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“It’s so good to see young people using their talents for the Lord,” old ladies praised us in our band uniforms before the church service. I resented their congratulations even as I craved affirmation. God is jealous--even his own propaganda says so--and it’s not just other gods, idols, and outlets for worship he envies. It’s us too. All our talent and hard-won accomplishments belong to him. I was a pretty good Adventist kid in my band geek days, but I rankled under the requirement that anything I did well was done “to the glory of God.”
My sin was pride, one of the seven deadly ones, not that Adventists worry much about hierarchies of evil. In Adventist dogma, pride is a favorite thoughtcrime, right up there with lust and covetousness, but it never made much sense to me. Don’t boast, sure. Don’t be self-obsessed, check your privilege, and realize when you’ve been lucky/blessed, but why feign humility when you know you’ve earned your accomplishment? In the parable of the talents, one person’s hard work blossomed. Was he not supposed to feel good about it, say thank you when complimented, believe in the value of his achievement? Did he take pride in his work, or did he invent the humble brag?
In about ninth grade I wrote a religious poem that, at my English teacher’s urging, I read out loud during church. I loved the praise I received for that poem, but even at fourteen I knew that it wasn’t as good as other poems I had written. The good poems, the ones that were difficult to write, the ones that pleased me weren’t religious. When I shared those poems with the adults who had praised my previous efforts, they said, “Why are these poems so sad? Why don’t you write something nice for sabbath school?”
I knew that if I kept writing “to the glory of God,” some topics would always be off limits. The same women who loved to see us in our band uniforms frequently called the school on Monday mornings after we’d performed. Why was the music so loud? Why were we using drums in church? Why couldn’t we just play hymns? As I grew older and began to be serious about my craft, I realized that I would never reach my full potential if I restricted myself to church-approved forms of expression. Did God, who had supposedly given me my talent, understand that? Did he want me to play the same hymns over and over, or did he want me to be my best?
When I got married, I added Alex’s name after my own, but when I published my first poems a year or two later I used my maiden name. Someone asked why, and I told them, “Because my writing is mine.” Alex’s support of and pride in my accomplishments means the world to me--and unlike the god of my childhood he doesn’t try to control what or how I express myself--but the words on the page, the hours alone with my notebook and coffee, the pencil callous on my middle finger are mine alone.