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“Tell it Slant” and the Festival of Faith and Writing

A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was my first time attending and I have to say I was pretty blown away by it all. The festival is a gathering of writers, editors, publishers, musicians, artists, and readers to discuss and celebrate writing that explores, in some significant way, issues of faith.

Eugene Peterson, Wally Lamb, Kate DiCamillo, Lawrence Dorr, Scott Cairns and Luci Shaw are just some of the writers that shared their experiences on the craft of writing and living a writing life. There were so many interesting and exceptional writers speaking, it was a challenge to decide which events to attend. I only wish I’d had more time or a clone of me, to take it all in.

One of my favorite speakers was Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message translation of the Bible. A pastor and author of many books, Peterson is also a scholar of Semitic language. His immense love and respect for language is contagious and inspiring. Although I’m not a scholar of Semitic language, I do enjoy writing. There is something about crafting words together to convey an idea or to tell a story, that captivates me, whether I’m attempting to do it myself or reading the carefully chosen words of someone else.

Peterson spoke about the idea of “telling it slant.” I’m ashamed to say I’d never read this poem by Emily Dickinson before, but it’s one that resonates within me.

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.”

Dickinson and Peterson suggest that sometimes the truth is so powerful that when presented with it head on, it can be too much – blinding, almost. Presenting the truth gradually was a theme echoed by many of the writers who spoke. Life and the harsh realities it contains are often too stark to tackle in one fell swoop. A gradual revealing is necessary. Truth is still truth. Kate DiCamillo spoke of it as “…getting at the nearly unbearable truth…” In talking about how she approaches delivering the “upper cut” of truth she said, “I sense the truth out of the corner of my eye. I don’t look at it directly. Otherwise, it becomes telling how things should be done.”

I left the conference a bit overwhelmed, but mostly inspired. One of the many books I came home with was Peterson’s Tell it Slant, that takes its’ name from the Dickinson poem. In it, he discusses the use of language in presenting truth. Reflecting on the use of language Peterson says, “Too often the living Word is desiccated into propositional cadavers, then sorted into exegetical specimens into bottles of formaldehyde. We end up with godtalk…I want to nurture an awareness of the sanctity of words, the holy gift of language, regardless of whether it is directed vertically or horizontally. Just as Jesus did.” No secular or faith language, just language.

We all speak and write out of our own life experiences and beliefs about those experiences. My faith is a part of me that simply cannot be separated from who I am. It is part of what inspires me to write and nudges me toward what stories to tell, simply because those are the stories that capture my attention and my heart. I want to share them, and I try. I feel like I’ve just popped the cork off a champagne bottle and the bubbles are flowing freely and a little out of control. I know I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey.

How do you “tell it slant?” I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Necessary Sacrifice – From Vietnam to America

“The first time I spoke with my brother after he’d left, we couldn’t understand each other. He didn’t speak Vietnamese and I couldn’t speak English.” I’d just met Marie and she was telling me about her youngest brother, who’d left their home country at an early age. “He knew he wanted to be a priest, even when he was very young. My father knew it wouldn’t be safe for him in our country. So when my uncle decided to move to the US, my brother left our family and went with him.”

Concern for his safety and knowing that opportunities would be better for him, Marie’s parents agreed to allow him, their young son, to move away. Far away. Far away from the family he knew and loved, he moved to the US and was raised by his uncle.

“Freedom? There is no freedom.” Marie shakes her head and continues to tell me about the state of affairs in her home country. She and her family are part of the small minority of Roman Catholics. “Things are not safe. It’s better here,” she sighs before telling me about the persecution facing Christians in Vietnam. Pressure from the government to follow a state supported religion affects schooling, employment, their safety and their very existence. Bullying tactics make life, in some instances, agonizingly difficult. I shake my head in a mixture of sadness and disgust.

Marie goes on to tell me that she’s been married for three and a half years. Right after her wedding she and her husband decided it would be better for her to come to the US. He plans to follow her after finishing up graduate school at a Vietnamese university. The last time she spoke with her husband in person was right after their wedding. They’ve only spoken by phone since she arrived here. “I’m about ready to take my test for citizenship,” she tells me proudly.

I am greatly moved by Marie’s story. For a moment, I turn to hide the tears I feel welling up. Sacrifice – painful sacrifice for a better life, for safety. For freedom. My own mother left her country, pioneering out on her own to make her way to this land of opportunity and freedom, as a young woman in her early twenties. She didn’t leave under such harsh circumstances as Marie, but the leaving was still painful. The courage it took to leave everything she knew, to leave her home, for a new, strange culture is something I stand in awe of each day. My heart is grieved by Marie’s story and I know that she is only one voice out of many that have bravely sacrificed for a better life.

I can’t imagine the loss her parents must have felt in saying goodbye to their son, not knowing if they’d ever see him again. Saying goodbye to my own son seems unimaginable. Only hearing my husband’s voice over a cold phone line, not to hear him whisper good morning or feel his embrace after walking in the door at night from work seems unthinkable. Being one with someone, yet being so far apart. Sacrifice, I know, is sometimes necessary. I’m ashamed at the things I so easily take for granted, things that should be savored each day.

Now here in America, Marie’s had the opportunity to visit with her brother. After she took classes to learn English, they were finally able to talk for the first time. To talk about their family, their home, and about the brief moments of a shared childhood. Her joy is obvious. So is her big sister pride. “He’s all grown up now and he made it,” she tells me grinning wide. “He’s a priest” she says nodding. “He’s a priest.”

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