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I'm so frustrated and discouraged with my writing right now.
One rejection after another. Is it the formatting? Is it the enigma of the wrong match, the wrong editor for this specific piece, is the magic fit still out there, one submission away, three more submissions away?
Is it just because those few pieces were poor quality? Should I have rewritten them one more time, changed the ending, tried a new genre/stayed in a familiar one?
Am I just one of those countless nameless wannabes who ten years down the road will be smiling wryly and shaking my head at the naive me who was so convinced that this was "my field"--?
Am I just lazy? There's no concrete definition for "hard enough." You could always work harder. You could always be more disciplined. You could always push yourself further. You could always write more, edit more, polish more. Kafka and Kenneth Graham worked fulltime bank jobs which they hated and then came home and wrote into the wee hours of the morning; I don't even come close to that level of dedication, do I deserve to have expectations then?
Was I, all these years, simply deceiving myself?
Scribbled on my phone notes, just a few months ago, these bleakly honest questions came at a moment when I was struggling with despair--to be more accurate, tired of struggling with discouragement, tired of trying to be hopeful, optimistic, tired of trying hard when there didn't seem to be any success. Tired of trying again, for the third time--for the tenth time.
I think we're all familiar with the cliche of the aspiring writer, sending submissions desperately in hopes of finding that one-in-a-million-editor who will see potential in their work. I myself grew up accepting that these horror stories (that's really how they seemed to come across) as the inevitable reality of being a writer. After all, it seemed like every single famous writer had to be able to boast of ignominious beginnings. How many rejections. How many failures. How many editors turned them down. All the writing help books and advice for writers I read without fail included a section explaining to you that it was absolutely necessary to be turned down a hundred times, and I cheerfully accepted this as a formula almost. Hit one hundred rejection letters and you'd be bound to get accepted, somehow! With this mindset, I thought I was well prepared to take the leap and join the hordes of wistful aspiring writers trying to find takers for their armfuls of manuscripts.
All the same, discouragement was inevitable, and I should have known it. The year is drawing to a close, the year which I had so confidently intended to be the first year I could *really* focus on writing, without school to distract me (hahaha I somehow never thought that work could be distracting too??) and I find myself without any clear indications of progress, no open doors--not even a toehold--no shadow of opportunities. Seemingly, I haven't moved forward since the beginning of this year, despite multiple submissions, new work, and different strategies.
I thought I was mentally prepared for this, but the reality is that discouragement still hits. Hard. An editor sends a rejection email without knowing that it could be the tenth one you've received for that particular piece, or the second one you've gotten within a week. It's hard not to take it as an unequivocal judgment of your worth, and to maintain perspective.
And for a while, I struggled with despair. Panic. I've been thinking of this, dreaming of this, working towards this, heck, building my whole identity on this--for my whole life. Now that it doesn't seem to be working out, what do I do?
I prayed urgently, desperately, pleadingly. Please God, grant me some encouragement. Please give me some sign that yes, this is where I belong, this is what I ought to be doing. Please let me achieve this dream. Please give this to me--please. And in the wretchedness of my hurt dreams, like so many of us when we're conflicted, I questioned His goodness.
A fragment of a sermon I heard recently spoke gently to me, right when restlessness and discouragement threatened to turn into bitterness.
We were all born with desires. Many of them. This isn't necessary a bad thing either, contrary to what some people assume. But what we need to be careful of is when we turn these desires into needs. When we think we can't live without it. When we believe that our happiness and well-being is dependent on achieving it. When we feel that God cannot be good without first granting it to us. Though it varies between individuals and circumstances, the line between desires and needs is one that perhaps we haven't thought of examining more closely.
Are our desires dictating our lives as if they were needs? Uncontrolled or excessive desires lead us to sin, though we may not like to think of it--or to acknowledge to ourselves that that's what it is.
Instead, our real needs should be what we prioritize, what we plan our lives around, what we consider when we think of fulfilment, contentment, happiness. Our real needs--the most significant one of which is our need for God...
...to be continued
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"...my heart was hot within me."
I remember being struck by how accurate this description was. So many times I'd felt that hotness burning inside, the anger or bitterness threatening to spill out in a flood, feeling yourself almost trembling with the effort to be stronger than it. An almost physical sensation; as if it were something you could spit out.
"I said, I will guard my ways, that I might not sin with my tongue..."
David's response goes further than simply trying to keep it in check, out of a vague sense that it was the right thing to do. His clarity of mind even at such an emotional moment shows his maturity and experience in suffering, in understanding the weaknesses of the human heart, and its tendency to sinful coping mechanisms and reactions. David was keenly aware of the temptation to vent emotions in words--whether spoken ones or thoughts in our hearts and minds--which very easily could lead to sin. His response is to keep a strict check on himself, almost an external action-- "I will restrain myself with a muzzle."
However, David does acknowledge that the mere act of restraining ourselves from verbalizing or expressing our emotions is not a healthy coping mechanism, as it is not an end in itself: "I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; And my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; While I was musing, the fire burned."
It doesn't resolve our emotional turmoil, even if it does keep us from sinning. It's not the answer, and we would be foolish to think that that external action of controlling ourselves alone is all that God cares about or wants from us. Having kept ourselves from "sinning with our tongue," what we need to do is to open our hearts--raw and surging with the morass of emotions--to God. For a real resolution.
"Then I spoke with my tongue:
Lord, make me know my end,
And what is the measure of my days. That I may know how frail I am...
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You.
Deliver me from all my transgressions."
