This week, the emails started pouring in. I’m preparing for the first summer residency of my MFA writing program, part of which involves reading and discussing the writing of the other eight students in my cohort. That which I most enjoy writing falls in the realm of what’s now called “Creative Non-Fiction.” Put simply: true stories, told in a narrative rather than journalistic fashion. Not surprisingly, memoir often gets entangled in a lot of what falls in my writing concentration.
Unlike with fiction, the non-fiction writer doesn’t have the privilege of hiding behind her imagination and writing her way through the mirror. We’re sort of limited in that fashion, and along with the territory comes a lot of getting comfortable with not only revealing yourself on the page, but also discovering yourself in the process. As I’ve been sitting behind my computer this week poring over the true stories of this band of near-strangers, I’m surprised at how daunting I’m finding the process. I have yet to meet these people in person, and I’m finding I already feel I know them better than I know most of the people in my own church.
There are stories of divorce, of epiphanies, of finding one’s way in a new culture. Some are more finished than others. Some leave me wanting more information, and others make me wish I didn’t know quite so much.
And then, I re-read my own submission. My story doesn’t have the high drama and conflict of so many others. I’m a relatively ordinary mom, a wife to the same man for 23 years. I haven’t survived a fatal illness, lost a close family member tragically, or lived outside my culture for more than a couple weeks. I thought about what makes my story my own, what people remember about me.
And then I stopped.
Because writing, I reminded myself, is never really about my story primarily. It’s about the intersection of lives. It’s about God’s hand weaving my life into a community of others. It’s about becoming aware of the meaning in the mundane and the blessing of being able to pass those moments of clarity and joy on. Good memoir, I remembered, is always about bringing the reader to a place where they can read along and say to themselves, “Me, too!”
Good stories make us feel less alone in the world.
That lack of self-focus struck me while reading Psalm 145. Though it starts in acknowledgment that we so often stand in need,
“The Lord upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down”
The psalmist continues to comfort and remind us of the character of God and what that means for His needy and suffering people.
“The Lord is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
he also hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord preserves all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.”
The focus is squarely on the Lord. The main character, the one doing the action here, is not the suffering one, not the fallen, not the needy. If I were writing the story, that’s likely where I’d start because it’s more interesting, but it’s not where the Psalmist starts. His focus is on the One who comes and rescues us.
Here’s character in another sense: the Lord is faithful—not because we need Him to be, but because that’s who He is. David puts our focus on God here, because that’s how you find a way through suffering. If we, like the friends of Job, focused solely on problem-solving, we’d lose the point: our hope is in God.
In Isaiah 44:1-5, our second reading for the day, we are reminded of who we are.
“This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’
another will call on the name of Jacob,
and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and name himself by the name of Israel.”
As the Heildelberg Catechism (Question and Answer 1) reminds us, we are not our own, but belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. And that is a comfort. We belong in His care, and, as we are reminded in the Psalm, He is the God of the open hand and the God who knows our need.
When we find our identity in our dependence on God, we find the answer to our every need within his identity as Provider and Savior. In a culture that disregards dependence as weakness, we in Christ live in constant awareness that what the world without God sees as a sign of failure is, instead, our greatest strength.