This summer I spent a week in Santa Fe, New Mexico at a writer’s conference. I’ve attended a few of these over the years and I’ve learned something. A single, very important fact:
Writers are weird people.
That’s just the truth. I can say that because I’m a full time pastor and a full time mom and only have time to be a part time writer – so I’m only weird part time.
These folks were… well… they were full time weird. You remember that kid in school that sat in the back of the room staring at the wall and then scribbling furiously in a notebook? That kid grew up and became a writer.
These folks at the conference were daydreaming, scribbling, weird people. And they were also really wonderful people. Because this was a conference for Christian artists, I ended up meeting all of these amazing people who want to change the face of Christian art. They want to see Christian writing, Christian art, Christian music live up to its fullest potential, not be dumbed down or reduced to the level of muzak. They want it to be deep and insightful and as weird as the wonderful world it comes from.
We spent the week together in workshops, where the main tool for learning was critique. We were each supposed to bring a piece we were working on, then everyone would read it and tell you what they didn’t like about it so you could hopefully get better at what you do.
For a writer this is the equivalent of putting your first-born on the table and saying: “Here’s my baby. Now tell me what’s wrong with it.”
It was a little intimidating. And guess who got to go first?
The very first day we sat down in this class and the teacher asked everyone to get out a copy of my piece, my baby, and start to talk about what was wrong with it so that I could improve.
First, they asked me to read a part of it out loud, so I started with the introduction. I started reading slowly, carefully, hoping a fire would break out in the building or some other act of salvation would stop my quivering voice in its tracks:
When we met, Diane was a single mom of three with tattoos on her wrists and a million bumper stickers covering her station wagon. It was clear that she adored being different.
At the office where we worked together she came in giddy one day about an amazing guy she met while out inline skating in the city streets with her 16 year old son, whom she had given birth to when she herself was 16. She and this guy started dating and married in a skate park – with the whole wedding party on wheels. She gave birth to their daughter, Grace, in the back of that station wagon, stuck in traffic on the way to the hospital. It seemed Grace liked the idea of life on wheels as well.
I wanted to keep going to the really good part, which was Diane’s story. But they stopped me. It turns out no one gets to the really good part if you don’t have a really good introduction, which I didn’t. So we were going to talk about those first two paragraphs. I realized I was holding my breath.
Then they (the weird writers) started talking about me like I wasn’t even there. One guy said: “I want to know more about the narrator.” I sat silently thinking: “Hello – I’m the narrator! And I’m sitting right here!” He said: “I want to know why she cares about Diane, and why Diane’s story is important to her.”
Another person said: I want to be able to see Diane – not just hear about her but see her. What does she look like? How does she carry herself? “Don’t just tell me Diane is different. Show me.”
That’s when our teacher got up and walked over to the board, where he had written a note in big print before we ever walked in the room. He pointed to the big print, which he said spelled out one of the cardinal rules of writing. It was just three words:
Show, don’t tell.
Don’t just tell me about someone, show me. Don’t just say Diane is different. Show me. Show me her tattoos, her attitude, her mannerisms.
Anton Chekov wrote a famous line about this rule, the show, don’t tell rule. He said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Right under the cardinal rule, our teacher had written another couple of lines:
James Chapter 2.
Faith without works is dead.
That got my attention. I had been living this double life for a while (or is there such a thing as a triple life?), trying to be a pastor, a mom, and a writer. The three overlap sometimes in practice (especially when sick kids, sermon preparation and writing deadlines collide), but I haven’t really seen them integrate into one space in my brain or my identity.
So how did a rule of writing and a theological concept end up on a chalkboard next to each other when so far they were totally compartmentalized inside of me?
Faith without works is dead.
What did that have to do with my writing? With my life?
What does it mean, anyway?
Christians make a big deal out of the fact that we’re saved by faith: that we can’t earn God’s love and acceptance. That’s a good thing, because none of us ever could be good enough. It’s a good thing that God takes us just as we are.
But sometimes (and I admit that I’ve been guilty of this myself), we take advantage of God. Since we don’t have to do anything to get God to love and accept us, it’s tempting to think we don’t have to do anything once we love and accept Him.
The thing is, faith isn’t just the minimum entrance requirement for heaven. It’s something that changes you, something that remakes you from the inside out. And when the faith that’s inside gets out, it becomes what we call works.
As a writer I admit to being entirely obsessed with metaphors. I love the metaphor the Bible uses for works: Fruit. As in: If you’re an apple tree on the inside, you produce apples on the outside. You don’t have to do a DNA test to see if something is an apple tree or an orange tree. You just wait to see what grows.
A good tree grows good fruit. A bad tree has rotten fruit. The same is true for people.
When we fall in love with Jesus it alters our spiritual DNA, and we begin to sprout different produce than we did before. Suddenly we’re growing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
We can’t hide the change in beliefs because it works its way out in our actions.
Don’t just tell me you follow Jesus, show me.
Show. Don’t tell.
But I was still stuck wondering how that was supposed to happen in my writing. I took those first two faltering paragraphs and did a little surgery on my baby, a revision:
Diane’s dilapidated old station wagon rattled into the space next to mine as I made my way into the office where we worked. The back end of her Vista Cruiser was obscured by dozens of bumper stickers like “Why be normal” and “Horn broken, watch for finger.” There were so many they almost covered the little silver Christian fish symbol that was peeking out from behind the sticker “The road to hell is paved with Republicans.”
