Category Archives: faith

Using Our Eyes

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Today I’d like to share a post I wish I’d read oh, say, maybe ten years ago. Stephanie writes about relationships and how, maybe instead of asking for intangible signs, we should really just open our eyes.

Too many times I’ve watched people wait and wait. I’ve done it myself. But maybe if we trusted our senses more, we wouldn’t decide, we would choose.

Read more over at The Answer to all our Relationship Questions: Our Eyes.

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

I was addicted to stories. I devoured them, one after the other, bending and folding paperbacks with abandon, dog-earring corners, underlining words that were beautiful, words that were true. Young heroines like Emily of New Moon and Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books taught me how to be spunky and creative. It wasn’t long before I was weaving plots for hours on a 1995 Gateway computer in my bedroom.

I remember wanting other kinds of stories, too. Sitting at the dinner table long after all the food was eaten, we’d beg my father to tell us stories about his childhood. (My mother’d always shake her head when we asked her, saying she didn’t have any stories. I still find this hard to believe.) Dad’s stories often involved fish, foolish things my dad had tried because he was “curious.” The time when he was three and took the goldfish out of the tank “to look at it” is a classic; I can still picture the poor thing gasping on the living room carpet, the victim of an over-active mind and not quite enough supervision.

My mother’s friend from college told us good stories, too. I remember most the one of her throwing cherry tomatoes over the railing and hitting guests. Oh, and the one with blood-engorged ticks (who could erase that memory?!). And the one when the dog ate rising bread dough and its stomach rose with it, waddling proof that dogs do not know what’s best for them.

I grew up on stories.

The voices brought people alive, my great-great-grandfather and his stern Maine-ness. My grandpa whom I’d known but only awhile, breathed again when we talked about his stories of growing up on a fox farm. As I listened and began to craft stories of my own, I realized that one day, I too would have stories to tell my children.

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What do you want your story to be?

[He asks from the pulpit, and I think, I’ve been thinking about this all along.]

When you write your story, think about how it affects others.

When you write your story, make it one you want to tell.

This is the one sentence that rang through the sanctuary, hanging in the air, making the skin on my arms prickle with its truth.

Even though I’ve discovered the repercussions of writing a life before living it, here I was reminded that sometimes we need to shape the life we’re given. Yes, things happen beyond our control, and yes, sometimes we ache from those uncontrollables. But more often than not, we have choice.

I get to choose what story I’m living, and I get to make it one I want to tell.

~     ~     ~

I will tell about early Christmas mornings, all four of us huddling in one bedroom because we wanted to share it that one day. The lights from the tree bouncing off the mirror in the hallway. About waiting for the cousins to come and longing for the day to never end. They will ask where our traditions come from, and I’ll smile and tell them the story.

I will tell about riding horses in the sun and feeling powerful.

I will tell about discovering Laura Ingalls for the first time, about raising chickens and gardening, the plethora of projects done in the name of sustainable living.

I will tell about late-night summer man-hunts when hormones ran rampant and we didn’t know what to do with them so we ran, too.

I will tell about choosing a college and not being sure but doing it anyway. I will tell about loneliness and fear, about trying hard and singing hard and learning. They will ask about friends and making friends, about trying to love. I’ll tell about walks around the pond where so much got twisted around and sorted out.

I will tell about graduating and reeling in my own mind. About disappointments and mis-steps that, while not destroying definitely left me feeling useless. About dark months in winter when I was learning to trust and hating every minute of it.

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And my most recent stories? They’ll include the discovery of joy. The summer we all lived at home again and spent our evenings on the back porch. Riding with the top down in my car, fearing the day when I’ll have to say goodbye to this lovely little bug that’s taken me so many places. Finding a church that allows me to be the silly, too-immature-for-small-group girl I sometimes am. Growing in friendships that have challenged me, shaped me, and made me think deeper than I ever could have thought on my own.

My story isn’t done, but I finally feel like I am choosing it.

