Anyone who writes inevitably experiences blank page syndrome. You know what I mean. It’s that feeling of looking into the void of words. No matter how long you stare, no matter how hard you try, nothing is good enough to fill the space.
I’ve basically been in a three-year dry spell.
It’s a bit ironic that I’m literally writing about being in a dry spell as a writer. I can’t say I didn’t write anything at all, but it has been difficult, and it has been very rare. Anyway.
Sometimes, you don’t have a lot to write about. You don’t always have anything you need to say or that would be beneficial to say. Most of the time, though, that’s not the case. Even the person with the simplest life can rest on the deepest well.
For me, it’s been a bit weird, though. It hasn’t always been that I didn’t have anything to say, but when I would try to say anything, it wouldn’t quite make it out of my mouth. I couldn’t quite write it down. Sometimes, that has been simply because I haven’t been able to find the right words to say. That’s just how I work sometimes. I feel what I want to say before I can form the words for it. Sometimes, it has been like the words have been stuck — there, but not enough room in the doorway to make it out.
I had a particular song idea a couple of years ago, and I have been trying to finish it ever since. I would find myself writing a verse, then revising the phrases. I wouldn’t quite be satisfied with a chorus or a chord progression, so I’d scrap those. By the time all was said and done, I’d have so many revisions of this one song that, although it was roughly the same song, it never really materialized. Maybe it never will. That’s not the point.
This all was in the midst of finishing a bachelor’s degree in theology, which consists of nearly endless heady reading and academic research writing. It isn’t exactly a songwriter’s first love.
This was also in the midst of transitioning into a new relationship, a new church, a new job at the new church… transitions upon transitions, change upon change.
Then COVID-19 came, and the whole world changed practically overnight, and it has been in a constant state of flux ever since.
I was kind of hoping that the first lockdown was going to be a breath of fresh air for creativity. It wasn’t. There were no new songs, besides one I wrote as an assignment at university and another as a collaboration with some local worship leaders — but that may have been just before lockdown. There were no new blogs, not for a long time. Just one big, blank slate. As I type this, it reminds me of that unfinished song. Its opening verse is literally about how God is a spring of living water in the middle of a desert. Ironic that I could never finish that song. Ironic that this is how I would revisit it.
Somehow, instead of being a breath of fresh air, lockdown quite literally seemed to lock down my writing even worse than before in some ways. Not only was I not out in the wild, but my ideas were stuck in the same house with me. Nowhere to go. No one to hear. Just one big echo chamber — wow, that could be a whole other blog on a whole other topic. Anyway.
I don’t remember when, but sometime recently, I was listening to a podcast that frequently hosts worship songwriters — an art I’m still learning. I don’t remember who said it, but someone said that sometimes you don’t have anything to write about when you’re not drawing from the wells you have. Naturally, as a student of theology, a Christian, and a worship leader, my first thought went to my relationship with God. Is my walk with God currently suffering? Well, yes, actually. It hasn’t been great. I’m not nearly as engaged in prayer, reading scripture, meditation, or adoration as I should be. That’s disappointing to realize and to admit.
This is the part that might throw you off just a bit. While those things can be the reason why your walk with God suffers, it is entirely possible, even highly probable, that they are neither the only reason for, nor the root of, the problem. Admittedly, that seems wrong, and it goes against a lot of Christian misconceptions, but sometimes the root issue is deeper, and it is those “spiritual disciplines” that help heal hurt that lies beneath.
So, what would cause someone who genuinely, truly cares about his relationship with God to stop engaging?
I think the answer might also answer why I’ve been in a dry spell.
Remembrance is a huge deal for followers of Jesus. The entire idea of the Lord’s Supper, or communion, revolves around it. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites’ nearly constant betrayal of God was attributed to the fact that as individuals and as a nation they “forgot” the Lord (Judges 8:33-35). So naturally, there must be something important about remembering who you love, or in this case, remembering who loved you.
This idea has been really important to me lately, and I’ve actually been thinking about it for a long time. It all started with a university assignment to create and carry out a small-group Bible study. While the assignment itself was standalone, it got me thinking about why people even care to do things like that, why it matters to come together to read the word and to be in prayer and worship, how exactly is that, as we gather, we are spurred on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:23-25). As I was reading an all-too-familiar passage, it dawned on me.
“We love because he first loved us.” —1 John 4:19
Short and sweet, but so deep.
Why do we love?
Because he loved us first.
In other words, in order for us to love like Christ, we must remember how he loved us. In fact, it is impossible to love like Christ without remembering how he loved us. Even more, the very act of loving like he loved us is an act of remembrance, and it can only be done in remembrance because his love came before ours.
There is something powerful about remembrance. When you remember something, you can somehow manage to experience the same thing again in a limited sense, causing you to long for it once again. And when you have a constant chance to remember that you’re going home to people you love, that coffee exists, that music is therapy, that people do indeed care, it can be exciting to remember.
The problem is that I started developing a habit of remembering how bad things were. I started remembering that I didn’t have time to write music because I had to write a paper. I started remembering that I might not enjoy date night because there would likely be fighting. I started remembering that the last time I tried to write something, it wasn’t really working out. I started remembering that I might not get to have a cozy life with a job in ministry, so I might have to carry multiple jobs. I started remembering that dream after dream was turning out not to be feasible, so I’d have to give them up one by one.
