Firstfruits and First Drafts
There’s at least one moral to each and every story that makes up my life. I rarely get anything right the first time.
My first sermon, preached during a youth-led Sunday-evening service, borrowed liberally from Bill Pullman’s presidential address reverberating through the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. By “borrowed liberally,” I mean Pullman’s stirring speech comprised a solid 20 percent of my 15-minute message.
A fumbling earnestness accompanied my maiden kiss. My lips found hers the summer between high-school graduation and college, releasing all the pent-up passion of a late bloomer. Light and heat, but little grace.
My first sip of anything resembling coffee percolated within a cafeteria machine, the kind also found in a 24-hour convenience store; it tasted like a miracle a few bleary minutes after a See You at the Pole event at my Baptist college. My first beer—of the watered-down, name-brand variety—passed my lips while, on paper, I pledged abstinence to that same Baptist school.
Some years’ distance from these firsts, grace keeps promises those moments could never make. Subsequent sermons revolve around the life-giving words of Jesus and the rising action of Scripture he fulfills. Fifteen years into marriage, experienced in the beauty of kissing the same woman thousands of times, I know practice never makes perfect. But it creates a physical language known only to two people. My tastebuds crave coffee that comes by its strength honestly; I also know better beer—and what it means to exercise liberty without encroaching upon relationships.
Writers inherently muse over firsts. Anne Lamott exhorts us to discover the joys of a “shitty first draft.” Former Fathom columnist Abby Perry encourages me to create like a treasure-hunter digs. Keep writing until you hit something. Then erase those probing first lines and polish the gold.
We obsess over first drafts because they represent wobbly steps toward what we want—to walk through walls between us and our readers, to advance from self-expression to self-awareness. The first iterations of these very sentences terrified me, but I obeyed and kept moving. I want to make it out of this draft alive, and a few inches closer to understanding.
As frightening as first drafts seem, final drafts come with their own brand of unholy terror.
“One thing no one tells you about being a writer is how to cope with the fact that your thinking keeps evolving,” author Lacy M. Johnson recently tweeted, “while the things you have already written stay the same.”
Every final draft actually represents first-draft thoughts on matters personal and political. Time, experience, context, and clarity weather those words, so sure and certain in their moment. Inner monologues become conversations; supposed boundaries expand, making room for something more.
As much discomfort as our permanent first drafts create, something sweet happens as we, in David Bowie’s immortal words, “turn and face the strange,” slowly stretching our minds and hearts.
Johnson’s observations feel just as relevant when applied to theological conviction. Recalling my earliest statements of faith makes me shudder. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about piety and purity, the dance between law and grace, the way God made men and women out of us, and how private worship shapes our public love of people, places and things.
I hear the certitude in my now-ancient words, yet feel the same faltering that marked my first kiss. Like the sermon anchored to Bill Pullman’s speech, there is much sound and misdirected fury. Some pure spark still resides there, flickering in and through those memories. But the nudges of God’s grace kept me from calling that place home.
I can’t quite wipe my permanent theological record clean, but relish the chance to continue writing. My believing and doing, my sense of the Spirit, changes and grows, but the object of my faith remains the same. My savior is secure enough in his changelessness to abide my immaturity. He fosters intimacy and slow growth the way two lovers practice kissing.
This evolution doesn’t necessarily mean a breaking apart of, but rather a growing up into. Not deconstruction, but reupholstering.
My faith feels quieter these days, more attentive and charitable. More inwardly-focused yet increasingly outward-facing. Surer than ever of the little it knows, able to rest easy before the massive face of what it doesn’t. If anything I write here is true, this moment represents a middle. Not a first draft, but something like a revision. Thanks be to God, my editor guides me with a perfect pen yet never withholds his mercy.
No doubt, in a year I’ll revisit this piece and cringe at some turn of phrase; in a decade, I hope to marvel at how naive it all sounds. Let these words scratch the surface of the divine until I really break into the depths.
The Bible presents the concept of firstfruits, primarily defined by devotion. Saints in Biblical times delivered the first of their crops as an offering, signifying a willingness to give God their very best. We encourage today’s saints to set apart their talents and treasures for Jesus’ sake.
But could we turn the idea of “firstfruits” over to discover a hidden facet? Could we offer the first of everything to God, knowing it wasn’t enough, hopeful for a greater yield? The first of our politics. The first of our theology. The first time we breathed out a gospel witness. First kisses and wedding nights. First jobs and oblivious attempts at parenting.
My firsts still make me cringe, but I lay baskets full of them at Jesus’ doorstop, as an honest offering and accounting of myself. I see now that all this fruit is a down payment on whatever becoming he sees fit to bring. We give him these firsts, fully aware they don’t represent our best. Rather, they amplify our inability to grow anything of worth unless he brings the sunshine and rain.