David's life was so full of trials, dangers, and uncertainty--he had plenty of opportunities to test and apply what it meant to trust in a God, especially an omnipotent and omniscient God. What it meant, in the midst of trials, to apply humility, perspective, and trust. To reconcile your current emotional state with your belief and knowledge of the person of God, and His attributes.
Instead of lapsing into bitterness, reproaches, or anger when he starts to talk to God, David humbly and simply acknowledges his lack of understanding, his inability to accept God's providence. He confesses his sense of helplessness and frailty, his inability to cope or understand. And he asks for wisdom and humility to do so, affirming his need for God's deliverance.
“And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You..."
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1. It helps you stay awake during the sermon. Embarrassing as it is to have this as the first reason, it's nevertheless the most obvious one. Let's not get defensive on this. Even if you managed to go to bed before midnight on Saturday night, chances are your body is still going to think it's naptime as you sit there in that too-comfortable chair, in air-conditioned surroundings, the peaceful atmosphere only broken by the preacher's murmuring voice...aaaaand the next thing you know you're struggling to just keep your eyelids open. Sure, have your coffee, but try taking notes.
2. You're able to see and piece together the sermon's content progression--how this point ties in to one made at the beginning, how all the points work together to address the different issues presented at the beginning...
If you're just listening to it as it comes, you tend to forget what came before--you don't realize how important it is that this point was covered, perhaps, or what's the significance that it gives to the main theme. Passively absorbing in our default Sunday-morning-sponge style might allow you to gain a few insights on good days, but it seldom enables you to grasp and appreciate the sermon as a whole, as a carefully structured argument/discussion; to see those insights and points not only individually, but in context to the rest of the sermon.
3. You can look back and have a fresh experience of benefiting from that same sermon, even years later; in summarized form--handily rephrased in the way most suitable to your own learning/reading style! Talk about getting the most out of it. I have a box of old sermon note books under my window, which still benefit me when rereading them. Also providing concrete proof that my handwriting, bad as it seems now, used to be worse.
4. It challenges you to listen attentively (this is, by the way, a whole different thing from simply staying awake as in point 1) and trains you to actively process what you hear, since you're not simply transcribing verbatim what the preacher says. You have to pick out the main meaning of the sentence, determine whether it's the next point or a supporting point, and where it belongs on the page.
5. You learn to better appreciate the work and dedication that goes into preparing a sermon. We tend to take it for granted, don't we? Turn up at church every week and plop down, ostensibly to listen--in reality, try not to fall asleep--criticize the random fragments we remember hearing, because they don't make sense, they sound disjointed, you know I think I could do better than that if I tried... And we walk out feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as if the sermon vending machine didn't give us a run for our money. As a pastor's daughter I've observed how much effort and labour goes into that one hour plus sermon which we take for granted, every Sunday for years and years. Seemingly so simple, yet so unquantifiable the way other kinds of work is. Preparing a sermon is most definitely a creative process, though that's not often what we tend to think of it as. (From my own, if comparatively insignificant, experience of running this blog I know how baffling it can feel to sit down, facing a weekly deadline, and a desire to write something fresh, relevant, helpful, insightful, and yet at the same time have your brain completely blank. It's demoralizing and frustrating. Sometimes you spend hours working away at an idea, only to eventually realize it has to be scrapped. There goes all your work and time, and you're still no closer to finishing. And that's just the logistical side of the actual writing process. The spiritual aspect can be just as big of a barrier as well. You've been feeling low and disappointed in yourself recently; you question whether you've grown spiritually at all, whether you're still qualified to try and edify others after lapsing into sin or falling back into unhelpful habits...)
Let's not take every sermon for granted.
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2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
"...forbearing one another in love."
Everyday, opportunities for forbearance abound. Whether it's a difficult person, a sinkful of dirty dishes, or that person walking maddeningly slowly in front of you, those moments when you draw a deep breath and feel your jaw muscles tighten are everywhere.
Forbearing is something that hopefully we each strive to do each day. In our families. In our churches. With our Christian or non-Christian friends. With that cranky bus driver who pretends not to see you waving your arms wildly, and drives off. To be patient, to be long-suffering, to keep our temper. To keep silent, when bitterness is strong within us. We learn to control ourselves, to count ten, to endure, reinforcing what we learned since childhood and which seems to be such a big part of adulthood, in order to cope at work, with our families--with people in general. It's nothing new, after all.
But Paul raises this commonplace standard of simply forbearing by the second half of his sentence. "...in love."
Love! Possibly the last thing on our minds when we're struggling not to throw punches!
It was a sobering realization that simply keeping quiet, simply controlling myself from not demonstrating outward signs of anger, is not the ultimate purpose, is not the point of being longsuffering, of forbearing in a Biblical definition. We're just doing a better job at hiding the bitterness and anger--burning inside us, damaging us. And thinking that we're doing well because we didn't break any dishes or noses simply feeds our pride and makes it worse. We feel good for not having demonstrated any of the bad feelings inside; and it makes us feel justified in entertaining them further. I've experienced it myself; you are tempted to brood over it, nurse your grudge for longer, because you feel entitled to it since you didn't vent it. That's unhealthy, even from a secular point of view. From a spiritual point of view--we've missed the whole point. This is the same Bible that tells us God judges hatred within the heart as well as the external action of murder.
Paul says: "forbearing one another in love." Those two words at the end change everything. We forbear, we endure, because we love them, because we are willing to for their sake. Like a longsuffering parent cleaning up vomit for their cranky toddler. We bear with them, out of love. Out of wanting their good. Out of being able to see beyond their weaknesses, to have sympathy and patience. Out of having Christ, and the truth, free us from the parallel yet opposite extremes of people-pleasing and self-centredness.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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