Tag Archives: christianity

Can’t Put My Finger On It

Walking downhill forces you to tip-toe and the body that usually finds it so difficult to be graceful looks like a dancer just for a moment. Spending a week in the mountains, you walk downhill quite a bit.

The mountains have a way of shocking. Waking up after a night of airplanes and trains and miscommunication and three hours alone in the dark is transformed when you look out the window.

What could keep you away a whole year? Then another?

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Oh, this.

Homes called “chalets” and dark wood-filled kitchens. Mint tea shared by a small community that will most likely never see each other again. Nights in the lounge playing fish bowl; conversation that drifts from American Girl Dolls to the point of prayer to the public transportation system in America.

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How did I become so blessed?

And one of the best parts is the absence of this very thing: no internet, limited phones, no demands from the world.

I know I can’t live like this always, but for a week it is lovely.

Did you know it is possible to play pingpong in the dark in bare feet and not care that the pavement is freezing?

And you can sing harmonies to hymns with people you barely know, but you all know the music.

You can learn the laughs of eighteen different people and name the laugher a half-a-house away.

You can play volleyball and not be kicked out for your terrible serving abilities.

You can weed a garden you will not enjoy, take recycling to the village whose name you can’t pronounce, deep-clean a kitchen that will serve you only one more meal.

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Then you will wake up bleary-eyed and pack your bag. You will try to pretend it isn’t real as your friend pours you coffee – a cup of coffee you inhale because the bus is coming.

You will walk to the end of the driveway with a group of new friends and one old. You will hug them and wonder Where will God bring you? as you wave from the seat through the window.

You will not be the same when you land in Boston, but you try not to name the ways.

That’s something you learned during your days in Switzerland:

You don’t always have to put a name to things because sometimes that’s all you end up seeing. The unnamed goes overlooked and invisible, hidden by what you can label, but it’s no less valuable.

[All this you overheard at dinner because you don’t always have to be in a conversation to gather its truth.]

You’re different but not sure how. And you’re becoming okay with not knowing.

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I Write Life

When I was a little girl, I was certain I would love only one man. In fact, I was pretty sure that we would grow up together, that he’d be a boy down the street and that suddenly one glorious summer evening we would both realize we’d loved each other all along. He’d touch my cheek (ala, Gilbert Blythe) and whisper some friendly tease as we began to imagine our future.

I thought this way for years, really, as a young girl reading Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. It’s possible I even wrote an 83-page novella (by hand) about a girl name Willa realizing the same thing about her friend Peter as they splashed each other in the secret pond in the woods. (If that isn’t some not-so-secret sexual tension in my 12-year-old writing, I don’t know what would be.)

And then one day, it occurred to me:

If I say I want to grow up with the boy I marry, that means I have to KNOW HIM NOW.

And I looked around at the boys I knew, and though I loved them dearly, I quickly revised my dream.

Never mind. I think it’s much better to meet later, in college, to be more grown up. Never mind. I’ll wait.

So I grew up, still thinking I would love one man and one man forever.

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The summer after my junior year, I interned at a publishing house in Boston. One of my tasks was to edit the text in their new database. I was responsible for fixing bizarre spaces in the mid dle of w ord s and checking line breaks, and in the process of doing this, I read some strange and awful and thought-provoking books. One was a memoir by a woman whose name I don’t remember. It had a light blue cover and it was mostly filled with a string of lovers, each one daring and handsome, social and introverted, crazy and calm. The image I have most strongly from her book is a story of her and one of her lovers (she was in her late fifties by now, I think) and they are in one of their apartments. It’s been a day of lounging around, eating and love making, and I don’t know what happened exactly, but I remember distinctly feeling a sense of her happiness. That she viewed this doomed relationship with love and tenderness. She still thought of this man fondly, despite their different paths and the pain they both felt.

I was twenty-one years old.

So I sat in my gray cubicle and in my self-righteousness, I thought: I don’t know how this is possible. She writes about these men – these men she didn’t stay with who broke her heart or who had their hearts broken by her – and she is smiling. I can feel it in her words. She is smiling at the memories with them, even as she realizes the relationships are dead.

I couldn’t understand her ability to find joy in something that was broken, and I couldn’t understand that she had loved more than one man.

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It’s three years later, and I can say with full honesty that I have loved more than one man. I might even say I’ve loved a small handful, none of them perfectly, some of them with false-starts of returned love, some of them even unwittingly requested by the receiver. If it’s taught me anything – this loving – it’s that each time is different and each time is imperfect and each time

I didn’t know how to end that sentence. Mostly because I’m not entirely sure what loving has taught me. I’d like to think that each time I get a little better at it, at both feeling it and showing it. At both being myself and enjoying someone else.

