God’s Own Fool

By

So surrender the hunger to say you must know,
Have the courage to say,’ I believe’.
For the power of paradox opens your eyes,
And blinds those who say they can see.

~Michael Card

We were driving through downtown Atlanta, off on literary pilgrimage in the wind and sunshine of March. Just she and I, a sisters’ spree, making holiday in the middle of the week for a day trip to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia.

I think I was already feeling intimidated, haunted by the great one’s ghost, as it were, for as I threaded the umpte-eleven lanes heading south out of the city and fiddled with the AC, I kept prattling nervously about ‘my little manuscript’. It seemed so absurd to call it a ‘book’, even to her, who knows my own soul. Flannery wrote books. I scribbled things in secret.

“Would you stop?”

I cut my eyes over at Liz in surprise. In the middle of I-75?

 

“Drop the ‘little’. It’s your manuscript. You wrote it. Quit putting it down.”

Her words went to the quick: stung, ‘hurt good’, as a wise friend is wont to say. They touched upon a nerve already tender from the Physician’s gentle prodding and forced me to face my old, old foe. Yet again.

Fear. The giant Apollyon that halts me in my tracks and sneers down all my hopes and aspirations. The paralyzing dread of failure; the horror of being misunderstood that stifles my voice and freezes my fingers above the keyboard. Fear of man’s opinion. Fear that when I open my heart’s treasures to the world, the world will be unkind and trample them underfoot. That morning I felt ill at the thought—I often do. But that’s exactly what it is: a feeling. My desire to write, to communicate and create, is not a feeling but a God-given passion; a relentless yearning that, quite frankly, at some times I rather wish would lie still, but in sublimer moments overspreads my life with the gilt and purple of love’s ambition.

It took me a long time to admit of my vocation, though I’d carried it around with me for as long as I could remember. It was hard to make peace with the extravagant expenditure of time which serious writing demands. I longed to do it; I didn’t balk at the work. But I halted over all the officially sanctioned Christian duties I ‘ought’ to be putting my hands to instead of tapping out words in solitude. I read somewhere that it takes ten years to learn to write a book. I don’t know how true that is across the board, but I felt certain it would definitely be something like it for me. It seemed too sweet a thing to be indulged in. (I know—sounds crazy. Right up there with the fear of imagining God better than He is.) I prayed and prayed for direction; if not for outright heavenly affirmation, at least the quiet sense of God’s hand resting in favor upon my head. I ‘felt His pleasure’, as Eric Liddell so poignantly put it, when I wrote—when I really got cooking and lost my head among the stars. And yet the doubts still rose like a creeping poison: How could I dare to think I’d have anything to give to the world? How could I lavish so much love and energy on a project the world may never see?

I needed to know. I needed, so desperately, to hear God say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a way that I would not be able to forget. Nothing dramatic; just an answer to my endless question: Do You really want me to do this?

The answer came on an April evening, ordinary but for the Arcadian loveliness of spring’s wild greening and the profligate sweetness of breezes laced madly with jasmine and honeysuckle. We were sitting in the yard, my husband and I, sharing a pot of tea and a chapter in our latest read-aloud, Under the Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, our friend Van was describing the directive he had received from God to write A Severe Mercy (our favorite book of all time and the only context of our friendship with him: he’s one of the first compatriots we’ll line up to meet on the other side). He wrote of the blinding and unmistakable sense of calling, such as he had never known in his life. Of the months, from January to May, that he planned out his book and prayed and thought constantly, and of the upcoming long vacation during which he intended to make a start—never dreaming then that he would finish it in seventy-eight days.

I recall no process of thought or decision, certainly no Voice or Presence. The intention, calm, clear, firm, was simply there—a fait accompli—and thirty seconds before it had not been. That is all I know. But I believe as I believed then, that God had commanded me to write the book. It was, precisely, a vocation. In the Afterward of A Severe Mercy I put it thus: Beyond knowing, I believe (and did then) that, having been recalled to the Obedience by the nudges and, finally, by irresistible (or, at least, not resisted) grace, I was now commanded to write: vocatio.

