Lent for Creatives: 5 Hard Lessons

At Ancient Faith, we believe that the spiritual life and the creative life are woven together. The fact that we are an Orthodox Christian media company is proof of this conviction. We exist to promulgate the Gospel through the work of people who use their creative gifts to affirm and explore the life of faith, in the persistent hope of edifying and encouraging our fellow human beings on their journeys.

During this Lenten season, we are all engaged in spiritual struggle of one kind or another, and it seems a good moment to share what I’ve learned in the last five years about the intersection of creativity, struggle, and media publishing. With this goal, I’ve created a list of five hard lessons we all seem to encounter on our way to producing high-quality books and podcasts. If you have already been published, this list will be familiar. If you are still trying to be published, it may be even more familiar! I pray it will be helpful, no matter which side of that fence you occupy.

don’t be an “idea person.”

Almost nothing will shut you out faster than those fatal words – “I’m an idea person.” Many people describe themselves this way, and in our experience, an “idea person” is one who can come up with an endless list of inspiring suggestions but is not able to follow through on them. An idea is like a flame without a lamp. It burns brightly and then vanishes, unless you provide a wick, some oil, and a vessel to hold the oil. Your idea needs a plan. It needs background research. It needs the ability to make and meet deadlines, foresee and overcome obstacles. You and your idea both need a significant amount of staying power, so that your publisher knows you will put in the effort to bring your idea to life – real life, enduring life, the kind of life that will justify the expenditure of staff time, resources, and just plain stamina required to publish a book or produce a podcast. If you were telling yourself that you could hand your idea to a publisher and staff members would provide the wick, the oil, and the lamp, please stop. No publisher can or will be a replacement for the diligent effort you should have dedicated to your idea before we ever heard of it.

Learn the Difference between FElt Need and Perceived NEed.

These two terms are often used interchangeably, and in many contexts they should be. But for you, the creative person, there is an important difference. Creative people need to create. That recurring urge to say something, write something, make something? That’s real. God made you that way. It’s the life force He gave you to ensure that you’d actually use your gifts, that they wouldn’t languish on the shelf in your mind and never see the light. Your “felt need” to create something is real and important, and it should always find expression in your personal creative life, even in your personal relationships. But to break out of that personal realm and into the world of publishing and media production, you need more than your own felt need. You need to identify and meet the felt needs of other people, preferably large groups of other people.  This is one of those intersections between the spiritual life and the creative life – you must serve more than just yourself.

This is where perception is so important. You need to hone your gift for perceiving the needs of other people and channeling your creative gifts to meet them. You can. Creativity and perception are extremely close to each other on the color spectrum of human gifts, I’ve found. It can take some practice, but people who try will discover after a time that they have a special “eye” for the ways their gifts can bring joy or comfort or edification to their fellow human beings. As a media publisher, we can’t meet every single individual need. We are, regrettably, finite. We have to limit ourselves to projects that will help the largest number of people possible with the limited resources available to us. That’s why we want to hear about projects that meet a perceived need. Help us feed the multitude!

Work the problem; don’t step around it.

There are two kinds of work that people often neglect when they’re in the grip of inspiration. One is market research. The other, for lack of a better term, is plot development.

The human condition being what it is (full of humans, all of whom are experiencing it), it’s not impossible that someone else had the same idea you had. It may be completely new to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely new to the human world. Save yourself some agony. Get on the internet and find out. Do you want to write an Orthodox book about butterflies? Do an internet search for “Orthodox book about butterflies,” but don’t stop there. Come up with every way you can think of that someone could possibly describe an Orthodox book about butterflies, and do a search for all of them. Market research has a lot to do with that “perceived need” we were just talking about, but it also requires that you know who else is trying to do what you’re trying to do. Did someone else get there first? Did they do what you want to do, only better?

When you discover that someone else already wrote an Orthodox book about butterflies (or otherwise walked off with your inspiration), you have two choices. Both require mature consideration. You can either abandon your idea, or you can develop it to meet a need that other person has not met. Inspiration can be an emotional roller-coaster. Your first impulse may be to fling your idea out the window and weep, or it may be to dig in your heels and insist that your idea is more unique than it actually is. Let go of both of these impulses. They don’t help you. Take a breath, take a walk, and do some hard thinking about what you can do to develop your idea. Chances are, your idea just needs to become more complex. It needs more depth and specificity. If you meditate on it for a while, you may find that you can add an angle or an application. Maybe your book can be an Orthodox book about butterflies for children, instead of adults, or maybe it can be an Orthodox butterfly coloring book with quotes from the Church Fathers about the afterlife (because butterflies are often seen as a metaphor for the resurrection), or maybe….just keep brainstorming.

