For most Jews, this automatically results in their expulsion from the Jewish community. However, for a growing number, there is a more gracious attitude developing.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed some interesting statistics. Note the percentage of United States Jews considering the following to be essential:

Remembering the Holocaust – 73%

Leading an Ethical & Moral Life – 69%

Caring about Israel – 43%

Having a Good Sense of Humor – 42%

Observing Jewish Law – 19%

Here is the most surprising part of the survey. Thirty-four percent of American Jews consider believing Jesus is the Messiah, is compatible with being Jewish.

Let me repeat that . . . 34% of Jews in the United States (35% of the ultra-Orthodox Jews) believe that “Messianic Jews” remain Jewish.

I find that amazing. I also find it encouraging, since it’s consistent with the understanding of the Jews in first century Judea who worshipped beside the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until its fall.

Some years ago I heard a lecture by a prominent Jewish theologian who described how historical Judaism rarely rejected those who considered any particular rabbi to be the Messiah. Apparently this remains true today, as some modern Jews, for example, consider  Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) to be the Messiah.

Returning to the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the improving attitude is encouraging to see. In part, because most Messianic Jews say accepting Jesus as the Messiah has made them more Jewish. By that, most mean that they now practice the traditions of their Jewish heritage more faithfully than they previously did.

Following his conversion, C.S. Lewis grew in his positive consideration of the Jewish faith and people. In 1933, as Hitler’s hatred for Judaism became more evident, he wrote in a letter:

I might agree that the Allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.”

Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity: but for dictators, “Nordic” tyrants and so on . . .

All of the civilized people of the world share Lewis’ revulsion with Hitler and his agenda. In that we definitely agree with the vast majority of Jews who regard “Remembering the Holocaust” as something essential.

Postscript:

As positive a sign as the 34% support of Messianic Jews remaining Jewish is, the survey includes a more sobering corollary. Exactly twice that number, 68%, agreed that you can remain Jewish even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. Shocking. But that’s a subject for another day.

The Bible’s Songbook

October 10, 2013 — 15 Comments

psalmistI experienced an embarrassing moment many years ago while taking a broadcasting media course at seminary. I had used a passage from the Psalms as the basis for an assigned devotional, and when the professors (from several different seminary faculties) critiqued it, a distinguished professor dismissively pointed out that I had mispronounced the word “psalm” itself!

I had foolishly pronounced the “l” sound in the word (the way I’d always heard it pronounced). I don’t know whether any of the other students were as ignorant as I, but no one denied that the condescending correction was correct.

The first thing I did upon returning home was grab my dictionary to see if the doctor of theology was right. It turned out, of course, that he was right with how to pronounce the word [i.e. sahm] . . . but he was definitely wrong about how to properly correct a student.

On a more positive note, the Psalms are the foundation and epitome of worship music for Jews and Christians alike. One could read a Psalm each day and since there are one hundred and fifty, when you returned to the first psalm five months after beginning, it would be utterly fresh.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed the Psalms. The following passage comes from a letter written in 1940.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

And glorious poetry it is. The beauty of the songs extends far beyond the family “Lord is my shepherd . . .” And yet, it would be impossible to comprehend the number of grieving souls that have been comforted with the words “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Most Christian traditions greatly value the Psalms, and many include them as a portion of the regular service or liturgy. And individuals who include them in the personal devotions are never disappointed.

C.S. Lewis included them in his prayer and devotion. In fact, he enjoyed the Psalms so much that in 1958 he wrote a book entitled Reflections on the Psalms. There he proclaims, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.”

The Church has added an immense repertoire to the Psalms during the past two millennia, but they will never be replaced. In fact, many inspired songs owe a major debt to the Psalms themselves. This includes the Odes of Solomon, the first (post-Psalms) Christian hymnal (composed circa 100 A.D.).

Speaking of the Odes, I wrote a thesis on them many years ago, and have been considering writing a book about these treasures. Perhaps I’ll share more about them in the future.

_____

The lovely window pictured above is from a church in Fringford, England. David was likely a bit younger when most of the psalms he composed were written.

The Road Taken

June 19, 2012 — 4 Comments

They are both important. Where we are going, and how we get there.

It’s quite common for analogies about our lives to assume the form of journeys. The journey, in fact, is a fitting metaphor for all human life.

Aging is a journey. Maturing is a journey that should run parallel to aging (though it seldom seems to do so). Learning is a journey. And the image of the “lifelong learner” is something that appeals to most readers and to all who hunger for daily intellectual growth.

Our spiritual lives are journeys of a sort. They follow “paths,” with branches that invite us to travel in myriad directions. Yet all roads are not “equal.” David, the anointed Psalmist prayed, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
 teach me your paths” (Psalm 25:4, ESV).

Even secular poets have recognized the power of this concept. One of the most memorable lines ever penned in English is: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I . . . I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” (“The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost).

The Inklings expertly used the metaphor of journey to frame their works. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are both propelled, in fact, by vivid journeys. Likewise, Narnia’s Chronicles contain a number of momentous journeys, which ultimately culminate in the final journey which just begins with the close of The Last Battle.

These journeys are, of course, literal trips. Physical traveling from one place to another. Of course, these physical passages occur simultaneously with far more meaningful changes.

The typical contemporary journey of life may take us to varying locales—but it’s possible to savor a rich life journey without ever traveling far from the home of our youth. Indeed, one could be bedridden from birth, and travel the world in terms of experiencing Life. Thanks to God’s gifts of imagination, dream, wonder and faith.

C.S. Lewis also employs this journeying metaphor in his nonfiction works. In The Problem of Pain, he paints a fascinating panorama of our life in this world. He reveals that suffering is actually a blessing, in that it prevents us from growing too attached to this world. Although God graces us with pleasing moments in this life, they are interrupted by moments of insecurity . . . lest we mistakenly believe this finite world is our true home.

Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

May the roads we choose to follow bring us safely to the wonderful home our heavenly Father has prepared for each of us.

___

The beautiful, copyrighted photograph above appears compliments of Craig Sterken Photography at craigsterken.com. Check out his exceptional gallery!