~Sheldon Vanuaken, Under the Mercy

My heart burned within me as I heard the words in my own voice: “Beyond knowing, I believe.”

Vanauken made it clear, both from the setting and the usage, that this was no optimistic “I-deem-and-suppose” kind of believing. This was an “I-believe-in-God-the-Father-Almighty” conviction he was talking about. Not a confidence in oneself, such as to rival the supreme allegiance due only to God, but an expression of that allegiance. A living out of the wild impracticability of faith. As Christ-followers, we have to take everything at His word; there is very little we can claim to know, experientially and unambiguously, at least at the outset. But we have something better than knowing—we have faith. Rock-solid stone upon which we can build a house that will last and a life that will count for eternity. Belief is the gateway to the knowledge of God, not the other way around. It’s true, ultimately and superlatively, in our salvation. But it’s also true—interwoven into the very fabric of our identities—in the inexplicable summons of our vocation.

In that blazing moment, I had my answer. My desire—so much a part of me—was the call. And the reply could only be made in faith. Art exults in its own implausibility; it is mystery and miracle awaiting the collaboration of a human handmaiden. It is a plunge in the dark; a walking on water. If St. Peter had been looking for a firm place to set his foot before embarking across the waves, he never would have gotten out of that boat.

And neither would I.

Faith is the only antidote to the fears that I face every day when I open up my laptop. It is the lodestar towards which my barque is bent and the lifeline when I’m mired in the mully-grubs and think I’ll never write anything of any value to anyone. God has had to bring me to this place again and again, down to the point of pain. For if I believe— radically, riotously—that this is my Obedience then what have I really got to be afraid of?

I used to have a secret codename for writing—so secret that no one knew about it but me. “Stuff around the house” was what I’d volunteer when someone asked me what I was up to on a given day. I’ve long since seen how silly that is. It was only recently, however, that I recognized the inherent sinfulness of it. It’s a fear that is rooted in pride and it’s deadly to both faith and works. The Lord put His finger on that and it seared me to my back collar button: it was pride that was keeping me from telling people what I was doing with my writing. Not pontificating on the nuts and bolts, of course. That would be a different kind of pride. But the fact that I was doing it. Up until that point I would rather have died than confess to most people that I was writing a novel because, well, I mean, what if I failed? Miserably? And then they would all know about it! It is the fear of failure, masquerading as some kind of artistic modesty and propriety that has kept me from saying, “With God’s help I’m doing this crazy thing of writing a novel.” And then if it gets done, He gets the glory. And if it doesn’t? Lanier is that much more humble (I would hope) and honest, with herself and with others. And—I have to believe this—in some way that only He can fully valuate, God still gets the glory.

T.S. Eliot whittled it down to one line of exquisite poetry:

For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

I don’t want to fail. I want to sing the songs of Eden to a tired and homesick world. I want to write of beauty and truth and goodness, unashamed; I want to spin words and weave stories that will make other people know they are not alone. But even this ambition, sweet as it is, comes short of the mark. For if I truly believe that in attempting to write a book I am being obedient to something that God has placed within me, then His pleasure is the final word. It will not matter in the least whether I succeed in the temporal sense or fail utterly. In the words of the immortal Rumpole, it will be “a matter of indifference bordering on the supernatural”. Supernatural, indeed. For only faith’s vision can incite a recklessness of that ilk, that caliber of abandon that has made the disciples of Christ stand out from their kin like stark raving lunatics from the first Year of our Lord until now. God help me to be among them.

The Apostle Paul called us ‘fools for Christ’, and I’ve always imagined he said it with a lopsided grin, a little dazed by the gorgeous insanity of it all. We are ordinary men and women aflame with immortality and moonstruck mad by a grace we can scarcely fathom. We believe crazy things and we do crazy things as a result. We are loved outrageously, beyond all wisdom and reason, and we can’t keep the joy of the joke to ourselves. The love of God has wrung all manner of impossible things from of the hearts of His people since the world began. And how much lovelier is the world because of it.

It’s embarrassing to admit how often I need reminding of these things. I smarted under my sister’s sweet reproof for days. When I told my writing partner what Liz had said, she was all over it. (Bless her heart, she’s had to put up with enough of my insecurities as it is.)