And that brings us to the other, extremely important part of this point. Keep brainstorming. Whether you find that your idea is 100% original or not, you still need to develop it to the fullest extent. You need to know it inside and out. You need to find all the holes in it, poke your finger through them, and figure out how to fill them. Work the problem. Don’t gloss over the surface, make it all look pretty, and hope. If you don’t find the holes, your publisher will find them. Save us both the sorrow of collapsing something that would have succeeded if you had finished thinking it through.

Lose the agenda; pursue meaning instead.

If you’ve been in Christian media for more than 15 minutes, you’ve heard about the necessity of creating content that is not “preachy.” This comes up most often in writing for children, but it’s just as important in content for adults, especially fiction. Most people don’t think their writing is “preachy,” but you’d be surprised how often someone in the grip of a strongly held agenda can’t see that it has leaked out all over their writing and buried it.

The problem is not that agenda-driven writing doesn’t sell. It doesn’t, but that’s not really the problem. The problem is that when your agenda is sticking out all over your writing, your reader will quickly decide that your main goal is mind control, and they will put the book down and run screaming into the hills.  The lesson you are hoping to teach might be the best, most important lesson in the world. But your anxiety about convincing the reader will be louder than the lesson. Always. And that means it will fail to get through and will instead become a cycle of frustration – your anxiety will increase, you will try harder, and your target audience will run faster and farther.

What’s the solution? Permit me a quote from an old song: “You gotta have faith.” This is arguably the biggest intersection between your spiritual life and your creative life. If you are practicing what you want to preach, if you are truly immersed in the way of life you hope to share, truth and beauty will seep into your words and reach people in ways that aren’t possible when you try to drive the train yourself. If Orthodoxy is true, then it is true in every aspect of human life. If you observe and communicate with deep faith and understanding, whatever you write will become a “lesson.”

Accept the humility of “not being humble.”

In my experience, almost nothing horrifies an Orthodox writer/podcaster/blogger/artist more than the idea of promoting their work. This is a good sign. The person who can’t wait to plunge into the limelight is often prone to errors in taste and judgment, and will  likely be disappointed in the amount of limelight available in the Orthodox media world. Setting aside “I’m shy” and “creative people are introverts,” the biggest reason for this phenomenon is that the Orthodox faith teaches humility. There’s a Bible verse that describes this situation perfectly: “Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” (Matthew 6:2) Makes you shudder, doesn’t it? It should.

But there’s another Bible verse that’s far more relevant for those of us working in Orthodox media: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Letting your light shine can be just as uncomfortable as parading for glory with a trumpet. It can be more dangerous. It can be humiliating. But if you chose to create Orthodox media instead of secular media, you had a reason. There was something good you set out to do, and if no one ever sees or hears your work, it will have been in vain. Your book won’t help anyone if no one reads it. Your podcast won’t spread any light if no one hears it. Like so many moments in our spiritual journey, I believe this is one that requires a deeper understanding of the problem. The simple answer is “don’t talk about your work because it’s not humble.” The more complex answer is that humility might include willingness to serve in whatever way is asked, even the ways that stretch and try us to the limit.

The good news is that if you choose this work, you will be throwing in your lot with a community of people who love what you love and chose what you chose. All of us who are trying to use our creative gifts for the glory of God can walk together on this journey and lift each other up. You don’t need to do this hard thing by yourself. We can keep each other company, promote each other’s work, and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that if we are “doing it right,” the result will not be an embarrassment to us. If your light is shining, and your good works can be seen, God grant that your readers and listeners will “glorify your Father in heaven.”

Wishful Thinking on Independence Day

Close up of the American Flag

On this 4th of July, I am pondering the complexity of military service and national identity. As with many human conditions, the outward show of military life is a fraction of its meaning. Because they are the “instruments of foreign policy,” service members are held up as symbols of what is most loved and hated by proponents of various ideologies in our country. They live on the receiving end of assumptions that are more often based on emotion than information.

The crux of military service is an existence that would be unnecessary in a perfect world. Armed forces are the painfully tangible proof that human beings do not treat each other as they should. Many would argue that July 4th is not a military holiday. It is the commemoration of our birth as an independent nation. At some level, we all rebel against the idea that this independence is impossible without military force.