Habits develop naturally. They don’t happen without precedence, without something to guide them into being. Thus, a bad habit forms when bad things are going on. It wasn’t just that I was making things up in my head, but the bad things became so loud that somehow my habits of remembrance changed. And those are habits we all have. When we get up in the morning, we remember our routines, often because our bodies remind us we are hungry and in need of caffeine. We remember we have jobs and lives and people; therefore, we go to work, meet our friends, and whatever else. Without remembering that there is something more than what is happening inside your own house, you will never leave.
I think I’m just starting to realize that my story has been exactly that. And it’s not that I need to minimize the hardships I have. Quite the opposite. I need to face them, but I also need to face hope.
That’s the one thing that is the hardest. When so many hard things start to fill up your life, you start to forget that the good isn’t gone.
In the midst of remembering everything that was wrong, I didn’t remember the cross.
While reading the Bible will never take away the hard nights, it would have reminded me that it is a greater reality that Jesus died for my sins and to give me hope in the hardships. While prayer wouldn’t make my job situation change or my homework go away or all my failures turn into successes, it would have helped me maintain the hope that God is good and sovereign, and that his plan is better than mine. While meditation might not drown out my worries, it might have given time for wisdom from the word to sink in. While repentance might not repair everything I’ve broken, it is the only way I can be reconciled to God.
That’s part of the beauty of it all. The scriptures do not stand alone but point to their spiritual author, the Holy Spirit. Prayer isn’t just talking to the sky or into folded hands or a plate of ham on Thanksgiving — it is connecting with the Creator of the universe as it was meant to be. It isn’t like the things we do in our faith are self-contained. They are literally meant to connect us to love that existed before any of us and carry us into a new creation where love cannot be dimmed by any circumstance. This isn’t empty religion. It is way more than that.
And no, these things don’t solve my problems. Doing the “good Christian” stuff never made my life easier. What it did is remind me that although I do have a responsibility to live, God is the one who is in control. What it did was remind me that although I do put effort into my life, God is ultimately the one directing my life. What it did remind me was that any power I have over my life is the power he has given to me, and and it is under his authority. What it did was remind me that for all that I have to do to live in this world, the purpose of my life is not to live in this world but to love as I have been loved.
And how can I love as I have been loved if I am not making it a point to remember who loved me and how deeply?
There can be so much pain in remembering, but there can be so much good in it, too. After all, isn’t that what it is like to lose a loved one? You remember that they’re gone, and it hurts. But then you remember that you didn’t lose the past because you lost them in the present moment. And even better, when they know Christ, you know you haven’t lost them forever.
How incredible is it that the same is true of Jesus! He came, and though he is gone for now, he is coming back. How incredible is it that even now, he has not left us alone because the Holy Spirit is present in those who trust everything to him.
What an incredible thing to remember.
What a tragedy that it is so easy to forget.
When you find yourself holding onto the memories of so many painful things, it can be hard to bring yourself to remember that there are still good things, too. It seems as though it should be one or the other, but it’s not. Even the desert has water underneath it somewhere. Even dry land eventually leads to the ocean. Even the presence of the road means you’re going somewhere.
This is where my dry spell of writing starts to make sense. I’ve been trying to write from a place I’ve been unwilling to go. I’ve found myself caring more to distract myself than to deal with the memories that hurt. But what if dealing with the memories that hurt is the only way to get to the ones that heal? What if I can’t have access to the well without going through the desert? What if I finally learned how to intentionally write songs of praise if I remembered how to honestly write pain? What if I didn’t cover it up on Sunday mornings with positive, upbeat songs? What if I gave myself permission to feel what I feel? What if I remember that it’s okay and that the cross, though a place of sacrificing everything, is also a safe space because I’m not alone there?
And the ironic thing is that God gets it. How do you think the Bible even exists? It is the story of man breaking the heart of God and the lengths of pain and sacrifice he would span so that we would see his love again. He is quite literally the deepest well we could ever draw from, and not just for writing songs but for writing our lives, as though grace were the blank page and his love through the cross and the power of the resurrection were the ink. What a source.
To think that I can’t open up about my pain and be honest in light of the cross is absurd. It is precisely because of Jesus that I can be honest. I can write the agony just as well as I can write the joy, just as he has done.
I’m writing this on day 8 of my 10-day quarantine. I told myself I would start trying to write again, get back into the word, and do all the things I used to do when my love was on fire and not smothered by the cares of this life (Rev. 2:4-5). There’s nowhere for me to go. I can’t outrun myself here. The proof is that I’m even writing this at all.
To be honest, I haven’t been okay for a very long time. I’ve been making it. I’ve been uncertain about most parts of my life — not because I have a ton of reasons to be, but because life is uncertain anyway. But maybe I should be less worried about whether or not life is certain and more worried about whether or not I’m losing hope to a world I’m not meant for, a world that’s passing away. Maybe in order to find hope again, I need to be honest about where I am.
Maybe I need to say the things I’m too afraid to say so that I can remember that my fears are not the end of the story. Maybe it is only in braving the desert of hopelessness that I can ever come to the only well where hope is found.
Featured image by Avery Duvall.