Not long ago a well-known, highly accomplished author wrote an “op-ed”-type article in the New York Times Book Review. Surveying the publishing landscape, this author sniffed dismissively at the welter of autobiographies and memoirs on the market. He noted the oft-heard observation that something like eighty percent of people think their life story is interesting enough to tell. In his considered opinion, a quick glance at the average bookstore would reveal that most of the people who think that way are mistaken–most people should keep their stories to themselves! A few weeks later, a letter to the editor responded to this article by asking, “So does this mean that twenty percent of people think their life story is not worth telling? How tragic.” As rejoinders go, this was a dandy counterbalance to the rather haughty sneering of the accomplished author.
If life is a gift from God, then each life should be worth savoring. Although I do not resonate with much of process theology, there is something pastorally lyric about that theology’s image of God as the fellow traveler who tenderly takes into the divine Self every moment of each person’s sacred journey. God as the Great Remembrancer proffers the hope that nothing is finally lost and that each person’s unique life story is, or should be, worth preserving. The Times letter-writer was correct: there is something deeply tragic about a person who is convinced that when it comes right down to it, there is nothing in his or her life worth sharing with anyone else.
Lewis B. Smedes had a story to tell–many stories in fact–from his eighty-two year life. But between his inbred Dutch reserve and his own self-effacing personality, Smedes very nearly did not tell his story at all, initially blushing at the presumption that anyone would want to peer into his life. Those of us who can now read My God and I should give heartfelt thanks to God for those persons in Smedes’ life who pushed him to write it anyway. For in this memoir, completed shortly before his sudden death from an accidental fall on December 19, 2002, Lewis Smedes has once again graced us with a literary gift that is simultaneously encouraging, stimulating, insightful, delightful, and finally downright moving.
The book is subtitled “A Spiritual Memoir” because Smedes was clearly not comfortable with a straightforward memoir that was only about himself. To lend heft and legitimacy to this project, Smedes was sure it needed to be about far more than just one individual, so he attempted (very successfully) to weave in theology, fleshing out a larger picture of God as much as a picture of Lewis Smedes. “Some readers may think that this account of my travel with God is too trivial to bother with,” he writes in the Preface, “and my thoughts about God too wrongheaded to be worth arguing with. That would be fine with me. All I ask from them is trust that I have tried to be honest with them, and honest to God in the bargain” (xviii-xix).
In truth, the life story that Smedes spins for readers in this memoir is certainly not trivial, and it is never dull to read. As for his thoughts about God, whether one agrees with them or not, they are presented so compellingly, lucidly, and above all compassionately that no pious person could fail to sense concepts and ideas worthy of very serious consideration. Those familiar with Smedes’ body of written work will not be surprised to discover that themes of forgiveness, grace, gratitude, and hope loom large in this memoir. Reformed people, especially of the (Dutch) Calvinist stripe, will find Smedes’ candid struggles to gain a sense of self-worth and acceptance particularly engaging. Those raised in a dark and dour environment that overdosed on the rhetoric of depravity, unworthiness, and judgment do not lightly escape the spirit-slaying guilt that layers the soul like some waxy build-up on an old linoleum floor. Lewis Smedes transcended that heavy atmosphere, like a latter-day harrowing of hell. Smedes’ eloquent words over the years, and now in also this last volume, have been able to lead many other captives in his graceful train toward a loving and merciful God.
According to the old English teacher’s saw, “Hard writing makes for easy reading.” As editor Jon Pott makes clear in this book’s opening tribute (previously published here in Perspectives), Lewis Smedes wrote hard, with constant backward glances over his shoulders at the sentences and paragraphs already “finished.” At one point he admits that, “though I do not like writing, I do like being published”; and so over the years he continued to do the job of writing hard so that the rest of us could read easily. This book bears the buff and polish of a master writer at the peak of his game.
In the course of reading this memoir, I frequently found myself lifting my eyes from the page. Sometimes it was because I was hooting in laughter–anyone who knows the humorless gravity with which Christian Reformed synods have in times past been imbued, will get a soul-refreshing guffaw reading the tale of Smedes’ synodical interview (and his definition of “hell” when asked for it). At other times I had to stop reading so I could exhale in wonder at Smedes’ keen insights and theological sensitivity–Smedes has the startling ability to yoke in one sentence matters as diverse as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the wonder of Velcro, flagging both as proper targets for gratitude! At still other intervals I had to look up from the page because of the tears in my eyes–it would be a cold heart that is not touched by the answer Smedes’ mother gave when, late in her life, Smedes finally got up the courage to ask her why she had never re-married following the early death of her husband.
In the chapter titled “God and I at the Writing Desk,” Smedes reflects on the writing process and mentions a few of the many books he published since the appearance of his first volume, All Things Made New, in the late sixties. Reflecting on what will almost surely be his most lasting legacy, Smedes writes, “I feel after every book I write as if it had been given to me as a sort of miracle. One time, when I was editing the proofs of a book I had just finished, I was seized by the mystery of how it had happened . . . I knew it could not happen without the grace of God, so I slid off my chair, fell to my knees, and, from my depths of delight, said thanks to him” (159). My God and I is its own kind of “miracle,” a gift of grace that does what real grace always does: it creates ripples of goodness, transforming the one who receives the grace into a more gracious person as a result. Any book that can accomplish that is indeed cause enough for the rest of us to bend a knee and give thanks.