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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 186–194 

Faith and the Creative Life

Jean Janzen

1 One July summer evening in the mid-1970s my husband and I were having dinner in an outdoor café patio in Carmel, California, one of our favorite places to rest and relax. Here by the Pacific Ocean both of us found sweet relief from the daily stresses of work—Louis, a busy pediatrician, and I, the mother of four children ranging in age from five to twenty. We also were celebrating a wedding anniversary, as I remember. As we waited for our entrée, Louis looked at me and asked, “What would you still like to do in your life?” Our three older children were in high school and college, and soon only our youngest would require my care at home. The question was a loving one, offered to me in the intimacy of the weekend, and in his awareness that I could move forward into my own career. What surprised me most was my own immediate response, “I would like to write something that someone else would like to read!” I had been an English literature major in college, graduating from Pacific College in 1968 (now Fresno Pacific University), and my professor, Wilfred Martens, had suggested that perhaps I should write. He had written poetry {187} and was working on a novel. Looking back, I recognize how crucial a single comment can be.

Intimacy and immensity . . . continue to be descriptive in my life as I seek to be a faithful follower of Jesus. More and more I sense the limitation of language even as I continue to seek language for “what cannot be said.”

The decade of the 1970s was a lively one for us in Fresno. We had purchased a large home after living in a two-bedroom house, and the new spaces allowed us to offer rooms to college students, as well as to house family visitors and special guests. Our innovative congregation, College Community Church Mennonite Brethren, gave us opportunities to host various groups, and Pacific College invited us to house guest speakers and short-term professors. In that decade we experienced the movement of our two oldest children into college life away from home, our eldest becoming married. Also two other factors began to shape me: the writings of Rudy Wiebe and a trip to the Soviet Union in 1975.

Although my husband gave his best energies to the medical care of Fresno’s children, he held a passion for history and art. In 1966, after five years of practice, he invited me to go to Europe with him to attend a conference in Oxford, England, and to visit the capital cities with a special tour. Our journey to the Soviet Union in 1975 was another venture as we joined a group of physicians and spouses to tour major cities and to visit hospitals. Because my father had left Russia for Canada as a teenage orphan in 1910, we had a special interest in seeing the Ukraine region, although we did not have the courage to contact the children of the siblings whom he had left behind. All of our great-grandparents had lived there, and our grandparents, except for the Wiebes, had immigrated to the United States in the 1870s. On this tour we ate borscht and verenika in a restaurant surrounded by birch forests, and we managed to take a few Bibles to a Baptist Church in Moscow. Although the KGB followed us everywhere, we photographed, smelled, and tasted the places that our ancestors called home for a century.

Several months later my Christmas gift to my husband was an art book of a half-dozen watercolors and poems to thank him for the powerful experience of that journey. When I showed the book to my nephew, Stan Jantz, who is a writer, he suggested that I gather a writing group in our home, and he would join us. A small group, including Wilfred Martens, met once a month or so, in a genial gathering, including Phyllis Martens, a writer of fiction, who brought a poet friend with her. After she read my poems, she suggested that I study poetry writing with Peter Everwine, poet and professor at Fresno State College. In January of 1980, I entered his class in “Advanced Poetry Writing,” and my life was changed.


Fresno State College offered a masters degree in creative writing for which I applied after one semester of poetry writing and twentieth-century poetry. {188} Here I was challenged to engage with students who were mostly wary of religious belief. I was not writing “devotional poems”; I was trying to tell the truth of what was waiting inside of me to be expressed, a growing search of what it meant for me at age forty-six to be a Christian woman in a challenging world. Peter Everwine’s inspiring and patient instruction allowed me to experiment in a nurturing setting.

In the second semester I took a poetry writing class from Philip Levine, who was also a beloved professor and had become well-known for his daring work in the 1960s. Here I gained the courage to write poems about my father, which included the suicide of his mother, a secret that had been buried and of which I learned at the time his death in 1970. I brought this poem to Levine’s class with trembling, and he responded with a quiet regard, an acceptance that became crucial in my continued writing. Surrounding this poem were others about my father’s childhood, his immigration, and our visit to the Soviet Union. My master’s thesis, a collection of poems, centered on his story, which had become my story. The collection also included a set of poems based on the Beatitudes.

