Thursday, October 28, 2010

Haunting Words by Katherine Harms

I am not a big fan of Halloween. It appears to me that this day gives people a chance to display ugliness that most of us would rather not look at. I have never liked anything that smacked of “horror,” and I don’t find horror amusing. I made peace long ago with the “trick or treat” concept, because I enjoy the little ones in costume. Playing dressup is fine. Being as ugly and revolting as possible is not on my bucket list anywhere.

However, as I was thinking about a personal challenge lately, comments about the upcoming Halloween events,comments sprinkled liberally with the word "haunted," caused me to reflect on the way writers can be haunted by what they have written.

It happens like this. A writer has a great idea and writes extensively on the subject. The writer may engage people in conversation on this great idea as well. The writer writes and speaks with conviction about principles for living, and assures others that these truths are part of a solid foundation for successful living. Then reality implodes on the writer. That great idea, or those firm principles, may be ground into dust, or it may stand firm. Either way, the writer is called to account. Was this great idea really that great? Are the firm principles really firm, or are they really more like quicksand?

It happened to me.

Last winter, I read Thomas Mann’s fabulous novel "Joseph and His Brothers." I had the good fortune to acquire a copy of the latest translation, and that meant that the translation I read avoided the earlier tendency to couch the dialogue in forms reminiscent of the King James Bible. This translation used contemporary language and idioms. It was completely engaging, and I gorged myself on it like a starving man just rescued from a desert island. Thomas Mann did not simply retell and enhance the story; he built his work on a foundation of intense research that fleshed out the setting and culture masterfully. Further, the book was as much a statement of faith as it was a novel, and I was as completely captivated by his testimony as by his storytelling. This novel is 1492 pages long, but it is worth the effort. In fact, I didn’t perceive it as effort to read this book; I could hardly put it down.

I did put it down regularly, however, in order to go to the Bible and read the biblical text for myself. I did not want to confuse Mann’s storytelling with the revealed text. I didn’t want to mistake Mann’s testimony for revealed truth. I did not want the fact that I was completely consumed by this book to interfere with my own responsibility to read and understand the biblical revelation for myself.

The outcome of this reading was what seemed like a huge discovery. It appeared to me that among the many values of the Joseph story was a persistent theme of victories that looked like defeat in the life of Joseph, God’s victories that overshadowed any apparent defeats in Joseph’s experience. I found in this story a model for us all to use when facing the challenges in our lives, events that feel like defeat. The story of Joseph clearly demonstrated some principles for facing events in our own lives that might initially look like defeats or failures.

In the Joseph story I uncovered four foundation principles, and as I began to write about them, I realized that this looked like material for a book. I gave it the working title "Don’t Panic: How the life of Joseph teaches us to thrive when the world turns upside down." In August, I had an opportunity to teach at church, and I used that opportunity to teach the four principles in four sessions as a workshop with the same title as my book manuscript. The four principles are these:
· Trust always in God, not in people
· Know that God is sovereign always, even when it looks as if his perfect plan is being defeated
· Build relationships in keeping with the teaching to love our neighbors
· Do not become a victim

The experience of teaching the workshop enhanced my understanding of the material, and I was deep in the work of crafting my manuscript when disaster struck. I became sick, seriously sick. After being sick a week at home, I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for ten days. I had surgery and was sent home for recovery expected to take no less than 4 weeks and perhaps as much as 8. Talk about the world turning upside down!

For many days, the doctors scratched their heads trying to understand what was wrong with me. My husband and I felt real fear as it seemed that nothing they tried was making any progress against my illness. Then, after the surgery, I felt much better, so it was clearly the right treatment. However, the surgery was so drastic that recovery from the treatment as destined to be slow and painful.

During these days, I often thought about the workshop I had taught. I thought about the principles that had seemed to manifest themselves in the face of the disasters that fell one after another into Joseph’s life. Here I was in the midst of a disaster that made me ask, can I really live by these principles in this very real challenge in my own life? The words I had written and taught rose up to haunt me. I asked myself if I had taught truth, if my writing had real value for everyone, including me, or was it all a big sham? I had plenty of time in my hospital bed to contemplate these questions.

