Love Thy Reader (Part 1)
This summer, I attended the funeral of one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.
Her name was Agnes Numer. She would have been 95 a month after she went to be with Jesus — and I don’t use that phrase euphemistically. I have been to bigger funerals than hers, but never one where the nations were so fully represented. We were there from every populated continent. We called her “Sister Agnes,” “Mother Agnes,” “Grandma.” She reached thousands of people all over the world with faith, hope, and love.
Love especially. Agnes would tell us that as Christians, we are here so God can love people through us.
When I was a teen, Agnes and her ministry were a major force and presence in my life. I volunteered with them, out in the Mojave Desert, for most of my teenage years. I flew back to California from my present home in southern Ontario, Canada, to be at the funeral, and to get my vision renewed. I’m not sure what I expected to find at the funeral. I figured it would be remarkable.
It was. I got a reminder that we’re here to love people on God’s behalf, in whatever form that takes. Even, I realized, in writing.
When people talk about writing, they tend to talk a lot about the role of self. Writers are supposed to be in tune with themselves. They’re supposed to be true to their artistic vision, to their voice, to their dream. All that is good. But what about our readers? Can we be aware of them — can we deliberately write, not just for ourselves, and not just to glorify God in some theoretical way, but deliberately to love them — without sacrificing our calling as artists?
Of course we can.
Jill Williamson recently interviewed Bryan Davis, and one of her questions was, “God tells you that you’ll never publish another book. Do you still keep writing?” We all know the correct answer: “Of course I would! Being a writer is who I am. I have to be true to my artistic drive.” (I don’t think that’s a bad answer, for the record.) But that’s not what Bryan said. He said,
No. Although I love writing, if I couldn’t publish my books, I would be unable to see the point. Writing isn’t an activity I do for myself; it’s a ministry I carry on for others, a way to communicate the passions God has set afire in my heart. If God didn’t want my writing published for others to read, then He would have a good reason for it, and I would pursue other ways to minister to people.
In other words, Bryan loves his readers. Do I?
And if I do, what are the implications for what and how I write?
As I flew back from the funeral, I looked down at a desert under sunset. Storm clouds had gathered above the desert. Beneath them, the surface of the earth was dark except for city lights. The tops of the clouds were brilliant with the sunlight. Lightning arced over and through them.
It was spectacular. It was art. And it was love. When we read Genesis 1, it’s clear that in some sense, this creation is for us. Even before His personal dealings with men, before the Law and before Christ, God expresses His love for us in this masterpiece of a place, this masterpiece of a story.
He did it knowing that many would never thank Him for His love or choose to receive it. As Christian artists and storytellers, we’re in the same boat. Called to create masterpieces, or at least pieces that are as masterly as we can make them. Called to do it to glorify our God and say “thank You for everything” — and called to do it in love, and as love, for each other.
More about the implications of all this in future posts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Writers can spend a lot of time with people who get between us and the readers. Publishers, editors, printers, critique groups. These are all close to us, but can be either a bridge to readers or a gate to stop us getting to readers. We spend our time trying to sell our vision to an editor or publisher and forget that these people are not really our readers.
I guess one of the attractions of blogging is that it disintermediates the path between us and readers. But this can lead us to a very small audience. Readers are out there. How do we get to them? I’m awaiting the arrival of a book from the printer at present. I’ve been trying to imagine it in the hands of readers. But I fear my pleasant imaginations are a vapour. I sent a draft of the book to a good friend, and she didn’t read it for 6 months. It’s hard to find readers who are as committed to our writing as we are.
I attended a business-of-publishing conference last year that represented a breakthrough for me in how I thought about marketing. I’ve always hated the idea of selling myself as an author. But the speakers talked a lot about social media and how it allows us to build relationships with readers; marketing, according to them, is much less about sales and much more about relationships.
A-ha! I thought, as one of the few Christians in the room. I can do that! That’s not marketing, it’s missions!
I haven’t necessarily figured out how to do it effectively, but I do find the perspective helpful. And yes, on a practical level, blogging is a big part of it.