A JOURNEY OF SURRENDER
By Jade Wyatt
For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland
The verse above from Isaiah was read aloud at the opening of the Bookworx Writers Conference, held in South Australia’s beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula in the spring of 2019 and to which I had been invited to deliver three poetry workshops. When I heard this scripture spoken during the opening address, I breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed the perfect confirmation of a vision I believed the Lord had given me for the conference – the hope of a new thing, a new season of growth and life, waiting on the other side of our obedience to step out into what seemed to be a dry and lifeless desert.
While preparing for the conference by meditating upon this vision, I became aware of four main elements within my own approach to writing, to which I gave the headings Surrender, Observe, Unearth, and Let go. This SOUL framework would form the basis for my poetry workshops; however, I quickly realised the framework also went beyond my own writing approach and into the realm of writing and creativity generally. And it all rested on the foundation of Surrender.
Bible teacher and author Jenny Allen writes, “Great people do not do great things; God does great things through surrendered people.” The idea of stepping out into unknown or dangerous territory, within my vision for the conference, strikes me as being deeply connected to the notion of surrender. “Surrender” is perhaps not the first image that comes to mind when considering the creative process. The idea of a “journey”, however, is perhaps more familiar. In fact, the idea that life is a journey is so familiar that it has become a cliché. For those of us called to the creative arts, the path of creativity is also often thought about this way – as a journey. Oddly, somewhere along the way, the word “journey” has come to imply the idea of covering a great distance, of months or even years of travel. However, the word journey is actually derived from the Latin diurnum, which means, simply, “daily portion.”
Here, then, we find an important intersection between the notion of journey and that of surrender.
Surrender is not simply the first step, soon forgotten, of a grand journey – rather, it is a daily practice. In a way, surrender is the journey.
It is the journey we must take every day… sometimes several times a day. As Pastor Rick Warren writes in his classic devotional, The Purpose-Driven Life:
“There is a moment of surrender, and there is the practice of surrender, which is moment-by-moment and lifelong. The problem with a living sacrifice is that it can crawl off the altar, so you may have to re-surrender your life fifty times a day.”
For Christian writers and artists, the foundational importance of surrender to creativity inevitably takes on a broader theological significance. In his opening address at the Bookworx conference, Rev. Dr Mark Worthing declared:
“We create worlds with our words. We change the world with our words. Words are the tools of our craft, and point to a reality greater than themselves… We are proclaimers of the Word, which carries responsibility. We need to know the God we represent.”
We cannot truly represent God unless we know him, unless we have learned the sound of his voice, and recognise his image in ourselves and on the page. Our very being is made perfect only in the measure that we become more like him, a process that, once again, begins in surrender. In Romans 6:13, Paul exhorts all Christians to Give yourselves to God… Surrender your whole being to him to be used for righteous purposes (Romans 6:13 GNT).
Beginning with surrender not only positions the heart aright for spiritual growth, it also sets us up for a far greater chance of creative success. As with the Israelites, God still works by giving us just enough manna for each day, and we are fools to try to take into tomorrow what we have been given for today. As Janice Elsheimer writes in The Creative Call:
“Our gifts are not from God to us, but from God through us to the world… Before we can start practicing our art, let’s learn to practice the art of listening to what God has to say to us as artists.”
To begin in surrender means we immediately establish that we are partnering with a God who is supremely creative – that we are submitting our will, our ego, our expectations, and aligning ourselves with the Word and not the world. God is the Author, the Perfector, and the only One who can empower our words to reach further and deeper than we could ever make them do on our own. Further, his loving acceptance negates our self-criticism and silences our doubt. Our simple obedience pleases him, as by it we become a vessel through which he directs our work to exactly where it needs to go. Under the aegis of daily surrender to a loving God, therefore, our creative journey takes on the significance of a holy calling, as Carrie Givens suggests:
“As a Christian creator… I want my work to point to truth. To do so, I must steep myself in that truth, through all the avenues given to me: the Bible, the Church, the Holy Spirit. I want my work to be an excellent conduit for that which has been revealed to me, which I seek to reveal to others.”
If surrender is so important, we should not be surprised when, in our attempts to surrender, we come up against powerful resistance.
I spent much of last year developing my understanding of formal poetry, with all its rules and structural conventions. To my surprise, the greatest lesson I learned was the freedom for creative expression that could be attained through the application of discipline to the wilderness of poetic inspiration. Even in this, God was pointing me back to the importance of the daily practice, the daily discipline, the daily need to be surrendered to the God who deposited the gift of creativity within me in the first place.
If productive creativity is so clearly connected to active, daily surrender to God, why is it so hard? Why are writers so geared toward self-sabotage? Why do we procrastinate? Why do we tick off countless checklists and still struggle to sit down and write? Why do we spend so much time comparing ourselves with our peers, or crippled by imposter syndrome? Rick Warren suggests, “Surrender is hard work. In our case, it is intense warfare against our self-centered nature.” This battle against our self-centeredness occurs from the moment we sit down to write, and it does not end when we achieve “success”, which, for a writer, is often identified with publication.