I asked myself if I really trusted God. I was in a huge teaching hospital where the finest minds were being applied to my case. Yet it was clear that these minds were being seriously challenged by the realities of my illness. I really could not trust that these minds by themselves would find a successful treatment for me. I put my trust in God and prayed that he would guide those brilliant minds to find the right solution. I saw with great clarity that my fate was beyond the capacity of mere mortals to handle.

I asked myself, too, how this state of affairs could possibly fit into God’s perfect plan for me. Why would God want me to be so sick? Why would he want me to lose all this time from productive work that was necessary for my husband and me to do the things we thought God had called us to do? This experience looked like a terrible backset to everything I thought I was supposed to accomplish in life. Then I began to realize that I was looking at the whole situation from the standpoint of my understanding in the reality bounded by time and space. In God’s reality, in the infinite and eternal realm where God reigns on his throne forever, things looked different. I had to trust him that this experience that looked like defeat to me was no defeat for him. I had to believe that God was still in charge of my fate.

I learned that relationships really do matter. As more and more people heard about my illness, we heard people say over and over, “We are praying for you.” My church prayed for me. My daughter’s church prayed for me. Friends all over the country prayed for me and asked their friends to pray for me. I was in the center of a great bath of prayer that sustained me and all the caregivers who were trying to help me get well. Larry and I were not alone. We were part of a vast family of believers who kept their petitions before God around the clock. We were wrapped up by the Holy Spirit and by all these prayers. I had prayed for others for years, but this was my first experience at being in the center of such a prayer storm. It was immensely comforting. My relationships of love and friendship truly did sustain me as I faced my scary health challenge.

I found, also, that I did not want to be a victim. I did ask frequently how this could have happened to me. I thought there had to be some explanation. I thought surely I could learn something not to do in the future in order to prevent such a disaster from recurring. The doctors told me that they could speculate about the cause, that they have a few hypotheses about the cause, but they really do not know with any certainty how this condition developed. There was no cause to blame, no fault to assign, no action to take against anything or anybody.

Further, after the surgery, there was a temptation of sorts to be a victim. I felt much, much better after surgery than before, because the raging bacterial invasion had been defeated. However, I still had to recover from the surgical wounds and bruises and I still had to be treated to kill off any remaining bacteria that might restart the infection if left alone. The war was won, but there were a lot of final skirmishes yet to be fought. I didn’t feel like eating, and if I did eat anything I couldn’t taste it. The inside of my mouth was shredded from all the tubes they had used during the surgery. I had tubes in the lung cavity, too, draining the surgical site for six days. The ribs that had been pushed apart in order to allow the surgeon to work really hurt as they began to return to their normal place. I could only find one position for sleeping that was even minimally comfortable. Everything I tried to do hurt in one way or another, and besides that, I was completely weary. I had no strength.

However, by the grace of God, I recognized how thankful I felt to be on the mend. I couldn’t see much value in wallowing in self-pity or in railing against circumstance. The truth was that being a victim would have doomed me to be an invalid for I don’t know how long. Abandoning victimhood meant that I could push forward with the strength I had and trust that my recovery would continue to give me more strength each day. And so it was.

The consequence of this dramatic interference with my plans was that my written and spoken words haunted me and tested my work in a very scientific way. When I wrote about the principles I saw demonstrated in Joseph’s life, I drew a logical conclusion from the written word. When I tested those truths in my own dark hours, the truths were confirmed in a powerful way. My experience proved that I had drawn the right conclusions. The teachings I thought were embedded in Joseph’s story proved to be true and reliable in my own life.

To be haunted this way and to find that my work was confirmed was a wonderful experience. I don’t think I want to go so far as to say that God made me sick so I would learn this truth, but I will say that the experiences of life always put a person’s stated values to the test. I pray never to write words that will come back to bite me in the crucible of life. I pray always to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit when I prepare to write anything in order that my words may be true, even if I have not been in the refining fire with them.

I think every author needs to think about this experience. We are accountable to our readers for every word we write. We can be sure that we will be called up short by our readers if we fail to hold ourselves accountable for the truth of our work. We are all subject to be haunted by our words. If we have written with integrity, we need not be spooked by that experience.

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