“I’m going to hold you accountable,” she declared.

She didn’t have to wait long, for scarcely a week later she heard me pull the same stunt at a dinner party, fawning and halting about my ‘lowly book’. I felt her eyes on me from the other end of the table; saw that arch tilt of her chin.

“Liz would love to hear you say that.”

I looked back at her, shamefaced. And then I did the only thing I could do—the only thing such a clownish fear deserves.

I laughed. Right in its ugly face.

And I can’t help thinking that God laughed with me.

Profile photo of Lanier Ivester

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


37 Comments

  1. Jess

    Lanier, I love it when you write! This is beautiful. And it comes at the perfect time. I’ve been struggling with my writing, or rather, my fears of writing. They are ever whispering at me: “What can you possibly say that hasn’t been said, and better said, by so many writers before you? What on earth makes you think you are actually a decent writer?” I hear them as soon as I pick up a pen (or pull up a Word document), and lately they’ve been so overwhelming that I often give up before I even start, and go pout in my room. It’s so hard to face them. Thank you for the encouragement and the reassurance of Jesus’ neverending strength and love.

  2. Andy

    Lanier, this is exactly what I needed this morning. “I want to sing the songs of Eden to a tired and homesick world.” Beautiful.

  3. Laura Peterson

    Lanier,

    Wow-eeee.

    Thank you so, so much. This is SO lovely. I have to confess here to sometimes skimming through the daily Rabbit Room post, just collecting a phrase here or there to brighten my work day a bit; but with your writing, I cannot skim! There’s a little voice in my head saying “STOP! Slow down! You’re missing so much beauty!” And then I do slow down and am SO glad that I did. Thank you for the opportunity to be still for a moment in my crazy day and remember that fears are to be laughed at. I’ll be sending this to several writer-friends. And that T. S. Elliot quote is now on a bright yellow sticky note, adorning the corner of my computer monitor.

  4. Profile photo of Lanier Ivester

    Lanier Ivester

    @lanier

    Jess, sometimes it helps to be reminded that the ‘great ones’ struggled with the very same fears:

    “And what there is to conquer
    By strength and submission, has already been discovered
    Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
    To emulate—but there is no competition—
    There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
    And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
    That seem unpropitious.”

    T.S. Eliot, East Coker

    You just stop your ears to those voices. They are not the voice of your Shepherd.

  5. Margret

    Oh Lanier, beloved of the Lord and so many others,

    “[I]f I truly believe that in attempting to write a book I am being obedient to something that God has placed within me, then His pleasure is the final word. It will not matter in the least whether I succeed in the temporal sense or fail utterly.”

    These are the words that strengthen every person who puts feet to faith. They also confirm to me that as long as we do our best with the talents we’ve been given, we will bring pleasure to the Father. Remember? Identical compliments, affirmations, and rewards were given to the servant with five talents and the servant with two. He knows what we’re capable of, knows what we can (and cannot) do, knows our challenges and shortcomings. So when we try, even though our efforts seem paltry next to another’s, we’re rewarded with a Heavenly smile and much, much, unconditional love.

    So thank you for these words and so many others. Thank you for your heart, your graciousness, your compassion, your willingness to share. Thank you for you.

    All of Heaven’s best,
    Margret

  6. Jess

    Thanks, Lanier. I’m writing that second Eliot quote in my journal right now. It is good to know I am not alone in my fear before I step out to face it. It’s a sort of battle preparation. Girding myself with the tears and prayers of others who have gone before me.

  7. JenniferT

    Lanier, you are a woman after my own heart. That Michael Card song, that Chariots of Fire quote, and that line from T. S. Eliot have steered me through many dark waters of doubt and insecurity and confusion in my life. I too kept the writing of my first novel a secret from most people, and I still feel all of the oppressive weight of fear that you struggle with. But there is no doubt about the gorgeous gift of words that God has placed in you, and I will be the first person waiting in line for a copy of your novel when you have given birth to it. You continue to inspire me. Thank you.