Good Things #18: Rolling Out of Bed

There’s nothing better than coming home after a long day at work and realizing: I have nothing else I need to do. All I’m responsible for now is eating dinner, reading a good book, making sure my next day is fully planned, putting the chickens in for the night, and heading to bed sometime before 8:30. I’m kidding. Kind of.

Fall’s always had a melancholyness to it. I go from a sunny summer high to this immediate need for hibernation, and it often includes a good dose of “woe is me” and a tiny bit of anxiety. It doesn’t seem to matter that fall is one of the most beautiful seasons, and even as I walk through the crunchy red leaves in the afternoon sun, I feel a weight of the darkness coming earlier and earlier every day.

This past Monday, as I looked out the window and realized it was almost pitch black already, I forced myself to get back in my car and drive to small group.

It was 6:30 and I wasn’t sure if I would last till after 9:00. I told myself that somehow I’d find the energy, that somehow 6:15AM wouldn’t come as quickly as it seemed and it would all be worth it. There’s something about deep cushy couches after a certain hour that beg me to fall asleep. And warm beverages. And a cozy light against a warm living room wall. Even when roughly ten people surround me talking theology and life and purpose, I still manage to drift off quietly in a corner somewhere.

But I went and I sat and I did not fall asleep. I even engaged in the conversation, offering up my paltry musings and observations. We ended in prayer and I prayed aloud for two friends who sat by me, something I never would’ve done a few years ago.

That’s the thing. My bed is extremely comfortable. My beeswax candles smell like summer and the book I am reading about an uppity twenty-something in the 1940s is quite engaging.

But they aren’t people. They don’t breathe or think or speak. They don’t ask how I’m doing and actually care, and they certainly don’t pray for me.

I have to be careful as the months get colder and the sun gets further away. I have to fight my natural tendency to curl up and shut out the world. There’s a balance between “Oh my gosh I’ve had too much people time and I just need to be alone!” and “I’d be okay with never speaking to another human being again.” I hardly ever consider myself an introvert, but in the months between October and March, it’s hard to see me as anything else.

I wouldn’t say anything earth-shattering happened at small group Monday night. Community happened. Thought happened. Prayer happened.

And none of that would’ve been possible if I hadn’t rolled out of bed.

[When I Lose It]

I’ve been whirlwinding it the past few weeks, as school’s started, small group’s back up and running, and the farmers’ market goes strong for two more weeks. My graduate class started, too (can you say Friday night classes and all day Saturday classes are a breed unto themselves? filled with falling-asleep-behinds and the intense urge to run). The theatre company I work for is eagerly awaiting auditions in two weeks, and we have a production meeting tonight.

Sometimes I think I don’t need God. And then things like this happen:

I forgot something Monday.

I forgot SOMEONE Monday.

And I wanted to curl up and die.

One of my Latin students from last year transferred to a different school, but she wanted to continue studying Latin.

Of course I’d love to keep working with her! Monday the 16th at 5? Awesome. See you then.

But I didn’t see them then, and I didn’t get the email until the next morning, and I would have rather cleaned the bathroom five times than feel so much shame.

Because I remember one time being forgotten. I was fourteen or fifteen and I was writing a short story cycle with my writing tutor. She was (and continues to be) one of my absolute favorite people, but there was this one time when she forgot me. I sat there waiting but she didn’t come. It wasn’t really a big deal, but I still remember it.

And here I was, ten years later, doing the same thing.

Maybe it isn’t about God, you say. Maybe you just need a flippin’ planner.

Which is true.

But really it comes down to the fact that my head isn’t screwed on straight, and that more often than not comes from my inability to set my eyes where they belong. I read my Bible this morning and felt disconnected and my mind wandered:

Wait, so how much money should I be saving?

Ugh, I really want a doughnut right now.

Did I email that woman about selling pastries at the farmers’ market?

Shoot, I never delivered those candles. Ugh.