We barely garbled a hello as we hurried to get inside, both of us nearly late for a Monday morning staff meeting. The tension was already thick in the room as Diane and I slipped in the back door. Gib, our immediate supervisor, was nervously shuffling around trying to tidy up and make things perfect. I could see his eyebrows go up – joining each other in one big arched uni-brow across his oily forehead as he glanced Diane’s choice of outfit for the day: fraying cutoffs and a concert t-shirt she had cut the sleeves out of, paired with her favorite orange sports bra peering out from underneath. At 5 foot 1, Diane was tiny but fierce. You forgot her size instantly when she began to talk, passionately, about her one of her many causes, her favorite of which was her children. She had her first baby at 16. Now he was 16 himself and the oldest of the three that she was raising alone.
We were all a little tense, since it was the first time the big boss, the owner of the company, was coming down from the top floor to our little departmental staff meeting. We worked as writers at a Christian ministry on the first floor of his business – a ministry he funded off the profits of his business on all the other floors in this building, which he owned.
We didn’t really see the boss much. Mostly we heard his voice over the intercom, screaming for his secretary. If he didn’t get the answer he demanded immediately he would bellow like a big jowly infant, his voice echoing over the hall speakers throughout the multiple floors of the building. On the top floor you would see the other assistants scramble like ants to the bathroom to find his current secretary and let her know her presence was being demanded. In the two years I worked there he went through seven secretaries.
The irony was this: my boss was a Christian. Or at least he said he was.
He was also a rage-aholic. He talked about Jesus constantly and was famous for asking every employee who had a rage-filled performance review in his office if they were saved. He once terrified hundreds of employees by having people come in and pray over the doors of their offices so the evil spirits couldn’t get in. When he determined the evil spirits were still finding a way in, he had the same people go back and pray over all the air conditioning vents.
After just a few months of working for this guy I was pretty sure I knew where the evil spirits were getting in, and that they had taken up residence in the corner office on the top floor. But that wasn’t something you said if you wanted to keep your job.
My boss had faith. Or at least he talked a lot about having faith. But what came out of his mouth and what came out of his life were opposite stories.
My friend Diane was another story. Like our former boss (or actually: not like our former boss) she was a Christian too. But she looked more like she belonged at a rave or roller derby than in a church.
The tattoos on her wrists were the Hebrew spellings of ancient names for God, a marking to remind her that she belonged to Him now, the labels plain as shackles on any servant. Jesus had bought her freedom from the slavery she had been in to many things in her life, and now she was all His.
And while her outer appearance looked nothing like what most people expected from a Christian… her works were amazing.
You couldn’t help but notice the way she trusted Jesus to take care of her and her kids. The joy that came out of this woman, even though I knew her life was incredibly difficult. The way she was always helping others, always looking for someone she could bless with what little she had – it was incredible. And humbling.
To know Diane was to hear the Gospel.
She reminded me of a line I had heard used in Christian circles so often it had almost become a cliché: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
That was Christian-ese for: “Show, don’t tell.”
Make sure your story is speaking so loudly that your works are speaking louder than your words.
But something about that phrase has always bothered me. “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.” As if your life could do the preaching for you, so you could just keep your mouth shut and never risk having to do that scary thing where you talk about your faith with others.
But if something is a really big part of your life you can’t help mentioning it.
I’m not sure how I could go through a day and avoid mentioning my husband, or my two adorable kids. I can’t go 5 minutes without mentioning them. How can I walk through life without claiming Jesus out loud?
I kind of think that “Show, don’t tell” may not be the right phrase for the way our inside faith gets expressed on the outside.
I think, instead, I may like “Show AND Tell”
You remember show and tell: That exercise in Kindergarten when each child brought something that was so important to them, and then you sat in a circle and shared it with your friends. Show and tell was one of the best parts of the day.
Even Kindergarteners know, when something is really great, you want to share it with your friends. You want to show them and tell them about it.
I like to think that our words are part of our works. That the word “works” could come to mean something like: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The complete works of an author or artist is a compilation of everything a single artist or author has produced in a lifetime.
This, for me, takes care of the over-simplicity of assuming that “Good Works” are just things like serving at a soup kitchen or visiting the shut-ins from church. Those are definitely good works. But the idea that you’re working on a compilation of everything in your life as your Complete Works opens up the definition to embrace everything we are. Everything we say. Everything we do. It’s so much more of a comprehensive concept of giving our all to a God who gave His all for us.
What if, at the end of your life, you were to end up with a bound volume that was called “The complete works of …?” What would it contain?
I’m not saying that volume would ever come close to earning your entrance fee into heaven. The single sentence summary of Jesus’ works found in John 3:16 is more than enough to pay that fee.
But what will grow on the outside of your life to show the faith growing inside?
Don’t let it be just words. Throw some action around as often as you can. Don’t just say the things you believe. Do them.
Don’t just tell. That makes for weak writing. It makes for weak faith too.
At the end of the week in our writing workshop I got the copies of my piece back from my fellow writers, the weird ones who over the course of that week had become my cherished friends. My baby was all marked up with red pen, notes scribbled in the margin, the blunt tool of critique already helping it grow up in its painful pursuit of perfection.
There was one comment that just sort of stuck with me. Someone had written, next to those first paragraphs: “Are you just the narrator here? Or are you a participant in this story? Why do you care? Why should we?”
Those are good questions. Why should you care about my story unless I do more than passively tell you what I believe? If I don’t stop just narrating what I believe and jump in feet first to do something about it, who will?
Don’t just narrate your faith. Participate.
Show and tell.
Love and act.
Believe, and get to work.