  8. SarahN

    This is SO ME. In fact, the very reason I logged onto the Rabbit Room right now is because I’m afraid to set to work–you caught me in the act, much as Liz did for you! Thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone–and for reminding me that this fear is an enemy that can and should be fought. I needed this.

  9. Katie

    Thank you, Lanier!
    Favorite lines: “We are ordinary men and women aflame with immortality and moonstruck mad by a grace we can scarcely fathom. We believe crazy things and we do crazy things as a result. We are loved outrageously, beyond all wisdom and reason, and we can’t keep the joy of the joke to ourselves.”
    It’s kind of ironic … you just encouraged me to leave my writing job. God is calling me elsewhere, and even if it is foolish to the rest of the world, I can’t help but follow. Wherever He leads me, though, I know that He didn’t give me the gift of writing for nothing.

  10. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Lanier, a beauty of a post.

    You have the desire, the deep-down, unstoppable desire to write. That is the valid indicator of a calling. I mean the desires in our spirit, not all the soulish junk we feel. Sometimes people have a “desire” to play music but what they are really wanting is approval, or to feel important, etc. The proof in the pudding is that a person can’t stop doing the thing and knows they would be miserable if they did, and if they do stop for a time they are in fact miserable.

    The opposition an artist feels is a spiritual opposition. God stuck something in our heart to do; he wants us to do it. But we are too busy being Moses. “I’m not a good speaker. So-and-so is a better writer than me. I don’t have a good voice.” We immediately bring up our mountain of evidence that will convince God how wrong he is.

    But the Word comes. Speak to mountain of evidence and say “Be cast into the midst of the sea.” That’s our part in this equation. Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, “Stretch forth thine hand.” The guy could have pulled a Moses. “But what good will that do? It’s been withered for years. I can’t stretch it forth. Let me go to my doctor first and maybe he can give me some stretching exercises to do so I can do what you say.”

    What did the guy actually do? He did as he was told; he heard the Word, and he did it in faith. Bang. Healed.

    I think that’s what God is getting at with artists. Faith is the undergirding support for making art.

  11. kelli

    Lanier…there is such beauty and truth in your post. To believe and act on that belief, to faithe…and to laugh in the face of those fears and doubts. To claim the truth of who we are in Him and who He is in us. In that, He receives the glory!

    I await the day when I can hold your words in my hands and be led closer to His heart as I was by this post.

  12. redheadkate

    An hour ago, my brother asked why I wasn’t writing, looking for a new job, creating jewelry. My answer was fear. I know what I need to do, yet I have allowed fear to paralyze me.
    Oh how I needed to read this. Many thanks.

  13. Fellow Traveler

    “Fear that when I open my heart’s treasures to the world, the world will be unkind and trample them underfoot…”

    Oh yes. I know that feeling very well…

  14. Zachary

    Lanier,

    Your writing has such color to it. An honest and powerful post. Belief beyond knowledge is such a backwards and beautiful concept that, in its instability, empowers us act beyond ourselves, because it allows the Spirit to glory in our weakness.

    Your inspiration warms and encourages me to create in spite of my own insecurities. So refreshing, thank you.

    P.S. – Lanier Ivester is such a writiers name.

  15. Donna

    Please tell Liz thank you – from all of us who benefitted from your precious wound.

  16. Jen

    Liz is very wise. You’re amazing with words, and I hope someday you can introduce us to your not-so-little manuscript.

    Thanks so much for this. I go through the same thing a lot when I try to write: putting down my writing (“scribblings” and “ramblings” are my codewords of choice), hiding it, downplaying it. But when it’s so deeply a part of who you are, I guess fighting the fear and pride is part of helping something beautiful into the world. I can relate to your journey.

    Thank you for sharing it with us, and don’t ever stop doing “stuff around the house!” 🙂

  17. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Thanks, Lanier. Writing–at least the kind of writing that reveals the self–is always fraught with fear. It’s always a rassling match with an angel: you just have to hang on until you get the blessing you were after, and you always come up limping.