Military life teaches you to engage what IS. You won’t last long clinging to what you WISH would be. Military life is predicated on the understanding that you control far less of your reality than a civilian does. But it also reveals the truth that civilians control far less than they wish to. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that evil is both totally unnecessary and extremely powerful. Stand in that space for a few minutes today – the space in which you know that evil could be stopped if enough good choices were made, and in which you also know that actual human beings, many of them, would rather die than make those choices.


Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash

The “To Don’t” List

Closeup of cherry blossoms with blue sky behind them

I am a close friend of the “To Do” list. My work space is home to assorted spiral notebooks, paper scraps, and post-its, and it gives me great satisfaction to outline my tasks – all of them, as many as I can think of – and march through them, crossing them off as I complete them. Although I recognize the value of online task managers, and use them professionally, it will never be as much fun to click a check mark on a digital list as it is to carve a check mark into a paper list and then scribble-obliterate the item beside it.

But today, the sun is shining, the house is mine alone, and I am observing a pause in the domestic and creative frenzy that is my daily life. Today, it is time for the “To Don’t” List.

On such a day, my instructions to myself, in no particular order, are as follows.

  1. Don’t wake up in time for anything.
  2. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
  3. Don’t vacuum. Don’t.
  4. Don’t get a jump on Monday. If you must jump, go outside and jump in the grass.
  5. Don’t make telephone calls. Your telephone is also observing a “To Don’t” Day.
  6. Bless it.
  7. Don’t sort closets, coffee tables, kitchen drawers, desk tops, or book ideas.
  8. Don’t read a single page you can’t get through without exhorting yourself to pay attention.
  9. Don’t forget to feed the fish. [Not everything can be part of a “To Don’t” list.]
  10. Don’t read the news.
  11. Don’t enter any space, virtual or real, in which you might read the news by accident.

Of course, a “To Don’t” list is more apophatic than the human activity it’s meant to inspire. I can’t cease existing for the day, nor do I want to. It is only an exercise in removing myself from the deep ruts of habit and responsibility. I need and respect these ruts. But I also need the space outside them.

Because I exist even when I lay the ordinary aside, I replace everything I’ve removed with that “To Don’t” List. Yes, that means I am writing a “To Do” List, but as you will see, it is not the kind you’ll find on the paper pile around my desk.

  1. Sleep until you wake.
  2. Eat when you are hungry.
  3. Go outside.
  4. Write.
  5. Look out of windows.
  6. Daydream.
  7. Enjoy the deep quiet.
  8. Be present, but remember this, too, will pass.

It will pass. I am an energetic adult. I am responsible for work, and I love my work. Work is part of my meaning, and I treasure that. A “To Don’t” List can never be permanent, in the way that a “To Do” List can. If I’m responsible for painting the deck or submitting a manuscript, the tangible outcome of those accomplishments will make a mark on my world that I will see for days to come. Whereas I can only look out the window for a time. That moment will end. I will step away from the window, release the day dream, open the door to the returning voices of my household. I will stop saying “don’t” and begin again to “do” the parts of my life I took exception to for this set of hours.

But the effects of this day I’m spending in the peaceful sunshine of imagination and stillness will linger with me. I will have strength for the journey, food for the thought, creativity for the tasks that return to me, because of this day I spent away from the working world.


-Photo by Amy Luo on Unsplash

Becoming Invisible

Light comes through an open window in a dark room

It’s a cultural flaw, observed and decried by many, that the marks of a woman’s increasing maturity reduce society’s belief in her sexual appeal and thus render her invisible. We lose our value, apparently, as our skin wrinkles and our tolerance for superficial thinking deteriorates.

I deplore this trend, but it is not what I am writing about this evening. There is another kind of invisibility, one that manifests itself gradually along the slopes and valleys of our spiritual journeying, and I believe it is the reward of dogged perseverance.

First, we must agree that visibility is a complex thing, and I am speaking here only of that type measured by the human eye’s ability to perceive it. It is a manifest thing, approached with lens, pupil, retina, nerve.  What is visible can be detected on the skin, on the page, outside the window. What is invisible cannot. But I hope you will stretch a point and let me gather audible, tangible things under this useful word. Eyes, ears, nerves in the tips of our fingers – these are the managers of our outer world.