~     ~     ~

I sent an email back. I apologized left and right, falling all over myself, saying I would drive to their house and make it up to them.

I haven’t heard back.

What is it about humans that makes us need constant reminders that life is too big for us? I get into the groove of things, I tell my Creator Thanks, man, see you Sunday, and things are great for awhile.

Things are still great.

But praise God for not letting us coast for too long. Hopefully that little girl and her mama will forgive me, because Latin and learning are too fun to just throw away because I’m a scatter-brain.

 [If this picture doesn’t say it all…]

Good Things #8: Willing to be Dazzled

[I wrote this post as part of the Love Yourself link-up started by my friend, Anne. It goes beyond loving yourself – it starts by allowing things to dazzle you, and then, maybe, you will dazzle yourself.]

I am sitting at a round wooden picnic table. The sun is blaring hot and it isn’t even 9:00 in the morning. The beach is quiet today after a people-packed weekend – there isn’t a single person on the sand.

For my beach read this summer, I packed Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’ve never read it before, even though I’ve seen the movie, and I thought it was a pretty light book for the ocean. Poor Bridget. I sometimes see myself in her, but most of the time I just wonder: What were you thinking?!

I also brought along some Mary Oliver. My first impression of her was not so grand; nature poets don’t hold my attention as much as they should, perhaps. But every now and then I come across a gem, a piece of honest beauty.

Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing

to be dazzled –

to cast aside the weight of facts

 

and maybe even

to float a little

above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking

 

into the white fire of a great mystery.

– The Ponds

This hit me in a gentle strong way. Maybe I can’t help having moments of darkness, but perhaps they are made darker by my unwillingness to be dazzled. Maybe it is this small, simple thing that makes life sharp and pulsing.

Maybe it’s this willingness that sets people apart.

The sun is hot as blazes on my right arm. I’m already sweating. But the sea is sparkling in the light, the grasses on the dunes are waving in the breeze, and there is a calmness to the air that settles me.

Shift your focus and you see differently.

The thing is, not everyone can do that. Or at least, not without help. There have been times when I’ve looked at something straight on, I have known that it is beautiful and good, but I’ve not been able to see it. I’ve known but not experienced. I’ve touched but not tasted.

A lot changes when, for a few months, you think maybe your life will never be the same. Maybe, in fact, it’s almost over. You know you are dramatic, but you also know that no one is above dying.

And later, a year later, you are digging a hole in your garden, in which you will sink a spidery rosemary plant, and you look at your arms and marvel at their strength, at even the swinging motion it takes to dig.

One day, you are driving, and you look at your hand on the steering wheel and think, This is my hand. It is no one else’s. And that is shocking to you.

You see, for the first time, really, the sharpness of green grass against blue sky, and you wonder how you looked at the same landscape for the past twenty years but never really saw.

It is perhaps the first time in your life you can honestly say:

I have rejoiced in my suffering. I have praised God for my discomfort. I have been made weak that His strength would show.

That is how I am willing to be dazzled.

Good Things #7 An Invitation

I feel like my head has been spinning for two weeks – not demonically, per se, just with so much stuff. Some of it is an inevitable part of the end of the school-year: baccalaureate, graduation, writing test after test (and subsequently grading those tests…). But part of it I bring on myself: Yes, I’ll come! Yes, I’ve been wanting to see that movie! I haven’t been to a Red Sox game in ages. 

I don’t regret for a minute any of the things I’ve said yes to.

Star Trek 2, from a sincerely un-knowledgebale non-Trekkie, was quite enjoyable. It was loud and action-packed, but the movie’s 3-D was a little painful for me. My eyes kept focusing in and out and I hadn’t thought to wear contacts so those huge 3-D glasses were competing with my regular glasses. The moment Benedict Cumberbatch started speaking, though, it was more than worth it.

The Red Sox lost, but we laughed and told stories and people-watched and I reveled in the history of that place.

