There was a time when I hoped to write the great American novel, the one studied by students in universities forty years from now. There was a time when I hoped to write the definitive poem on the present American context. And if these were too much to ask, I harbored a secret hope to write at least one viral blog post, a post that took on a life of its own, one that was picked up by CNN, or The Huffington Post, or Christianity Today. It's the goal of every writer, after all, to have his words recognized. Make no mistake, I would love to participate in the success of larger-than-life novels, definitive poems, and viral blog posts. These days, though, my writing goals have begun a sort of slow shift.
A few months ago, I was reading the Wendell Berry essay, "Wallace Stegner and the Great Community." The essay, as the title denotes, is a celebration of Wallace Stegner, a Stanford professor and author best described by Berry as a regional writer. Of Stegner, Berry writes that he was a "naturally... reticent man, not given to self-revelation or self-advertisement...." From that humble position, Stegner was content to focus his literary efforts on the exploration of his local context, and wrote primarily of the American west. Of regional writing, and the lessons learned from Stegner, Berry writes, "if one both lives and writes in one's region, one becomes aware of good reasons to be more watchful and more careful."
This leads me to the crux of it. Once I hoped that I could pen a few viral words, and on some days, I still nurse those hopes. Lately, though, I've been considering the concept of regional writing. I've been considering working within the local church to create and curate readable, relatable, yet stretching liturgical pieces. These aren't the words that will make a man famous, there is no doubt. But this quieter work feels small and right. It is the kind of work that gives a congregational artist "good reason to be more watchful and more careful."
In the last month, I've written pieces for my local church body and for an ecumenical gathering. The pieces grew from a particular American context--the Ozark region to be exact--and were offered to the people of that region. I've had the joy to both read, and watch the pieces be read over those congregations. I've felt the deep sense of connection between the words and the people. I've had conversations after both services about the words, how the participants enjoyed them, or disagreed with them, or felt the tension in them. These interactions were not comments in a viral blog post; instead, they were honest-to-God, in-the-flesh human interactions. There was give-and-take, push and pull.
I was privileged to share two poems at my home congregation yesterday. We were in the gospel of Luke, and discussing the concept of the Kingdom of God. Had you been there, this is one of the pieces you would have heard:
“Cash is King,” they say, and if this is so, the kingdom is the market where we, princes and paupers are made subjects. It is an envious, green king, which bends us only to our own desire.
“Democracy is King,” the patriot says; this is coarse metaphor. By it, he means only that most effective rule is best centered in the will of the majority, in the ability to judge ourselves as just.
“Elvis is King,” the folks from Memphis say. He was a man fueled by fried peanut butter banana, and bacon, by Rock and Roll, by pills. He was benevolent? Maybe. A slob? Perhaps.
Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come; not a green kingdom that leads only to temptation.
Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come; not the kingdom of liberty that knows only men’s will.
Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come; not the kingdom of suede, of cardiac sandwiches.
Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come! With reshaping power, with glory to silence all rock cries, come!
Come a conduit from heaven’s coffers; Come with a level for the rich and poor alike!
Come like the seed of forgiveness, the speck that’s planted small and sprouts into the eternal tree of life come!
Come with a new, lasting language, that bends every knee, cypress and human alike.
It seems to me that the best use of our gifts is first within the local context. Perhaps those gifts will one day reach the masses, will spread far and wide and make our names and faces well known, but that isn't the primary goal. The goal is something smaller, something eternally more humble, something that starts small like a seed planted in local soil (be it Ozarkan, Californian, or Appalachian) and grows into a well-rooted tree.
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