If we live vigorously, seeking to discover and perfect ourselves, our reality shifts across time so that where once it was mostly visible, mostly outward facing, it becomes mostly invisible, perhaps inward facing, perhaps upward. I don’t know that this journey is linear. In my experience, its facets develop at different times, on different levels. A child’s play may begin with a round, red ball, mostly understood with the eyes and fingers, and in just a few years, the same child may stumble into the wilderness of imagination and spend hours engaged in intricate games that will remain invisible to everyone but herself. But the same child may have no patience, and her lack of patience may be completely visible for decades after she has learned to rely on the invisible people and places of her imagination.

A person living in this world will never be completely visible or completely invisible. But the trend is there – the chain of insight. There are milestones on this path that I was pondering tonight, washing the dinner dishes with my hands, talking to the puppy with my voice, sorting words and impressions in the quiet of my own mind.


Patience is an intangible thing, but impatience is not. Our impatience is often loud and always visible – our faces change, our voices grow shrill, our hands and feet move quickly and irritably. Patience is the invisible thing. When you are patient, you are not grimacing or raising your voice. Your hands and feet are under your control, and so is your irritation. If your patience is visible, it’s not patience. It’s impatience with a mask on, struggling to make a point.

It reminds me of something my father said the summer he refinished the picnic table. When he began the project, the table looked bad. The finish was peeling off and the wood was discolored. After hours of labor, sweat, and persistence, the table looked wonderful. “Now you don’t even notice it,” he said, ruefully. “It just blends in.” The eyesore stood out; the result of his effort looked normal and unremarkable.

Patience is like that.


Like patience, this is a gift most visible in its absence. A person who speaks his words without hearing them, who can’t stand outside his opinions, will commit one solecism after another. He will be the target of frustration or disgust, but he won’t receive these incoming signals.  Ironically, a person is much less visible when he can “see” himself, when he can hear what others are saying to him and about him and believe that it might be accurate. He is an integral part of the human whole, not the sore thumb protruding from it.

I think humility is part of this awareness, humility and perception. You need perception to understand what the world believes you are contributing to it, but you also need humility to accept what you perceive when it isn’t attractive or simple to repair.

Moving Inward

Much of what disappears from the visible world only moves into the invisible world. This is literally true in the case of death. A person leaves the physical world and enters the spiritual world fully. We bury the body, and cling to love and memory, but nothing that remains to us is visible. But what are we removing from sight when we become patient and self-aware? Has something died in us? Are we burying ourselves in the stifling grip of self-control?

It happens. But I think it happens in error, or as a forward, but not final, step. Patience becomes possible when we are able to relieve our own irritation, when we can soothe or readjust ourselves internally without producing visible signs of the process. We can talk ourselves out of reacting, and actually heal the aggravating feeling behind it. Self-awareness depends on a parallel skill – it’s the ability to believe what we perceive from others, where patience is the ability to believe what we tell ourselves.


Because patience is the most elusive of the gifts I seek in my own life, my meditations at this point left self-awareness behind and focused to a finer point. From visible to invisible, from outer world to inner world, what is the power behind the shift? The silent words that bring me peace and stamina now were not effective, or even available, to me at earlier points in my life. Why are they now?

You answer that question with your own experience, as you must, and I can answer it with mine. For me, it all comes to an upward spiral of imagination, a circular stairway deeper and higher into the mind. Where once imagination was a plaything, or a comfort in loneliness or distress, I believe it’s evolving into the currency of my spiritual existence. It is the reason I can experience the substance of my own thoughts. Imagination makes what I learn visible to me. Yes, visible! Imagination is the inward eye, the sights and songs and memories that are deeply personal, deeply spiritual, essential as air and water are essential. But only because it is no longer fictional. Instead of creating what is not, imagination clothes the bones of truth. If we are experiential beings, imagination is the first small leap into eternity. It is our first experience of the life beyond life, outside of eyes and hands and bodily impressions.

We become invisible only in one dimension. In another, we begin, finally, to appear.

-Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash

Walking Down the Drive

Once upon a time, when I was little, I went outdoors on a summer afternoon. I walked down the long driveway, from the backdoor of our yellow house, past the garden and the swingset, toward the garage. As I walked, I heard my own voice inside my head, telling the story of what I was doing. I knew the story stretched back to my beginning, and that I was just noticing it, not beginning it. I knew the story was happening still, and that it would keep on happening, as long as I kept on telling it. Continue reading