I am grateful to darling Bernice for reminding me that by August, the weekly ecommentary will be ten years old. Apart from three weeks I think, and one piece written by my dear wife, I have sent out a weekly reflection that seeks to make sense of something going on in the world, or in my heart, from the perspective of Scripture, for almost ten years now. I remember Bishop Hwa Yung once writing in to thank me for the commentaries. But he also asked me to reconsider the need to put out a piece every week as the quality of the pieces would be uneven. He suggested that I should write less often if that meant essays with more consistent quality.
Bishop was right of course. The pieces have been uneven, and the commitment to put out one piece a week has been very demanding. I remember writing a piece on the day my father died. Yet, as often was the case, writing that piece was cathartic, a concrete expression of my grief. But it has been hard doing it every week. I am writing this piece, for example, late at night in a hotel in Batam (Indonesia) where I am taking a church camp. I am very tired. I have just finished one talk and I need to review my next one. But I thought I’d better start on this piece while the thoughts and feelings are fresh.
Why do I do this? Why do I write this e-column every week? For a number of reasons. Let me name two that are not particularly altruistic. First, I write because I am trying to make sense of my life. (My first collection of e-essays was titled Making Sense.) The need to make sense of my life became particularly acute when I lost my first wife to cancer, a disaster for which I was totally unprepared. Indeed her death was but the first of a number of body blows I received. I had to make sense of it all. In that I was no different from the many who are driven to write their memoirs. Here is what Vivian Gornick has to say about memoir writing:
But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. . . What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. (The Situation and the Story, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, 91)
I needed to make sense of my life to find some courage to carry on. My commitment to try to make sense of my life was also an act of faith. I believed that there is a God who is both sovereign and loving, a God who revealed Himself on the Cross, and therefore a God who can make sense of the Good Fridays of life. In doing this I am but following in the footsteps of many others. I believe, for example, that Frederick Buechner was inspired to write because he needed to make sense of his father’s suicide. I have come to believe, as he does, that:
Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and in the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories . . . (The Sacred Journey, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1982, 4-5)
There is another reason why I write this column, and why I continue to write and teach. My deep love for language. I guess I have had this love since I was young. Essay assignments in school would often inspire me to write mini novels. And I have always loved to read. This is one of many things Bernice and I share in common. In our widowed years, the empty half of our respective double beds was stacked high with books. I love language. I am in awe of what it can do. And because I love language I write. Annie Dillard explains this motivation:
What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field. (“To Fashion a Text,” Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987, 75)
So it is ten years and counting and not altogether altruistic. But I must admit that it gives me great joy to know that people have been blessed by the weekly essays. A few days ago a family dropped by our office, he an architect, she a university lecturer, with their two daughters. From Penang, they were on holiday in Singapore. They wanted to buy some of our books. We were pleasantly surprised because we hardly get “walk in customers.” As they were about to leave, the architect came by and shook my hand and thanked me for the ecommentaries. He had been on the mailing list for some time and he had been blessed. Good to hear this once in awhile. Very good indeed.