Then Baccalaureate and graduation came, faster than I thought and far more emotional. I was surprised at my own internal involvement with this event, with the speakers, the students. Our headmaster spoke at the graduation, and it was a speech that will stay with me (not something I’ve ever said before, I don’t think).

Three questions: 1. What will you do? 2. How will you do it? 3. And with whose power?

It hit me because even though I don’t for a moment regret the way I’ve spent my time these past two weeks, I do regret the things I have let slip to the wayside.

One-on-one time with good friends I need to catch up with.

Chunks of time to do something – anything – like running, or yoga, or even walking.

 

I’ve prayed, but only surface-level prayers.

 

Thank you, God, this sun is beautiful.

Help me.

Hey there.

And those aren’t bad. In fact, I think the regularity with which words to the Lord formed in my mind – even when I was on the run – is a good thing.

What I’ve been thinking about, though, is that I’ve lost the deep communion that is so vital. Vital to my relationship with the Lord, vital to my relationships with my family and dear friends, and vital to my own sense of wholeness.

1. What are you doing? Good and beautiful and helpful things.

2. How are you doing it? Pretty well, with minimal grumbling… 😉

3. With whose strength? Ummmm…

It catches me in the moments right before I fall asleep. You have not communed with your God. He is here, waiting, but you have rushed past him, laughing and happy, but missing that element of reverence.

God isn’t calling me to be less happy. He just wants to share in that happiness.

To have me pause long enough to be wrapped in His strength so I can continue rejoicing.

Now, as I prepare for church, I wonder how to hold these fun, laughing, blessed times with open hands. How to say Thank you and simultaneously invite the Lord to enter into this with me. How to do the good, helpful things I am called to do, do them well, and do them with the only strength that’s worth its salt.

[Thoughts on Church From a Seasoned Veteran]

I remember sitting in English class in 9th grade and admitting to my teacher that I got most of my ideas for stories while sitting in church. I thought he’d be surprised, maybe shake his head a little, smiling, and tell me that church was for focusing on the Lord.

Instead, he laughed and said, “Me too! There’s just something about being surrounded by the body of Christ that fills me with creativity. Well, that, and when I can’t sleep at night.”

Church has always been a place of mixed emotions. When people ask me about my church life, I think of the little brown church on a busy street where I first encountered God and saw for the first time that God’s love spread even and especially to the disabled. This was also where I discovered music, and I remember counting the rectangular windows while we sang “How Great Thou Art.”

[I was both awed and confused by the extremely heavy vibrato behind me.]

This was also the first place I saw deep relationships destroyed, families betrayed by their own, young children crushed by the meanness of others. I wasn’t exempt from it, either –  I think I may have indeed been one of the mean ones, struggling desperately not to be labeled as “weird” or “different.” There isn’t much worse than this when you’re seven years old.

The next church I think of is the old white church on Main Street, with its green steeple and gravel driveway. I think of Joy Club and youth group and Vacation Bible School. Long Sunday afternoons when we all would play volleyball til our knees were scraped up from diving, and excursions for barbecue down the road when all we thought about was laughing and wiffle ball and perhaps that tiny worry that:

Jesus didn’t mean as much to us as he was supposed to.

This was around the time I started writing in church. Usually it was in my head, long, terrible plot-lines that always involved heroic orphan-girls and handsome boys who lived “in town.” One time I scribbled a slightly-scandalous outline for a story on the back of an offertory envelope; it involved two members of the congregation, and I surely should have been more careful. I did try to pay attention. I succeeded, often. But like my English teacher said, “There’s just something about being surrounded by the body of Christ.” I felt a well of anticipation and ideas whirling around.

[I hopped around from church to church, staying a week, a month, a season. College was too complicated and they demanded too much: “Ministries! Use your gifts! Vocation! Sing! Youth Group! Sunday School!”, so I ran away.]

