Something about 4H pencils
I’ve been re-organising, making a space for the husband to work at home. For me, writing and organising spaces scratches a similar itch. In both cases, I’m taking the resources I have on hand (words / a ridiculous amount of stationery) and trying to arrange them in pleasing and efficient ways. In both cases, also, I’ve got to edit. ‘Kill your darlings’, as they say – or in this case, turf the cupboard full of ‘I could give that as a present’ and ‘maybe I’ll get back to that craft’.
Edited, calibrated, worked over, fine-tuned words, and actions – by personality and training, these are the spaces I tend to work in. Way back when I was studying architecture, I remember rhapsodising to a fashion-designer friend about my new 4H pencils – they’re the really hard ones. I was working in thirds of a millimetre; they were so precise. She looked at me like I’d lost my mind – 4B was her territory. Any pencil with an ‘H’ in the name wouldn’t do what she needed it to.
I spent a lot of time last year following the US presidential elections. Hillary Clinton is a pretty ‘4H’ politician – careful, edited, rehearsed. They’re not unusual characteristics in a politician, and they feed into the ‘all politicians lie’ trope. If someone in the public eye is careful about the words they say, it must be because they’re concealing something, right?
Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems like the very definition of a ‘4B’ politician – loose and immediate. There’s nothing rehearsed about Trump, and it is surely part of his appeal. He ‘tells it like it is’, is the thing people say about him.
The thing is, it’s possible to be careful and precise in the interests of authenticity. When I edit and edit, when I get it as right as I can, down to a third of a millimetre – I’m doing it in the service of expressing myself. I work my words over to get them as close as I can to the thing I want to communicate.
But free, spontaneous work can be done to the same end. Sometimes the quick sketch or improvised speech is where you find deep honesty and truth.
You can edit and rehearse your way to an impenetrable mask. You can improvise your way to the same thing – who among us really has any idea what the Trump presidency will bring? Discerning whether someone is honest and authentic is hard, and it’s not just a question of style. But we don’t get better at that kind of discernment by telling ourselves that ‘all politicians lie’.
If you offered me the chance to go back in time to witness one incident in Jesus’ ministry, I think I’d go to the story told in John 8:1-11, where the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. There’s so much in that story. I want to know what Jesus wrote in the sand. I want to know where the other guy was. But mostly, I want to see how Jesus did what he did. I can’t get over the standard Jesus sets; every word is just right, perfectly calibrated to be the most life-giving intervention he could make in that situation. But every word – every silence – is alive with the hum of immediacy and authenticity. He honours the Law, upholds justice, freely offers mercy – to the woman and her accusers. And all of that in an improvised response to a mean-spirited and dangerous setup.
Jesus can work the whole spectrum – 4B through 4H. More than that, He says that in following Him, I can become like him – discerning, wise, able to respond in the moment with just what the moment needs. What a promise.
What a Saviour.
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