Not God’s Tools

Tony Kriz storytelling at Faith & Culture 2014, Newberg, Oregon


I had stayed too long, visiting. Not an uncommon occurrence for me. He  - Jelani Greenidge – had pulled his chair up next to mine and introduced himself. Said his wife wouldn’t forgive him if he didn’t.

We were friends of sort already, before gathering over Chipotle chicken in the basement of Newberg Friends Church. Church basements are all the same, metal chairs, round tables, people chatting over coffee or colas. Wonder, does Heaven have a fellowship hall?

Facebook friends, Jelani and me. Twitter, too. Altho, he won’t read this. He’s fasting Social Media for Lent. He told me. So if you run into him, tell Jelani I am looking forward to the blog post he’s going to write and I’m going to share.

We were deep in discussion about comedy and what makes it funny versus what makes it corrosive. So you can see how I got sidetracked, didn’t make it into the sanctuary early. That’s how I ended up sitting in the balcony next to Sarah Bessey.

“Karen,” she called out, throwing her arms open wide. Sarah lives her entire life that way, I have a feeling, arms always open wide, ready to embrace others. If only we would all try that approach. 

Did I mention I don’t like balconies? Heights, they make me woozy. The wooden pew where Sarah and I sat was pushed clear up next to the too short railing. When I stood for the worship, I kept recalling how in 2009 I had attended this church in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I would sit in the balcony of that church, too, but further back, not right up next to a too-short railing. From the bird perch in that church, a person had a clear view whenever the parishioners passed out.

They weren’t being Slain in the Spirit. They were just old. Their blood pressure too low, or maybe too high. Those things get harder to regulate the older one gets. It wasn’t unusual to have a person fall out nearly every service. Fall out is a southern colloquialism for fainting or dropping dead.

On Friday night – the opening night of the Faith & Culture Writing Conference  2014 at George Fox University- I was worried that I was going to be the one falling out. I envisioned it several times. Me going willy-nilly over the balcony, landing on the heads of some unsuspecting soul below. Sarah, however, doesn’t appear to get woozy in balconies. She threw her arms skyward and sang praise songs with the abandon of a preschooler.

I was so relieved when the singing stopped and Tony Kriz began speaking. Kriz is the evangelical Jim Carrey. Fluid motion of humor and grace, reflecting a wincing vulnerability.

Raise your hand, Kriz said, if you write to please others.

Sarah Bessey turned to me and laughed: “If we were writing to please others, we’ve done a pity poor job of it.”

Okay. She didn’t really say pity poor. Feel free to improvise.

It’s true.

Writing to please others has never seemed like art to me. It seems like anything but art. It is counter-intuitive to art in any form.  Writing to please others doesn’t require courage in any way. It only requires some basic market understanding. It isn’t creating. Writing to please others is a controlled study of human behavior.  

Sarah Bessey and I kept our hands at our sides, then, and again later, when Tony asked: Raise your hand if you feel unsupported in your writing. 

That’s when I saw her below, from my perch in the balcony. An older woman, 70ish, thin, elegantly dressed in a coat that appeared woven from golden threads.

Her hand shot into the air.

I wanted to leap over the balcony and take her by her frail shoulders and hug her. I wanted to tell her about that day two summers ago when I stood in the backyard surrounded by my mother’s paintings. The ones I had pulled from their storage in the garage and washed clean of the dust film that covered them. 

I had been too often dismissive of the art within my mother. My mother went to her grave never knowing her own worth or value, always questioning whether she was good enough.

I hadn’t done it on purpose, of course. I hadn’t even really been aware that I was doing it, until that moment on the last of the summer days of 2012.  In those early weeks when we learned Mama had six brain tumors and was dying.

I am one of the fortunate daughters. I do not know what it feels like to be unsupported in my work, the way my mother did. My family has always respected the craft of writing and honored the gift within me. They have made sacrifices so that I could write. Many sacrifices.

It has not paid off well for them. Not monetarily at any rate. Although, I suspect, they would all agree that the experiences that have been theirs because of the writing have mostly been rich ones.

Creating does that.

It enriches our lives in ways that nothing else can.

We are not tools of God, Sarah Bessey said, later. We are co-creators.

I believe that.

We are either creating alongside God, our partner. Or we are actively destroying what he had hoped to create along with us.

My mother’s paintings hang throughout the house now that she is dead and gone. In her paintings, I see the world as my mother saw it: A place of beauty and wonder. 




About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

  • Brenda

    I love this! Every word is courage-giving. Thank you.

  • Girl of Cardigan

    I love this. I love your comparison of Tony to Jim Carrey, and I love the challenge and vulnerability in the glimpse you gave us of your mother. I’m grateful, and I thank you.

    I’ll also admit to feeling a tad bit defensive – when Tony asked us if “we write, in part, hoping that through it people will like us,” I raised my hand. I don’t “write to please others,” but I do write publicly, and I do hope that folks will like me, at least some of them, at least a little, in most things I do in life. I hope that they’ll like my work, read my blog, affirm what I have to say – I often wish that I didn’t care a lick if everyone hated my guts, but I’m not there yet. I’m not sure I ever will be.

    But I am an artist, and my writing is art. Because art is flawed and imperfect and broken and messy in its motivation, and also holy and perfect and lovely and God, which is why I love it so. All of us, with our different struggles and our imperfect motivations and our faltering, fickle hearts, are invited to be co-creaters, to be artists, to be part of a perfect story. Which I think was an important piece of Tony’s point, at least as I understood it. But I’m also kind of a defensive kiddo, so hey, who knows? ;)

    Thank you again for this write up – it was challenging and inspiring for me today. All my best to you.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Mmm…I see why you might take it that way. Defensively, I mean. But I don’t equate writing to please others as the same thing as hoping others like me. Of course I don’t want people to hate me or hate what I am saying.
      What I mean about not writing to please others is that I don’t shy away from the hard things to make others comfortable. I almost always write from a tender place, a place that cares deeply about the matter – war, poverty, abuse, community, church, God, faith, family, etc. So of course I have no desire for someone to stomp all over that. But they have. Hundreds, on occasion thousands, have told me I was wrong, that I had no sense of humor, that I was stupid and deserved to die. They have – in the spirit of Christ, of course – demanded that I admit to my wrongness, that I apologize to their idols, that I am an idiot who knows nothing.
      And sometimes, they are right. I have spoken out of place. I have been wrong.
      But sometimes, maybe most times, it’s because I have held up a mirror and shown us all what we don’t want to see. A person who writes to please others would never do that. And that is what I mean by never writing to please others.
      I don’t ever sit down and study the market and think beforehand: What should I write that will cause people to fawn over me? How can I write in such a way that I will be voted Miz Congeniality of bloggers? How can I write in such a fashion that will drive traffic to my blog and make me famous?
      I have never written that from that place. If I ever do, I hope Sarah Bessey comes along and slaps me upside the head.
      But that isn’t the same to me as hoping that my writing resonates with people, that they find some truth in it that inspires them, encourages them, or gives them hope and/or vision for better. I pray for that to be the case.

  • Jemelene

    What a great recap and beautiful encouragement.

    I’m still pondering and trying to soak in the words we were given in two short days. I’m still new at believing I was called to this and being set free to move forward.
    My Mom too made beautiful paintings that hang in my house. It was the one thing I remember her family encouraging her in. Everything else was a failure if it wasn’t perfect.
    I felt free this weekend to shake that off of me more than I think I ever have.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      That’s terrific, J.