I’m glad, at twenty-four, that I can say I’ve loved more than one man. Not because it isn’t beautiful to be given that gift, but because I needed to break out of the idea of myself. I needed to see what it meant to live life instead of write it. I like to think that when I’m sixty-five, I will be telling my stories of love and un-love with a smile on my face. Because even though these men were not meant for me nor I for them, there is a reason one of us was drawn to the other, and that reason is worth telling.

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.

The city is like…

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The city is like a wide open field. A weekend cracks open the world to me and reminds me that life is big. I am small and life is big and because of grace I am full.

A small apartment that will never be mine is brimming with love and friendship. Just a few hours sprawled on couches, sprawled on floors, and mutual friends make comfort. We open the windows because even in the March coldness the heat is too strong, and the purple curtains flutter against the walls.

We talk about Lent and its strangeness and we rejoice at its shaping of us. Mine has been less than amazing – but I hold even that up as a sacrifice. I’ve decided it can’t all be emotion; I can’t always be in the throes of feeling. Praise God for that.

It wasn’t easy getting down here. I got lost, mapquest serving as much as a hindrance as a help. I got turned around and turned around and when I finally met up with K I couldn’t even smile. But it wore off quickly. We read each other’s minds: So I was thinking we would drop our stuff off and head out for dinner. Great, me too. And then get coffee before the cello recital. Great, me too. 

And we hit the town with our black and brown boots and feel free.

We sit in a Starbucks window, watching the lights and people passing by. I tell you you’re terrible for redeeming a free treat coupon and only getting tap water, but that doesn’t stop me from splitting the brownie with you. A man stands on the brick, smoking. He leans against the iron railing and watches the cars. Our faces are reflected in the glass, and I say, This is our life, and you laugh at me. But it’s true, and we are blessed. We are sitting right now in a coffee shop and there is nowhere we are supposed to be and nothing else we are supposed to be doing.

Fifteen minutes on a church’s cold stone steps and we laugh because sometimes it’s the only answer to the bizarrity of life (I know, ‘bizarrity’ is not a word, but that’s what it is). Three friends linking arms because it’s warmer that way, and that’s one of the reasons I’ll never really fit in – things are too posh and sophisticated and modern. We part at the street-corner, promising to see each other soon, but none of us really know what will happen.

The shower is running and I am writing and Sunday stretches before me empty and full.

This week of Tech Week and Alice in Wonderland and Good Friday and Easter seems far off.

[The cello rises over the room full of people, and I am transported back to four years spent studying practicing singing. Nostalgia fills me until I am dreaming of both those years and the years to come. The Dvorak makes me want to dance, the Beethoven makes me want to read, and the Barber makes me want to fall in love.]

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.

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

Trivia Night Conundrum

I went to Trivia Night last week with a friend, her boyfriend, and his friend. It was the first time at a new restaurant, and we were trying to find a place where the dj didn’t drive us crazy. It’s harder to do than you’d think.

The waiter had a long pony-tail and a nice little soul patch (you know how I love three hairs under a guy’s lip). He kept coming extremely close when he brought the food and drinks out, made me whisper my date of birth in his ear when I forgot my I.D., called the guys “boss” continually, and made an overall funny impression.

The trivia was set up differently from any other place I’d been. Ten questions in rapid succession, four rounds, the dj made up the questions herself. It was fun. We were fairly competent.

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Question number three went something like this:

“In the Bible, the Ten Commandments can be found in which book?”

Of course, M looked at me.

“Exodus,” I said, sipping my Angry Orchard.

“Our resident scholar,” she said, laughing.

I smiled.

But then the friend, the boy I don’t know very well, started talking.

“I didn’t even know there was more than one. The Bible and the Sequel? Like, Jesus and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny frolicking in a field.”

I didn’t look at him because I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt immediately hot, and his flippancy made me sad.

In the split second I could’ve said something, could’ve pointed out that this was not exactly an equal comparison, I decided not to say anything.

I let it go.

And then I kept thinking about it for a week later.

They probably don’t even remember it happening. It didn’t mean anything. The boy who said it probably couldn’t care less about whatever conversation might have happened if I’d been bold enough to speak.

But I thought about it while I drove to school, while I sat in church this morning. I wondered if I missed an opportunity.

Part of me thinks I did make the right decision. What would I have said? All that usually comes to my mind when people laugh at my faith is something tart and snappy and not at all in line with how Christ would have responded. I could’ve slashed him with a witty comment. I’m pretty good at those.

But what I’m not good at is calmly engaging people in discussions of faith. Especially when those discussions might lead down paths I’m not too comfortable with.

I said this was my “year of freedom,” in which I would be more open about what I think and feel (my father and brother outwardly cringed at this statement, going around the house saying: “Watch out! Catherine’s been holding back! It’s all coming out now!”). Judging from this experience, though, and my decision not to speak, that freedom is going to be harder to achieve than I thought.

How would you have dealt with this? Is there an appropriate time and place to have conversations like this?

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