While I seemed to be the only one out of twenty or so students in the Creative Writing master’s program who expressed a Christian faith directly in my work, my relationship with other students was warm, and I sensed their respect. I was invited to join others socially at times, and my friendship with some of the poets and faculty continues to this day. Sometimes we met as a group in our home, where we enjoyed dinners together and conversation.

These friendships, however, did not overlap with my church or Pacific College friends. I was now in new territory, something that most men and some professional women shared at the time. My husband worked with people in his practice every day who were not attached to a faith tradition. Our children in public schools studied in environments that challenged our standards of faith and life. Now I was joining them in the “real world.” I found myself enlarging as I explored new writers and social contacts, and as I was trying “to tell the truth” about my doubts and discoveries, seeking for authenticity.


Although the 1960s and ’70s were challenging times, our church family became a center of support for me and my family. Our church, founded in 1963 and including a number of college professors, focused on close fellowship. We tried to be an open congregation, studying and seeking clarity for a faithful response to the changing culture. We were blessed with strong leaders, several artists, and a music director who, with our pastor Werner Kroeker, enlarged our worship with the richness of following {189} the liturgical patterns of the church year. Also in those first two decades we grew in numbers and in Bible knowledge, and we made deliberate decisions to join others in efforts toward racial and economic justice. Many fellow church members became and remain our dearest friends, a continued sustenance for me as I write and publish.

My writing, however, was necessarily a separate and isolated activity after graduate school. Even as my subject matter sometimes included the shared Mennonite experience in both faith and culture, the choices I made were necessarily my own. For the first time in my life I was allowing myself to take the risk of giving voice to my doubts and explorations. When Paul Toews, as director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, kindly offered to publish my first collection of poems, most of them from my graduate thesis, he honored my work, including the poem about Matryoshka Dolls, in which I give language to my search for an authentic woman’s voice. That poem, I recognize now, was the seed for many of my subsequent poems as I began to strip layers of expectancy for me as a Christian woman. “Don’t lose her,” I say at the end of the poem.

Thirty-three years have passed since that first publication. In that period of time I have had six more collections published, plus two books of essays, which could be named as markers of my faith journey. The creative life has no map. For the Christian writer the path has a goal, which is one of hope for more illumination in what is necessarily a walk in the dark. Every word and every poem is an act of faith.

After Words for the Silence was published in 1984 (Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies), Merle and Phyllis Good, founders of Good Books publishing, asked to include my work in a collection of Three Mennonite Poets (Good Books, 1986). With this important gift of publication, I was introduced to the wider Mennonite world of writers, included in this volume with the Japanese poet, Yorifumi Yaguchi, and Canadian poet David Waltner-Toews. The Goods chose a few of my Mennonite history poems from my first collection and new work that included poems about my childhood, about mothering, and the body, including sexuality. These subjects turned out to be ones I would often return to as I continued to explore and write. Denial of the body seemed to me to be a denial of the Jesus story.

My next collection, The Upside-Down Tree, published in 1992 by Henderson Books in Winnipeg, Manitoba, included a section of poems that name my responses to an amazing trip to the Soviet Union in 1989. Louis and I were invited to join a group to visit Mennonites living in Kazakhstan and Khirgizia, as well as touring in Ukraine. As the political climate was softening, we gained courage to contact my first cousins still living in those areas, to sit in their living rooms and hear their stories of {190} survival, loss, lament, and thanksgiving. This visit was the beginning of contacts that have continued, as most of these relatives have been able to immigrate to Germany, and some of them have been guests in our home.

In this collection I also probed my Mennonite history with poems that reflect on our visit to Holland, my search for the power of faith tested by persecution, and for what remains. I also included my interest in early Christian writings in Holland, offering my poem based on the writing of Hadewijch, a thirteenth-century Beguine and her vision of the “upside-down tree,” an image that became the title of the collection. At the time I wrote this, I did not know that I would be invited in 1991 to write hymn texts for the developing Mennonite hymnal based on the writings of three other women mystics, an assignment that enlarged my life of faith and writing.


In 1989 I was invited to teach an intensive six-week poetry writing class at Eastern Mennonite University, an invitation that continued for every other year until 2001 when my husband needed my care at home. This assignment gave me the opportunity to learn how to teach, as well as learning to know the Mennonite world in the eastern part of our country. In alternate years I was honored to teach poetry writing at Fresno Pacific University, an engagement that brought me closer to faculty and administrators, and that continues.