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[St. Peter’s Church in Salzburg]

I worshipped with my new church on Easter Sunday. It wasn’t what I was used to. In order to worship together in one service, we had to move to the local high school, and suddenly it felt more like a show than church. I was surprised because that’s not how Sunday mornings usually feel here, but I closed my eyes and willed myself to be open.

I have so many set ideas of the way things should be and all too often I let those ideas destroy moments that shouldn’t be destroyed.

So I sang with all my might: “Low in the Grave He Lay,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “In Christ Alone.” The hymns were the same, even if there was suddenly a screen above the pastor. The smiling faces around me were the same as most Sundays. I was grateful to have my family with me, to worship alongside them like we did when were little. I was grateful that God has kept me close to Him, even when church has been such a place of mixed things.

I am slowly getting more involved, with my feet only slightly dragging behind me. There is so much history between me and church, but that’s true of anyone who’s stuck it out and been part of the worshipping church. You can’t take Christ and leave the Church, or at least, I can’t justify it, as much as I’ve tried. Christ came to redeem people, and it’s people that make the Church so difficult.

All I can do is try to be one of the people who makes it a better example of the Kingdom.

Samuel Barber’s “Crucifixion”

Samuel Barber composed this piece as part of his “Hermit Songs” in 1953. The text was written by an anonymous Irish monk, sometime between the 8th and 13th centuries. The English translation below is by Howard Mumford Jones.

I want to sing this someday. I want to hear this performed someday. The human truth of it is beautiful.

The Crucifixion

At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, O Swan!
Never shall lament cease because of that.
It was like the parting of day from night.
Ah, sore was the suffering borne
By the body of Mary’s Son,
But sorer still to Him was the grief
Which for His sake
Came upon His Mother.

An Honest Look at God

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Scary.

That’s the first word I write down. I am surprised and not surprised when I see it flow out of my pen. This is why I’ve waited so long, anyway. Because I knew I wasn’t going to like what I found.

I read in a quick stolen moment this blogpost. I’d never heard of this woman before, but her words seemed familiar; in writing her story, she’d unknowingly written echoes of my own. She wrote of when she was young and how she strived for perfection, reaching exhaustively for righteousness. She wrote of the moment she realized that God doesn’t bless work like this, that He isn’t a “balancing-act” God.

And then she sat down and wrote out all the things she believed about God. Not what she was “supposed” to believe. Not what she’d been told to believe.

What she actually believed in her core.

As soon as I read this, I groaned a little inside. I knew it was coming. Things hadn’t been quite right.

I kept reading, trying to ignore it. I didn’t want to put pen to paper and face the facts.

I still don’t know who God is.

“I see it as a time for intentional and careful reflection.” That’s what I wrote about Lent almost two weeks ago. And I meant it. I still do mean it. But now I’m staring down the fact that “intentional and careful reflection” means being willing to engage with what you find there. What I found in writing that list is that I have a lot to learn.

Am I saying that God isn’t scary? No. He most definitely is scary. He is the Creator of the Universe, after all, and power like that isn’t something you mess with. What I am saying, though, is that most of the words I used to describe the God I claim to follow are negative. Fearful. Unsure. I didn’t know how to interact with this, because there’s often a huge difference between what you KNOW to be true (God is good) and what you BELIEVE and act on (God is scarier than He is good).

[powerful. sovereign. tricky.]

Do I really think God is tricky? No. But I act like I do. I often live my life as though he were the infinite trickster, just waiting to pull one over on me. Ha! You thought I would protect you! I’ve got you right where I want you.

That isn’t God talking. That’s the part of me that still hasn’t fully grasped what it means to surrender. To give it all to Him and admit that I am finite and broken and that I don’t have all the answers.

I wasn’t sure what to do about this list, with all its biggness and negativity, and only a few beautiful qualities strewn in.

[merciful. loving (but not always in the ways I would think). protective.]

So I decided to remind myself of who God says He is.

I made another list with better words, straight from the Word of the Lord.

Redeemer.

Savior.