When I was given the chance to publish my first poetry collection, I was terrified of being labelled a fraud, a writer who could not write, and laughed into an early retirement. My fear of failure and rejection was tied to a common but misguided idea of creative success as identical with fame and reputation. Whether my book proved a success or not, I needed to learn the value of humility. The late Dwight Pryor once wrote:
“The false piety fostered by a poor self-image is not biblical humility. In truth, an inadequate self-image is the same coin as an inflated self-image, just the reverse side. And the coin is ‘self’… True humility is not thinking less of yourself, just thinking less about yourself – because the currency of your life is God, not self.”
In the months since my anthology was released, I have been astounded by the response. My poems have reached out and touched the hearts of many who have read them, with some readers contacting me to share how moved they were by my words. It’s always nice to receive a compliment and a degree of personal affirmation, yet the temptation to see this as validation solely of my personal achievement needs to be kept in check. When I came across the following poem the 14th Century Persian poet Hafez, I saw my own experience clearly reflected:
Tripping Over Joy Hafez What is the difference Between your experience of Existence And that of a saint? The saint knows That the spiritual path Is a sublime chess game with God And that the Beloved Has just made such a Fantastic Move That the saint is now continually Tripping over Joy And bursting out in Laughter And saying, “I Surrender!” Whereas, my dear, I am afraid you still think You have a thousand serious moves.
This beautiful poem called me to my senses, reminding me that God created poetry, and he created it for a purpose. As the greatest Author, he designed poetry to stir something in us which reaches beyond self and glimpses, even if just for a moment, an image of the divine beauty which dwells both within and without us. God created me with a heart to see the beauty in poetry and invited me to live and to write in partnership with him. But the call to write was never intended to be a burden. It is a gift which, having been given, we can pass on in turn.
My creativity is first of all a response, an answering echo, and through it I partake in a call which reaches in and through all people to a world that aches for truth.
Perhaps, then, we might remember that the work of God’s Spirit is not confined to our merely human perspective – that he moves in ways we cannot always perceive. To be clear, God is not limited by the extent of our surrender. He is the divine Word, the eternal Logos, and is able to use our words to reach far beyond our grasp. Dare I say it, he can even use the words of the unsaved to shine light in the darkness. There is no power in the lie that says we cannot write well until we are perfect Christians. C.S. Lewis expounded on this idea in his remarkable book, Mere Christianity, writing:
“God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures… He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection… On the other hand, you must realise from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal… We may be content to remain what we call ‘ordinary people’: but He is determined to carry out a quite different plan. To shrink back from that plan is not humility: it is laziness and cowardice. To submit to it is not conceit or megalomania; it is obedience.”
With all these thoughts in mind, it became clear that my aim in the workshops I was developing for the conference was not so much to teach people how to write poetry, but rather to remind them of the need to start with surrender. I began to see the conference as an opportunity to plant seeds of ideas that could be taken away and reflected on by each participant in their own unique situation, to grow and bear fruit in the intended season. As such, while I included activities I hoped would awaken people’s sense of fun and creative adventure, I tried to make the written material as rich as possible with content that would unfold in multiple ways over time, trusting that God would highlight those sections each person needed to see in their own time and in their own space.
Even with these good intentions, I struggled with self-doubt as I stepped up to speak and my natural enthusiasm for poetry (coupled with the strong desire to fully impart what I felt God was saying) collided with a kind of public-speaking-induced brain paralysis and many tongue-tied moments. I frequently encountered glazed expressions over the course of the conference and was not surprised when the most common feedback for “areas of improvement” was that there was not enough time allowed for delivery and discussion of the content. However, I was encouraged that many participants confirmed how they had been encouraged and inspired to seek God first in their daily writing practice.
I am increasingly aware that my writing journey has only just begun, and that it begins again afresh each day. God’s Word is full of promises reminding us that we are ultimately secure in him. It is safe to surrender to a God whose mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23), and to rest in the assurance that he who began a good work in us will perfect it (Philippians 1:6). Abide in the Author of Life and let Him abide in you. Surrender is the greatest adventure.
Jade Wyatt (aka Elizabeth Snow) is a South Australian writer and poet. Her first anthology of poetry, Then There Was You, was published by Elephant House Press in 2018. The title poem, 'then there was you', was selected for the 2019 ‘Raining Poetry’ project by the J.M. Coetzee Centre, and several other poems and items of prose have been published in Tabor Adelaide’s annual Tales from the Upper Room anthologies. Jade judged the Mayor’s Short Story Competition in 2018 and 2019, and is currently writing her first radio play. She is also is a senior editor at inScribe.