Another marker of my journey is the year 1990 when I was invited to read poetry at the Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg. A strong group of writers in Canada were called to be the core readers, and the planners were looking for published writers in the United States to join them. They found two of us, Jeff Gundy from Bluffton, Ohio, and me, and when we met for the first time at this festive gathering of Mennonites, we noted that we each knew only one other Mennonite poet who was university trained and currently publishing: Julia Kasdorf and Keith Ratzlaff. Here I was reunited with Rudy Wiebe who had been an early influence, a welcome visitor to Pacific College before I began to write, and who continues to be a supportive friend in writing. After this Canadian gathering, Mennonite writers and scholars have met every three or four years in conferences in various college settings, now attended by two hundred or more persons. These gatherings have been lively, open, and challenging as various readers and scholars offer new work and possibilities for writers and readers.

In 1992 my poems about my childhood in Saskatchewan were included in an oratorio composed by Alice Parker and sung in Vancouver, British Columbia, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. This celebration {191} of the life and faith of Canadian Mennonites was truly an honor as I remembered my own grandfather and uncles as pioneering church leaders.

In 1995 my collection of poems, Snake in the Parsonage, was published by Good Books after I received a National Endowment for the Arts award for some of the poems in that volume. This gift of money from the government allowed me and my husband to live in Holland for almost a month, an amazing time of learning and celebration. Not only did we bask in the beauty of tulips and green fields, we visited the historic Mennonite landmarks, the wonderful parks and museums, and were participants in the Conference of European Mennonites hosted by the Dutch. Again we were enlarged by the contacts and hospitality of believers in the actual places of both martyrdom and continuing communities of faith in Europe.

In the collection that followed, Tasting the Dust, published in 2000 (Good Books), my writing settled back into the valley where we live, to which our two older children had returned to practice their professions, and where we were enjoying grandchildren. After the travels and explorations, it was time to name the place that was shaping us geographically and spiritually. During the following years, as my husband became less mobile, the collection Piano in the Vineyard (Good Books, 2004) grew as I found language for what is broken in ourselves and the world, a collection of both lament and joy, which was followed by Paper House (Good Books, 2008), in which I “played” with theology. A poem entitled “A Catechism” was set to music by my cousin, the cellist, Eugene Friesen, a cantata that was performed by the choir of the Shenandoah Bach Festival in Harrisonburg, Virginia.


In 2003 I was invited to give the Menno Simons lectures at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. While I hesitated to accept the invitation because I am not a scholar, James Juhnke encouraged me to think of the event as “an extended poetry reading,” making commentary related to the poems. This encouragement allowed me to prepare four lectures using the theme of the four elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Drawing on sources of other writers, I found language to frame my own work in a kind of celebration for me of faith and writing, the lectures published with the title Elements of Faithful Writing by Pandora Press (2004).

In 2012 my collection of personal essays on faith and writing, entitled Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing, was published by Good Books. This collection’s centerpiece is the story of my entry into the creative life, which is unpredictable and sometimes wild. I meditate on my geographical setting, my childhood influences, my father’s search, the power of art, the influence of three women mystics, plus other reflections on faith and writing. {192}

I began with an essay on the power of place, the way in which my writing is set in this particular valley with its mix of drought and powerful waterfalls, the magnificent mountain range of the Sierra so near, and the mysterious ocean beyond the coastal range. Most of all, the utter stillness of the air as the mountains on either side resist the flow in certain seasons. I reflect on the effect of both hush and grandeur, the way this geography has transformed my childhood fears into awe. As I compare California to the Midwest, I described this change by writing that

the Midwestern sky with its gifts and threats was an emblem of God in grace and judgment. That sky came with me to this place. But over there God could be controlled part of the time—by my good behavior, even by my belief. This California God continually asks for relinquishment; I am helpless. So when I awaken in a June night by moth wing or my aging body, I am empty but not alone. My arms spread out in wonder that I am here. It is the posture I want to hold with my family, my church community and my Fresno community. It is the way I must sit before the empty page to begin a poem. The night presses its immensity and mystery against me and knows me. It calls me by my name. 2

This collection, Entering the Wild, summarizes the ways in which I sense this convergence. In the essay on “My Father’s Joy,” which I subtitled “How my Father’s Search Shaped My Life,” I describe the way my childhood was influenced by his own life search. After twenty-two years of teaching in one-room schools in Saskatchewan, he was ready for a vocational shift, which was a movement into pastoring in Minnesota. This led to his need for further education, which moved us to Tabor College in Kansas during my adolescent years. While my older siblings had known him as their teacher, I now was the child of a student, a time that required family moves to three different places in five years.