  18. Steven

    Whenever I come across something you’ve written, I think, “I really hope she’s working on a novel.”
    I understand, all too well, that stubborn fear and the difficulty of being objective about one’s own work. I have been wrestling with, and praying about, the role of desire in the direction of my life and you have come like one of God’s messengers to my door with a song of good news.
    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

  19. Leighton

    I can certainly understand your viewpoint Lanier, but in truth I have trouble racking my brain for a similar experience. As a teen guy, I have more trouble being TOO unfearful about my artistic/creative happenings. I tend to deal with egotism more, and not necessarily (I’m being honest here, not fearful) because my work is that good, but just because I’m just a stuck up American who thinks they’re sooo awesome. 😛

    lol

    Nice post! I’ll pray you conquer your fear, because you seem to really have something to tell the world.

    – Leighton

  20. carrie luke

    wow.
    Thank you Lanier for sharing your gift publicaly. This has moved and encouraged my soul away from the shore of safety to risk not because of a desired “outcome” that will somehow validate the quiet(seemingly ‘selfish and indulgent) process behind a closed door, but because when I write, I feel His pleasure.

    such a blessing to be a avid rabbit.

  21. JWitmer

    God gives most of us more than one vocation; I had a wrenching, years-long season of purging what Ron Block calls “all the soulish junk we feel”. I had to give up my demand that writing/music be the only work I do, so that I could be faithful to my vocation as a husband, and then a father.

    And now, as the creative calling rises in me again, a fear rises for the first time. This fear that there is nothing in me worth creating from. In His infinite kindness, God has led me to the writings of Michael Card, and to you blessed writers of the Rabbit Room. And He has spoken through the wife who looked at me only weeks ago and asked: “What do you WANT to do?”

    I want my life to be a vibrant, overflowing response to my Creator. I want to love beautifully and create faithfully. And I can, if only I can remember that “His pleasure is the final word.”

    Thank you, Lanier.

  22. L.E. Fiore

    Oh, oh. My own thoughts echoed in your words. I have struggled with this same fear- and have found solace in this same God and peace and joy. I write because that was what I was *made* to do. Soli deo gloria.

    Thank you. 🙂

  23. Profile photo of Lanier Ivester

    Lanier Ivester

    @lanier

    Ron and Jonathan, the images you shared are seared on my brain. Thank you.

    And thanks, all, for such deeply affirming words of kinship and sympathy, and for giving my words safe haven. I am grateful beyond expression for this community. Blessings on your own endeavors!

  24. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    It’s time for Ron Block to write his own War of Art book. The man has some things to say about faith and creativity that I’ve never heard before.

    What do you say, Ron? I could help you make the long parts shorter, and maybe you could attract the interest of a publisher like, say, Rabbit Room Press.

  25. thomas

    Thanks for this!

    How many times do I think that God doesn´t want me to do the things I like. “Aren´t we christians suppose to take up our cross and follow Jesus” That cross must mean that life aren´t suppose to be fun….

    I see more and more how wrong this way of thinking is, how “non-human” it is, but still, it´s there in my mind..

    once again – thanks!

  26. Loren

    Finally catching up on the Rabbit Room a few days late. It’s been a week of a stuffed head (literally) and a sore heart (spiritually, emotionally). Your words are a balm, Lanier, and a wonderful reminder of who we are in Christ. Thank you!

    As you said, “In that blazing moment, I had my answer. My desire—so much a part of me—was the call. And the reply could only be made in faith.” Thank you for those words. For His pleasure…. It’s worth it.

  27. Peter Br

    Like Loren, I’ve been away (though much longer). As has also been pointed out, my normally short attention span is subdued by the urgent command of your writing: “Be attentive! You can’t afford not to listen to this!”

    Thank you for opening your soul’s vault for our edification.

  28. Nulla dies sine linea* « Lanier's Books

    […] I had an unmistakable confirmation of my calling while I was in England. A host of deeply meaningful moments which I never could have engineered added up to a freshened sense of God’s personal and very particular love. And they pointed indisputably in the direction of my Obedience. I’m still making space in my heart (and life) to articulate this great verity, but I know that it’s time reclaim some of the ground that sorrow and weariness have taken; time to evict self-consciousness (yet again) and laugh fear in its ugly face. […]

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