Holey Heart

Playing It Safe

I have been a writer ever since I could pick up a pen and craft a sentence. My elementary school had an annual “young author’s contest,” and every year, I participated and placed. Ironically, my very first “book” was not a story at all, but about the true meaning of Easter, with illustrations. (It was in the shape of an egg; how cute is that?) I was six years old and won first place in my grade. Funny how our souls know our life’s purpose long before we do.

When I was in 6th grade, my annual contest submission not only won my grade level at school but also went on to win honorable mention in the city-wide contest. I attended a ceremony at the Marriott hotel where famed children’s author Lois Lowry gave a speech and presented our awards. I know this not because I remember it, but because I kept the printed program, along with all my childhood stories.

What I DO remember is what happened when the results were announced to my sixth grade class. One of my classmates said, dripping with sarcasm, “Of course she won. She always wins.” And it wasn’t just anyone who said this. It was cutest, funniest, smartest, most popular boy in the class. I’d had a positively paralyzing crush on him for three years and counting, and his words crushed me. That’s what I remember.

I still wrote stories in seventh and eighth grade. But I started to bury my talent. In high school I wrote mediocre poetry. Four years of high school literature introduced me to “real” writing, and when I compared myself to that, I just quit writing stories altogether. An F on my senior term paper ended any ambition I may have had to become an English teacher (never mind that the teacher failed over half of all the Honors English term papers that spring), and I avoided literature classes in college, mostly out of laziness.

Instead, I majored in mass communications and excelled at a skill few others could master – editing. You know, using a red pen on OTHER people’s writing.

I also found an “outlet” for my outspoken nature as an opinion columnist on the school paper. I titled it “Just Say Yes,” making the most of my unusual last name. Occasionally my spiritual side would leak out around the holidays or other special occasions. I felt somewhat legitimate when an “anti-fan” created a Christine Yesolitis hate page (back when the internet was in it’s infancy) called “Just Say No.”

I had lots of artist and writer and photographer friends in college, all of whom seemed much more talented and focused on their dreams than I was. I envied them and their passion, but I decided to play it safe, taking a pragmatic approach to my education, career, and creative aspirations: learn the skills I would need to land a newspaper job so I could edit and opine myself into a position where I could really influence people.

It would have been an excellent plan, except that columnists don’t get hired fresh out of college; they work their way up as beat reporters and feature writers and calendar editors and copy desk assistants. They work as part of a team. They pick up the phone and make cold calls to sources. They play the “game” and promote the “agenda.” I’m an introvert, I was not much of a team player, and if you hadn’t noticed, I don’t care much for agendas. I had too much integrity (or stubbornness?) to write the way some editor told me to write.

By God’s grace I fell into graphic design. By God’s continued grace I found job after job in the non-profit world, where my strengths could grow and my weaknesses could be avoided. I’ve been blessed to use my artistic abilities to design books that other people have written. But I couldn’t keep ignoring my true calling. By God’s grace, a radio personality challenged his listeners to stand wherever it is God tells them to stand and do whatever it is God tells them to do, and by God’s providence I heard. Really heard. And that’s when I started writing for the bulletin. It was almost exactly five years ago; December 6, 2009.

I was 21 years old when I first heard the call to write about the Sunday scriptures, but I didn’t answer the call until I was in my mid-30s. I had some good excuses. I was busy working various full time jobs and having relationships and trying to cross off all the benchmarks on my “list” – marriage, babies, trip to Ireland, etc. I also told myself that I didn’t know anything about theology and that I wasn’t a very good writer. The truth is, I was afraid that I might really be good, and what that might mean.

I still am, by the way.

I share this abbreviated review of my creative self because I suspect we all have histories like this. Some comment or rejection causes us to question our creative self-worth, and like the third servant in Sunday’s parable, we bury our talent and justify it by being practical and realistic. We’re not that talented, we say. Surely God won’t miss our meager contribution to creation. We’d probably just muck it up anyway.

I have admittedly taken the easy route for a good stretch of my journey. Maybe I haven’t completely buried my talent, but I’ve been a bit too afraid to fully use it. I’ve felt like too much of a hypocrite to let loose. I’ve made some very human mistakes just like anyone else, but I often keep making them long after I know better, and it’s embarrassing. If only you knew! Who am I to use this unhoned gift of gab to talk about the spiritual life when I myself haven’t mastered either language or love?

This past Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, is one of the very few times when Jesus talks about condemnation. The woman at the well? No condemnation. The woman caught in adultery? No condemnation. The thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus? Not only is there no condemnation, he is promised entry to Paradise! These people broke commandments and got slaps on the spiritual wrist. But a fearful servant who played it safe and buried his master’s money because he was too insecure to take a risk? Condemnation, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Most of us play it safe because we doubt our own worth. We think we will be condemned for failing. We think that whatever meager talent we might have could not possibly make a difference. We think our sinfulness and imperfection makes us unsuitable vessels for God to work through.

The master in Jesus story calls that sort of thinking lazy and wicked. I call it SHIT – “Simply How I Think.”

I need to change how I think.

Those of us who were taught to have a “fear” of the Lord may also subscribe to a belief in a demanding God “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” This belief doesn’t have to be a source of insecurity about our worth, but a source of hope! God can harvest where He did not plant and gather where He did not scatter! It doesn’t matter if He gave me a true artist’s measure of talent, or the ability to draw only stick figures; whatever I create is added to the beauty of creation if I’m doing it to serve my creator instead of my fragile ego.

And that’s the key difference. Ego plays it safe. Ego does whatever it can to protect itself and its fantasy world. Ego Edges God Out.

A friend recently posted these inspiring words on his Facebook feed: “Small minds cannot comprehend big spirits. To be great, you must be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. More importantly, you must be willing to be wrong and fail . . . Will you remain quiet about whatever it is that you have been quietly pondering in your heart one more day? Decide today. Promising yourself ‘tomorrow’ will leave you in the end with nothing but empty ‘yesterdays.'”

All of us are hypocrites one way another, if we have the courage to actually have standards and attempt to live up to them. Not a single one of us can use that as an excuse for burying our talent.

Inviting God in doubles our worth. The servant with ten talents grew it by ten. The servant with five talents grew it by five. And the servant with one talent would have grown it by one if only he’d had a little faith in the master he feared so much.

I gain nothing by playing it safe.

Jesus makes it pretty clear, however, that I have everything – everything – to lose.

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