And in that process of my father “seeking his joy,” I was learning that joy is a state that cannot be sustained. Even the wonderful “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which was played at our wedding, is a testimony to the fact that not even wedded bliss can be sustained. I learned that the original text to that gorgeous music carries an intimacy and a vow that “Jesus shall remain my joy, my heart’s comfort, carrying all sorrow. He is my eyes’ delight and sun, my soul’s darling.” In the essay “Piano,” I reflect on the obvious crossover from poetry to music. We begin with rules and technique, yet the mastery of technique only becomes “a creation” when it connects with our lives, one that struggles toward consciousness.

In the central essay, “Entering the Wild,” I expand on the experience of entering the unknown as I began my studies, “what the creative life demands” (51). My most important influence was Emily Dickinson. I had {193} written several papers about her work for college classes and visited her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and yet was unable to explain how “her astringent poems were magnets, immensities caught in a few lines. Her close observations of nature could open the universe” (48). Her life was so different from mine: no husband, no children. I wrote, “She had ‘stopped being theirs,’ while I had walked the aisle for salvation a number of times to be sure that I was. No pious language, whereas I was immersed in it. And yet, I admired that key in her apron pocket that unlocked a door to new and amazing language. Her rhythms were like those of the hymns I sang. Her words were unexpected and sometimes wild” (48). When I registered to take poetry writing in 1980, “I not only ‘stood outside the house of Emily Dickinson,’ I figuratively walked into her bedroom where she had written and bound her seventeen hundred poems. My domestic life, like hers, was now opening to the unknown, the wilderness that the creative life demands” (72).

In that essay I also claim that for me, poetry and spirituality are closely bound, that, as Marcus Borg writes, “Believing has little transformative power.” 3 Something deeper than information, spoken creed, or rational agreement is necessary. The power of image and metaphor continues to call to me. As Emily wrote, “The Infinite a sudden guest / has been assumed to be—/ but how can that Stupendous come / Which never went away?” 4 That humbling Presence remained with her, as it does with me.

And finally, my journey of faith and writing includes the important invitation by the Mennonite Hymnal committee to set the words of three mystic women into texts that could be sung. In 1991 I received a request from Rebecca Slough, chair of the committee, to glean from the writings of Hildegard von Bingen (b. 1098), Julian of Norwich (b. 1342), and Mechthild of Magdeburg (b. 1207). These three women inspired me to create texts that were ultimately set to music and included in the hymnal. To my amazement, they have since appeared in numerous hymnals, and some have been translated into other languages.

Intimacy and immensity, the themes in this collection, continue to be descriptive in my life as I seek to be a faithful follower of Jesus. More and more I sense the limitation of language even as I continue to seek language for “what cannot be said.” More and more I honor the mystery of being human and the necessity to resist borders and boundaries. In a time of increasing divisiveness in our nation, I am called to embrace the story of God’s love for us that knows no barriers, and to trust my passion for language to continue to enlarge my faith and, hopefully, others’. {194}


  1. I dedicate these reflections to the memory of Katie Funk Wiebe, who was a major voice for me as I gained courage to write.
  2. Jean Janzen, Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2012), 8.
  3. Marcus Borg, “What Is a Christian?”
  4. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1890/1960), 569.
Jean Janzen was born in Saskatchewan and raised in the midwestern United States. She attended Tabor College, Grace College, and Fresno Pacific University, from which she graduated in 1968. She received her MA in Creative Writing from Fresno State University in 1982. She has published seven books of poetry and two books of essays. In 1995 she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and her poems have been set to music by Alice Parker and Eugene Friesen. Her hymn texts for the Mennonite Hymnal have been included in numerous other hymnals.

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