We work this out in fear and trembling. This is what he said to me. We work it out daily.
He said this on the first day we met. He sat there, large, across from me, feet firmly on the ground, voice rich and steady. He told me he rolled out of bed every morning before six, then read the Bible and prayed to God before getting on with it all.
I took notes.
I wrote something about Thoreau, about having an appetite for hard things, for loving the crust of the earth, for getting nutrients out of it, right from the dry ground. It’s either this or living a wasted life.
But he said to have fun with it too, with my writing, even with these efforts at fiction, something new for me. Have fun or why bother?
We had those first meetings beside on old wood stove in a colonial home filled with Americana on what used to be army land on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington State, now owned by Seattle Pacific University. I later got on a plane and flew one direction and he flew in another.
Then for more than a year he proceeded to undo in me what needed undoing and then grind into me new things that would serve me better and somehow serve others too.
In literary circles he is a name. But during all this time, during our future meetings at Whidbey and then in the desert of New Mexico and in all our correspondence over the ocean, I called him, more often than not, Boss.
During this time, like the rest of his students, I gave him my feeble attempts at short fiction, a bicycle ride that was so very different for me. His critiques were always honest and, once, after reading one I looked in the mirror and shed quiet tears.
This, I learned, is what happens when you’re undone, when you’re redone, when you work out your salvation, even your writing salvation, with even a modest amount of fear and trembling.
He reminded me of my father, I suppose, and he knew it and he acted like anyone would want their father to act.
Once he appeared to me in a strange vision. Faithful Reader will recall that I wrote about this recently in a newspaper column on fear and death and our recent return to Uganda. It was during one of my episodes with malaria. It was a dream. Or it was a hallucination. It was, for all I knew, my African death bed.
Yes, he’s a bear of a man, the sort you can disappear into when he hugs you. And even though he has never been to Africa, no not once, in this crazy dream, he somehow made it over the ocean and through the walls and over to my bedside where he then kneeled in prayer.
When I asked him what he was doing, he said simply that he was a Christian and this is what Christians do for each other.
In one note, he called me the most polite and earnest and happy and sensible dude that he had ever worked with. The words, while having nothing to do with my work, felt like summer rain. Because this is how it is for many writers, we have our insecurities.
Sometime later I stood in front of a hall in Ontario filled with writers and blubbered about this very thing, the insecurity that writers tend to have over, if nothing else, getting published. While doing so I read an excerpt of something that he had once given me.
“Christ didn’t save you so that people could look at you and say ‘What a good Christian he is.’ Christ died so that you could bring Him glory. Likewise, publication isn’t the measure of glory, but being what we are called to be, is.
… So it’s true, publication is necessary in order to touch the lives of readers, just as a missionary can’t be a missionary by thinking about being a missionary from his armchair. But when a missionary gets out into the field, his job is to feed the hungry and tend the sick and proclaim the Gospel – all to the glory of God, and nothing and no one else.”
This is the simple truth of it. This is the job of any believing writer, of any believing creature, really: to bring glory to God. Even if we write about the world’s ugliness and brokenness. Even if our hard-fought letters don’t go further than the crumpled page in the garbage can.
So I stood in front of that gathering of writers and read his excerpt and I did so without mentioning his name because his name was lost in the larger meaning of the moment and this is just as he would have wanted it.
But then later that evening, just outside the hall where I shared, a stranger, a magazine editor and bookstore owner, came and engaged me in conversation and then somewhat out of the blue he mentioned a particular writer that he happened to like, a writer named Bret Lott.
He called Lott a southern writer and he told me that he liked his short stories even more than his novels, which is something considering Lott’s novels are New York Times bestsellers and one in particular gave him national acclaim and Oprah’s Lear jet treatment.
I listened. And I marvelled. Because nobody but I knew that the excerpt that I had just shared, the one on bringing glory to God and to God alone, in fact, came from Bret Lott.
This is how it often goes. Sometimes it’s our fathers, but sometimes it’s other men in our lives who are like fathers, men who have been given to us for a season of time — a Big Brother, a youth counsellor, a neighour who becomes one sort of coach or another – men who can hold your hand and walk with you for a while and leave a lasting impact, and through you, on others.
For me this was, and is, this mentor who I once called Boss, a friend who I now call Brother, a writer from the American south who just wrote another book, one he recently sent to me with the kindest words penned in front.
There is much to say about why this book has a certain beauty, starting with the title, which is ‘Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian’.
There is more to say on why you would enjoy it, enjoy reading about why anyone would look at the world in all its shakiness and desperation, and all of its glory too, and then have the audacity to even think that they could write anything worthwhile about it.
The book, it seems to me, is a pretty good choice to give as gift for, say, Christmas.
But maybe the best way to describe it is to simply introduce you to Brother Bret. I think you’ll enjoy meeting him. You can do that here in this brief video link below.