Merciful

Creator.

Lover of your soul.

Omnipotent.

Just.

~     ~     ~

Apparently, reflecting is not always fun. What is in the depths of my soul? Who am I really? And how do I answer these questions without answering: Who is God?

I explain grammatical concepts to my students every day. That’s an infinitive – it has no number or person. It’s like the most neutral form of the verb. I explain things over and over, and they seem to understand. When I ask them, “What’s an infinitive?”, they can spit out the answer. But do they understand? Could they use one in a sentence? Could they explain what is happening? Not always.

There’s a huge gap between knowing what is right and understanding. I may be able to spit out that list of words from the Bible about who God is, but that doesn’t mean I understand them. It certainly doesn’t mean my view of myself or my view of God has changed fully. How do I change the words in my head and the feelings in my soul? I am constantly in a state of flux – growth is painful. I can feel the pains of embarrassment, anger at being reprimanded, and my human desire to just live my life and have fun. Because who doesn’t want to have fun?

There’s a hope in growing, too. It means we aren’t stagnant. If we’re constantly growing, it means we haven’t yet arrived.

Lenten Growth

We didn’t observe Lent growing up. I guess it’s something most Baptists don’t do… I remember when I was nine or ten, one of my Catholic friends looked at my piece of chocolate sometime in March and said, “I can’t. I gave up chocolate for Lent.”

I’d never heard of Lent (I was well-educated, I swear!), so I asked her what she was talking about. She said you choose something bad for you to give up until Easter, “but I hardly ever eat chocolate, so it isn’t that hard.”

And that was that, because we were nine and had better things to do than discuss Church history or the spiritual significance of sacrifice.

IMG_1242[I guess I’m taking a pretty big risk, hanging a horseshoe upside down…]

In college, I was surrounded by so many different expressions of Christianity that it sometimes felt like a free-for-all. I could pick and choose my favorite parts of each (I still don’t know what’s wrong with this approach, as long as the tenets are there). I watched friends give up coffee, chocolate, and Facebook in pursuit of a closer walk with the Lord. In my cynical mind, I failed to understand the beauty of this tradition. It felt more like a cheapening of Christ’s sacrifice than a spiritual discipline: so giving up ice cream is your personal equivalent to Christ giving up his life? That doesn’t fly.

Last year, my Lenten season was a peculiar one. I was working three part-time jobs, so my hours were all over the place. I found long stretches of time when I could read my Bible, surf the web for interesting reading, and try to reconcile the fact that I believed in God’s power and Truth, but that I had serious fear of dying. For the first time, I felt compelled to observe Lent, and by “observe” I mean mostly “be aware.” Instead of giving something up, I would add.

Every night, I prayed to the Lord. I do this most nights, but usually in the comfort of my warm bed. For Lent, I decided to pray on my knees.

It wasn’t revolutionary; kneeling happens in every liturgical service. But for me, it was rare. As I feared a potential (huge) surgery, I needed to be reminded of my perfect posture in life: kneeling before the Creator, so that I could stand with his strength.

I had a hard time remembering at first. There were a few nights when I’d roll out of bed, groaning, to get on my knees and offer a few sentences to God. I don’t remember a word of what I prayed, but it’s the feeling of my knees on the rough rug that’s stayed in my mind.

~     ~     ~

This Lenten season, I have a lot of ideas brimming. I want to check my email and Facebook less (although work makes this a little difficult). I want to read a daily prayer or meditation, and not forget it throughout the day, like I normally do. I want to learn how to offer up every relationship – friends, parents, siblings, everyone – to be shaped by Someone other than myself.

I don’t see Lent as a time of deprivation. Instead, I see it as a time for intentional and careful reflection. And by giving up something material or adding on something meaningful, I’m hoping that the external will allow the internal to more fully connect with what it means to share in Christ’s suffering and resurrection.

Cross

[We found this cross off the beaten path as we climbed Mount Untersberg in Austria.]